The Prime Minister’s Office did not fall over itself on Tuesday in praise of the
Qatari prime minister’s statement in Washington softening the 2002 Arab League
initiative by saying the Arab world would not demand a complete Israeli return
to the pre-1967 lines, but would accept “mild” land swaps.
statement from the PMO in the name of diplomatic sources said only that Israel
“welcomed the support given by the Arab League delegation and the US secretary
of state to the diplomatic process.”
While this type of reaction will
surely disappoint those who would have liked to see a more enthusiastic and
robust Israeli embrace of the comments made on Monday by Qatari Prime Minister
Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, who is also his country’s foreign minister, it
could have been a lot worse.
For instance, when US President Barack Obama
called in May 2011 for a Mideast peace “based on the 1967 lines with mutually
agreed swaps,” pretty much what Thani said in Washington on Monday, he triggered
a furious reaction from Netanyahu, who the next day told him that the pre-1967
lines could not be the basis for talks because they were indefensible.
think for there to be peace, the Palestinians will have to accept some basic
realities. The first is that while Israel is prepared to make generous
compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines – because these lines
are indefensible; because they don’t take into account certain changes that have
taken place on the ground, demographic changes that have taken place over the
last 44 years,” Netanyahu said.
“So we can’t go back to those
indefensible lines, and we’re going to have to have a long-term military
presence along the Jordan [River].”
In that meeting, Netanyahu also
addressed another aspect of the Arab Peace Initiative – Palestinian refugee
return – something that Thani did not address. The initiative calls for a “just
solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with
UN General Assembly Resolution 194,” a resolution widely construed in the Arab
world as preserving a Palestinian “right of return” to Israel.
initiative also gives Arab countries the right to reject resettlement of the
descendants of refugees into their own countries.
refugee problem will have to be resolved in the context of a Palestinian state,
but certainly not in the borders of Israel,” Netanyahu said.
knows it’s not going to happen. And I think it’s time to tell the
Palestinians forthrightly it’s not going to happen. The Palestinian
refugee problem has to be resolved…. But it’s not going to be resolved within
the Jewish state.”
Those looking for the half-full part of the cup in the
reaction that came from Netanyahu’s direction on Tuesday to the Qatari prime
minister’s statement should take note that he did not respond to Thani as he did
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.
weeks of efforts, Kerry got the Arab League to essentially tell Abbas that he
could, indeed, proceed with talks, and even make minor territorial
With political Islam on the rise in the region, a movement
that largely does not accept the legitimacy of Israel within any boundaries,
Abbas needed that backing – that cover – to move back to talks with
Thani’s statement is part of the preparatory work taking place
to get the two sides back to the table. This is one sign that something is
moving in that direction; Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Economy and Trade
Minister Naftali Bennett’s efforts to mandate a referendum on any peace deal is
And what of the Arab League proposal itself?
recognition that the pre-1967 lines are not sacred was a change, he was
essentially just stating the obvious, something that has been part of every
serious conversation about reaching an Israeli- Palestinian agreement since
Oslo. His words were not game-changers.
A game changer would be saying
that the Arab League recognizes that the descendents of Palestinian refugees
will not be returning to Israel, but should rather be settled in the lands where
they currently reside, or in a future Palestinian state.
While to many
Israelis that statement could also be considered just “stating the obvious,” it
would signal a dramatic change in the Arab narrative and would itself constitute
truly significant movement.