Like a couple of aged swimmers afraid of the cold water, Israel and the PA warily dipped their toes in the renewal of the Arab Peace Initiative (API). The latest stage of the API began when Qatar’s Foreign Minister, Hasam bin Jassem al-Thani, standing next to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, restated the original 2002 proposal, but added that the Arab League now would support modest land swaps between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Kerry summarized the API’s main points.
First, if the Palestinians and Israelis reach a final status agreement, then 22 Arab countries and 57 Muslim countries, all members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, would consider the conflict ended. Second, they would establish normalized relations with Israel. Third, they would enter into peace agreements with Israel. And, fourth, they would provide security for all states in the region. In other words, Kerry enthusiastically noted, they are offering a security arrangement for that region.
Despite the dramatic political theater of the announcement responses from the PA and Israel were decidedly low key. Why?
Unfortunately, when first unveiling the plan in 2002, the Arab League committed a blunder by offering the initiative as a “take it or leave it” ultimatum. Since the API fails to address central aspects of the conflict, this created what an Israeli government spokesperson at the time called “a non-starter.” Also, the API came out contemporaneous with the Passover Massacre, when a Palestinian terrorist exploded a bomb at the Park Hotel in Netanya, killing 30 mostly elderly guests gathered for the Passover seder. Culminating a bloody month of terror assaults, the Passover massacre was followed by the Israel’s response, Operation Defensive Shield, that saw West Bank cities reoccupied and Arafat confined to a corner of his residence in Ramallah’s Muqattah. The API eleven years ago was simply irrelevant to developments on the ground. This may help explain why today the parties seem to feel that once burned twice shy.
While Hamas has rejected the renewed API outright, the PA response has been ambiguous. Speaking in Vienna, PA President Abbas suggested that he remains committed to the two-state solution, but at the same time is committed to reconciliation with Hamas and to preparations to hold elections in three months. About the negotiations he said, “the ball is now in the Israeli court.” Saeb Erekat, the longtime Palestinian negotiator, stressed the PA demand that Netanyahu had to accept the ‘67 lines as the basis for negotiations.
The Israeli response has been mixed. On one hand Justice Minister Tzipi Livni welcomed the step, suggesting that with Arab League backing the Palestinians could “enter the room and make the needed compromises.” Prime Minister Netanyahu said: “The purpose of the future agreement with the Palestinians is to prevent the eventuality of a bi-national state and to guarantee stability and security.” On the other hand, according to an Israeli source familiar with talks held in the past two days, the prime minister is concerned that Kerry will accept the Arab League approach to the borders of the Palestinian state.
How to explain the lukewarm PA and Israeli responses? A key may lie in the sides’ perception of their immediate security challenges and their assessment of the Arab League’s capabilities.
Israel faces the impending Iranian nuclear bomb; menace from Hizbullah; growing strength and permanence of Hamas rule in Gaza; the failure of the PA to establish a foundation of good governance that can sustain a democratic state alongside Israel; and the growing likelihood of a hostile Syria dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist factions.
For the Palestinians, the new API does little to address the leadership’s perception of its needs, which they apparently perceive as reunification of Gaza and the West Bank under one government; release of prisoners from Israeli prisons; economic development; and, in the longer term, the migration of descendants of refugees into modern Israel.
Furthermore, both sides look at the Arab League and its impotent response to the “Arab Spring” and ask themselves whether this organization can deliver anything beyond words.
Here is where a relative newcomer like Secretary Kerry can play an important role. Words cannot take the place of action, but words are valuable. That may be hard to appreciate for longtime players like Erekat, Abbas, Netanyahu and Peres, who have been negotiating for decades. Each carries the baggage of the long, frustrating process that can dull the appreciation of what is possible.
It may be that despite the API’s deficits, when taken up by a new Secretary of State and promoted with vision, flexibility and energy, it could provide a base line from which progress can be made. Let us hope so.