Analysis: Zigzagging on the Arab peace initiative

Netanyahu’s challenge in his new embrace of the Arab plan will not be to convince Liberman.

Netanyahu and Abbas (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Abbas
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Some heard Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments on Monday night that he is ready to negotiate based on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative as totally insignificant, because he has said as much in the past.
Others – primarily those close to the prime minister – see those remarks as a portent of a new peace drive.
And the truth? Somewhere in the middle.
Yes, Netanyahu has given a nod to the Arab Peace Initiative before. He did so soon after taking office in 2009, saying during a reception in Herzliya at the home of the Egyptian ambassador that Israel “valued efforts of Arab states to advance peace initiatives, and if these offers are not final offers, then I believe this spirit can create an atmosphere in which a comprehensive peace is possible.” Netanyahu said the spirit of reconciliation in this initiative was an important change from the spirit of Khartoum, where the conference of 13 Arab leaders immediately after the Six Day War was held, at which the Arab world said no to peace, recognition or negotiations with Israel.
So, no, what he said Monday night – that the plan “contains positive elements that can help restore constructive negotiations with the Palestinians” – was not a revolutionary break with his past positions. He added, “We are ready to negotiate with the Arab states on an updated initiative that reflects the dramatic regional changes that have occurred since 2002,” but which “maintain the agreed upon goal of two states for two peoples.”
But this reiteration of what he said seven years ago is not completely void of significance either, because in the past he has dismissed the plan as a relic both from, and for, a different era.
For instance, in a September 2014 interview with The Jerusalem Post, when asked if he would be willing to accept the Saudi initiative now, he replied: “The question is not the Saudi peace initiative. If you read it carefully, you’ll see it was set up in another period: before the rise of Hamas; before Hamas took over Gaza; before ISIS took over chunks of Syria and Iraq, effectively dismantling those countries; before Iran’s accelerated nuclear program. Before the takeover of Syria by al-Qaida on the Golan Heights.”
Pressed whether he believes the plan is now irrelevant, he said, “What is relevant, I think, is the fact there is a new recognition among major countries in the Middle East that Israel is not their mortal enemy, to say the least, but is a potential ally in addressing the common challenges. And whether we can translate that recognition of a political horizon into a realistic peace proposal – a realistic peace proposal – is something worth exploring. But I don’t think more can be said at this point.”
What was interesting about Netanyahu’s position on the matter then, was that it was articulated in an apparent effort to distance himself somewhat from his foreign minister at the time, Avigdor Liberman, who made news a few weeks earlier for telling the Post the initiative could form a “basis” for arranging Israel’s relations with the Arab world, as long as it does not include any reference to a Palestinian right of refugee return.
“I think the Saudi initiative is much more relevant today than it was previously,” Liberman said, adding that the central idea behind the initiative was not only an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, but also an arrangement with the entire Arab world. For Liberman, this was a departure from his past positions on the matter.
After formally adding Liberman to his government, to the concern and chagrin of much of the world who now views that government as dangerously right-wing, it should have been expected that he would immediately take at least rhetorical steps to try and ease those concerns.
By nodding to an updated Arab Peace Initiative – an initiative that he has both accepted and rejected in the past – he sought to do just that. With Liberman concurring with his comments, he may also have wanted to present Liberman as a figure far less intransigent than what the world perceives.
But for Liberman this was no real concession – he has made these comments in the past.
The 2002 initiative, backed by all 22 members of the Arab League, calls for a complete Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, including on the Golan Heights and in east Jerusalem, as well as a “just” solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, in return for normalization of relations.
In 2013 an Arab League delegation visiting Washington said it would accept “minor” land swaps on the basis of the 1967 lines.
Israel’s position is that it is willing to negotiate with the Arab states regarding this initiative, but that it should not be seen as a-take-it-or-leave-it proposition.
Netanyahu’s challenge in his new embrace of the Arab plan will not be to convince Liberman. His challenge will be to convince the Arab League that changes need to be instituted in the plan, and so far they have not given any public indication of a willingness to do so.