There are signs that a major initiative is about to be launched in Israel.
A Symbolic Change
Let me start with a symbolically significant sign. Yesterday Google announced that it was changing the name Palestinian Territories to Palestine across its product line. So if you click on Google in Ramallah you will see this:
Why is that relevant?
Google is a giant multinational corporation. They don't take risky steps. Steps that can alienate large segments of their customers. If they did it, they must have researched it thoroughly.
And there was almost no reaction to it. Google it, you will see. Both Aljazeera and Jerusalem Post used the same canned piece (though JP couldn't help a provocative headline) and reported the same tepid reaction from a single Israeli official. Normally, you would get a solid Israeli reaction supported by US Congresspeople and Senators repeating the same talking points. This time, nothing.
As for the non symbolic signs there are several and they are quite important.
Israel's First Referendum in 65 Years
First of all, a week ago, the Arab League made a public concession to Israel. Previously, a peace plan developed by Saudi King Abdullah called for the creation of a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders in exchange for all Arab countries recognizing the State of Israel. This time, they made it clear that they no longer insist on a complete withdrawal.
In Washington Monday, Qatari Prime Minister Sheik Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani tried to allay some of the Israeli concerns. Speaking on behalf of an Arab League delegation, he reiterated the need to base an agreement between Israel and a future Palestine on the 1967 lines, but for the first time, he cited the possibility of "comparable," mutually agreed and "minor" land swaps between the Israelis and the Palestinians.Note the central role played by Qatar in these arrangements once again. You can be certain that the change of heart was due to relentless US pressure. Qatar has been able to punch above its weight largely because it carries the US' water.
Tzipi Livni, the Israeli Minister of Justice (and the minister in charge of negotiating with Palestinians), reacted positively to the news. And she did so right away.
At first Netanyahu was silent.
Then, while meeting with the Swiss Minister of Foreign Affairs, he casually announced that he was going to call the first referendum in the 65 year history of Israel to let the people decide the outcome of the peace process.
Clearly, he was letting his coalition partner Naftali Bennett and the settler movement know that he was going ahead with the peace process. More importantly, he was warning them that he was not stupid enough to pull an Ariel Sharon and take on the settlers directly. He intends to commit Israeli people first and make it that much harder for the settlers to oppose it.
By pledging to put any deal to a referendum, Netanyahu could be hoping to avert any immediate far-right backlash to a decision to talk land-for-peace with the Palestinians, promising that the Israeli people would have the final word.
"There is a very serious effort under way to get talks to resume," said a senior Israeli official who declined to be named. "People are devoting a lot of time and effort to this. It is possible and it is doable."The following day, Livni flew to Washington to meet with Kerry to discuss the Arab League plan. Tellingly, she was accompanied by Netanyahu's special envoy Yitzhak Molcho (Molcho is a member of Netanyahu's inner circle and he has always been entrusted with sensitive missions).
Later in the day, she met with the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and afterwards, she told the media that she was optimistic about the process.
Taken collectively, these are significant signs.
Rapprochement With Turkey
While these diplomatic steps presage an upcoming announcement on the peace process, behind the scenes Israel has been working overtime to set up all the necessary elements for this to succeed. The most important is to make sure that Turkey is part of the process and on the side of Israel.
Israel has two trump cards to ensure this.
After Netanyahu's carefully drafted apology, an Israeli delegation went to Ankara to offer a major carrot to Turkey. The idea was to build a pipeline to Turkey to connect the natural gas reserves discovered in 2009 near Haifa. Tamar field is estimated to hold 10 trillion cubic feet of gas and it has just began producing 300 million cubic feet/day. There is also the nearby Leviathan field that is being developed with a 17 trillion cubic feet capacity.
Such a connection would provide Turkey with an important source of energy and would reduce its dependency on Russian and Iranian gas. Moreover, it is estimated that buying its natural gas from Israel would mean an annual savings of at least 1 billion dollars.
If the Leviathan field that will come online in 2017 is also connected to Turkey to reach European markets, the project would be a significant boost to Turkey's aspiration to become a major energy hub.
The Israeli gift is also significant for Turkey for another reason. The Tamar field is adjacent to the smaller Cyprus reserves. Previously Israel promised help to Cyprus in exploiting these fields. But in recent months, they distanced themselves from both Greece and Cyprus to focus their attention to Turkey instead. Without Israeli involvement, Cyprus is unlikely to find the economies of scale to profit from these discoveries. Seen this way, Israel might have the right leverage to persuade Cyprus to adopt a more flexible stance towards its northern neighbor.
The second Israeli trump card concerns Syria. Both Turkey and Israel have a lot to loose if Syria were to become a failed state. It it vitally important for them to have a clear transition plan for post-Assad Syria. There are reports that Turkey and Israel have been conducting joint covert military operations inside Syria for some time. For instance, an American analyst made these remarks recently:
It has been obvious to everyone here that Turkey and Israel had been working in covert cooperation including during the time of their diplomatic breakup.
Their aim is the destabilization of Syria and Iran. They are working with Georgia, Azerbaijan, the Arab states, working with NATO; there they have been involved.Specifically, the two sides are interested in limiting the influence of Jihadis in FSA and in ensuring that the stockpile of chemical weapons do not fall into the wrong hands. As you can imagine Turkey has a larger role on the former and Israel is focusing on the latter.
In all this, what is interesting is how these two peace processes are intertwined. It is a highly complicated chess game played on a large board.
But I still think that they will happen and we will soon see a Kurdistan and a Palestine.