Even if you accept the widely made Israeli contention that there is no Palestinian peace partner, one cannot deny that Israel faces threatening strategic realities which require a proactive Israeli answer. The main theme coming out of the three-day Institute for National Security Studies conference held this week in Tel Aviv is the lack of clear, coherent Israeli initiatives for facing these threats. Whether the primary threat facing Israel is Hezbollah and the Iranian alliances or the Palestinian issue, practically all the experts and politicians who spoke at the conference said that alongside the threats there were almost opportunities, none of which were being effectively exploited by the current government and prime minister. The criticism came from military experts and officers, members of the opposition as well as from within the government and the prime minister’s own party.
Israel and many of its neighbors today share a common cause in limiting Iran’s power and influence, preventing the expansion and infiltration of Islamic State (IS), and in fighting terrorism – either Shi’ite or Sunni. All of the so-called moderate Sunni states are facing the same threats Israel faces, and that has enabled an under-thetable coordination and some cooperation in security and intelligence sharing. Israel’s relationship with all of those states, with the exception of Jordan and Egypt, cannot expand much beyond what already exists because of the non-resolution of the Palestinian issue. Even though the issue of Palestine no longer appears in the headlines around the Arab world, it remains in the consciousness of the Arab street and Israel’s policies in the West Bank and toward Gaza appear every day in people’s living rooms from satellite television stations all around the region.
Those pictures are not pretty and never paint a positive image of Israel.
The nonexistence of any Israeli political initiative in this area is perplexing given the opportunities that the common threats have created. The cold peace with Jordan and Egypt could become a lot warmer if Israel presented to them an initiative for dealing with the Israeli- Palestinian conflict that would break out of the bilateral paradigm that most Israelis believe has been exhausted.
Broader regional opportunities for creating solutions that would provide for better security arrangements within a future Palestinian state are at the base of what an Israeli initiative should include. Part and parcel of creating a better security reality through wider regional cooperation is the expansion of economic possibilities and opportunities for fostering a more stable and prosperous Palestinian economy. All of this opens avenues for discussing a possible Palestinian-Jordanian confederation and regional intra-Arab agreements and mechanisms for bringing Gaza into those arrangements within the framework of a demilitarized Palestinian state.
Israel’s path toward widening the circle of overt and direct cooperation with the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, is through the inner circle regional initiative of working with Egypt and Jordan in bringing the Palestinian leadership to the table and resolving the core issues.
All the regional parties will accept and support Israel’s demand that implementation of agreements and security arrangements be conducted over time and that Israeli withdrawal from territories be linked to monitored and verified performance in achieving real security, demonstrated governance and advancing economic growth in those territories.
Sooner or later the Israeli public will awaken to the reality that the threats to Israel so expressively articulated and magnified by the prime minister remain without any real answers. IDF Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot in his INSS speech spoke extensively of the need to provide Israelis with security and with the sense of security. Today the existence of both is questionable not because of any failures of the IDF, the Shin Bet (Israeli Security Agency) or Mossad, but due to the lack of strategic decisions and directions from the government and prime minister.
These are not only my words but also those of Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid, Gideon Sa’ar and INSS director-general Amos Yadlin, former head of IDF intelligence, as well as many former senior officers who spoke at the conference.
(Interested readers can visit the INSS webpage for more information on the many excellent and informative sessions held during the conference).
During the 2014 war known as Operation Protective Edge I repeatedly spoke on Israeli television of the need for an Israeli initiative based on the kind of regional cooperation outlined above to ensure that as a result of all of the days of fighting in Gaza both Israel and the Palestinians would end up with a strategic outcome in the weakening of Hamas. I was told on- and off-air that no such initiative was possible while the troops were fighting. I did not agree then as I don’t agree now. I proposed that the best time for an Israeli political regional initiative was exactly while the fighting was on. Some of the government ministers whom I had the opportunity to meet and debate on television said that such an initiative would come after the war was over. Hamas kept Israel at it for 51 days and after a year-and-a-half there is still no political regional initiative. Sooner or later the Israeli public will realize that their government has failed them. Israel has always claimed that the Palestinians miss no opportunity to miss an opportunity. Well, the same can easily be said about the government of Israel, especially the government of Benjamin Netanyahu.
The author is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and as The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.