Immediately after the polls closed, when Israel opened its eyes to an old new political reality, it was clear that the critical issues of sovereignty regarding the Palestinians will inevitably return again to the forefront. As a result, the window of opportunity which is open in the Middle East will be highlighted for all to see. The last Israeli elections, like a number of elections in the last decade, began with a clarion call to tackle social issues, economic issues and other internal matters, but in practice, the items most on the public agenda during the public campaigns were those of security and negotiations.
Topics such as the growing dimension of poverty over the last decade, the deteriorating situation of the elderly, the lack of basic care shown to Holocaust survivors, the deep problems of education, welfare and health care did not feature significantly in the recent campaign debate. Yesh Atid, the party that I am proudly a member of, led a shift to give these issues prominence. Yesh Atid is a political party founded in 2012 to represent Israelis of the so-called “secular middle class”. In the 2015 election the party won 11 seats, making it the fourth-largest faction in the 20th Knesset.
In these elections, domestic issues have been overshadowed by issues like the crisis with the United States of America in light of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to Congress, a possible deal with Iran, multiple revelations of corruption in public life and, to a lesser degree, a freeze in the peace process negotiations.
Paralysis in the Diplomatic Process Will Continue
In the 2015 elections, the Israeli public decided on the makeup of Israel’s leadership in the coming years. The public’s decision gave the prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu, the right to form the next government, meaning that it will be a right-wing government. It’s still too early to tell which political elements will make up the next coalition, but based on the prime minister’s statements so far, we can assume that the paralysis in the diplomatic process will continue.
Just before the elections, Binyamin Netanyahu walked back his Bar-Ilan speech1, where he spoke of two states for two people. The future coalition partners will probably join him on the basis of this diplomatic paralysis.
Yesh Atid is disappointed by the fact that the center and the centerleft, the Zionist Union mainly, wasn’t given the opportunity to replace the leadership in Israel. But we respect and accept the decision of the voters. My estimate is that the deterioration of Israel’s standing and image in the world will be augmented by the results of this election. Israel will continue to be seen as a rejectionist of peace and as a country that controls millions of Palestinians, and as a result will increasingly struggle with international institutions like the United Nations, the International Criminal Court and other Western parliaments.
Israel Can and Should Create a New Diplomatic Channel
Although the public discourse during this campaign was similar to that of the last campaign in 2013, which focused mostly on socioeconomic issues, Israel has an existential necessity to determine an alternative public agenda. The State of Israel can and should create a new diplomatic channel. Not just one of speeches and declarations as we have heard in the past, but rather, one of results.
We can bring about the changes needed to bring hope to the people of Israel and to the entire region and to fix the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state for all future generations. The repeated crises in various negotiations have a negative effect on Israel’s security, its economy and its standing in the world.
The existence and strength of the State of Israel depend on its ability to correctly read the regional and global currents and to initiate operable security foundations and diplomatic processes on these fronts. As I confront these issues, I cannot help but see a link between the international and domestic issues. There is a direct connection, tight and unbreakable, between our diplomatic situation, both internationally and bilaterally, opposite the Palestinians, and our socioeconomic situation.
The policies of Israel regarding the peace process over the last 20 years since the Oslo Accords have failed, and it’s time for a change because time is running out. Today more than ever, Benjamin Franklin’s words “Do not put off for tomorrow what you can do today” are appropriate to the situation in the Middle East. If the State of Israel does not act to bring about a political solution with the Arab world in general, and with the Palestinian people in particular, then we may find ourselves growing ever closer to a bi-national state, which will be the end of Zionism.
Negotiations with the Palestinians in a bilateral framework have proved as yet unable to reach a viable solution. The regional situation in the aftermath of 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, however, has opened a new diplomatic channel. The State of Israel today shares at least two central interests with other states in the region, amongst them Saudi Arabia, most of the Gulf states, Jordan and Egypt.
Common Interests in Fighting Radical Islam and a Nuclear Iran
The first interest is the fight against radical Islam. The coalition that President Obama is leading against the Islamic State reflects a coalition of interests of which Israel is a part, together with the moderate Arab states. The Jabhat al-Nusra organization, Hizbullah in the north, Hamas in Gaza and the global Islamic terror organizations such as al-Qaeda to the south provide a clear case for partnership between Israel and the moderate Arab states.
