The Growing Support in Israel for a Regional Approach

We hope to see more leaders who understand the criticality of an Israeli endorsement of the API as the way forward.

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Israelis supporting regional peace with the Arab world

Historically, all Israeli governments have regarded peace with all of our Arab neighbors as an ideal end-goal.

However, prevailing logic has held that by dividing up the regional end-goal into a series of bilateral agreements, Israel would have a greater chance of protecting her vital interests, while an overall regional or international arrangement would inevitably put Israel on the defensive. Thus, Israel’s diplomacy has consistently preferred bilateral negotiations and regarded international conferences with apprehension and dread.

Indeed, the Madrid Conference of October 1991, which can be viewed as starting point of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, was meant to be an international platform. However, then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir insisted that the conference be broken up into bilateral working groups immediately after the conclusion of the ceremonial opening plenary. A few multilateral groups, which focused on peripheral issues such as water, economic cooperation, and the environment, were all that remained of the regional concept.

The Arab Peace Initiative (API) of 2002 brought a new dimension to the Arab-Israeli dialogue. For the first time in history, the Arab League, acting as a group of states, presented a comprehensive peace plan. Yet in Israel the plan was greeted with suspicion, and only a few political figures on the far left of the political spectrum were willing to even consider the API as a basis for future negotiations.

Nonetheless, first gradually and then with greater momentum, Israeli reactions have become more nuanced and the moderate left, the center, and even the moderate right have taken note. The Annapolis Peace Conference in 2007 marked a turning point, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert mentioned the API in his opening address, stating that some of its elements were worthy of discussion. Yet only in 2013 and 2014 support has grown at a rapid pace. Here are a few examples:

  • April, 2013, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni: “I welcome the messages sent today by the Arab League. The important message is that they, too, acknowledge that there shall be adjustments to the ’67 lines (…). They signal us that this is subject to negotiations.”
  • June, 2014, President Shimon Peres: “…Peace between Israel and Palestine can forge a broader regional peace.  A bridge should be built that will enable an Israeli peace initiative to meet the Arab Peace Initiative. I have lived long enough to see the impossible become possible.”
  • August, 2014, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman: “I think the Saudi initiative is much more relevant today than it was previously… the central idea behind the initiative was not only an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, but also an arrangement with the entire Arab world.”

Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog and Meretz leader Zahava Galon have repeatedly voiced their support for a regional approach. Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid Party, has recently endorsed the concept of a regional approach and his commitment to engage in a dialogue with the Arab league and the Arab leaders.

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Similar views have also come from former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Likud ministers Dan Meridor, Meir Sheetrit, and Avi Dichter.

Perhaps most interesting is the growing support for the regional approach among prominent members of the defense and security establishment, including former heads of the Mossad Meir Dagan, Shabtai Shavit, Zvi Zamir and Danny Yatom as well as former heads of the Shin Bet Yuval Diskin, Avi Dichter and Yaacov Peri. Most recently, 103 retired generals signed an open letter calling upon the prime minister to adopt the concept of regional peace as the best guarantee for Israel’s security and economic prosperity.

What are the reasons for the sudden surge in the Israeli support for the proposed approach the IPI has been advocating for years?

First, the collapse of the Kerry initiative led to a growing realization that bilateral negotiations with the Palestinian Authority are doomed to fail if not conducted within a regional framework. Secondly, recent changes in the patterns of threats and interests in the Middle East, including the powerful rise of the radical Islamist movements, have concomitantly created a natural coalition of pragmatic Arab states, supported by the international community. When asked what has led him to be more amenable to the Saudi initiative, the foreign minister responded that the commonality of interests between Israel and the moderate Arab world is greater than it was a decade ago.

Another factor that helps Israelis understand the new picture, are the voices coming from the Arab leaders. Public statements by President Sisi, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and President Abbasall endorsing the API and calling for a regional initiativeare very helpful. Another example is the article published in Ha’aretz by Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal. These steps may be extremely useful to help convince the Israeli leaders and public to make progress.

In conclusion, as 2015 begins, we are pleased to see the growing realization among Israeli and Arab leaders that Israel needs to be part of the pragmatic coalition, joining forces to confront the radical threats. Clearly, the “entry ticket” into the coalition is an Israeli endorsement of the API, accepting it as part of the framework to the end of the Israel-Arab conflict and a two-state solution.

We believe the months before the March 17 elections are a rare opportunity to further transform the thinking of Israel’s political leaders and parties and influence the Israeli public. We hope to see more leaders who understand the criticality of an Israeli endorsement of the API as the way forward.

The Israeli Peace Initiative (IPI) Group is a civil society movement offering a regional Israeli peace to end the conflict. Visit israelipeaceinitiative.com.