Analysis: Arab League initiative as path to talks

Kerry was able to get the Arab League to provide Abbas with a ladder to climb down from his refusal to negotiate with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu, Obama, Abbas (photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed )
Netanyahu, Obama, Abbas
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed )
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.
Rather, a 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.
“I 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.
The initiative also gives Arab countries the right to reject resettlement of the descendants of refugees into their own countries.
“The Palestinian refugee problem will have to be resolved in the context of a Palestinian state, but certainly not in the borders of Israel,” Netanyahu said.
“Everybody 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 to Obama.
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.
After weeks of efforts, Kerry got the Arab League to essentially tell Abbas that he could, indeed, proceed with talks, and even make minor territorial adjustments.
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 Netanyahu.
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 another.
And what of the Arab League proposal itself?
While Thani’s 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.