The second is the uncompromising battle that must be fought against a nuclear Iran, a battle whose results will have direct, existential implications for the whole region. From my conversations in recent months with senior Egyptian leaders, it is clear that the two countries — Israel and Egypt — share a security interest of the highest level in regards to Gaza, the struggle against radical Islamic terror and on other fronts as well. By promoting these two interests and thereby beginning a historic peace process with Arab states, it will be possible to carry out a dramatic change in the region as a whole. As part of this new framework, we should include bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians as part of a regional arrangement to create a moderate Middle East coalition. The Palestinians will find it easier to make compromises under the umbrella of Arab states, and will benefit additionally from prospective financial support that they desperately need.
The Arab Peace Initiative and the Collective Interest in a Regional Peace Plan
By adopting the framework outlined by the Arab League initiative2and by taking Israeli interests into account, it will be possible to make the political changes needed. The collective interest in reaching a peace plan will unite the Arab Middle East states around meeting Israel’s requirements.
After Operation Protective Edge, the State of Israel stood before a historic opportunity. When the forum of donor nations3 gathered in Cairo, Egypt and met to make a decision about whether to rebuild Gaza for billions of dollars; instead of promoting the Israeli interest by cooperating with that conference, instead of ensuring that the rebuilding was made dependent on disarmament, the State of Israel missed an opportunity which could have been the opening salvo for regional cooperation with the moderate Arab states and the creation of a moderate Middle East coalition, the start of a historic change in the Middle East.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has spoken about a potential political horizon, but he has not followed through to reach it. In the words of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, “history is not written, history is made.” Prime Minister Netanyahu has not made anything happen. So what must happen? The State of Israel must act to create a moderate Middle East coalition of its own initiative.
A Regional Conference with the Moderate Arab States, the PA and Israel
An important first step is to hold a regional conference that includes the moderate Arab states and the Palestinian Authority (PA) and, in dealing in this framework, begin negotiations that really include multilateral discussions on both regional arrangements and separation from the Palestinians. The negotiations will be supported by the international community, led by the United States, and it will give this process a genuine chance of success.
The purposes of a regional agreement are:
1. The establishment of a strong, uncompromising long-term security arrangement including the disarmament of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza.
2. The normalization of relations between Israel and the moderate Arab states and the Arab League.
3. Separation from the Palestinians by the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state as part of the regional agreements.
4. The end of the conflict and the end of mutual litigation with the Palestinians.
Building outside the major settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria throughout the negotiations must be halted promptly, except to allow natural growth within the settlements, which are included inside the blocs. The decision regarding the final borders will be based on Israel’s security needs and will take into account facts on the ground established since 1967. The two sides will recognize the common interest of keeping the settlement blocs in Israel’s hands. And in return, negotiations will be held on territorial swaps. As one who has dealt with Israel’s security and intelligence for 30 years and who has served seven of those years as the director of the General Security Services of the State of Israel, I must say with certainty that resolving these security issues are critical for the future of the State of Israel. But these are not the only critical issues.
A Revolution with Far-Reaching Benefits for Israel
The benefits of the arrangement I have outlined are far-reaching. They affect our relations with the Palestinians, our relationship with the Arab states and the international community, and our socioeconomic issues. To illustrate the economic benefits, I will quote from research by the Institute of Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Israel, whose team of economists, led by former Director General of the Finance Ministry Yarom Ariav4, examined what would be the economic consequences of a regional arrangement. The economic model that this team built came to the conclusion that a regional peace is the best economic plan that Israel could commit to.
I’ll quote only two or three numbers. This scenario projects up to 365 billion NIS, cumulative, will be added to the budget over the first 10 years. 67 billion NIS will be added every year from the 11th year onwards. GDP per capita will increase by 33%, meaning $50,000 annually.
We are talking about a revolution, an upheaval. The State of Israel needs to initiate and to bring change, hope and calm to the entire region. The formula seems to be clear. Adopting a framework for regional cooperation is a matter of principle, combining regional negotiations to realize Israeli security interests, support from the international community led by the U.S., and the inclusion of bilateral talks with the Palestinians as part of the regional discussions. This has the potential to lead to a historic regional arrangement and change the face of the Middle East.
1 Bar Ilan: PM Netanyahu proclaimed support for a two-state solution in a speech at Bar-Ilan University in 2009.
2 First proposed in 2002 at the Beirut Summit by Saudi King Abdullah as a means of achieving peace and normalizing relations between the Arab Middle East and Israel; calls for a complete withdrawal from the occupied territories of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as a “just settlement” of Palestinian refugees in accordance with UN Resolution 194.
3 Convened in October 2014, an international conference pledged $5.4 billion in aid to Gaza.
44 Yarom Ariav is the coordinator of IDI’s Eli Hurvitz Conference on Economy and Society (formerly the Caesarea Forum). A senior economist with expertise in macroeconomic policy, he was director general of the Israeli Finance Ministry from 2007 to 2009.