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Is Netanyahu implementing the New Middle East vision of Shimon Peres?

Although it was not their intention, President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu may just have helped advance Shimon Peres' vision, with the signing of the “Abraham Accord”.

Removing annexation from the public agenda is definitely an important step in this direction.

Years ago, on my first mission as a diplomat, Joel Singer, then Legal Adviser at the Foreign Ministry and chief negotiator of the Oslo Accords, responded to a question he was asked, which I still remember. During an event at the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy in 1997, Singer was asked what the difference was between Netanyahu's requirement (who had recently been elected prime minister) to ensure Israel’s security before signing any agreement, and Rabin's approach, who was also very minded of the need to ensure Israel’s security as an ex-military general. Singer replied that although both of them were equally minded towards Israel’s security, the difference could be illustrated using the following anecdote. A father was asked by his son to borrow his car for an evening out. The father agreed but conditioned it upon his son first completing his homework. Just like that father, Rabin indeed preconditioned any agreement upon ensuring Israel’s security, but actively helped the Palestinians meet this requirement. Meanwhile, Netanyahu is more like a father who requires his son to do his homework first, but hopes he does not complete it, so that he does not have to give him the car.

The agreement with the United Arab Emirates makes one wonder whether Netanyahu is actually implementing Peres’ vision of a “new Middle East”, which for years was ridiculed by the right. Netanyahu is indeed employing the tactics that Peres envisioned, but he is doing so in order to achieve the opposite result.

Peres aimed at achieving an economic peace, as a means to reach a regional settlement that would include an agreement with the Palestinians. Netanyahu, on the other hand, sees economic peace and regional normalization as a tactic which will enable him to ignore the Palestinians entirely.

The benefits of Israel’s integration with the region cannot be overstated. However, in the absence of an agreement with the Palestinians, Israel may eventually become a binational state and yet another Arab state or a Middle Eastern tyranny while moving away from the Zionist vision.

Singer's metaphor is relevant to this debate too. Peres and Netanyahu both believed in leveraging Israel's economic, security and technological advantages to achieve regional normalization. Peres’ vision, postulating that the ‘Start-up Nation’ could help create a ‘Start-up Region’, is now being implemented by the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. Peres tirelessly promoted Israel's relations with the Gulf and Maghreb countries, and had he been alive today, he would have been delighted to see Israel signing a peace agreement with Arab states.

Peres, however, believed that these developments must be combined with a political ssettlement with the Palestinians, which in his view is critical to the democratic nature of the Jewish nation state.

Peres' vision did not disappear, but only recently did the Israeli public became aware of it. The Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 marked a turning point. Previously, Arab states did not view Israel as part of the Middle East. They used the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to distract public opinion away from their own civil rights violations and the technological backwardness of their countries.

The Arab Peace Initiative, however, reflects the knowledge that Israel is not going anywhere, and can even help the region prosper. The Iranian threat and the threat of Sunni al-Qaeda Jjihadists has reinforced the understanding that Israel and other pro-Western countries in the region are being targeted by the same threats, and that Israel is not the problem, but part of the solution. The Arab Spring, which was perceived as a threat in Israel, actually reinforced this understanding.

Had Peres been alive and in a position of influence, he would have leveraged the agreement with the United Arab Emirates in order to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than ignoring it. It is to be hoped that Trump and Netanyahu will advance the Peres vision, even if that was not their intention. Suspending annexation is certainly an important step in this direction.

(This article was published in the Jerusalem Post on September 16th 2020)

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