Is it time for Israel to talk peace within the region?

With the shared regional threat of the Islamic State and a nuclear Iran, some top Israeli security officials say now's the time for peace talks with Israel's moderate neighbors.

Mahmoud Illean/AP
Israeli soldiers grab a Palestinian holding a poster showing late Cabinet minister Ziad Abu Ain during a protest in Bethlehem, West Bank, Friday. Abu Ain collapsed and died shortly after scuffling with Israeli troops during a West Bank protest Wednesday.

In Israeli politics, “the peace camp” has become virtually irrelevant, scoffed at as naive about Palestinian intentions and the security threats facing Israel.

But it would be hard to accuse Yaakov Peri of either. He’s fluent in Arabic and served as director of the Shin Bet, Israel’s FBI, during the volatile days of the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising. For a time, he met weekly in the wee hours with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian militant-turned-president.

Mr. Peri, a minister in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s outgoing government, is part of a growing chorus of prominent Israelis who have called on the government to initiate regional peace talks. The moment is ripe, they have argued. The shared threat of a nuclear Iran and militant groups like Islamic State opens the way for alliances with states such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

“The current reality presents ... a new political opportunity of incomparable importance,” Peri said at a recent briefing, though the subsequent announcement of new elections in March will likely distract Israeli leaders until then.

Peri is not alone in his views. In November, 103 former military generals, police commissioners, and spy chiefs called on Mr. Netanyahu to initiate peace talks with moderate Arab countries.

“We know what is necessary to achieve security for Israel, and we know that regional cooperation will contribute to this goal,” said their petition.

Such Israelis have called for talks on the basis of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. The Saudi plan, endorsed by 57 Arab and Islamic countries, offers Israel normal relations with the Arab world in exchange for withdrawing from territory seized in the 1967 war – the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem – and a “just settlement” for Palestinian refugees.

Israel never formally responded to the initiative, and Palestinians are skeptical of Israelis sitting down with Arab leaders before committing to the plan’s central principles.

“I think Israel wants to find a shortcut in order to enjoy normalization without ending occupation,” says Xavier Abu Eid, an adviser with the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Negotiations Affairs Department. “That’s not something we’re going to accept, and that’s not something the Arab world is going to accept.”

In late November, the Arab League moved to submit a resolution to the United Nations Security Council calling to end the Israeli occupation and create a Palestinian state within a concrete time frame.

But even as Palestinians seek international backing, many Israelis and Arabs see Israel as the one that needs to take the initiative.

“We need to normalize the region and the only ones who can do that are the Israelis,” says former Jordanian Foreign Minister Kamel Abu Jaber, who also sees great potential for Israel to help reorient the Middle East’s resources from strife to development. “I dream that one day we can reconcile these two scions of the Semitic race.”

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