Netanyahu dusts off old peace plan after uproar over new govt

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on during the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, on May 31, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / DAN BALILTY

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on during the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, on May 31, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / DAN BALILTY

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken of reviving a long-dormant Arab peace initiative with the Palestinians, amid questions over whether he is sincere or trying to fend off international critics.

Netanyahu made his comments late Monday at the swearing in of his new hardline Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, forming what many analysts call the most right-wing government in Israeli history.

Lieberman is detested by the Palestinians, and foreign governments have expressed concern over his appointment to the powerful post.


Both Netanyahu and Lieberman have repeatedly sought to address such concerns, saying they are committed to a two-state solution.

Netanyahu went a step further on Monday, saying an Arab League-endorsed peace initiative dating to 2002 “includes positive elements that can help revive constructive negotiations with the Palestinians”.

“We are willing to negotiate with the Arab states revisions to that initiative so that it reflects the dramatic changes in the region since 2002, but maintains the agreed goal of two states for two peoples,” Netanyahu said.

His comments come after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said two weeks ago that there was now a “real opportunity” for an Israeli-Palestinian deal that could lead to warmer ties between his country and Israel.

Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab nations with a peace deal with Israel. Israel has also seen improved ties and security cooperation with Cairo in recent months as part of the fight against Islamic State group jihadists.

UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov welcomed Netanyahu’s comments, saying “this opportunity should not be missed and must be followed up with concrete and timely action”.

– Eye on Obama –
But Netanyahu’s comments come with the veteran premier under pressure over a French plan to hold an international peace conference, which Israel strongly opposes and the Palestinians support.

There is also speculation that US President Barack Obama could seek a UN resolution on the conflict — or at least allow one to pass without vetoing it — before he leaves office in January.

“There has been a feeling in the (prime minister’s) office for a while that they are worried what will happen in the UN, that maybe the Americans will let a resolution go through that would be difficult for Israel,” said Jonathan Rynhold of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies.

As for the French initiative, a first meeting of foreign ministers from a range of countries — without the Palestinians and Israelis present — is due to take place on Friday in Paris.

An international conference including the Israelis and Palestinians would then be held before the end of the year.

“Netanyahu is very aware, as is Lieberman, that they have formed a right-wing coalition, and therefore the international community will be very distrustful, so they have gone out of their way to say something positive about the Arab peace initiative and to publicly say that they back a two-state solution,” Rynhold said.

“That is a way of signalling to the international community: we are not as bad as you think we are.”

– Opportunity or smokescreen? –
If a peace effort were to move forward on the basis of the Arab proposal, Israel would no doubt seek a list of changes.

The proposal essentially calls for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories and resolve outstanding issues with the Palestinians, leading to the creation of a Palestinian state, in exchange for normalised relations with Arab countries.

While some accused Netanyahu of creating a smokescreen by mentioning the old initiative, others said that, whatever his motivation, progress should not be ruled out.

“This is an opportunity,” said Shmuel Sandler, a professor of international politics at Israel’s Bar Ilan University.

“He has now two years where he doesn’t have to worry about elections (if his coalition lasts its full term), so he might have a chance of moving ahead.”

Sandler said that “the question is whether the other side will come forward. Will he have a partner?”

Palestinian leaders argue that years of negotiations with the Israelis have not ended the occupation. They have focused on pursuing their cause through international bodies, and strongly back the French plan.

“If the Israeli government is serious, it must take measures on the ground to prove its commitment to a two-state solution,” said Nabil Abu Rudeina, spokesman for Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

“The first of those measures is the end to the occupation of the Palestinian territories.”

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