US Secretary of Sate John Kerry played host this week to a delegation from the Arab League, led by Qatar’s prime minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani. One suspects that they spend most of their time talking about Syria (Vice-President Joe Biden was also in on the talks), but the official statement that was issued focused instead on the issue of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Arab delegation reaffirmed the offer first made in the Beirut Declaration eleven years ago: comprehensive peace and recognition of Israel by the whole of the Arab world in exchange for withdrawal from the occupied territories and a “just settlement” of the refugee question.
But this time it went further, adding the option of “comparable and mutual[ly] agreed minor swap[s]” of territory. In other words, Israel may be able to retain some of the larger settlement blocs in return for the transfer of equivalent Israeli territory to the Palestinians. It has long been assumed that this would be necessary, but this appears to be the first explicit recognition from the Arab side at such a high level.
Questioned about it the following day, Kerry described the move as “a very big step forward” and promised “to continue to march forward and try to bring people to the table despite the difficulties and the disappointments of the past.”
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He didn’t have to wait long for another disappointment, although surely not an unexpected one. Unnamed “senior Israeli officials”, quoted by Haaretz, “welcome[d] the encouragement by Arab League delegates and Secretary of State John Kerry to rekindle diplomatic efforts” but ignored the substance of the Arab offer. Reporter Barak Ravid said “their comments implied that Netanyahu’s government is unwilling to base negotiations on the 1967 borders, with land-swaps included.”
Israel’s position is that direct negotiations with the Palestinians should begin straight away, with no preconditions. It seems fairly obvious that Benjamin Netanyahu takes that position because he knows the Palestinians won’t go along, and my view is that they have nothing to lose by taking him at his word. As I put it two years ago:
the Palestinians could have met the request for talks “without preconditions” (i.e. without Israel having to keep the commitments it had made under the “road map”) by just sitting down at the table and saying “Right, here we are – what’s your proposal?”
But if that would be the most effective way of exposing the hollowness of Israel’s stance, the Arab League proposal is pretty effective too. Nobody expects that it could be adopted overnight, but the fact that Israel consistently rejects out of hand the idea of using it as a basis for negotiations tells us that Netanyahu is not interested in peace on any terms that a Palestinian government could ever accept.