Israel scorns America’s unprecedented peace plan

ISRAEL’S TRIUMPH in the six-day war of 1967 was met by the infamous “three nos” at an Arab summit in Khartoum: no peace with Israel, no recognition, no negotiations. The war in Gaza seems to be having the opposite effect, American officials say. Saudi Arabia, the most important Arab state, is saying yes to peace, negotiations and recognition of the Jewish state—if Israel agrees to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which it occupied in 1967. There are perhaps two more yeses on offer: yes to Arab security assurances to Israel, over and beyond peaceful diplomatic relations; and yes to Arab states’ help with reforming the autonomous Palestinian Authority (PA) so it is fit to take control of Gaza.

Such is the message carried to Israel this week by Antony Blinken, America’s secretary of state, after criss-crossing the Arabian peninsula—his fifth regional tour since October 7th, when Hamas militants assaulted Israeli communities around Gaza, killing around 1,150 people and taking about 250 hostage. But to judge from the reaction of Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel is now the naysayer.

The outlook in the Middle East seems dire. Iran’s allies in Lebanon are exchanging regular fire with Israel; and those in Syria, Iraq and Yemen are attacking American forces. Two days before Mr Blinken arrived, American strikes against Iran-backed proxy forces hit 85 targets in the region.  More than 27,000 Palestinians are reported dead in Gaza after four months of war, with most of the territory’s population being displaced, and facing disease and hunger. Israel stands accused of genocide in the International Court of Justice. In the eyes of many, America’s reputation has also been stained by President Joe Biden’s military and political support for Israel’s quest to destroy Hamas.

Yet as he shuttled between marbled Arab palaces and Israel’s humdrum political offices, Mr Blinken is seeking to turn the catastrophe of Gaza into an opportunity for peace. And American officials seemed elated by their talks with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Muhammad bin Salman.

Once treated as a “pariah”, in the past words of Mr Biden, Saudi Arabia has become a central partner in America’s ambitious diplomatic strategy. This involves securing an “extended” pause in the fighting in Gaza with a hostage and prisoner exchange, perhaps leading in turn to a permanent ceasefire, Israeli acceptance of a Palestinian state, Saudi Arabia’s recognition of Israel and new American security commitments. Mr Blinken seems convinced that, rather than 1967, the moment in Israel today is more akin to the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli war of 1973 and the Palestinian intifada (uprising) of 1987-91. In these periods, the pain of conflict led, respectively, to the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 and the Oslo accords of 1993 that created the PA.

Even so, the path to a regional deal is far from assured. For one thing the hostage agreement—the essential first step in America’s plan—rests on a man whom the Israelis are determined to kill: Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Gaza in Hamas. He is thought to be hiding with hostages in the honeycomb of tunnels Hamas has built under Gaza.

That said, Mr Blinken brought what he thought was hopeful news on this front. On February 6th the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, told him he had just received a response from Hamas to a hostage deal drafted by Israel, America, Egypt and Qatar. The answer was deemed “positive” by Qatar, and flawed but workable by the Americans. But Mr Netanyahu dismissed it as “delusional”.

If it comes off, there will be much bargaining over who will be released in what order. The big sticking point remains whether the fighting will continue after the pause, as Israel argues. Hamas insists on a permanent ceasefire and an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. The likeliest compromise is a deal that will unfold in phases. America’s hope is that even a temporary pause, ideally before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in early March, will help change the mindset of both sides, allowing them to think about the “day after”.

All of which turns the spotlight on Mr Netanyahu, who has declared his intention to fight for “absolute victory” and his opposition to any Palestinian state. Arab leaders want America to exert more pressure on him. For now, despite the growing public disagreement, the Biden administration thinks that halting the flow of weapons to Israel would only encourage Hamas and other members of Iran’s “axis of resistance”. Instead Mr Blinken stressed “the importance of taking all possible measures to protect civilians in Gaza” and admitting more humanitarian supplies. On February 1st America also imposed sanctions on four Jewish settlers accused of violence against Palestinians—something which Mr Netanyahu criticised as “very problematic”.

Mr Blinken thinks the region is at a fork. One way lies salvation, with “a very positive, powerful future” that “genuinely integrates Israel into the region and addresses its most profound security needs”, and also “answers the aspirations of the Palestinian people”. The other way leads to damnation, with the fighting continuing in Gaza and an escalating war with Iran’s allies. Though he did not spell it out, Mr Blinken seems worried about the prospect of Israeli forces pushing on to Rafah at the southern end of the Gaza Strip. Palestinians are increasingly concentrated there and the risk is of their being pushed across the border into Sinai. Seeking to reassure Egypt’s president, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Mr Blinken expressed America’s “rejection of any forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza”.

America is urging Israel to agree to “a practical, timebound, irreversible path to a Palestinian state” as part of a four-sided deal between America, Israel, the PA and Saudi Arabia. America would offer a defence treaty with Saudi Arabia and civilian nuclear technology. The enfeebled PA would agree to reform.

To further sweeten the deal some Arab states are thinking of offering additional “security assurances’‘ to Israel. These are as yet unspecified, though are unlikely to involve a formal defence treaty. Gulf states do not have large armies, nor do they want to be at the forefront of an American-Israel confrontation with Iran. But something looser might well be in the offing. Options include more intelligence-sharing and a robust common air-defence zone. Some even talk of joint military exercises, which would be unusual. Mr Blinken said these Arab states are “prepared to do things with and for Israel that they were never prepared to do in the past”.

Moreover Arab states seem ready to help the Palestinian Authority reform. Foreign ministers from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Egypt and Jordan are set to meet PA officials in Riyadh on February 8th to discuss governance. Some Arab sources suggest Jordan could help train Palestinian security forces, and the UAE could help improve the PA’s administration.

Arab states have made clear they will not send peacekeeping troops to Gaza if and when the Israelis leave; nor will they pay to rebuild it unless there is an Israeli commitment to Palestinian statehood.  Nevertheless, they seem to understand that they need to take greater charge of settling the age-old question of Palestine, or risk having Iran and other radicals exploit it to their advantage.

In private Mr Netanyahu is said to be more flexible than he lets on. Can he bring himself to say yes to the Saudis? And if he refuses, would those who replace him be more willing? Neither Mr Blinken nor anyone else is certain.