Some of us can remember when a reference to the “Middle East conflict” meant the Arab-Israel struggle. Obviously, that time is long gone. But what effect are the horrendous events in Egypt likely to have on “our” conflict? Strangely enough, I tend to think that the current context of what used to be called the ‘Arab spring’ may actually be conducive to some success in the negotiations. (Note the weasel words “tend,” “may,” and “some”; I am not betting the family jewels on Israeli-Palestinian peace, but the chances seem better than they did earlier this year.)
My impression is that Bibi may be worried enough about various things that he might actually end up agreeing to some version of a real two-state solution. Among the things that worry him are his own coalition partners, who genuinely believe Israel can and should hold onto the West Bank forever. Unlike them, Bibi does not rely on God protecting Israel. Unlike them, despite public bravado, he is probably worried about the new European Union guidelines withdrawing any contact with Israeli institutions operating in the West Bank. He is not, of course, a fan of a real and comprehensive two-state solution, but I think he would take it in preference to a one-state solution, which is the direction things are going. So, I do not think it is out of the question that Bibi may, after getting all he can, agree to a peace treaty and if he does, the Israeli people will follow him and ratify it.
Egypt is also part of this equation. It is clear that the Israeli establishment is immensely relieved at Morsi’s ouster and the Army resuming control. For many reasons: the Army is a known quantity for Israel, it shares Israel’s distaste for Palestinians in general and Hamas in particular, it distracts attention from the Occupation, it is thoroughly anti-Iran, etc., etc. While in previous years, Israel might have felt that, under those circumstances, it could safely ignore the Palestinians, in this case it likely serves as an impetus for Israel to get the best deal it can while the world — including the Arab leaders — desperately want at least this one problem solved. Israel is strongly lobbying for the US not to cut military aid to Egypt, something that the US is unlikely to do in any case, though some sort of punitive action is called for.
Parenthetically, I have to mention that I am sick about what is happening in Egypt. I am one of those who really believed that the fall of Mubarak would begin a slow and uncertain but real process towards some version of democracy. I was impressed by how ex-President Morsi mediated the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2012, and subsequently depressed by his inability to compromise with his political opponents. But the current behavior of the Army seems designed to set in stone a decades-long polarization that will grind down all of the hopes of 2011.
It would indeed be ironic if Egypt’s agony were to help midwife Israeli-Palestinian peace. And I am not by any means arguing that Bibi is a born-again peacenik. If he can find a way to preserve Greater Israel, he will do it with gusto. But he is at bottom a pragmatist (aka opportunist), as well as his father’s son. Between the pressure on Israel and the unity of most Middle East states against Islamism, and with the Palestinians at a low ebb, he might well conclude that Israel can get a better price for agreeing to a peace treaty than it is ever likely to be able to get again. If so, perhaps Binyamin ben Ben-Zion Netanyahu, of all people, may go down in history as the man who made peace with the Palestinians.
But I’m still not betting the family jewels.