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The Arab League’s Surprise Gesture

The Arab League’s Surprise Gesture

De facto recognition that some settlements will remain sparks hope for peace among some Israeli leaders.

Tel Aviv — Amid the low expectations for the revival of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, the Arab League on Monday pitched a surprise curveball: a first-ever acknowledgement of the need to redraw of 1967 Green Line and for land swaps as part of final settlement.

The statement, a de facto recognition by the Arab world that some of the vilified Israeli settlements will remain as part of a peace deal, bolstered hopes among Israeli doves for a resumption of peace talks and that the Arab League might bolster negotiations with its 10-year-old offer of normalized ties in return for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

Speaking on Army Radio, Justice Minister Tzippi Livni said she welcomed the Arab League statement, and that the league has taken a step that supports the resumption of peace talks because it encourages the Palestinians to return to the negotiating room and make compromises.

“It is important for the Palestinians to know that they have the support of the Arab world for a negotiated peace agreement that ends the conflict,” said Livni, who also has the title of Israel’s lead peace negotiator with the Palestinians. “It’s imperative for the Israeli public to know that peace with the Palestinians means peace with the entire Arab world.”

Released about a decade ago, the Arab League’s Peace Initiative has mostly been collecting dust. Israeli governments and the United States largely ignored it because it called for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines and for a right of return for Palestinian refugees, both non-starters for Israel.

To be sure, the new support of the Arab League for land swaps only brought it up to up to date with the position held by the Palestinians in peace negotiations going back to 2000.

However, Livni insisted that the Arab League statement this week signaled that the Arabs were flexible and that despite the upheaval in the Middle East, the Arab world still believes in normalized ties with Israel.

The statement seemed like evidence of a fresh effort by Secretary of State John Kerry to improve the conditions for a renewal of peace talks.

Speaking on behalf of the Arab League, Qatari Prime Minister Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani said the swaps should be “minor” and “comparable.” Israeli commentators also noted that new position reflected the decline of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime, which traditionally took a hard line toward any concession to Israel.

Despite the excitement, the Israeli prime minister’s office remained silent. One Israeli official said that the government welcomed the encouragement by the Arab League and the secretary of state for peace talks, but nothing more.

Other Israelis more in tune with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative approach to peace talks stressed caution about the significance of the statement.

Dore Gold, who has served as a foreign policy adviser to Netanyahu in the past, noted that the original Arab initiative is flawed because it sought to prejudge the terms of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, rather than leaving them for the parties themselves to negotiate.

“If the Arab league would recognize that the 1967 lines are not sacrosanct, that would constitute some progress,” he said. “What is also important here is the recognition that the 1967 lines were never international borders, but only armistice lines and hence today the parties must sit down to negotiate where the international border will run.”

Aside from Livni, the only other government minister to comment on the Arab League’s statement was Energy Minister Silvan Shalom, who said that the endorsement of land swaps “was nothing new.” Ironically, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator said the same thing — that the Arab League had essentially endorsed a longstanding Palestinian position.

At the outset of its second term, the Obama administration has been trying to restart peace talks. Kerry has been to the region three times in about one month.

But the push comes amid ongoing volatility between Israel and the Palestinians. Just hours after the announcement by the Arab League, an Israeli aircraft assassinated a Palestinian militant in the Gaza Strip accused of planning rocket attacks from Sinai on Eilat. The first air attack marked another step in the unraveling of a cease-fire reached between Hamas and Israel after the sides fought each other for a week.

At the same time, the West Bank was showing fresh signs of destabilization on Tuesday. After an Israeli settler was stabbed to death at a road junction in the West Bank, settler leaders expressed outrage and criticism of alleged “soft” policies toward the Palestinians. Vigilante settler sympathizers threw stones at Palestinian vehicles and set fields ablaze.

The Arab Peace Initiative fell flat in part because it was released near the height of the Palestinian uprising of last decade. For it to succeed this time, the Arab League needs to address the Israeli public and its anxieties about a deal, wrote Robert Danin, a former diplomat. Israel, for its part, needs to embrace the change rather than focusing on its misgivings with the plan.

Members of Israel’s dovish opposition were quick to praise the Arab League statement. Labor Knesset member Erez Margalit said the statement reflected a “window of opportunity”.

For the last four years, the Palestinians have insisted on an Israeli settlement freeze as a prerequisite for negotiations, while Netanyahu has accused Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as being an impediment to the peace talks.

In the most recent round of negotiations that took place in 2008, the Palestinians agreed to swaps of 1.9 percent of the West Bank while Israel proposed land swaps of 6 percent to annex as many settlements as possible.

However, it is unclear if Netanyahu would agree to the same formula of swaps, because he has resisted relying on the 1967 border as a basis for talks.

The Arab League’s new position “is not enough to get negotiations restarted, but it’s definitely a positive gesture and a step in the right direction,” said Yossi Alpher, a former negotiations adviser.

Netanyahu might show flexibility on a peace accord if it is combined with a regional security coordination arrangement between Israel and Saudi Arabia on Iran, Alpher said. That would make it easier to make concessions for an Israeli leader who currently insists on holding on the West Bank’s eastern strip as a security buffer, as well as all of Jerusalem — positions which are nonstarters for the Palestinians and the Arab world.

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