UN speeches: missed opportunities to transform the Israeli-Palestinian landscape

Yesterday both Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gave speeches at the UN General Assembly in which they reemphasised their respective positions and criticised the other side. While they provided much to chew over, I wanted to focus on two missed opportunities – one in each speech – that could significantly transform the Israeli-Palestinian landscape.

Abbas, the core of the conflict and the Israeli peace camp: One core question that divides the Israeli right and left wing is over the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The left argues that peace with the Palestinians requires Israel to makes concessions on the so-called ‘1967 file’ – territory, borders and settlements – in exchange for the Palestinians closing (and compromising on) the ‘1948 file’ – those issues relating to Palestinian refugees and finality of claims. Israel’s right wing – among whom Prime Minister Netanyahu proudly defines himself – continue to argue that the core of the conflict doesn’t revolve around territory or settlements but rather the legitimacy of a Jewish nation state in any part of former Mandatory Palestine. Yet by emphasising the borders of the UN 1947 Partition Plan (which the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine accepted yet the Arab leadership rejected… a fact sadly overlooked in the Palestinian President’s historical analysis), and demanding a British apology for the 1917 Balfour Declaration, Abbas ultimately strengthened Netanyahu and the Israeli right wing’s point.

I was recently involved in a private Israeli-Palestinian dialogue in which we discussed the challenge of building peace constituencies within each society. The perspective of many in Israeli society is heavily influenced by suicide bombings of the Oslo years and second Intifada, as well as the results of Israeli (unilateral) withdrawals from territory in Gaza and South Lebanon, events that make it harder to convince Israelis to make territorial compromises for peace. The group disagreed regarding the extent to which a country’s leaders follow, or shape public opinion, and how ambivalent publics on either side can be spurred towards greater support towards concessions for (a likely imperfect) peace. Yet I couldn’t help but think about the psychological impact the late Anwar Sadat’s visit to Israel in 1977 had on the Israeli public. Sadat’s Knesset speech was hardly that of ‘peace now’ – he continued to demand a full Israeli withdrawal from every inch of captured soil – but its psychological effect changed the public’s view of peace, and was a major component in facilitating the subsequent peace agreement signed by the leaders. Might an Abbas speech in the Knesset – where he repeats his promise that he has no wish to return to the place of his birth Safed, and perhaps – a la Arab Knesset member Ayman Odeh – displays an understanding the Jewish people’s right for self-determination, have a similar effect? We may never know. But even if Palestinian spokesmen are correct that Netanyahu’s invitation to Abbas to address the Knesset was a bluff, they should seriously consider calling it. There are few better ways to reinvigorate an ailing Israeli peace constituency.

Netanyahu, the Sunni states and the Arab Peace Initiative: Netanyahu also made a mistake in his own speech. He is correct to describe the growing warm relations between Israel and many Sunni Arab states and to argue that “for the first time in my lifetime, many other states in the region recognise that Israel is not their enemy. They recognise that Israel is their ally…Our common goals are security, prosperity and peace. I believe that in the years ahead we will work together to achieve these goals, work together openly”. Indeed, motivated by Iran’s regional rise, the growing threat of ISIS and mutual concern regarding American retrenchment, Israel and its Arab neighbours have covertly increased cooperation, primarily in security spheres. One former Israeli security official recently quipped to me that Israel is the “world’s only Jewish Sunni state” while a visiting dignitary to Israel is reported to have remarked that the list of threats he heard from his Israeli interlocutor was exactly the same (in the same order) as during his visit to the UAE.

Yet he is mistaken if he believes that these relations can continue to improve (and gain greater publicity) without progress on the Palestinian track and some type of Israeli endorsement of the Arab Peace Initiative (API). The API offers Israel the prospect of normalised relations with the Arab world under certain conditions, including concluding a two-state agreement with the Palestinians under specified terms. Many Israelis initially saw the initiative as a diktat, a take it or leave it offer requiring Israel to make a full withdrawal to the 1967 armistice lines before receiving normalised relations from the Arab world. But one of the most significant strategic changes in recent years has been an Arab acceptance of the principle of mutually agreed land swaps (rather than a complete withdrawal to the armistice lines) as well as a move from sequentialism (in which Israel has to fully withdraw before receiving normalisation) to parallelism (in which Israel and the Arab states make moves simultaneously). Some analysts believe bringing a regional angle to peace-making may facilitate Palestinian flexibility on core issues (Arafat’s excuse for rejecting proposals on Jerusalem at Camp David was that he first had to tour the Muslim world to get its approval). But in any event, there is no getting round the fact that in addition to welcoming the spirit of the Initiative (as Netanyahu did in his UN speech) and seeing positive elements in it (as members of the Government have previously done), at some stage Israel will have to go one stage further, if it wants to fully maximise the potential that Arab states provide. One shouldn’t underestimate the difficulty of a right wing coalition government expressing “nuanced embracing” of the API. But without it Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbours, as well as the Palestinians will stay where they are.

Calev Ben-Dor is Director of Research at BICOM