Netanyahu has a blind spot when it comes to peace
By: Yossi Mekelberg
Prime Minister Netanyahu cuts a rather gloomy character of late. Whether at home or abroad his forecasts are awash with doom and gloom regarding the danger of militant Islamists. To make things worse for him, his insistence on bundling together ISIS, Iran and Hamas, as representing one and the same existential threat to world peace, appears to find very little sympathy anywhere. The lack of a more nuanced approach to the diversity of threats and challenges in the region leaves him, and consequently Israel, with very few friends in the international community. The Israeli government’s intransigence on constructing and expanding settlements became a major source of international consternation. There is almost an international consensus that Israel shoulders the lion’s share of the blame for the peace process failure. The Israeli government’s response to this criticism, and particularly her prime minister’s, is a mixture of denial, defiance and arrogance.
Netanyahu’s latest attempt to divert attention from the irreparable damage he is causing to two state solution prospectswas to call for leading Arab states to “…help facilitate peace between Israel and the Palestinians.” This is an ostensibly new and improved act of statesmanship from someone better known for political wheeling dealing than for possessing a vision for peace. Ironically, some might say tragically, this initiative was proposed the very same week that Israel announced the building of another 2600 settler homes in occupied East Jerusalem. One might have even been ready to give the Israeli prime minister the benefit of the doubt that he was going through some sort of soul-searching, had he not defended expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied territories in the same breath. It makes complete sense for Netanyahu to reassess the regional situation and reach the conclusion that only a regional effort will lead to peace with the Palestinians. After all, involving leading Middle East countries in resolving a conflict which affects their vital interests is an obvious thing to do. Even his clear opposition to the Arab Peace Initiative (API) of 2002, where he stated that the “… Initiative in its present form is dangerous for Israel and dangerous for peace,” should not be held against him. A change of mind by Netanyahu, regarding a proactive regional involvement in the peace process, would be greeted with a mixture of enthusiasm and relief. The logic of his argument is impeccable, expressing the need, in the face of new dangers in the region, to unite forces and resolve old outstanding disputes.
At no point in announcing his seemingly new approach does Netanyahu mention a Palestinian state as an objective
It appeared to be a well thought through approach, as he was clear in his address to the General Assembly of the United Nations on what countries he would like to be involved in this new regional alliance and what the benefits for joining forces might be. Potential partners for an alliance would be provided with economic benefits in addition to enhanced stability and security. This seemingly irresistible vision would supposedly lead to peace and prosperity, while standing up to the threats of radicalism in the region. The old adage “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t true,” seems to be applicable and not just because Netanyahu is not allowed to change his mind; many wish he would. It is because the gap between what he offers and what his government is doing in the West Bank in Gaza suggests otherwise. It leaves his rhetoric on new partnerships and peace void of any meaning.
Palestinian state hangs in the balance
At no point in announcing his seemingly new approach does he mention a Palestinian state as an objective. In reference to the API, he indicated it was no longer relevant and belonged to a different era. According to him, it needs updating, but what would he like to update? The prize of full recognition of Israel by all members of the Arab League and the establishment of normal diplomatic relations is obviously appealing to the Israelis. However, the price of withdrawal from the occupied territories, accepting East Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestinian state and a just resolution of the situation of Palestinian refugees in line with U.N. resolutions is what Netanyahu looking to exclude. In other words, Netanyahu would like to enjoy the benefits of the API without paying the price for it. Consequently, he finds that the countries he is courting might be ready to co-operate with Israel, at least tacitly, in containing ISIS and other militant groups. They are also happy for him to carry the flag in lobbying the P5+1 to drive a tough bargain in their nuclear negotiations with Iran. However, none of them are ready to ignore the urgent need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before normalizing relations with Israel.
The fast-changing Middle East presents many dangers and also opportunities with it re-alignments derived from commonality of strategic interests. The revival of the Arab peace initiative, adopted by the Arab League, could become a cornerstone in facilitating the integration of Israel into the region and consequently playing a more significant role in Middle Eastern politics. If Mr. Netanyahu attaches premium importance to form an alliance with the more stable and pragmatic elements in the Arab world, he should know that he is required to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians which will include concessions which he is thus far reluctant to compromise on.
The sad reality is that Netanyahu and his government are neither willing nor capable of taking decisions of this magnitude. The Israeli prime minister lacks conviction of the value of a two state solution, which he perceives as no more than a source of threat to the Jewish state, and his government is too fragmented. He might have a vision of geo-strategic and geo-economic cooperation with a number of countries in the region, but he has a complete blind spot when it comes to peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians and how these things are interconnected. The unfortunate consequence of this shortsightedness is that it leaves Israel in a state of conflict with the Palestinians and no regional allies in the offing, especially when it needs it most.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.