How to react to the revelation from former Obama administration officials that there was a secret summit in Aqaba a year ago on 21 February where Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a regional peace deal?
Firstly, one has to acknowledge one rarity that given how many governments were involved that it took a year to be leaked into the media. That certain parties were at least attempting to muster some form of deal must be to their credit. Yet this is tinged with the inevitable disappointment that once again such a move went nowhere.
There are some serious questions that do need to be answered and not just why it did not work out? A regional approach for an Israel-Palestine peace deal seems even more relevant today given that this seems to be the preferred approach of President Trump. He wants an outside-in deal.
In theory, so says Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu who always pushed for a regional solution but what this deal exposes yet again is that Netanyahu simply is not interested. He has the Palestinians where he wants them, weakened, divided and under his thumb with a near complaint US President.
Any regional deal means conceding on issues such as Jerusalem and settlements where he and his coalition partners see no reason to back down. The suspicion is that Netanyahu simply is not prepared to risk his own job for peace.
A regional deal still has merits but not as a means to deprive Palestinians of their rights but to realize them. The message that the Israeli coalition and the Trump administration should be receiving is that normalization with the Arab world cannot and will not happen unless the occupation endsChris Doyle
The standard, tired alternative fact is that it is always the Palestinians who reject peace, who are unprepared to negotiate and who are the obstacle to peace. Nobody has been more fulsome in pushing this “fake” narrative than the current four-time elected Prime Minister, Netanyahu. Yet the Palestinians were not at Aqaba so even Netanyahu has not found a way to blame them - yet.
Bibi routinely laments that he has no partner for peace, that if only President Abbas would just meet with him. If only he would choose him over Hamas, he bleated in 2014. Well Netanyahu preferred the extremist Naftali Bennett over peace. As Ehud Barak, the former Israeli Prime Minister stated on his Facebook page: “The fiasco is exposed.”
The reality is that Netanyahu was the Likud leader who rejected Oslo, opposed the pull-out from Gaza and torpedoed the Kerry process in 2014. The question is will Netanyahu ever be interested in taking the slightest risk for peace? It is remarkable how risk averse Netanyahu has always been, that after so long in office, he has so little appetite to achieve anything meaningful in terms of peace.
The scant detail of the offer in the Aqaba talks that involved then US Secretary of State, John Kerry, King Abdallah II of Jordan and President Sisi of Egypt is still instructive. It was billed as an updated version of the 2003 Arab Peace Initiative, which in truth means savagely diluted.
Gone is the clear requirement of a full Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967, instead no more than a construction freeze outside settlement blocs. This is even more pathetic since there is no definition of settlement blocs, and for most of the Israeli government the entirety of Area C in the West Bank (60 percent) is one giant single settlement bloc.
It also envisaged not just recognition of Israel, but recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, something the Palestinian leadership baulks at as they see this as betraying Palestinian citizens of Israel and consigning them to a basement status inside Israel. The recognition of Jerusalem as a shared capital for Israelis and Palestinians is perfectly sensible, so perfectly horrendous for Netanyahu. This alone was a deal breaker.
‘Right to return’
But what does softer language on “right to return” for Palestinian refugees mean? This is far from clear. Even if Netanyahu permitted some refugees to live inside Israel, it is dubious that even a centrist, let alone a far-right Israeli coalition, would accept it was a right.
Sadly for the future, Netanyahu was only mildly attracted to the idea of doing a deal with the leader of the opposition, Isaac Herzog which could have allowed to ditch extremists like Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman. Herzog was scathing in his condemnation of Netanyahu. “History will definitely judge the magnitude of the opportunity as well as the magnitude of the missed opportunity.”
Peace should not wait for history to pass judgement. It needs leadership from multiple parties and courage, all of which are completely absent or at best very well hidden. A regional deal still has merits but not as a means to deprive Palestinians of their rights but to realize them. The message that the Israeli coalition and the Trump administration should be receiving is that normalization with the Arab world cannot and will not happen unless the occupation ends.
John Kerry clearly made huge efforts to shift Netanyahu. It appears that the adage of former Israel Defence Minister, Moshe Dayan still applies: “Our American friends give us money, arms and advice. We take the money, we take the arms but we decline the advice.” The difference now is that Trump will not even bother with the advice.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio and gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech.