Arab League head cancels visit to Ramallah

PM: Changes need to be made before adopting Arab peace plan.

A general view of the Arab foreign minister's meeting at the Arab League in Cairo, Egypt, January 10, 2016 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A general view of the Arab foreign minister's meeting at the Arab League in Cairo, Egypt, January 10, 2016
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby canceled at the last minute a scheduled two-day trip to Ramallah, where he was expected to discuss with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas both the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and the more recent French one.
According to the Palestinian News Agency Ma’an, Elaraby canceled the trip scheduled for Tuesday after coming under criticism from various Palestinian and Arab circles that it signaled “normalization” with Israel.
Elaraby’s trip to Ramallah would have had to be approved by Jerusalem, since – according to a statement put out by the Palestinian Authority – he was originally scheduled to fly by helicopter from Amman to Ramallah on Tuesday, and return to Jordan via helicopter on Wednesday.
In March, Israel prevented Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi from traveling to and from Ramallah via Jordan, because she refused to hold any meetings with Israeli officials. Elaraby also had no meetings planned with Israeli officials.
That Israel did not prevent this trip, as it did that of the Indonesian foreign minister, is telling, and fits in with recent talk of movement toward some type of regional diplomatic framework.
Elaraby was the first Arab League secretary-general to visit Ramallah, which he did in 2012. This would have been his second visit since then.
Ma’an quoted Elaraby as saying in a statement that the trip was canceled on Monday because of scheduling issues.
In addition to the meeting with Abbas, Elaraby – who attended the meeting of some 30 foreign ministers and diplomats earlier this month in Paris, where the French launched their diplomatic initiative – was scheduled to visit the tomb of Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, and travel to Hebron to pray at the Ibrahimi Mosque at the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
A visit to al-Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem was not on the schedule.
The on-again, off-again trip came amid increased interest in the Arab Peace Initiative, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying last month – after the swearing in of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman – that the initiative could serve as a basis for wider negotiations 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,” Netanyahu said on May 30. “The Arab Peace Initiative includes positive elements that can help revive constructive negotiations with the Palestinians. We are willing to negotiate with the Arab states revisions to that initiative so that it reflects the dramatic changes in the region since 2002, but maintains the agreed goal of two states for two peoples.”
Liberman added that “I absolutely agree that the Arab initiative also has some very, very positive elements that enable a serious dialogue with all our neighbors in the region.”
On Sunday, Netanyahu – at a meeting of Likud ministers before the weekly cabinet meeting – stressed again that revisions were necessary in the plan.
“It obviously needs to be updated for changes that have taken place in the region,” he said. “If they say that it can’t be changed, and it is take it or leave it, the answer is leave it.”
Netanyahu was responding to Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis, who asked whether Israel’s stance on the initiative has changed.
According to ministers in the meeting, Netanyahu said there were positive elements in the initiative, such as peace and normalization with the Arab world. Akunis responded that he, too, is not opposed to peace, but that there were many problems with the initiative.
Last Monday Elaraby poured cold water on Netanyahu’s calls to introduce changes into the Arab plan, telling the London- based Arabic daily Asharq Alawsat that “Israel is pushing some European states and the American administration to utterly transform the Arab Peace Initiative.”
“The essence of this initiative is that Israel will take measures to end the occupation, and in exchange, Arabs will take measures to normalize their relations with Israel,” Elaraby stated. “Not the contrary. It is not Arabs who should take measures first so that Israel will later consider what measures it will take in exchange.”
He stressed that “we will not accept any changes or trade in the Arab Peace Initiative, which is the only linchpin on which we can normalize our relations with Israel.”
On Sunday, meanwhile, Fatah’s Executive Committee also announced that it would not accept any changes in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.
The 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.
Gil Hoffman and Maayan Groisman contributed to this report.