Washington Watch: Arab League to take the plunge

It’s time for the Arab League to put up or shut up; the future of Middle East peacekeeping may depend on it.

Kerry with Arab League delegation 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Kerry with Arab League delegation 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Arab League dipped its toe in the waters of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking last week with a minor modification of its 11-year-old peace initiative, but it will be just another meaningless gesture unless the group is ready to plunge in all the way.
League representatives, led by Qatari Prime Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, met with Secretary of State John Kerry and announced their backing for “mutually agreed and minor” land swaps between Israel and the Palestinians as part of a peace agreement. That may be new for the League but it is something has been on the table since the Nixon administration.
Both sides have agreed on swaps in principle, and while they remain far apart on the details, the gap is bridgeable. During the 2008 Annapolis talks the Israelis were proposing a swap of six to seven percent while the Palestinians were talking about less than two percent.
More important are the League’s real intentions. If Palestinian-Israeli peace is possible, they’re the ones who can make it happen. Not the Americans, who have had the franchise for decades; not the United Nations, which is always finding new ways to make itself irrelevant; not the Europeans, who can’t deal with their own problems; not the Turks, whose prime minister has a visceral hatred for Israel and backs the rejectionist Hamas; and not the Russians, who know only how to play the spoiler, not the builder; and not the newcomer Chinese, who this week announced they want to get involved.
No one wants to revive the peace process more than John Kerry – including Israeli and Palestinian leaders. At times he has seemed obsessed with it over all other issues. Negotiations have largely been moribund, with a brief interlude in 2010, since the election of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
There’s enough blame to go around –Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ preconditions look more like excuses to avoid talking to Netanyahu, who seemed more intent on building settlements than making peace.
The Arab League holds the key to peace, if it is willing to use it. The Arab Peace Initiative (API), initially launched by the Saudis in 2002 and modified and adopted by the League later that year, will need considerable updating, given developments in the region in past decade. Kerry sees the API as the best framework for renewed talks and he’s trying to convince the League to make more changes.
That explains why he gushed over last week’s announcement as “a very big step forward” even though it wasn’t. The Palestinian response was the usual “it’s all Israel’s fault,” but Tzipi Livni, the justice minister who leads Netanyahu’s negotiating team, welcomed the announcement, as did opposition leader Shelly Yacimovich of Labor, who said she’d join Netanyahu’s coalition if he endorsed it.
As usual, Netanyahu was evasive, saying the conflict is not about territory but Arab recognition of Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.”
Last week’s announcement is not the jump-start Kerry has been looking for, but it could be a game changer if the Arab leaders decide to get off the bench and move on to the playing field. For too many years they’ve given the Palestinians a lot of advice and money (but not all they’ve pledged) but have avoided the heavy lifting.
The Arab League is best positioned to give both sides what they need most. The Palestinians won’t and can’t move unless they know the Arab world is clearly behind them, because they know Hamas and its Islamist allies are against peace. And Israel needs to know that peace with the Palestinians will lead to an end of the conflict, not just an interim step followed by new demands.
The Palestinian leadership is weak, divided and indecisive. Abbas keeps finding excuses to avoid the peace table. He likes to say his preconditions and other gambits are intended to enable the peace process but the truth is they’re diversions aimed at doing just the opposite.
A major impediment to an end-of-conflict deal, which also has to resolve the Golan Heights’ status, may be the turmoil in Syria. But that does not preclude progress on the Palestinian track, if both sides and the League are seriously interested.
The API grew out of a plan first introduced by now-King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in a 2002 interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. It looked promising but had some serious shortcomings. The apparent flexibility on the refugee issue in the Saudi original version was removed by the Arab League. More serious was the all-or-nothing demand that told Israel it had to agree to all the terms prior to any peace talks.
The League endorsed the API and blamed Israel and the United States for not embracing their proposal, but the reality is they dropped the ball, especially the Saudis, by failing to sell the plan to the only customer that counted, Israel.Friedman later wrote that Abdullah “always stopped short of presenting his ideas directly to the Israeli people.”
Two Israeli prime ministers, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, reached out to the Saudis to discuss the plan but were rebuffed, raising doubts about Abdullah’s real intentions. He unveiled his plan less than six months after the September 11, 2001, attacks in which 15 of the 19 terrorists were Saudis, and many saw his proposal not as a peace initiative but as part of the kingdom’s multi-million dollar PR campaign to repair its badly tarnished reputation.
To this day Arab leaders remain unwilling to sit with the Israelis to discuss peace. Friedman wrote that if the Saudi king wants to lead – “and he has the integrity and credibility to do so” – he needs to fly to Jerusalem and “deliver the offer personally to the Israeli people.” If he did that, he “could end this conflict once and for all.”
It’s time for the Arab League to put up or shut up; the future of Middle East peacekeeping may depend on it.
©2013 Douglas M. Bloomfieldbloomfieldcolumn@gmail.com www.thejewishweek.com/blogs/douglas_bloomfield