In 2002, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon tasked his foreign policy adviser, Danny Ayalon, with further exploring the idea of the Arab League’s new peace initiative.
“He sent me to find out if the Saudis were serious,” Ayalon recalled recently, adding that he tried to arrange, through middlemen, a meeting with Adel Jubeir, an adviser to then-crown prince (now King) Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Earlier that year, Abdullah had proposed the plan, which seemed to offer Israel normalized relations with the Arab world in exchange for territorial concessions, a formula for handling Palestinian refugee claims and the establishment of a Palestinian state.
“We almost met in a restaurant in Washington and at the last minute he didn’t want to meet,” Ayalon said of Jubeir. “We promised it would be under the radar, it would be very low-profile.” The Saudis reneged on the scheduled meeting, and the rest is history — Israel never formally responded to the offer.
Ayalon, who served as deputy foreign minister until earlier this year, said Jerusalem never warmed to the proposal because it was presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, with no room for discussions. However, he said in early March, it could serve “as a basis for negotiations in the future, when conditions are much clearer here.”
Two months later, it is harder to argue that the peace initiative’s terms are written in stone. On Monday, the Arab League — which formally adopted the proposal at a March 2002 summit in Beirut — for the first time showed some flexibility in allowing that, to reach a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “comparable,” mutually agreed and “minor” land swaps could be possible.
After both Israeli and Palestinian leaders signaled a certain satisfaction with the Arab League’s move, it seems that a renewal of peace talks may be imminent. But would such talks actually stand a chance? Is the fact that the Arab League now seems to have wrapped its mind around the idea that Israel will never agree to fully withdraw to the 1967 lines enough to enable a breakthrough?
‘In a way, it puts the ball in Israel’s court. It is really now going to be up to Israel to respond to this in some way’
After all, the idea of mutually agreed land swaps has been around for more than a decade, and has been accepted, to varying degrees, by all parties involved. Also, the Saudi-inspired peace initiative asks for more than an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank; some of its demands are ostensible nonstarters for Israel’s newly elected government, such as returning to Golan Heights and dividing Jerusalem.
Still, “this is a significant development in several areas,” said Middle East expert and historian Joshua Teitelbaum. “In a way, it puts the ball in Israel’s court. It is really now going to be up to Israel to respond to this in some way, either through an initiative of its own or beginning to explore the peace process based on the positive aspects of the Arab initiative.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tacitly welcomed the steps to advance the peace process taken by the Arab League. “Israel is ready to start negotiations — anytime, anywhere — without any preconditions,” an Israeli official told The Times of Israel Wednesday. Israeli politicians from the left and the center, ranging from opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) to cabinet members such as Minister Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid), were pleased with the renewed initiative and urged the government to see it as a real opportunity to advance the peace process.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who hosted the Arab League delegation in Washington that announced its softened stance on the 67 lines, sounded even more optimistic. While the path to a peace agreement was still long, “I don’t think you can 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.
Teitelbaum, a senior researcher at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, assessed that “chances are not good” for the current government to reach a final-status agreement based solely on the Arab League’s slightly more flexible stance. Yet he called on Jerusalem not let this opening go unnoticed in Arab capitals.
“At times, Israel needs to acknowledge when there’s flexibility on the other end,” he said. “For many years it was a take-it-or-leave-it proposal, and now it’s not anymore. Now they accepted some language that is not entirely objectionable to Israel and many aspects of this peace initiative are acceptable to Israel.”
The author of a comprehensive paper about Israel’s position regarding the Arab peace initiative, Teitelbaum said that despite this week’s modification, there are still many gaps between the Arab and Israeli positions that might prove difficult to bridge.
“There are some nonstarters; they are very difficult and they’re not going away,” noted Teitelbaum, who also serves as consultant for several US and Israeli government agencies. “The question is, tactically, should Israel answer in the positive and say that we have objections to the peace initiative but since now the Arab League has shown some flexibility we will be willing to discuss it in an acceptable forum? That would go a long way toward positioning Israel as a state that is pursuing peace. And it would improve our relations with the United States. It could be a very positive development.”
Gershon Baskin, the co-chairman and founder of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, concurred.
“Israel has complained that the Arab peace initiative doesn’t take into account changes that have happened on the ground since 1967,” he said. “In agreeing to the principle of territorial swaps, they have in fact adopted what was the position of George W. Bush in his famous letter to Ariel Sharon.”
In April of 2004, the former US president wrote to the Israeli leader that “in light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” Rather, Bush wrote, it is “realistic to expect” that a peace agreement will be on “the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.”
Already back in 2000, then-US president Bill Clinton spoke of a “land swap,” in what came to be known as the “Clinton parameters.” At the time, Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak accepted the proposal, albeit with certain reservations. The idea of annexing the settlement blocs to Israel and offering the Palestinians territory from Israel proper in return has since been cited countless times as a model to arrive at a two-state solution.
