Despite a bizarre week in Israeli politics, Sunni Arab leaders are quietly reaching out to Netanyahu to discuss restarting peace talks based on the “Saudi Plan.” Meanwhile, Abbas signals he may soon step down. Who would replace him?

Moderate-SunniArab-leaders

Very few Israelis or Palestinians believe the moment is ripe to craft a comprehensive peace deal. Pessimism over the seemingly never-ending “peace process” is rampant.

That said, there continue to be curious developments here I think you should be aware of. I laid out some in my column earlier in the week. There have been more since then. Among them:

  1. Despite a bizarre and topsy-turvy week in Israeli politics, there are credible reports that moderate Sunni Arab leaders are actively reaching out to Prime Minister Netanyahu with indications that they are open to making changes in the Saudi Peace Initiative to make it more palatable for Israelis.
  2. Netanyahu is signaling that he is not averse to opening new peace talks that would involve changes to the Saudi plan, so long as regional Arab leaders are the primary players in the talks, not the French.
  3. At the same time, however, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is privately indicating that he will soon need to step down from power. “My age and health don’t allow me to remain in power,” the 81-year-old Abbas recently told Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. “My term in office expired several years ago and I’m still in power only because of the Hamas, which staged a coup and is controlling the Gaza Strip and refusing to allow new elections.”
  4. The possibility that Abbas could soon step off the political stage could add a destabilizing factor into the mix, especially if the battle to succeed Abbas becomes heated, or even violent.
  5. Who will the next Palestinian leader be? Would he (or she) be more or less ready to strike a compromise with Israel? Would he or she encourage violent opposition to Israel, or encourage calm and reconciliation?
  6. Meanwhile, critics of Netanyahu are asking, “How serious is Bibi about really making peace?” His enemies say Bibi will never negotiate in good faith. But those close to him say he’s ready for an honest dialogue, and note that it was Menachem Began (the first leader of the Likud Party) who made peace with Egypt in 1979. [NOTE: I’m not taking a position on any of these internal political questions — who’s right? who’s wrong? — I’m just pointing out some of the trend lines I think are noteworthy.]
  7. The week began looking like Netanyahu would create a “unity” government with Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog, who is personally determined to find a peace deal with the Palestinians. But in a dramatic and unexpected reversal mid-week, Netanyahu decided to make a deal with right-wing leader Avigdor Liberman and his Yisrael Beitenu (“Israel Our Home”) party instead of Herzog. Liberman is now slated to be Defense Minister, if the deal is finalized. This news has triggered a firestorm. Herzog is furious with Bibi. Current Defense Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon is, too. Ya’alon resigned the government rather than accept his imminent demotion or even change of position, and Ya’alon had harsh words for both Netanyahu and Liberman.
  8. Many in Israel and the region regard Liberman as an acerbic, controversial, polarizing figure, and someone not known for being eager to make peace with the Palestinians or even other Arab states. To Bibi’s enemies, the offer to Liberman is proof Bibi and his government will never make peace.
  9. In these circumstances, then, one could imagine that the notion of Bibi including Liberman into his government — especially instead of Herzog, who believes that a “rare” chance to make regional peace is emerging — will sabotage whatever slowly improving ties there have been between Israel and the moderate Arab states.
  10. That may still prove the case. But at the moment, the Arab states are reaching out to Bibi, despite of the Liberman/Ya’alon brouhaha. This is intriguing, to say the least.
  11. At the moment, it’s Egyptian President el-Sisi who is taking the lead in communicating with Netanyahu. Earlier this week, the Egyptian leader publicly called on Israelis and Palestinians to come back to the negotiating table, and offered to help mediate those discussions. Netanyahu immediately responded positively to the suggestion. Sisi and Netanyahu then spoke on Friday when Netanyahu called to offer condolences over the crash of an Egyptian jetliner this week, a crash that may have been the result of terrorism, though the investigation has only just begun.
  12. Jordan’s King Abdullah II, currently on a state visit to Europe, has been quiet so far this week. That said, recent media reports (see here, here, here and here) indicate that behind the scenes he senses the environment for talks is improving and is quietly encouraging the peace process to begin again.
  13. UDPATED: As I wrote on Tuesday, something does appear to be afoot between Israel and her Sunni Arab neighbors. Where will it lead? I genuinely don’t know. But I am praying for peace because the Bible commands me to and because I truly want there to be calm and security and prosperity and genuine freedom and opportunity for everyone in the region. I hope you will join me in praying along these lines, as well. Let’s also be praying for President Abbas’ health and strength and that the Lord would show mercy to him and his family during this challenging and tense season. Let’s be praying for President el-Sisi as he deals with the crisis surrounding the loss of the EgyptAir jetliner and more than 60 people on board. Let’s also be praying for the leaders of Israel, the Palestinians, Egypt, Jordan, the Saudis and the Gulf States as they talk to one another and seek peace. We don’t know if they’ll find a way forward, but as our Lord Jesus Christ said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

[This column is based on my personal views and analysis. I share them in my personal capacity as an American and Israeli citizen and an author. They do not reflect the views of The Joshua Fund, which is a non-profit organization and takes no political or legislative positions.]

UPDATE: The Jerusalem Post published a very interesting story on the latest behind-the-scenes interactions between Israeli and Arab leaders. Here are some excerpts worth noting:

  • “Moderate Sunni Arab governments in the region have communicated to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu their willingness to engage in negotiations with Israel over possible changes to the Saudi peace initiative so that it may serve as the agreed-upon basis of renewed talks with the Palestinians,” reports the Jerusalem Post, based on a story first reported by Channel 10 on Friday….
  • Arab regimes led by Egypt and the wealthy Gulf sheikhdoms have signaled their desire to publicly change their posture toward Israel, according to Channel 10.
  • Officials in Arab capitals are now awaiting Netanyahu’s response to their offer of substantive discussions on the Saudi initiative so as to make it more palatable for Israel.
  • During a Twitter chat he held in the courtyard of his Jerusalem home in honor of Israel’s 68th Independence Day, Netanyahu said Israel is ready to talk about an amended Saudi peace initiative.
  • One of the questioners asked him in Arabic about the 2002 Saudi Initiative, otherwise known as the Arab Peace Plan, which calls for a two-state solution on the pre-1967 lines with a just settlement for Palestinian refugees. In exchange the Arab world would offer Israel normalized relations.
  • “Why don’t you accept the Arab initiative and what are the reasons why it is not implemented,” Twitter questioner @abosarah7 asked.
  • Netanyahu responded, also in Arabic, that an updated initiative which “addresses our concerns merits further discussion. Israel will always seek peace.”…..
  • In response to Sam Rubinstein from Brown University, Netanyahu said in a short video response, “I am willing to meet President Abbas today, right now. He can come to my home here in Jerusalem or I can go to his home here in Ramallah. Now I want you to forward that question to President Abbas and see what he says, #askAbbas.”
  • Channel 10 cites Western diplomatic sources as saying that a number of emissaries have relayed conciliatory Arab messages to Netanyahu, one of them being former British premier Tony Blair.

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