Something is happening on the diplomatic front with the Palestinians – that much
The signals are everywhere.
They range from Finance
Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett
(Bayit Yehudi) talking about legislating a referendum to approve any deal with
the Palestinians, to an Arab League delegation in Washington saying that they
could live with an agreement based on the pre-1967 lines with “mild” adjustments.
The signs appeared as well on
Wednesday when the Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said
the PA was temporarily freezing its moves at the UN unless Israel begins to
build in E1, and when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office on two
occasions issued comments he made about the need for the Palestinians to
recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
stirring, although what that something is – and what the exact formula will be
that will bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table –
remains a mystery.
John Kerry, dubbed by some as US President Barack
Obama’s energizer-bunny secretary of state, has been very busy since Obama’s
recent trip here, prodding, moving and pushing various actors to take stands
that will facilitate restarting the talks.
This includes Israel
refraining from announcing grandiose settlement construction plans, the
Palestinians announcing a freeze on unilateral efforts in the international
community, and the Arab League re-upping its 2002 Arab Peace
On Tuesday, Kerry was delighted the Arab League softened its
2002 position and now would back an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines
with slight modifications.
Kerry said that the 2002 proposal “only talked
about ’67 lines, nothing else. Yesterday they stated that they are prepared to
accept A’67 borders with adjustments to reflect mutually agreedupon land swaps,
recognizing some of the changes that have taken place.”
He called this a
“very big step forward.”
While details are scarce, the overall
architecture of what the US is planning is apparent: active involvement by the
Arab League in the diplomatic process, to give Israelis a sense that by
withdrawing from the vast majority of the West Bank they will not only be
getting promises from the Palestinians – promises that can be easily broken –
but something of substance from the Arab world.
“When I have been in
Israel in recent days, a lot of people have asked me: What are the Arabs going
to do? What is the Arab attitude towards peace at this point in time? And so the
Arab community – and I think they should be thanked for this – saw fit to come
here to the United States as a delegation of the Arab League to make it clear
that they are relaunching the Arab Peace Initiative,” he said.
specified what that initiative does: It states that if Israel and the PA reach
an agreement, “the Arab community, 22 Arab countries and 57 Muslim countries
that have signed up as members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, all
of them have agreed, number one, that they would consider the conflict ended;
number two, that they would establish the normalization of relations with
Israel; number three, that they would enter into peace agreements with Israel;
and number four, that they would provide security for all states in the region.
In other words, they are offering a security arrangement for that
Skeptics, and they are legion, could be forgiven for saying
“Been there, done that.”
When Obama first took over the White House in
2009, he tried a similar strategy. His idea was to get Israel to freeze
settlement construction, and then go to the Arab world and get them to give
symbolic concessions to Israel to build up Israeli confidence for further
Netanyahu clamped a 10- month settlement freeze, but the
Arabs did not respond.
Efforts by Obama to get the Saudis, or even the
Moroccans, to do something as minor as letting Israeli civilian aircraft fly
over their airspace on the way to the Far East or the Americas, respectively,
fell on deaf ears.
And that was then – before the revolutions in the Arab
world gave voice to the Arab street, an Arab street that is increasingly under
the influence of political Islam, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which sees no
place in the region for Israel.
If the Arab rulers were unable to make
tangible gestures to Israel four years ago, when their seats and thrones were
secure, then why should one think they will do so now, when they have to be
responsive to the Arab street? It is an open secret that Israel has had contact
and cooperated in the past with a number of Arab countries in the region,
including in the Persian Gulf. The Arabs, however, have demanded that those
contacts remain quiet, so as not to rile up the masses. And that was when the
Arab leaders completely controlled their masses.
Today, when the rulers
are more attuned to what their masses are thinking, it seems unlikely to see
more courage from the Arab leaders.
Those supporting the new Obama/Kerry
approach, however, argue that a commonality of interests between Israel and a
number of Arab states – particularly regarding Syria and Iran – will move the
Arab leaders to take steps and make gestures toward Israel they were unwilling
to undertake in the past.
There is, however, another glaring difference
between the current US approach and what was tried in 2009. Then, Obama thought
he could move the process forward and entice Arab action by showing public
“daylight” between the US and Israel.
He no longer believes
In fact, alongside trying to bring the Arab League on board, Obama
and Kerry are also trying to win over Israel’s confidence.
visit to Israel in March was one prong in those efforts. Another prong is trying
to get the Arab world to make gestures to Israel.