Analysis

Netanyahu's Lip Service to Arab Peace Proposals Is Old News – and No One's Buying It

Reassuring words of peace without deeds won't improve relations with the U.S., stop the French initiative or get Netanyahu a photo-op with an Arab leader. Why? Kerry, Mogherini and Sissi just don't believe him.

PM Benjamin Knesset in the Knesset, where he spoke after the swearing-in of new Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, May 30, 2016.
Emil Salman

In July 2009 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended the 57th Egyptian Independence Day reception in the home of the country's ambassador in Herzliya Pituah. Those were days of mounting American and international pressure on Israel to advance the two-state solution and to freeze construction in the settlements. Netanyahu – who several weeks earlier had delivered his so-called Bar-Ilan speech, in which he agreed for the first time to the principle of two states for two peoples – addressed the Arab world at the festive event.

His words were general, lame and noncommittal, but they included his first positive reference to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. According to this proposal, endorsed by the Arab League, if Israel signs a peace agreement with the Palestinians based on the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders with an exchange of territories, and a capital in East Jerusalem – all the Arab countries will normalize relations with Israel.

“The efforts of the Arab countries to promote peace initiatives deserve profound respect,” Netanyahu said at the time. “The spirit of these initiatives symbolizes an important change from the spirit of Khartoum 40 years ago. And if these suggestions are not final, then I believe that this spirit can help to create an atmosphere in which overall peace is possible.”

In the seven years that have elapsed, Netanyahu has often referred to the Arab initiative – for example, in a speech in the Knesset in June 2013, in which he said: “The Arab initiative has been mentioned. We are paying attention to every initiative and are ready to discuss initiatives that are suggestions rather than dictates… These things are being said in public as well as in non-public diplomatic channels.”

The subject was also mentioned during a briefing to diplomatic correspondents in May 2015. “The Arab Peace Initiative contains positive things as well as negative things that have become outdated – for example, the demand that Israel return the Golan, or the refugee issue,” Netanyahu emphasized, at the time. “The initiative was proposed 13 years ago, and since then many things have changed in the Middle East, but the general idea of an attempt to reach understandings with leading Arab countries is a good one.”

On Monday, just minutes after Avigdor Lieberman was sworn in as defense minister, Netanyahu spoke along the same lines. This was an outstanding example of verbal acrobatics, but all it did was recycle his past statements in a creative and refreshing manner, without offering anything really new.

“The Arab peace initiative includes positive elements that can help to rehabilitate constructive negotiations with the Palestinians,” said Netanyahu. “We are ready to conduct negotiations with Arab countries about updating the initiative, to reflect the dramatic changes in our region since 2002, but will retain the agreed-upon objective of two states for two peoples.”

Why did the prime minister repeat these words after Lieberman’s swearing-in? There are quite a few reasons, whose common denominator is the international pressure on Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinian issue that is expected to come to the fore in the coming months, which scares Netanyahu.

For example, on Friday, the foreign ministers of 29 countries, including the United States and Russia, will convene in Paris to discuss the diplomatic freeze between Israel and the Palestinians and to promote France's own peace initiative. Several days later, the report of the Quartet (the United Nations, European Union, U.S. and Russia), being drafted under the aegis of the United States, is due to be published. It will harshly criticize Israel and assert that its policy on the West Bank, and in particular the expansion of the settlements, threatens to eliminate the two-state solution.

To this we should add Netanyahu’s nightmare scenario – where, after the U.S. presidential election in November, Barack Obama, who will be freed from political constraints during his final months in office, will advance some sort of proposal relating to the Israeli-Palestinian issue in the UN Security Council, or will not veto a similar decision brought to a vote by another country.

Netanyahu is trying to prevent all these moves by presenting an alternative to several Arab countries, headed by Egypt. Up until two weeks ago this regional activity was supposed to enable Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzog and his party to join the government. The prime minister was supposed to issue a positive statement about the 2002 Arab initiative, form a more moderate government, and take steps such as freezing construction outside the large settlement blocs in the West Bank while making significant gestures of good faith to the Palestinians.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Egyptian President Abdel al-Fattah al-Sissi were among those supporting that move, but they discovered that at the last moment Netanyahu fled, changed direction and preferred to bring Avigdor Lieberman into the government. Now, in the past few days, Netanyahu has been trying to convince the Egyptian president that replacing Herzog with Lieberman does not constitute any less of a commitment to the peace initiative. Yesterday’s recycled announcement was part of that same attempt.

From July 2009 until June 2016 the music changed slightly each time. Some nuance or other was added. One word was erased and another added. But in essence nothing has changed. Blair said a few days ago that if Netanyahu declares that the Arab Peace Initiative will be the basis for negotiations with the Palestinians, and makes some changes on the ground – the Arab countries will take steps to normalize relations with Israel in order to boost confidence in the peace process.

Netanyahu’s latest declaration came closer than in the past to the standard set by Blair, but still remained far from it. The prime minister’s attitude toward the initiative was and remains like his attitude toward life itself: He’s fond of receiving and profiting, he’s less fond of giving and paying. For him the positive elements of the Arab proposal are peace and recognition of Israel by Arab countries. The negative elements are the need to take action and to pay a political price in order to make it happen.

Netanyahu and Lieberman’s reassuring words won’t suffice for the U.S. administration, the European countries or the Egyptian president. They won’t stop the French initiative, soften the Quartet report or get Israel's prime minister a photo-op with an Arab leader. The reason for that is that Secretary of State John Kerry, the EU's Federica Mogherini and Sissi don’t believe his words of peace. They want to see deeds, but Netanyahu isn't interested in them.

Along with their diplomatic aspects, it was hard to escape the political irony hovering over the declarations on Monday by Netanyahu and Lieberman. The new, broad government, heavily right-wing, had just been sworn when its leaders rushed to make declarations with a whiff of left-wing sentiment.

Fortunately for Netanyahu, the Israeli right doesn’t believe him either. If Hatnuah chief Tzipi Livni or Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid were to say such things they would be condemned immediately by the right as traitors who will bring ISIS to Jerusalem. When Netanyahu speaks like that, the reaction is indifference and a shrugging of shoulders.