Stop the presses – No Arab League breakthough

May 3, 2013 | Ahron Shapiro

Stop the presses - No Arab League breakthough

Contrary to recent headlines, the Arab League as a collective body did not substantially “sweeten” its 2002 Peace Initiative (API) for Israel on Monday. 

Nonetheless, there is some reason to see this diplomatic movement, while relatively minor, as a small, positive step.

A sweeping breakthough, however, it wasn’t. It would be more accurate to say that a delegation representing a handful of member governments floated a non-binding trial balloon that, even if it were to be adopted, would do little more than tweak the API’s decade-old stance on borders to conform with the PA’s position.

Meanwhile, the API’s clause most antithetical to any future peace agreement – the apparent demand for the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to Israel which would effectively bring an end to Israel as a Jewish State – has apparently not been reconsidered at all.

The delegation’s concession, for what it is, may either offer the PA a pretext for returning to negotiations, or increase pressure on Israel to make its own concessions.

So argue a number of leading commentators and journalists following Monday’s highly touted statement by Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani following his meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry.

At issue was the following remark, which appeared at first glance to soften the position of the original API by allowing for the possibility of mutually agreed land swaps.

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 possible [sic] of comparable and mutual agreed minor swap of the land. 

The Jerusalem Post‘s Herb Keinon said the Israeli Prime Minister Office’s response, which “welcomed the support given by the Arab league delegation and the US secretary of state to the diplomatic process” without dwelling on the content of the statement, showed caution.

“The response shows that at this point [Netanyahu] wants neither to pour cold water on, nor to embrace, a possibly revised Arab Peace Initiative,” wrote Keinon.

In the same article, Keinon’s colleague Khaled Abu Toameh reported that chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat downplayed the significance of Sheikh Hamad’s statement.

The Arab delegation, [Erekat] said, “presented the official Palestinian position. Upon Israel’s unequivocal acceptance of the two-state solution on the 1967 border, the State of Palestine as a sovereign country might consider minor agreed border modifications, equal in size and quality, in the same geographical area, and that do not harm Palestinian interests.”

Commentators have been quick to point out that persistent news reports (including by John Lyons in the Australian) which imply, implicitly or explicitly, that Sheikh Hamad’s statement represents a change in the Arab League’s position as an organisation, are inaccurate and misleading.

Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, noted in his blog that the delegation that visited Washington represented only a handful of Arab League countries, and in particular, featured mostly those which are open to peace with Israel or benefit directly from US support. Such a delegation, he added, is not empowered to speak for the Arab League, which requires a vote to set its policies.

At the meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry there were representatives of the Arab League, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian Authority.

But Arab League bureaucrats can’t agree on anything. Only a vote of the Arab League’s almost two dozen members can establish an official position. So this was not an Arab League plan at all. To represent it as an official Arab position is, then, untrue.

Rather than dwell on the question of borders, Rubin raised the larger, existential issue of whether the delegation had shown any flexibility on giving up their demand for Israel to accept the return of all Palestinian refugees.

Is the “right of return” as a condition for making peace still in the small print? I don’t see that anyone else has asked that rather important question. Presumably it is still there. Consequently, what is in fact a suicidal offer to Israel is made, by selective reporting, to make it sound like an attractive offer.

But if the demand for a massive immigration of hostile Palestinians is indeed dropped, that in fact is the real news. Of course, the PA would passionately denounce such a step and since it has said nothing on the point one might assume that this demand still stands.

This reminder about the problematic inferential reference to the Palestinian right of return contained in the API was echoed on Wednesday in a blog post by Jonathan Tobin on the Commentary website.

The Arab League proposal envisions normal relations with an Israel that has been forced to retreat from all territories it won in a defensive war in 1967. But the Israel they want to make peace with is one that would be forced to accept millions of Arabs who would change it from a Jewish nation into yet another Arab one.

On Tuesday, Kerry chose to focus on the positive signs from the statement, which he saw as a relaunching of the API.

“I don’t underestimate the significance of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, [United] Arab Emirates, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, and others coming to the table and saying, “We are prepared to make peace now in 2013,” he said.

(Kerry did himself no favours by inadvertently including two countries that already have signed peace treaties with Israel as being among the five he mentioned by name that are prepared to make peace with Israel.)

To this, Rubin wrote that while it was certainly plausible that the Saudi Royals find the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be an unwanted distraction from the issues that matter to them – namely, the Iranian threat and revolutionary Islamist challenge to their rule – it simply beggars belief that the Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Egypt and Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon are interested in pursuing peace with Israel (of course in Egypt’s case, the lack of interest concerns warming the cold peace with Israel rather than seeking to “review”, or downgrade, the relationship.)

Rubin suggested that the participation in the delegation by some of the more hostile countries had likely more to do with strategic posturing with Washington to serve their short-term interests than actual peacemaking.

For his part, Tobin noted that the API is not now, and never was, offered as a peace plan, but rather a set of demands or “diktats” for Israel to meet. Further, he noted that the Palestinian right of return remains the “poison pill” of the API that makes it impossible for Israel to ever accept it as more than an opening for additional negotiations, no matter what other parts of the proposal are changed.

It should be conceded that [the API] is better than the famous “three no’s” enforced throughout the Arab world in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War, when Muslim countries said they would not make peace, recognize or negotiate with Israel. But the effect is not all that different.

Not all of the commentary is pessimistic. The Post‘s Keinon suggested that the Arab delegation’s statement significantly boosted peace prospects because it gave the Palestinians diplomatic support for re-entering talks and striking a peace deal that allows for at least minor territorial compromises that would allow Israel to keep some settlement blocs.

The true significance of what happened in Washington on Tuesday was that after weeks of efforts, after weeks of looking for some way to get the Palestinians back to the table, US Secretary of State John Kerry was able to get the Arab League to provide Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with a ladder to climb down from his refusal to negotiate with Netanyahu.
After weeks of efforts, Kerry got the Arab League to essentially tell Abbas that he could, indeed, proceed with talks, and even make minor territorial adjustments.

Similarly, some pundits said that the more Arab voices that are being heard supporting the concept of land swaps, the better, even if they don’t represent the majority view in the Arab League at this time.

Another point being made is that Monday’s concession, originating from the Arab side and orchestrated by Kerry, is further proof that the Obama Administration has abandoned the strategy that characterised its first term, of obliging only Israel to make concessions.

Furthermore, the fact that even the Arab League publicly endorses the idea of land swaps – meaning Israel will keep the major settlement blocs in any future peace – again undermines the all too common assumption that settlements are the key obstacle to a two-state peace agreement.

To gain a better understanding of the API – its good points, bad points and dealbreakers – it is worthwhile to refer to a 2009 report by Joshua Teitelbaum from the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs.

Teitelbaum’s report, which was written in anticipation that the Obama Administration would eventually try to revive the API, follows the proposal though its inception as the brainchild of a Saudi monarchy eager to rehabilitate its image following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 and traces its ripple effects through later years.

What began as a simple proposal by the Saudis of full normalisation with the Arab world in exchange for a full withdrawal to the borders of 1949, Teitelbaum writes, was transformed into a much less acceptable document in order to be ratified by all the members of the Arab League. His insightful report can be downloaded from the JCPA’s website.

Finally, is the API irreparably and hopelessly flawed? David Makovsky of the Washington Institute doesn’t think so, and in a policy analysis, he offers some suggestions on how the parts of the API most unacceptable to Israel could potentially be fixed.

Ahron Shapiro




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