PM partially embraces Arab peace plan, says it could ‘revive’ talks with Palestinians

Netanyahu offers to negotiate revisions to 2002 bid; new Defense Minister Liberman also sees 'very positive elements' to it

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and incoming Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (left) hold a press conference in the Knesset on Monday, May 30, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a dramatic declaration, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday partially endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative, offering to negotiate with the Arab world the parameters of the plan, which promises Israel full diplomatic ties with 57 Arab and Muslim states after cementing a peace accord with the Palestinians.

“I take this opportunity to make clear that I remain committed to making peace with the Palestinians and with all our neighbors. The Arab Peace Initiative contains positive elements that could help revive constructive negotiations with the Palestinians,” Netanyahu declared in the Knesset.

“We are willing to negotiate with the Arab states revisions to that initiative so that it reflects the dramatic changes in our region since 2002″ — when the proposal was first floated — “but maintains the agreed goal of two states for two peoples,” Netanyahu said, making his statement first in Hebrew and then repeating it in English.

The prime minister concluded his remarks by welcoming a recent speech by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who offered Cairo’s assistance in helping Israelis and Palestinians reach a peace agreement. Netanyahu did not mention his frequently reiterated conditions for any peace deal with Ramallah, namely that any Palestinian state must be demilitarized and has to recognize Israel as the national home of the Jewish people.

Netanyahu also did not mention the new French peace initiative, which will kick off Friday with a conference in Paris where the foreign ministers of some of the world’s most important states are expected, including the top diplomats from the United States, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Standing next to Netanyahu, incoming Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said he fully endorsed the prime minister’s statement, including his call for an agreement leading to two states for two peoples. His party, Yisrael Beytenu, has long supported Netanyahu’s 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, in which he for the first time accepted, in principle, the idea of Palestinian statehood, Liberman said.

“President Sissi’s speech was very important; it creates a genuine opportunity that obligates us to pick up the gauntlet,” the new defense minister said. “I certainly agree that in the Arab Peace Initiative there are some very positive elements that will enable us to conduct serious dialogue with our neighbors in the region.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas promotes the Arab Peace Initiative during a speech at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa in Jordan, May 26, 2013. (AP/Jim Young)

Proposed by Saudi Arabia and later adopted by the Arab League 14 years ago, the Arab Peace Initiative says that 57 Arab and Muslim states will establish “full diplomatic and normal relations” with Israel, in exchange for a “comprehensive peace agreement” with the Palestinians.

In 2002, the Israeli government was curious but perceived the initiative as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition it couldn’t possibly embrace. “On the surface, the proposal looked appealing, with its provision that the Arab states welcome peace with Israel — something they had been unwilling to do since the state’s inception,” the son of then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, Gilad Sharon, wrote in a 2011 memoir of his father. “But the details made the offer unacceptable.”

Originally, the initiative demanded a “full Israeli withdrawal from all the Arab territories occupied since June 1967,” the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and a “just” and “agreed upon” solution to the Palestinian refugee question. Over the years, the initiative has been partially embraced by some in the Israeli left, but the required withdrawal from the Golan Heights and the open-ended nature of the refugee issue made the initiative a nonstarter for many Israelis.

In 2013, the Arab League 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.

Exactly one year ago, Netanyahu for the first time had some good words about the initiative, though he stopped short of fully endorsing it. “This initiative is 13 years old, and the situation in the Middle East has changed since it was first proposed,” he told reporters on May 28, 2015. “But the general idea — to try to reach understandings with leading Arab countries — is a good idea.”

In recent months Netanyahu has frequently touted what he has described as warming ties with Sunni Arab nations, with which Israel has grown to share many regional security interests. His and Liberman’s statements embracing peace talks with the Palestinians come amid domestic and international criticism over the appointment of Liberman, widely perceived as a hardliner, to the sensitive post of defense minister, and over his party joining the coalition to form what has been referred to by pundits as “the most right-wing” government in Israel’s history.

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