With America on the sidelines, Israel and the Arabs play a new game.
The Times of Israel reports that, on Tuesday night, “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin…and discussed regional issues and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.”
It was hardly, of course, their first chat. In June, Netanyahu was in Moscow to meet with Putin. He was there, too, for that purpose in September 2015 and April 2016, and last November they met briefly at the Paris climate conference. Their agenda includes making sure there are no unwanted Israeli-Russian military confrontations over the skies of Syria, as well as the strong Israeli-Russian economic ties.
Meanwhile the Israeli daily Haaretz cites Egyptian media as reporting that “Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi said that…Putin has expressed a willingness to host…Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for talks in Moscow.”
What’s going on?
According to other reports, Sunni Arab states—particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia—want such talks and have been pushing for them. Both countries have close security cooperation with Israel. Egypt has recently warmed up diplomatic ties with a return of its ambassador to Israel and a visit to Israel by its foreign minister early in July. The Saudis, for their part, sent an unprecedented delegation to the Jewish state later in July.
This line of speculation says that Sunni Arab states want to keep building up ties with Israel—a crucial ally against Iranian expansionism and ISIS, and a source of energy and technological know-how—but need Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking to appease domestic populations that remain, for the most part, intensely hostile to the Jewish state.
Netanyahu, for his part, has been talking about a “regional peace initiative.” The advantages for Israel would including deflecting the French initiative—not seen by Jerusalem as likely to yield positive results—as well as a possible last-ditch initiative by the Obama administration, though it seems improbable.
For Putin, the appeal of hosting such a conference in Moscow would lie in further underlining his prestige, power, and indispensability at the expense of the U.S. For Netanyahu, for that very reason, attending such talks in Moscow would have a serious, possibly decisive downside of being seen by Washington as a snub.
And what of the ostensible Palestinian interlocutor, Abbas? On the one hand, the Palestinian side looks unsuited as ever for making peace. Along with their ongoing anti-Israeli ideology, the Palestinians not only remain bitterly divided between Fatah (territorially dominant in the West Bank) and Hamas (territorially dominant in Gaza), but internecine strife within the West Bank itself is so severe as to threaten its disintegration as a political entity.
On the other hand, Abbas was recently reported to no longer oppose taking part in a peace summit (albeit in Cairo). His weakened position could, by the same token, make him unable to resist pressure from within the Sunni Arab camp to engage in a diplomatic game that—even if, as seems likely, it leads to no conclusive result—they see as benefiting them.
The larger picture, of course, is the Obama administration’s withdrawal of American clout from the region and the regional players’ need to find their way in a new world.
For Israel it has meant, on the one hand, an enhanced regional position as a bulwark against Iran and improved relations with Arab states. On the other, it has meant having Russia—an amoral power—fill the void, which includes warplanes in Syria and strengthening the Iranian axis. Overall it is a difficult and alarming new world, but there is no choice but to navigate it.