Egyptian Peace Initiative for Israelis, Palestinians Still Far From Finish Line

Israeli prime minister sees Cairo’s peace initiative as preferable to the French alternative, with U.S. Secretary of State Kerry encouraged by initial efforts. But will Netanyahu follow through this time?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry talking during the European Championship final between France and Portugal, July 10, 2016.
Haim Zach/GPO

On Sunday evening, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was escorting Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry to his car after their meeting, the two paused momentarily in front of a television screen on the patio of the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem to check on the score of the European Championship final between France and Portugal.

PMO photographer Haim Zach was quick to commemorate the moment and soon afterward, the photograph appeared on Netanyahu’s official Twitter account.

“Sara and I hosted Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry this evening in our home in Jerusalem. We made time to watch the Euro finals,” the photograph was captioned.

Shoukry is the first Egyptian foreign minister to visit Israel in nine years. Not a few Egyptians felt uneasy with the widely reported visit, but Shoukry could hardly have known that what would generate the most ire against him would be one quite innocent photograph, which may have been too eagerly publicized by Netanyahu’s office.

The Egyptian foreign minister found himself issuing an apologetic statement in which he explained that he was only walking by a television, which happened to have been tuned into the game, and that he wasn’t in the habit of watching soccer during important diplomatic missions.

While Netanyahu and Shoukry were not watching television, they were speaking mostly about the Palestinian issue. Two months after Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s speech in which he called on Israel, the Palestinians and Arab nations to take action to promote the Middle East peace process, the Egyptians are trying to determine whether or not there is anyone in Jerusalem and Ramallah with whom to talk, and if so on what.

Even after Shoukry’s visit, the Egyptians don’t have a clear answer.

Two Israeli sources who were briefed on details of the Netanyahu-Shoukry meeting stated that the Egyptian initiative is only in its infancy. The Egyptians are not yet talking of a Sissi-Netanyahu-Abbas conference, and not of inviting Netanyahu himself to Cairo. Reports to this effect in some Israeli and Arab newspapers were premature and somewhat exaggerated. A meeting between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas nowadays would be like an occurrence of something that defied the laws of physics.

The Egyptians are in a much more initial stage. Shoukry came to check if Netanyahu was still committed to what he had told the Egyptian president after his speech in mid-May – to the effect that he wanted Egypt to bring about talks between Israel and the Palestinians, with the support of Arab nations. Shoukry told Netanyahu that Egypt was willing to invest in such an endeavor, to sponsor a regional peace initiative and bring more countries to the negotiating table.

The Egyptian initiative tempts Netanyahu. One of the main reasons for this is that the French peace initiative is giving the premier hives. The Egyptians have been publicly announcing their support for the French initiative, but behind closed doors are skeptical of its likelihood of success, and even question its core logic. The Egyptians aren’t interested in confronting the French, or to promote a competing initiative outright.

But if Netanyahu agrees to take substantial actions that will allow the Egyptian initiative to take off, the French effort would become useless. If Netanyahu hesitates – as he usually does – and Sissi’s initiative flounders, the Egyptians will find their place as central players in the French initiative.

But before the Egyptians move forward, they want to be convinced that both sides – and primarily Israel – are serious, interested in putting effort into a new initiative of this kind and are willing to pay for it. Sissi would have preferred it if, two months ago, a new Israeli government with Zionist Union would have been sworn-in – a government that would have had more leeway to take action with regard to internal Israeli politics – but he knows this is not likely to happen anytime soon. He wants to know what Netanyahu would be willing to do with his current government.

According to Israeli sources, Shoukry’s message was that the ball is in Israel’s court. Egypt would be willing to do what it takes to push forward a diplomatic initiative, but first Netanyahu has to decide what direction he will take. “While the Egyptians don’t know if there is meat in this process, they won’t do a thing,” one Israeli source said. Following his meetings in Jerusalem, Shoukry held a round of update calls.

First to receive a call was French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Marc Ayrault. The latter would like to see the Egyptians as a major player pushing the French initiative. The French foreign minister wants Egypt to lead a work group that would generate a list of trust-building measures for the two sides, and the Egyptians would like to host Israeli-Palestinian talks on trust-building measures in Cairo. The two may be reconciled somehow.

Shoukry’s next call was to Jordan’s foreign affairs minister, Nasser Judeh, with whom he collaborates closely. If the Egyptian initiative matures, the Jordanians will play a central part in it, especially in pressuring Israel and the Palestinians. The final call was to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whom he met in Ramallah two weeks prior to his Jerusalem visit.

The Palestinians are suspicious of the Egyptian initiative. They are aware of the unprecedentedly close relations between Cairo and Jerusalem and are worried that Sissi will sell them cheap. They would rather see the Egyptian initiative dissipate and see the French initiative – which doesn’t require that they make any concessions – gather steam. It was not for nothing that Abbas told Shoukry his condition for meeting with Netanyahu is a freeze on settlement construction, the release of prisoners and a timetable for the negotiation’s end. He knows that Netanyahu will reject any and all of these demands.

On Wednesday, Shoukry received a call from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry was always interested in the Israeli-Palestinian issue and always looks to see if there is any possibility of moving the matter forward. If it was up to him, he would do this up until January 19. That is also why he traveled to Rome two weeks ago to meet with Netanyahu and dine with him for six hours at Pierluigi.

Kerry left the meeting with Netanyahu pleased. He found Netanyahu more open than previously to the possibility of taking some kind of diplomatic initiative. Kerry was so pleased with his meeting with Netanyahu that, the next day, he called opposition leader Isaac Herzog and afterward his Zionist Union partner Tzipi Livni in order to update them. Senior American officials, as well as Herzog and Livni, have confirmed that these calls took place.

People close to Herzog stressed that Herzog’s talk with Kerry didn’t deal with politics or the question of Zionist Union’s joining the government. According to the sources, the secretary of state stressed this fact at the outset of the conversation. According to them, Kerry told Herzog that he had a good talk with Netanyahu dealing with the possibility of promoting a regional peace initiative. The sources said that Kerry claimed Netanyahu was aware of the fact that as time went by, the window of opportunity for a regional peace agreement is closing.

The Americans are listening to talk in Israel on a regional peace initiative, and looking on from the sidelines on the talks between Netanyahu and the Egyptians. They liked Sissi’s speech and Shoukry’s visit to Israel, but they are skeptical. Kerry and his people believe that many positive things are being said, but stress that, at this stage, they are only words. The secretary of state and his aides feel they had already been here an infinite number of times over the past seven and a half years, and cannot imagine how all the disparate points can be brought to merge into a single line in a true regional peace initiative.

The U.S. impression is that the Egyptian president is truly interested in promoting a regional peace initiative, which will return Egypt to its historic central role in the peace process. They believe Netanyahu would have liked an Egyptian peace initiative. But there is a difference between saying something and actually moving forward with it. There is a price that needs to be paid, and substantial steps that need to be taken.

The Americans are hard-pressed to see how the current Israeli government could make the steps that Netanyahu has avoided taking over the years due to political pressure. And if Netanyahu is not willing to do a thing, nothing will come out of the Egyptian initiative.