On Tuesday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gave a run-of-the-mill speech at the inauguration of a new power plant. He also spoke, as he did two years ago and as many have done before him, of a “great opportunity” to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, declaring his support for the French initiative to hold a Mideast peace conference later this year – an initiative that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has rejected.
The only extraordinary thing about al-Sisi’s speech was the response of Israel’s opposition leader: Labor Chairman Yitzhak Herzog hurriedly issued a statement calling the remarks a historical landmark, no less. Unfortunately, a close look at the actual content of a-Sisi’s speech and the context in which it was given reveals that the chances of regional peace remain the same. The Egyptian president said nothing new or ground-breaking, and Herzog merely used his words as an excuse to join Israel’s right-wing government, allegedly for the sake of peace.
Al-Sisi noted that several days ago, Israelis marked their independence while Palestinians marked their disaster – yet both peoples live in the same place. He reminded listeners that half of all Egyptians cannot remember and therefore understand the sheer animosity that marked the Israeli-Arab wars of the past. This, he claimed, is thanks to the “real and lasting” peace between Israel and Egypt, which unimaginably changed Egyptians’ attitudes towards Israel. He believes that the same will happen between Israelis and Palestinians, and that a warmer peace will prevail between Egypt and Israel “if we give Palestinians hope for a state, with bilateral guarantees – which Egypt is willing to provide – for life, security, and stability”.
The Egyptian president voiced hope that his words will be heeded. addressing Palestinians, he asked for reconciliation between the different factions (while refraining from mentioning Hamas by name) and offered Egypt’s help. He then turned to Israelis and emphasized that despite the apparently grim regional outlook, peace is within reach. Acknowledging that Israeli public opinion is crucial to jumpstarting any negotiations, he asked Israelis to trust him personally, as he lived through the massive shift from the wars of the past to present-day peace between Egypt and Israel.
“Please, Israeli political parties, come to an agreement so that this crisis can be resolved”, said al-Sisi. As the speech drew to an end, the president reiterated his hope that “the leaders and parties in Israel will agree on the vital importance of this issue” and promised that peace with the Palestinians would bring miracles into for the entire Middle East. He even asked that the Israeli leadership “allow the speech to be broadcast again and again.”
Such words are certainly heartwarming, but hardly a surprise. No mention was made of the well-known problems that have dogged the peace process for decades. The choice to directly address Israelis was not unusual, either: Middle Eastern leaders have often done so, especially King Hussein and King Abdallah the Second of Jordan. In fact, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, has directly addressed Israelis in his speeches so often that he seems to have given up on the Netanyahu government altogether in favor of talking directly to the Israeli people.
The unusual aspect of al-Sisi’s speech was in fact his direct request concerning “Israeli parties”. Arab leaders are extremely wary of being perceived as meddling in domestic affairs, an accusation that is regularly bandied about between Arab countries. When they wish to go over the heads of the Israeli leadership – i.e., right-wing governments – they usually address the public, not opposition parties.
Al-Sisi’s repeated mention of Israeli parties and the need for political agreement within Israel only gains meaning in the context of the opposition leader’s move to join the Netanyahu government. It remains unclear whether al-Sisi commented on this of his own accord or per request. However, both Netanyahu and Herzog pounced on the opportunity. The prime minister welcomed Egypt’s “willingness to make every effort to advance a future of peace and security between us and the Palestinians and the peoples of the region.” He even ventured that “Israel is ready to participate with Egypt and other Arab states in advancing both the diplomatic process and stability in the region.” Yet he adamantly refrained from any concrete comment on the French initiative or the possibility of a Palestinian state.
Herzog went much further. In a Facebook post, he called al-Sisi’s speech “a dramatic announcement representing the possibility of a historic process.” Shortly afterwards he posted a video describing the speech as “a historical breakthrough” that was “dramatic primarily because of the details he [al-Sisi] gave about what he wishes to do” (details that were, as noted above, totally absent from the speech). The opposition leader urged Israelis to recall that he, too, had spoken just days ago of a “rare regional opportunity”. “I knew what I was talking about,” he emphasized. Herzog then called upon the government and the prime minister to make full use of the opportunity.
A politician who is interested in peace with the Palestinians rather than, say, a chair in Netanyahu’s government, has no reason to get excited over the Egyptian president’s remarks. They are certainly pleasant, but Israelis have heard much braver and more detailed proposals from Abbas himself. In the end, what is barring Israeli doves from serious negotiation with the Palestinians is not what the Egyptian or even Palestinian presidents think and say. It is primarily the recalcitrance of Benjamin Netanyahu and his government.