Netanyahu’s ‘Brilliant’ Mideast Peace Strategy Has a Big Problem

Prof. Elie Podeh September 2020

Benjamin Netanyahu, mulling his legacy as Israel’s longest serving prime minister, is trying to mint a new doctrine bearing his name. The “Netanyahu Doctrine” is predicated on the principle of “peace for peace.” How logical, how brilliant. Except for two problems.

The first is that it is not original. In fact, Israel’s most right-wing prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, coined it many years ago. Shamir, as we know, abstained in the Knesset votes on the Camp David Accords and the subsequent peace treaty with Egypt. He did not object in principle to making peace with Israel’s enemies, only to Israeli withdrawal from the territories it captured in 1967, and sought instead of “land for peace” to promote a policy of “peace for peace.”

The second problem with the Netanyahu “peace for peace” doctrine is its irrelevance for most of Israel’s conflicts with its neighbors. Israel could not have signed a peace agreement with Egypt had it not promised to withdraw fully from the Sinai and dismantle its settlements there. Eventually, Israel was forced to cede even the small in northern Sinai, following international arbitration. No Israeli politician looking back at that period seems to think Israel made a mistake in exchanging the Sinai peninsula for peace with Egypt.

Israel and Jordan did not have significant outstanding territorial or other issues. Nonetheless, under the terms of their peace treaty, Israel evacuated land in the Arava Desert (which Jordan leased back to Israel), diverted large quantities of Jordan River water to the Jordanians (and later increased the quota), granted Jordan special status over Jerusalem’s Muslim holy sites, and eventually handed back the Naharayim and Tzofar enclaves after a 25-year lease.

The Oslo Accords with the Palestinians included territorial concessions in Gaza, Judea and Samaria, whereas negotiations on a peace agreement with Syria failed over the issue of Israeli concessions in return for peace. Having agreed to give up the Golan, a narrow strip of land, 50 to 400 meters wide on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, torpedoed an agreement.

The recent history of the Arab-Israeli conflict clearly illustrates that peace always has a price. The peace between Israel and the UAE would seem to contradict this conclusion, but it does not. Israel, in fact, did pay a price: the suspension (and probable annulment) of annexation in the West Bank, and Netanyahu’s agreement to the U.S. supplying F-35 stealth fighter planes to the Emirates.

Yet, in general, negotiations for peaceful relations with states located on the periphery of the Middle East is less complicated and does not necessarily involve paying a high price.

This was the situation with Morocco, Tunisia, Qatar, Oman and Mauritania in the 1990s, in the wake of the Oslo Accords. None of these states are in conflict with Israel and all are geographically remote. Nonetheless, all these states (except for Qatar, which kept the Israeli liaison office open in Doha until 2009) severed diplomatic relations with Israel after the second intifada broke out in 2000.

The peace with Bahrain substantiates the fact that an agreement with an Arab state on the Mideast’s periphery, with no history of direct conflict with Israel, can happen on a basis of a “peace for peace” formula.

One of the most troubling results of the otherwise positive deals between Israel and the UAE, and Israel and Bahrain, is that many Jewish Israelis could latch onto the “peace for peace” slogan as a viable policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians, and perhaps the Syrians at some point, too.

However, the conflict with the Palestinians involves tangible core issues, such as borders, Jerusalem, refugees, water and settlements, as well as intangible core issues, such as mutual recognition, symbols, responsibility, and more. Agreement on these issues requires not only patience and skill, but also concessions to the other side. Concessions do not mean surrender; they simply recognize that conflict resolution requires flexibility and paying a certain quid pro quo.

Therefore, adopting the “peace for peace” doctrine in relations with our immediate neighbors is a recipe for a permanent deadlock. That may be the intention of the doctrine: To maximize Israel’s achievements in the peripheral Middle Eastern arena in return for freezing the conflict in Israel’s immediate neighborhood. In fact, such a freeze enables the expansion of settlements, which provide legitimacy for furthering Israeli control over the territories captured in 1967.

The Trump Mideast plan, which greenlights Israeli annexation of 30 percent of the West Bank, recognizes this new reality and legitimizes this policy.

The deal with the Emirates and widespread opposition have derailed annexation, but only for now, while settlement in the occupied territories continues uninterrupted and its outcome will eventually bury the two-state solution.

Major achievements sometimes bear the seeds of disaster. Such was the case with the 1967 war, which freed Israel from the Arab chokehold but at the same time sucked it into the Palestinian morass from which it has been unable to extricate itself for over 50 years.

Such is also the case with the Israeli foreign policy success in the Middle Eastern periphery, especially the agreement with the UAE and Bahrain based on the “peace for peace” doctrine, which will bolster those who reject concessions to the Palestinians. This is a surefire recipe for perpetuating the conflict with the Palestinians.

In fact, the so-called “peace for peace” doctrine sets aside the Palestinian issue, but does not bury it – even if Israel buries its head in the sand. Once the fanfare with the Emirates, Bahrain and possibly other Arab states subsides, Israel will have no choice but to revisit and address the Palestinian issue.

The article was published on “Haaertz“, September 13, 2020.

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