“We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” US President Barack Obama declared in May 2011. This proposition has been accepted, in principle, by both Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the previous Israeli government under Ehud Olmert. (Netanyahu’s idea of a two-state solution remains unclear.)
So if territorial swaps are a generally agreed-upon concept, is the Arab League’s acceptance of it really such a big deal?
It is, said Akiva Eldar, a veteran Israeli reporter on the peace process. “Up until now, the Americans paid lip service to the Arab Peace Initiative, and Obama mentioned it in his speeches, but there weren’t any official diplomatic contacts to move the process from a bilateral level to a regional peace initiative that also involves the Arab countries,” he said.
“It’s a formal upgrade,” Eldar added. “Up until now, the idea of land swaps was merely an ‘oral tradition.’ Now, the Arab states authorized [Abbas] to reach an agreement that’s based on the Clinton parameters, the road map proposed by the Middle East Quartet, and previous agreements.
It is also important to note that the Arab League’s overture comes at a time of regional upheaval, said Eldar, who wrote for many years for Haaretz and is now a senior columnist at Al Monitor. Despite, or maybe because of, worries about Syria falling apart and Iran heading toward a nuclear weapon, the Arab League is willing to soften its stance vis-a-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Even Egypt, which is ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, supports the adjustment of the 2002 peace offer, Eldar pointed out. “The initiative contains the words ‘normal relations’ [with Israel], which is very hard for an Islamist state to accept, but these words are still there. It’s very significant that today they can talk about this. And it also isolates Hamas, which is not ready to recognize Israel’s right to exist,” he said.
Still, despite the ostensible rapprochement, some pundits don’t see how the mere acceptance of land swaps could help reach a genuine breakthrough.
Barry Rubin, director of the Herzliya-based Global Research in International Affairs Center, thinks the Arab peace initiative is “both a good thing and a scam.” While he agrees that the Gulf States are ready to consider ending the conflict with Israel, partly because they are afraid of Iran and could use good publicity in the West, there are a number of issues he thinks will make peace on the Arab League’s terms impossible.
First of all, Rubin doubts that all countries which signed on to the initiative really mean it. “Are we to believe that the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt, the Hezbollah-dominated regime in Lebanon, and the quirky but pro-Hamas and pro-Muslim Brotherhood regime in Qatar have suddenly reversed everything that they have been saying in order to seek a compromise peace with Israel? Highly doubtful to say the least,” he wrote.
Rubin also points to several provisions in the text of the Arab Peace Initiative that were hardly mentioned in the media coverage this week, and that in his view will kill any prospects of a deal. For instance, the initiative calls for a “just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem,” which he understands to mean that Israel would have to accept “the immigration of hundreds of thousands of passionately anti-Israel Palestinians” within its borders.
However, Israeli proponents of the initiative point to a clause in the draft that states that any solution to the refugee question needs “to be agreed upon,” meaning that Israel will have a definitive say in the number of Palestinians who would enter its territory.
The Arab League initiative also contains several other possible deal-breakers: a demand to make East Jerusalem the capital of a future Palestinian state; a provision allowing Arab states to refuse to take in Palestinian refugees; and a call for Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syria. To whom should Israel give the Golan?, some analysts wonder: Syria is deeply embattled in a bloody civil war, with no side willing — or able — to sign, much less honor, an agreement with Israel.
Yet more optimistic pundits say that none of the issues is unsolvable. With regards to Syria, the Arab League is willing to leave a seat empty for Syria, suggested Eldar, just like Jews do for the Prophet Elijah on seder night.
“Even the Arabs understand that now is not the time; they are not expecting Israel to return to the 1967 lines in the Golan. They are rational enough to know there is no one with whom to conduct negotiations. But it leaves an opening for the moment there is a proper government in Syria,” he said.
The division of Jerusalem is another key element of the Arab Peace Initiative that will likely prevent the current government from accepting it as the basis for peace talks.
Netanyahu is a staunch opponent of any plan that would divide the city. So are the two key allies in his coalition — centrist Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, of the right-wing Jewish Home party.
“I’ve been saying and writing for a long time that there is an Arab partner but there is no Israeli partner,” Eldar said. The only way for the current government to endorse the peace plan is for Lapid “to wake up and realize the potential he has,” he added. “He could bring down the government. But I don’t believe that will happen.”
Baskin, who two years ago initiated the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas that led to the release of Gilad Shalit, believes that a final-status agreement is possible — even with the current government. In the past, more than one Israeli leader pledged never to touch Jerusalem, only to later conduct serious negotiations about its division, he said. “Peace negotiations have a dynamic of their own.”