The Paris summit on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process was essentially focused on an attempt to generate a climate that would lead to a conference that would re-launch the negotiating process.
This is essentially what can be understood from the Arab, Palestinian and Israeli diplomatic contexts, according to senior officials and experts in Egypt. Nevertheless, in interviews with Al-Ahram Weekly, these sources indicate that questions remain regarding the next step or, as some put it, the tactical manoeuvres on the part of all parties involved.
A chief question is whether the project will be the Arab Peace Initiative adopted in the Arab summit in Beirut in 2002, talks to modify that initiative, or the formulation of a new initiative. Before this there is the question as to whether all parties are prepared for serious talks.
Egypt and other Arab countries seem ready, but what about Israel, especially after Netanyahu’s latest arrangements for his coalition government?
A source involved in high-level discussions in Egypt regarding this issue told the Weekly that to his best knowledge the idea was to revive the Arab initiative but first to subject it to study and revision in light of considerations on matters that would be affected by the time gap between the present and when the initiative was first adopted 14 years ago.
“Certainly much has changed, but it is an important starting point,” he said. “It will be difficult to produce the same Arab unanimity that occurred at the time when the initiative was first adopted. However, the bases, such as the questions of the refugees and Jerusalem, will not be affected. Therefore, it is a framework for action. We have a comprehensive project to serve as a basis for action.”
The Palestinian diplomatic view was different. Negotiators such as Saeb Erekat or Palestinian diplomats in the Arab League such as Mohammed Sabih are disinclined to reopening the Arab initiative for modification and prefer to re-launch it as is, as an already existing proposal.
They believe that the negotiating ceiling must be set before negotiations begin. Palestinian officials have conveyed their views to their counterparts in Egypt, according to sources contacted by the Weekly.
At present, observers in Egypt appear more immediately concerned with two factors. The first has to do with the composition of the new Israeli government that, in the opinion of Said Okasha of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, may take significant steps toward reviving the peace process in spite of the fact that it is ultra right.
“Past experience backs this up, even if the idea is primarily to safeguard the ruling coalition,” he said, adding that so far the impressions that Lieberman has given have been “positive”.
The second factor concerns the Egyptian position and the role of President El-Sisi in any forthcoming negotiations.
“El-Sisi initiated the call that moved the stagnant waters,” said Sobhi Asila, an expert in Israeli affairs, who added that shortly before that call El-Sisi raised the issue of “broadening Camp David”. “This was intended as a message to the Arabs,” Asila said. “He feels that the Arabs today are serious in wanting to deal with Israel on a pragmatic basis.”
Professor Yoram Meital of the Chaim Herzog Centre for Middle Eastern Studies voiced an Israeli perspective on the first factor above. He was cited in the last issue of Mashhad published by the Madar Centre as describing the Netanyahu’s current government as the “most right-wing government in the history of Israel”.
Meital expects that this government will pursue more hardline policies towards the Palestinians than ever before, and that it will be even more favourable to the expansionist project, which will manifest itself in intensive expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. He also foresees the possibility of the imposition of a blockade on the Palestinian Authority.
With regard to second factor, Jack Khouri, an Israeli journalist of Arab descent, told the Weekly that he believed that Netanyahu was working to ruin the French initiative in order to respond to El-Sisi’s call and with an eye to negotiating directly and bilaterally with Mahmoud Abbas.
In this regard, an assessment paper published by the Centre for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv addressed the question as to whether the two sides ¾the Israelis and Palestinians ¾are prepared to engage in a political process within the framework that international and regional players are attempting to work out.
In particular, will the new ultra right Israeli government be capable of this? The authors of the paper, Shlomo Brom and Annat Kurtz, note that the new factor is the international, and especially the regional, intervention on the part of Sunni Arab states with pragmatic outlooks that seek to revive the peace process.
Both the Israelis and the Palestinians see pros and cons in these developments, the authors maintain.
To Israel, engaging in the process will open a window for it to improve relations and establish modes of cooperation with pragmatic Sunni countries on the basis of common interests that have arisen in light of regional upheavals.
Also, regional and international participation in the political process could open opportunities for the participation of regional and international stakeholders in the implementation of the essential points of an agreement reached between Israel and the Palestinians, especially those concerning a solution to the refugee problem, the administration of holy sites, security arrangements and funding for all these purposes.
According to the assessment, the chief drawback for Israel is the influence that regional players will have with respect to the frames of reference for an agreement with the Palestinians and the negotiations before that.
The Arab Peace Initiative refers to the pre-June 1967 borders (with some scope for mutually agreed upon land swaps) and a just solution to the problem of the refugees in keeping with UN General Assembly Resolution 194.
From the Palestinian perspective, international and regional enthusiasm for resumption in the negotiating process holds many advantages.
Firstly, this involvement offsets to a considerable extent the skewed power balances between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Redressing that imbalance has long been a Palestinian demand.
It is also favourable in terms of the definition of the frames of reference, especially with regard to the 1967 borders and the cause of the Palestinian refugees.
Thirdly, regional support will help Abbas compensate for his political weakness, on the one hand, and his need to confront Hamas in Gaza. This support will constitute a powerful response to the criticisms levelled at him for agreements that others portray as concessions to Israel.
It is difficult to imagine that the government in Israel in its latest composition will be more flexible than its predecessors on any of the essential issues related to the negotiating process.
On the other hand, in view of its growing closeness to Egypt under El-Sisi, Israel can hardly turn down the Egyptian invitation to a tripartite meeting in Cairo.
The question is whether that meeting can succeed in persuading Israel to join the proposed political process. It has been suggested that El-Sisi might stipulate that the parties agree in advance on the frames of reference for the talks.
But in such an event, the meeting might not take place at all, especially if Israel refuses to negotiate on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative.
*This story was first published at Al-Ahram Weekly.