Netanyahu, Sisi and zero problems diplomacy

Mahmoud Abbas certainly has every reason to be depressed about the current state of affairs.

Activists burn a makeshift Israeli flag in protest against a possible visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Egypt, in front of the Syndicate of Journalists in Cairo, Egypt [REUTERS]
Egyptian activists burn an Israeli flag in protest against a possible visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Egypt [Reuters]

These days even the hint of a renewal of diplomacy on Palestine is enough to set tongues wagging. In recent months, France has led what remains an inchoate effort to fill the diplomatic vacuum created by the Obama administration’s decision two years ago to close its book on Palestine.

Pride of place, however, was recently claimed by Cairo. On May 17 in Asyut, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi placed himself at the centre of a new initiative, declaring that Egypt was prepared to create a “real opportunity” for direct talks between the PLO and Israel.

“I say we will achieve a warmer peace if we resolve the issue of our Palestinian brothers … and give hope to the Palestinians of the establishment of a state,” Sisi said.

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Egypt has long been absent as the engine of Israel-Arab diplomacy. Sisi himself is an unlikely champion of Palestinian interests. Egyptian restrictions on Gaza are popular among Egyptians even if they are more draconian than those imposed by Israel.

Public support for the Palestinians, long suffered by the Mubarak regime, has been decimated by the ongoing insurgency in Sinai, which the government insists Hamas supports.

Relations with Israel 

If relations between the rulers in Gaza and the Sisi government are cold at best, Ramallah also has concerns about Cairo, where the high profile of Mohammad Dahlan, a vocal opponent of PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, fuels suspicions.

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In contrast, Egypt’s relations with Israel have never been better. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to shred onerous restrictions on Egypt’s military deployment in Sinai and effectively lobbied for Egyptian interests in Washington.

If Sisi wants to deal with Israel, Bibi is the address.


Netanyahu has also opened the door to a Saudi role in maritime security by blessing the restoration of Saudi sovereignty in the strategic straits of Tiran.

On the domestic front, Netanyahu’s recent political moves have placed his tenure as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister on a more solid foundation. If Sisi wants to deal with Israel, Bibi is the address.

Obstacles to large-scale bilateral economic cooperation on energy have also been removed. The day after Sisi’s initiative was launched, Bloomberg News reported progress on an almost $1bn deal on compensation to Israel for disrupted contracted gas supplies from Egypt.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu [Reuters]
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu [Reuters]

The agreement opens the road to a wide-ranging economic partnership, with natural gas at the centre of both Egyptian and Israeli national economic development plans. Adding a diplomatic veneer on Palestine to this partnership helps both Bibi and Sisi.

It is in this context that Netanyahu is making news with his wink in the direction of the Arab Peace Initiative.

In these troubled times, Arab support for recognition of Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state – the key elements of the 2002 declaration – is virtually the only issue on which there is an Arab-Muslim consensus.

Historic offer

For many years after its creation, Israeli prime minsters didn’t think the historic offer important enough to read.

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Now even newly minted Israeli defense minister Avigdore Lieberman, not known as a fan of Egypt, the Palestinians, or the Arabs for that matter, wants to be at the party.


Lieberman, who is playing a long game in pursuit of the premiership, sang according to Netanyahu’s script, adding his supportive remarks endorsing “two states for two peoples” to Netanyahu’s.

Just don’t ask either of them to draw a map.

For more than a year Israeli leaders at every turn have been touting their interest in expanding ties – economic, security and otherwise – with the nations of the Gulf.

The API is now viewed by Netanyahu as a potentially valuable instrument in this strategy. But his support comes at a price. Netanyahu has simply turned the API on its head, placing Arab recognition of and normalisation with Israel rather than an end to occupation as the strategic objective.

“The conventional wisdom for the last few decades has been that a solution to the Palestinian issues will result in improved ties between Israel and the Arab world,” explained Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold on June 1. “But there is a serious basis for thinking that, actually, the sequence is exactly the opposite – that by improving ties with the Arab states, we set the stage for a future breakthrough with the Palestinians.”

Turkey is another critical stop in Netanyahu’s pursuit of a regional policy of “zero problems” with its neighbours. The sixth anniversary of Mavi Marmarra maritime debacle has just passed. Once again the anniversary is being used as an opportunity to hint that a deal, long in the works, that includes a loosening of the siege on Gaza, is about to be finalised.  

A Turkish rapprochement with Israel on Gaza, occurring parallel to a consolidation of relations with Egypt, featuring a renewed, reinvigorated diplomatic push for the Arab Peace Initiative at its centre, may prove to be yet another mirage on the endless road to a solution of the Palestine problem.

Abbas certainly has every reason to be “depressed” about the current state of affairs.

“He knows that Netanyahu is not going to make a peace deal and he knows that it is too late to have a viable Palestinian state given the extent of Israeli settlements,” explained a knowledgeable Palestinian. “He is in a very tough position, which is why he is willing to give any candid initiative, like that of President Sisi, a try.”

Indeed soothing words – if not deeds – on Palestine may be all that the parties, each fixed on their own priorities, require.

Geoffrey Aronson writes about Middle Eastern affairs. He consults with a variety of public and private institutions dealing with regional political, security, and development issues.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.