Can you play chess without the most important pieces?
That’s the question hovering over the June 25-26 US-led Mideast peace summit in Bahrain. The fact that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are attending marks the latest cruel twist in the seemingly unresolvable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the Palestinians actively boycotted the conference (despite Bahrain’s foreign minister stating that the gathering’s only objective is to support the “brotherly Palestinian people”), Israel reportedly didn’t “chase an invitation” amid America’s objective for the summit to focus on economics over politics.
The nonattendance of both sides in the conflict provides an instructive opportunity to envision what a summit could have looked like with fuller participation. More specifically, which host country could create the conditions for the most meaningful dialogue?
How about Israel’s peaceful neighbors, Egypt and Jordan? With Jordan’s Waqf managing the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem, and Egypt often serving as the broker of ceasefires between Israel and Hamas, those Arab states hold significant cards in final-status talks.
Yet these negotiations would be too close to home, as they carry immediate security implications at the Egyptian and Jordanian borders. Further, about 70 percent of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian origin, while the Egyptian population at-large remains significantly anti-Semitic despite President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s crackdown on Islamist terror. All things considered, it’s too difficult to picture Cairo or Amman as dispassionate brokers.
Could the U.S. itself host this summit — another round at Camp David? The timing isn’t right, as the Palestinians have dismissed America as a peace broker over the pro-Israel policies of the Trump administration, including the relocation of its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem.
What about a host site in Western Europe? Given the rising anti-Semitism throughout European societies, including in France and Britain, there are fewer and fewer potential summit locations on that continent where the Israelis could feel secure. In the U.K., there’s the wildcard of Brexit-related instability which could ultimately lead to a government headed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who remains engulfed in an anti-Semitism controversy. The issue of European Union policy on labeling Israeli settlement goods also hovers over Israel-Europe ties.
As one country after another is discounted, an unexpected yet intriguing possibility arises when considering Azerbaijan, the Muslim-majority state whose ties with the Jewish state have been described by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “what we want to show the world…the light that dispels the darkness.”
Netanyahu’s point is perhaps what resonates most powerfully when imagining what a fruitful peace summit would look like. What Azerbaijan brings to the table is a unique story — a story of hope, that not only Jewish-Muslim coexistence, but even a thriving Jewish-Muslim relationship is possible. It is precisely that hope which can keep the desire to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal alive, despite the pessimism which often consumes the process.
Azerbaijan possesses a variety of key ingredients for a peace summit:
- Its location in Eurasia and outside the Middle East isn’t too close to home, but also isn’t too remote.
- It has credibility with the Israelis due to a deep alliance, since 1992, which has included mutually beneficial commerce such as roughly $5 billion in Azerbaijani purchases of Israeli defense equipment over time as well as Israel’s purchase of 40 percent of its oil from Azerbaijan.
- It has credibility with the Palestinians as a Muslim-majority nation which has consistently expressed support and affinity for the Palestinian people, and is also a close ally of Turkey. As a rare country which has strong relations with both Turkey and Israel, Azerbaijan illustrates its potential to create a comfortable environment for a diverse set of players in the peace process.
- It brings key strategic elements to an economic-focused summit such as the Azerbaijan-led Southern Gas Corridor, a $41.5 billion project linking three gas pipelines across 2,200 miles and seven countries, cementing Baku as the linchpin of commerce from East to West, North to South, and Europe to Asia.
In cultivating strong relations with Israel, Azerbaijan has done more than create a feel-good story. It has served as a pioneer, pursuing warm Jewish-Muslim ties long before today’s increasingly receptive attitudes toward relations with Israel in the Arab world.
Bringing a peace summit to Baku acknowledges that the improbable romance between Israel and Azerbaijan, as well as between Azerbaijan and its own millennia-old Jewish community, provides a blueprint for the rest of the world — including the Israelis and Palestinians.
While it’s easy to continue dismissing peace as a pipe dream, a summit in Baku could bring as many parties as possible to the table in a place where dreams of interfaith tolerance actually come true.