Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, who is responsible for peace negotiations with the Palestinians, on Thursday rejected outright the peace initiative drafted by Saudi Arabia and backed by the Arab League as a blueprint for a possible agreement. He said it now features little-known provisions and changes that would make it impossible even for a less hawkish government to take it seriously.
“The Saudi initiative doesn’t exist,” Shalom said during a security conference in Tel Aviv, elaborating that it had been changed from its original format.
Since it was first tabled in 2002, the initiative was voted on several times at various the Arab League summits, and Shalom charged that the Saudis agreed to three major changes that render it more problematic.
Firstly, the initiative now calls for any agreement to be based on the 1967 lines. “That wasn’t in the (original) Saudi initiative,” Shalom said. Furthermore, the updated scheme calls for Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syria, he said. Lastly, it requires the full implementation of the Palestinians’ right of return, the minister said.
“It’s very nice to talk about the Saudi initiative, but it underwent three major changes at the hand of the Arab League in Beirut, and the only proposal on the table is that of the Arab League,” Shalom said.
“Let’s just say it’s very difficult to get to negotiations on the basis of the 67 lines, including the Golan, and the right of return. I don’t think that the current Israeli government — or any other Israeli government — would agree to negotiate on basis of this document.”
Even former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who negotiated extensively with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during his stint as premier, did not adopt the Arab League initiative, Shalom noted. “It’s not something that we, ‘the radicals,’ aren’t doing,” Shalom said, referring to the fact that Olmert is perceived as less hawkish than the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. If the Arab League were to issue another initiative, “we will deal with it,” said Shalom, who is a member of Netanyahu’s Likud
In May, Netanyahu backed the “general idea” behind the Arab Peace Initiative. “There are positive aspects and negative aspects to it,” the prime minister told Israeli diplomatic correspondents at a briefing. “This initiative is 13 years old, and the situation in the Middle East has changed since it was first proposed. But the general idea — to try and reach understandings with leading Arab countries — is a good idea.”
In the framework proposed by the initiative, all Arab and Islamic states would establish normal diplomatic relations with Israel after the successful conclusion of the peace process with the Palestinians.
The Israeli government has never fully endorsed the plan, but Olmert, when prime minister, expressed willingness to discuss it.
Netanyahu has repeatedly stated that given Iran’s nuclear and regional aspirations, the moderate Arab states and Israel have a common enemy and grounds for increased cooperation. And Netanyahu’s new Foreign Minister director, Dore Gold, recently spoke in Washington, DC, with a leading ex-Saudi general at a joint public event.
Speaking at a half-day conference on the peace process organized by the Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv University think tank, Shalom said Israel is interested in renewing peace talks with the Palestinians, although it might not be possible to reach a final-status agreement.
“I do believe that we need to renew negotiations and try to reach to understandings and agreements,” Shalom said. “At this stage it may not be possible to see light at the end of the tunnel, that is a final status agreement, which will establish peaceful relations between us and them. But that is not to say that it’s impossible to strive to get there.”
The best way to get to an agreement with the Palestinians is “through phased implementation, in which every stage has significance toward the process,” he said.
But Shalom, who also serves as interior minister, added that the delineation of borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state must not be determined at the start of peace talks. As soon as the Palestinians were to get territorial assurances for a state, he argued, they would become unwilling to compromise on other core issues that need to be resolved, such as security arrangements, Jerusalem and refugees.
Shalom also suggested that the fact that the Palestinian Authority doesn’t control the Gaza Strip makes a full-fledged final-status deal impossible. “If you reach an agreement, is it with the State of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], or with the State of Gaza?” he asked. “Can they commit [to an agreement] in Gaza’s name? It’s a question the answer of which today is clear to everyone: they can’t.”
The veteran lawmaker also said that he opposes the presentation of framework agreements, road maps and other written documents seeking to define key parameters of a future final-status accord. Such texts, he posited, only harden the negotiating positions on both sides and thus make a final agreement less likely. Both Israelis and Palestinians would find it difficult to make further concessions after certain positions were endorsed by the international in writing, he said.
“I am in favor of frank talks that are conducted discreetly,” he said.
After the international community’s attention is no longer preoccupied with the Iranian nuclear talks, France is planning to advance the peace process by proposing a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for the speedy creation of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital, Shalom said. Israel rejects this initiative vocally, but, the minister asserted, even Ramallah is “not very hot” for it, since it doesn’t feature a clear commitment to the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
“If the Palestinians agree to this draft, they essentially give up on the idea of Greater Palestine, from the river to the sea,” he said. “The question is whether Abu Mazen [Abbas], at 81, wants to be remembered in Palestinian history as the one who renounced the keys, the idea of a return. Judged on [what’s shown] daily on Palestinian [state-run] television, he clearly does not,” since PA media constantly plays songs yearning for Palestinians to return to what is now Israel, he said.