Egypt's initiative is only game in town

November 24, 2016 23:20

Once again, Israel and the Palestinians are negotiating about negotiations.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, encouraged by the Western powers' talks with Iran on the nuclear issue, clearly prefers the French initiative for an international conference on the peace process over the Egyptian initiative for direct Israeli-Palestinian talks under the aegis of Cairo, with Jordanian support.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejects the French initiative, which he sees as the internationalisation of the peace process. He has instead supported Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's call for renewed direct negotiations.

Israel's efforts in Washington to reject the French initiative seem to have worked. While Secretary of State John Kerry attended the preparatory meeting for the French initiative in June, it was clear that US opposition to the plan resulted in the meeting's final statement being void of any real substance.

Mr Abbas has little credibility on his own streets but has succeeded in maintaining the backing of Egypt and the Saudis. As such, he is in no position to reject any initiative led by Mr el-Sisi. He also knows that Egypt would like to see his arch-rival, Mohammed Dahlan, take over after he departs, something that the Palestinian president does not seem so ready for.

Mr el-Sisi is well aware of his leverage over Mr Abbas, but the Palestinians have expressed their reservations over his peace push in coded language that rings loudly across the Middle East.

Israel has been in talks with several Sunni-Arab states on closer security and intelligence co-operation. Under discussion has been the aim of normalising ties. According to the Arab Peace Initiative (API) of March 2002, however, this goal can only be attained after Israel ends the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Palestinians fear that the Egyptian initiative could lead to expanded Israeli-Arab co-operation even before the occupation ends. Indeed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just last week stated that Israeli-Palestinian peace would be the result of normalisation between Arab states and Israel.

The Egyptians believe that their involvement has made Mr Netanyahu and his government more willing to strike a deal with the Palestinians than in the past. In addition, conversations I have had with Egyptian intelligence officials indicate that there is a belief in Cairo that Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman may very well turn out to be the pragmatic element on the Israeli side that has been lacking until now.

Last week, during a Knesset Q&A, Mr Lieberman said: "Egypt is the most important and serious ally we have in the Middle East and among Arab states. I invested a lot of effort in building trust and co-operative relations." This was quite a statement from the man who, in 1998, suggested bombing the Aswan Dam to hit back at Egypt over its support for Yasser Arafat.

Oddly enough, both Palestinian and Israeli officials have the same refrain - albeit for different reasons - when it comes to the peace negotiations being put forward by outside powers.

They have told me: "We can say no to US Secretary of State John Kerry and to President Barack Obama, but we cannot say no to President Sisi." We will see if that turns out to be true.

With Israel behind the Egyptian initiative and against the French initiative, it is likely that the planned international conference in Paris will not take place and, if it does, Israel may very well not be represented at the table. It seems more likely that Cairo or Sharm el Sheikh will be the venue for Israelis and Palestinians to once again meet face-to-face.

Gershon Baskin is the Co-Chair of the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives

November 24, 2016 23:20

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