“They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” The words of Abba Eban, Israel’s eloquent and well-spoken diplomat, referring to the Palestinians resonate as the UN General Assembly takes place in New York City this week. While Eban was right–the countless times Arab countries and the Palestinians have missed opportunities for peace with Israel are well known– this time it is Netanyahu’s opportunity to miss.
Benjamin Netanyahu has been prime minister for a very long time; 10 years, 194 days to be exact. If he makes it to July 5, 2019, he will surpass David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest serving prime minister. Netanyahu will surely go down in history as one of Israel’s most crafty, if not the very craftiest, politician, swaying voters with creative campaign tactics and appeals to their deepest security fears. Nobody can denigrate Netanyahu’s ability to stay in power. But in truth, his diplomatic accomplishments are few and far between, and the path down which he has led Israel is one of further international isolation and an unclear future. Despite this track record, as he enters his eleventh year he has an opportunity to change everything.
An unprecedented opportunity has arisen between Israel and its Arab neighbours. When Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi decided to spontaneously plea to the Israeli people at his Tuesday evening address at the United Nations General Assembly, it became all the more clear that the ball is in Netanyahu’s court.
“We have a real opportunity, to write a bright page in the history of our region to move toward peace,” Sisi said. The facts are clear: this is not Khartoum 1967. The leaders of Jordan, Turkey, and Egypt clearly recognize Israel’s right to exist and more importantly, Israel’s right to security.
Recent developments suggest that Israel recognizes this opportunity but, as Eban would agree, simply recognizing it is not enough. It is time to act. Officially recognizing the favorable elements of the Arab Peace Initiative (API) as a positive would do wonders for Israel’s regional standing as former Mossad Chief Shabtai Shavit eloquently stated. This, combined with a policy declaration to stop building outside the settlement blocs and completing the security barrier, are all actions that would improve Israel’s security without any political risk.
Israel has everything to gain by taking these small steps. They would open the door for a renewed peace process, provide Israel with valuable partners in combating Iran’s Islamist regime, and likely inoculate Israel against any possible moves to impose an unwanted solution by way of a UN Security Council resolution.
At the UN General Assembly, Sisi again reiterated his commitment to the API. While the initiative is far from perfect and not what a Permanent Status Agreement (PSA) would look like, it presents an opportunity for comprehensive peace between Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab states. Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states are all on board.
During his UN General Assembly speech, Netanyahu welcomed “the spirit of the Arab Peace Initiative” and talked about potential for regional cooperation but his sloganeering can only take him so far. It is time to turn words into action. Make no mistake, moving toward a regional agreement will take some crafty political maneuvering and likely another coalition shake-up, but neither should be a problem for the craftiest politician in Israel’s history. This is Netanyahu’s opportunity to do what is in his country’s best interest rather than what is in his own.