Is something afoot between Israel and her Sunni Arab neighbors? Consider a curious chain of events in the region over the past month or so:
- On the one hand, in recent weeks, the Israelis have flatly turned down an offer by the French to attend a summit in Paris later this summit aimed at kick-starting the moribund peace talks with the Palestinians. Israeli leaders say they keep calling for direct talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but Abbas keeps refusing to come to the table. Abbas says he wants an international conference, and supports the French approach.
- In recent days, however, the opposition leader of the Israeli parliament — Zionist Union chief Isaac Herzog — told reporters he is actively considering joining the Netanyahu government (likely as Foreign Minister) in order to pursue a “rare” opportunity for peace with Israel’s neighbors. “I have identified a rare regional diplomatic opportunity that may lapse and not return,” Herzog told dozens of party activists at a gathering that was secretly recorded and leakedto an Israeli TV station and newspaper. “I don’t say this based on nothing, but based on knowledge. don’t know if it will happen. But it could be that it will happen only due to a change in the government’s composition.”
- Some Zionist Union leaders have blasted such talk in recent days. They’ve said there is no rare moment for peace and have sharply criticized Herzog for being willing to sell out to Netanyahu. They say he’s simply angling for a senior government post because he’s slipping in the polls and could soon be voted out of leadership in his own political party.
- However, there are curious signs of possible rapprochement between Israel and Sunni Arab neighbors. Over the last several years, Israeli and Saudi officials, for example, have been developing strategies to thwart Iran’s nuclear program. Mostly this has been done under the radar, with only occasional leaks to Israel, Western and Arab media. Earlier this month, however, something stunning happened: a senior Saudi official and member of the Saudi Royal Family — His Royal Highness Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief and former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. — spoke side-by-side at a “pathbreaking” eventin Washington with Yaakov, the former Israeli National Security Advisor and close confidante of Prime Minister Netanyahu. They certainly didn’t agree on everything. But they were friendly. They were candid. They talked about various pathways to peace, including the long-discussed Saudi Peace Initiative which was first released in 2002. It was fascinating to watching two former officials from two nations long at war with each other talking respectfully, as friends. Something is afoot. (watch here)
- Last week, Netanyahu gave a speech to a gathering of foreign ambassadors that seemed to hint he might be open to some version of the Saudi peace plan.”I want to state unequivocally and in front of diplomats from around the world: I continue to support two states for two peoples: a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state — it’s about time,” Netanyahu told the diplomats. Then he added. In recent years, I’ve seen formerly hostile states in the region and beyond, but especially in the region, form new and deep partnerships with us. I think this is a matter of great importance because I think this creates new hope. We can advance peace with the Palestinians directly and through the support of other nations, including in the region. It was once thought that the only way that we could advance peace with the Arab states was to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That would certainly help enormously. But it’s also true that we might solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem by enjoying the support of Arab states who now see Israel more and more not as an enemy, but as an ally against the forces that threaten their own countries as well.”
- Then today, out of the blue, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi offered to mediate an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. “El-Sisi promised Israel on Tuesday warmer ties if it accepts efforts to resume peace talks with the Palestinians, urging its leaders not to waste an opportunity to bring security and hope to a troubled region,” Reuters reported. “In an impromptu speech at an infrastructure conference in the southern city of Assiut, Sisi said his country was willing to mediate a reconciliation between rival Palestinian factions to pave the way toward a lasting peace accord with the Israelis.” Curiously, Reuters also reported that “Sisi, who rarely speaks publicly about foreign policy, offered the 2002 Arab peace initiative as a potential way ahead. The initiative offered full recognition of Israel but only if it gave up all land seized in the 1967 Middle East war and agreed to a ‘just solution’ for Palestinian refugees.”
- Immediately, Netanyahu spoke to reporters to offer praise for el-Sisi’s offer. “I welcome Egyptian President El-Sisi’s remarks and his willingness to make every effort to advance a future of peace and security between us and the Palestinians and the peoples of the region,” Netanyahu told reporters. “Israel is ready to participate with Egypt and other Arab states in advancing both the diplomatic process and stability in the region. I appreciate President El-Sisi’s work and also draw encouragement from his leadership on this important issue.”
- Then, very shortly thereafter, opposition leader Herzog put out a statement also praising el-Sisi’s statement. This was particularly significant given that Herzog is currently negotiating with Netanyahu to create a “unity government” and become the nation’s Foreign Minister.
So what exactly is going on? It’s a bit early to say. With apologies to Shakespeare, it could be much ado about nothing.
Still, it would appear something is afoot. Netanyahu and Herzog are taking big risks with their political bases to consider a possible unity government which polls show most Israelis do not favor. Why would either leader go down this road unless they sense an opportunity both want to pursue?
None of know the actual contours of what is being discussed, and there are many twists and turns ahead. I’m not saying peace is at hand. History is littered with failed talks. Still, Christ said “blessed are the peacemakers.” The Psalmist commands us to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” It’s always important to seek peace with one’s neighbors and enemies — to try, anyway — is it not, so long as you don’t make things worse and not better?
Curiously quiet in the back and forth were Palestinian leaders. Maybe they will say more in coming days. Netanyahu has made the case in recent years that rather than Arab states like Saudi Arabia waiting to make peace with Israel until after a deal with the Palestinians is complete, why don’t Arab states make peace with Israel now, like Egypt and Jordan have? This, he argue, just might create a framework of security and trust that could improve the chances of the Israelis and Palestinians finding a deal everyone could accept. I’m not saying he’s right or wrong. I’m just laying out the argument.
Until now, it would have been unimaginable that the Saudis would ever warm up to real peace with Israel. But as I’ve been reporting for several years, there are definitely signs of thaw between Israel and the Sunni Arab states. Never more so than this past month. Many Arab states increasingly see the Apocalyptic regimes of Iran and ISIS as the real threats to regional peace and security, and increasingly see Israel as a potential ally in dealing with both threats. That’s not to say the Sunni Arabs are happy with Israel. There are deep-seated cultural, ethnic and religious disagreements for many, and hatreds for some.