- Representatives of the Arab League announced in Washington their support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which would be based on 1967 borders but include a “comparable and mutual agreed minor swap of the land.”
- This is a small but significant refinement of the Arab Peace Initiative (API), shifting the position from an inflexible demand on Israel to return to 1967 lines, to an endorsement of the principle of negotiated land swaps.
- The development is a success for John Kerry in binding regional Arab support into his intensive efforts to the get the peace process moving.
- The initial response from Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is tasked with leading negotiations with the Palestinians, was to welcome the news as positive.
- However, it will not in itself break the deadlock, which will require closing gaps between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
What has been announced by the Arab League in Washington?
Qatari Prime Minister Sheik Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani, following a meeting between Arab League representatives and US Secretary of State John Kerry, announced that: “The Arab League delegation affirmed that agreement should be based on the two-state solution on the basis of the 4th of June 1967 line, with the [possibility] of comparable and mutual agreed minor swap of the land.”
Al-Thani also made clear that the delegation, “endorses President Mahmoud Abbas’ effort for the peace,” as well as giving “support for efforts for the economic help and aid,” apparently in reference to Kerry’s recently announced plans for economic development in the West Bank.
Other representatives at the meeting included Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki, Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr, Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh and Saudi Ambassador to Washington Adel al-Jubeir.
What is the significance in terms of the Arab Peace Initiative?
This is a small but significant refinement of the original text of the Arab Peace Initiative, and partially addresses one of several Israeli concerns with the document. The API was launched as a Saudi initiative in 2002. The Arab League issued a statement in which its 22 members offered to normalise relations with Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal to pre-June 1967 borders, the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and a “just solution” to the Palestinian refugee problem.
For Israel, the demand for a return to pre-June 1967 lines was unacceptable. Israel seeks to negotiate a new border that will incorporate the major settlement blocks into Israel, and has in the past offered an exchange of territory to compensate the Palestinians. The Palestinians have accepted land swaps in principle, and this announcement now brings the wider Arab League into line with this position. However, the scale of land swap that Israeli negotiators envisaged during the Annapolis talks in 2008 was around 6-7%, whereas the Palestinians proposed a 1.9% swap.
Nonetheless, this softens the tone of the Arab League position. Whereas the original API looked to Israel like a ‘take it or leave it’ deal, this statement appears to position the Arab League more firmly in support of a bilateral agreement to be negotiated by Abbas.
Other elements of the Arab Peace Initiate text remain problematic. Israel’s future as a Jewish state depends on the Palestinian refugee problem being solved in a new Palestinian state, not in Israel. The API remains vague on this point, as it is on the question of Jerusalem.
Will this get the peace process moving?
This development is a concrete initial success for John Kerry in binding regional Arab support into his peace-making efforts. However, it will not break the deadlock in itself, which will require closing gaps between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The initial response from Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is tasked with leading negotiations with the Palestinians, was positive, saying, “It’s true that there is still a long way to go, and we can’t accept all the clauses as holy writ, but sometimes you need to look up over the difficulties and just say good news is welcome.”
Netanyahu has repeatedly stressed his desire to enter negotiations with the Palestinians without preconditions, and is likely to reiterate that point in response to this development. He has said in the past that the API is a positive development compared to the blanket Arab rejection of Israel that went before, but like other Israeli leaders has made clear that peace must be negotiated. Though he has resisted in public any reference to 1967 lines as terms of reference for a negotiated border, he told the UN in 2011 that he was willing to move forward on President Obama’s proposals, which included reference to 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps. However, Netanyahu is likely to remain firm in his position that Israel’s security requirements, and its future status as a Jewish state be addressed in any future agreement.
The immediate barrier in returning to negotiations remains the preconditions of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, which Netanyahu has been unwilling to meet. Abbas has raised various demands, including a complete settlement freeze, Israeli acceptance of 1967 lines as the basis for future borders, and the release of prisoners. The Arab League representatives made no mention of these preconditions in their Washington statement, and it is unclear whether Abbas will use this development as cover to re-enter negotiations, or will continue to stick to his preconditions.
What is the significance in terms of regional politics?
It is remarkable to see the Qataris fronting this development, which is another expression of their highly unusual and highly active regional foreign policy. In the 1990s the Qataris were one of the warmest Arab countries towards Israel, allowing an Israeli trade office to open in Doha following the Oslo accords. In recent years the Qataris have had close relations with Hamas, providing economic and political support. Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has a home in Doha, and the Qatari Prime Minister accompanied the Emir of Qatar as the first Arab leaders to visit the Hamas run Gaza Strip last year.
The statement in Washington put Qatari support behind Abbas in negotiating with Israel. But whilst there was no mention of Hamas, the Gaza Strip, or the on-off Palestinian reconciliation talks, Qatar remains committed to Palestinian reconciliation and bringing Hamas into the process. Without Hamas acceptance of the Quartet conditions however, any Palestinian reconciliation deal is unlikely to be acceptable to Israel and the US.
Also remarkable was the presence in the background of the Egyptian foreign minister. This is a positive indication of a pragmatic tendency in foreign affairs of the Cairo government, which is under US pressure to maintain its treaty with Israel and get behind the peace process.
It remains to be seen whether the Arab states behind this move will back their words with actions. Arab states have been much criticised recently for failing to deliver on financial pledges to support the Palestinian Authority. Arab states also disappointed the US in 2009 by rejecting requests to offer concrete steps towards normalisation of relations with Israel in return for Israeli concessions to the Palestinians in the peace process.