Israel, Palestinians should accept Sissi’s peace initiative

Robert A. Cohn is Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

“ ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” 

— Jeremiah 8:11

“Better to jaw-jaw than to war-war,” said British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during a White House visit in 1954. Indeed the master statesman of the 20th century preferred negotiations to armed conflict, although he was certainly prepared to use force if all diplomatic efforts failed. In the past few weeks, there have been numerous efforts to revive the stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. 

France recently hosted an international conference in Paris  attended by representatives of 29 nations, including Secretary of State John Kerry. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians were invited, but they will be invited to attend another session as a follow-up. The Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected the Paris plan out of hand, fearing that it could result in an imposed settlement. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has praised the French initiative and said he would be pleased to attend a follow-up session.

A more promising track towards a possible deal is that offered by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who has positive relations with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Both Netanyahu and Abbas have indicated they are open to such talks and reiterated their support of the long-sought two-state solution. The Egyptian initiative could also embrace a peace plan put forth by the 22-member League of Arab States for a two-state solution involving land swaps between Israel and the Palestinians, a cessation of settlement activity in the West Bank and shared administration of Jerusalem.

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There is also a plan put forth by the Israel Policy Forum, described as a center-left pro-Israel group, which seeks to develop a plan that would result in two states living side by side in peace — and with mutually acceptable security arrangements.

All of the above plans have shortcomings, but all hold some merit. Both Netanyahu and Abbas lead governments that are fractured and strongly limited by their need to placate the extremists on both sides. Netanyahu recently named the ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman to the sensitive post of defense minister, while Abbas has sunk to an all-time low in approval ratings among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Abbas has not called an election for 11 years, and many believe that if he did so, he would lose in a landslide to any credible candidate.

It seems clear that left to their own devices neither Netanyahu nor Abbas will be able to forge a mutually agreeable peace plan that would be acceptable to the hardliners in each of their governments. They need a “life-line,” a cover for negotiations that involve interested third parties, like Egypt, which under Sissi has demonstrated its commitment to settling the Israel-Palestinian problem.

If Netanyahu and Abbas meet in Cairo under Sissi’s mediation and with the tacit support of other moderate Arab states like Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco, along with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners, a plan just might emerge that is acceptable to all sides.

Indeed it is true that some “international conferences,” exemplified by the infamous appeasement efforts in Munich in 1938 not only did not result in (as then-British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain put it) “Peace for our time,” but paved the way for World War II. At the same time, other diplomatic initiatives, such as Henry Kissinger’s bold move to develop diplomatic ties with China, and arms reduction agreements reached between the United States and the former Soviet Union and Russia are positive examples.

The current stalemate benefits neither Israel nor moderate elements of the Palestinians and pro-Western Arab states. The invitation by Sissi should be accepted by both Bibi and Abbas. They have nothing to lose by trying this approach, and it might just result in a viable plan that would benefit all sides and regional and world peace.