"Suddenly, and without any preliminaries, Egyptian President 'Abdelfattah as-Sissi proposed an initiative that begins with inter-Palestinian [Fatah/Hamas] reconciliation as a prelude to achieving a Palestinian/Israeli peace agreement that paves the way for profound changes in the region and transforms the cold Egyptian/Israeli peace treaty into a warm treaty," writes Hani al-Masri in the leading Palestinian daily al-Ayyam.
Sissi did not clarify the content of his initiative. But it was accompanied by statements about the situation in Israel, which he called on to comply with the requirements of peace. This was a signal that was explained as reflecting his hopes for some change in the ruling [Israeli] coalition that would permit the initiative to be launched.
After Sissi's speech, numerous Israeli sources agreed that this initiative did not arise from a vacuum, but was the result of an effort in which many parties took part. These include Tony Blair, who visited both Egypt and Israel a number of times for this purpose. They also include visits to Cairo by Binyamin Netanyahu's advisor, Yitzhak Molcho. Meanwhile, work was underway to bring the ‘Zionist Union’ [Labor] Party led by Yitzhak Herzog into the cabinet. The aim was to soften the government's extremism and enable it to take part in pursuing the French initiative that Netanyahu had already rejected, in return for agreeing on the preconditions and terms of reference of the peace process that concerted efforts are underway to revive.
But instead of bringing the Zionist Union and Herzog into the cabinet, the extremist Avigdor Lieberman – notorious for his statements about 'destroying the High [Aswan] Dam in Egypt,' and 'flattening the Gaza Strip’– was brought in. This occurred after [former] Israeli defense minister Moshe Ya’alon was driven to resign – even though he has advocated ‘searing the Palestinians' consciousness’ so as to acknowledge that they are defeated’, and has obstinately opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state. This was intended as a punishment for certain professional and moral stances that he has expressed directly or defended; for example, his defense of the Israeli deputy chief of staff's likening what is happening in Israel to what happened in Nazi Germany before Hitler's rise.
Netanyahu squandered a historic opportunity, as Herzog said, who also described his behavior as crazy. And by adding Lieberman to his cabinet, in fact, Netanyahu has slapped all the mediators and those trying to save what remains of the two-state solution in the face, including Sissi, placing them in a very awkward position. For how can the Egyptian president pursue his initiative now that the most extreme right wing and religious elements in Israel have gained the upper hand?
But what we fear is that there will now be a rush to propose 'moderate' Arab initiatives, despite the addition of Lieberman to the Israeli government, based on the pretext that this will expose and embarrass the Netanyahu government and help convince the parties that influence the international decision to exert pressure on Israel. Although worth discussing, this notion cannot be relied upon. On the one hand, the entire world fears the consequences of the extremism that has spread through Israel, and fears the retreat – not to say demise – of the so-called 'two-state solution. But on the other hand, the following should be taken into consideration:
- First, the current Arab situation is at its worst ever against the background of the sectarian and confessional civil wars that have effectively divided many Arab countries – most importantly, Iraq and Syria – and are threatening to divide other Arab countries as well. This carries the risk of further Arab concessions, as evident from the growing number of Israeli/Saudi (albeit non-official) meetings, and the growing talk of a 'Sunni'-Arab/Israeli meeting of minds to confront the so-called Iranian threat.
To this should be added – assuming that it is true – Israel’s Channel 10 report that Saudi Arabia is ready to amend two clauses of the [2002/07] Arab Peace Initiative regarding the Golan Heights and the Palestinian 'right of return' as well as adding the principle of 'land-swaps' to the initiative, which would legitimize Israeli settlements. There are also American efforts to remove Arab normalization with Israel as a precondition for its acceptance of the Arab Peace Initiative, which is what France has recently asked for so as to ensure the success of its own initiative. But it is the Arab side that is weak in all this, and that is being lured in further by exerting pressure on it; and it is this side that is much more amenable and willing to comply with such pressures than Israel.
- Second, Egypt is in a bad condition because of its economic situation and its war on terrorism. Sissi is not like Sadat, who was armed with the October  victory when he took the initiative and visited Israel. But despite that, the result of his visit was, as sung by [popular Egyptian protest singer] Sheikh Imam: 'We got Sinai back, but Egypt was lost.' That being so, the question now becomes: What does Sissi possess with which to pressure Israel? For even if he achieves inter-Palestinian reconciliation that would be conditional on returning to negotiations that are futile. After all, no rational person can imagine Netanyahu's government agreeing to enter negotiations under international sponsorship and terms of reference. In fact, there are reports that Israel may change its attitude towards the French initiative after a French promise that the international conference will not be an alternative to bilateral talks, but a podium for launching them.
Some Palestinians have welcomed, while others have rejected, the French initiative before knowing its content, and despite the evidence that it is taking shape in a manner that is closer to Israel’s positions and preconditions. This is evident from the fact that France has altered its attitude towards bringing a draft resolution before the UN Security Council – as it was two years ago. Instead, it has decided that in order to avoid a U.S. veto and Israeli rejection, this would be the final step after a regional and international agreement on the draft resolution first.
France has also drawn back from its demand to adopt a timetable for concluding the negotiations, as well as its promise to recognize the Palestinian state if its initiative fails. We had already seen that the draft French resolution included recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. And we have seen the French retreat from their UNESCO vote [on the Aqsa Mosque] and its promise to correct that 'error' in the next vote. All the above represent the French response to Israel's rejection of their initiative, which indicates that there may be a French demand to include a text that recognizes the Jews’ link to Jerusalem via the so-called Temple Mount in the 'Elysees initiative'.
In light of the above, we should really thank Netanyahu and hope that he will remain in power for the longest time possible, because he is making the Arab moderates' lives extremely difficult. The fact is that the Arabs have an opportunity because Israel is now in a state that some of its historical leaders cannot tolerate. But it is not possible to benefit from this via greater Arab submission to Israel’s preconditions, since that only encourages it to greater extremism. The opportunity can best be exploited by formulating an Arab project and providing it with the strength it needs, ensuring that Israel understands that there will be a high price to pay if it fails to satisfy the minimum Arab rights and interests. For instead of seeking peace at the worst of times, we should prepare for confrontation, which is the shortest road towards achieving peace.
To ensure that the Arab position is neither extreme nor based on surrender, it should insist from the beginning that the terms of reference for any activity must be recognition of a UN resolution that calls for an end to the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state. If, however, a political move – such as the current French move – has ambiguous or inadequate terms of reference, that would only lead to one thing: The stronger party will impose its vision and its interpretation on the weaker party.
Acting without clear and binding terms of reference would mean that the 'Arab' and non-Arab mediators either wish to preserve the current status quo that is continuously deteriorating, or try to find a middle point between the current Palestinian and Israeli positions. But Israel is at its furthest extreme, while the Palestinians and Arabs are adopting a 'moderate' position. And that means that any compromise will be based on imposing more preconditions and diktats on the Palestinians.
After the failure of the so-called 'peace process,' and after Israel abandoned even the Oslo Accords and returned to its previous positions, the Palestinians will also have to revert to their starting point and withdraw the enormous concessions they have made.
"They must withdraw their recognition of Israel's right to exist on 78% of Palestine's land, reject their economic and security subjugation to Israel, reject normalization of relations, and reconsider their abandonment and elimination of resistance and their acceptance of the principle of 'land-swaps' and an ‘agreed solution’ for the refugee issue," concludes Masri.