Jerusalem – Israel’s chief peace negotiator on Tuesday welcomed the Arab League’s decision to sweeten a decade-old initiative offering comprehensive peace with Israel, hoping the gesture would help get peace talks back on track after years of standstill.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s comments revealed the beginnings of what could become a rift in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government. Livni, a former foreign minister known to support broad concessions to the Palestinians, is eager to restart peace negotiations. Netanyahu says he wants to resume negotiations, but he has given no indication that he is prepared to make the concessions demanded by the Palestinians and the international community.
The original 2002 Arab peace initiative offered Israel peace with the entire Arab and Muslim world in exchange for a “complete withdrawal” from territories captured in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians claim the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, all seized by Israel in 1967, for their future state. Israel withdrew from Egypt’s Sinai in 1982 and Gaza in 2005. It also holds the Golan Heights after failed peace talks with Syria.
Speaking on behalf of an Arab League delegation to Washington, Qatari Prime Minister Sheik Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani on Monday called for an agreement between Israel and a future Palestine based on those 1967 lines. But unlike in previous such offers, he cited the possibility of “comparable,” mutually agreed and “minor” land swaps between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Al Thani spoke after talks with Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been pushing Arab leaders to embrace a modified version of the Arab peace plan as part of a new U.S.-led effort to corral Israel and the Palestinians back into direct peace talks. The changes are meant to win Israeli support, since the modified version could allow it to keep parts of the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Livni called the Arab decision an “important message.” While she indicated she has some concerns about the plan’s details, she said Israel should respond positively.
“True, the road is still long, and of course we cannot accept all the clauses as holy. But sometimes it’s possible to rise up above the difficulties and say in short: It’s good news that should be welcomed,” she said in a Facebook post.
Later, Livni said the decision sent important assurances to both sides.
“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. It’s imperative for the Israeli public to know that peace with the Palestinians means peace with the entire Arab world, she said. “I hope that the message that comes from Qatar will help launch the negotiations as soon as possible.”
Netanyahu had no immediate comment. In the past, he has said the initiative is a positive sign from the Arab world, but has not endorsed it. Netanyahu rejects a return to the 1967 lines.
Silvan Shalom, a senior Cabinet minister in Netanyahu’s Likud Party, played down the Arab League’s decision, saying, “there is nothing new here.”
“In principle, I support renewing the process. Of course, I don’t accept the 1967 lines,” he told Israel Radio. “If the Arab League wants to be a partner to this process, then we welcome it, but this is not negotiations.”
The dormant Arab initiative has suddenly emerged as a possible key to breaking years of deadlock as Kerry tries to get talks going again.
Negotiations have been frozen since late 2008, in large part because of continued Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians have demanded a freeze in construction and want Israel to commit to the 1967 lines as the baseline of negotiations. Netanyahu says talks should begin without any preconditions.
In 2000 and 2008, previous Israeli governments offered deals based on land swaps, but no agreement was reached. Netanyahu has refused to accept that concept.
The Arab initiative in effect endorses the Palestinian position on borders, while offering Israel the vision of a broader regional peace.
During a swing through the region earlier this month, Kerry called the plan “a very important statement.”
“I think the Israeli government should embrace it with both hands,” said Erel Margalit, a member of the dovish opposition Labor Party. Margalit said he was in the process of forming a parliamentary lobby to support the initiative. He refused to provide details on its size or composition, saying it was in the preliminary stages.
Dov Lipman, a lawmaker in the centrist Yesh Atid party, a member of Netanyahu’s coalition, also welcomed the Arab League’s offer. He said the party had not formulated a formal response, but said it was “very consistent” with the party’s platform seeking a negotiated peace deal with the Palestinians.
Although the Palestinians have endorsed the concept of land swaps in negotiations, they opposed any changes in the Arab peace initiative.
Nabil Shaath, an aide to President Mahmoud Abbas, said Israel must first commit to the 1967 lines, and then the extent of the swap can be finalized.
“Any swap should come at the end of the process, and should be slight and acceptable,” he said.