Is Arab League Peace Shift ‘Big Step Forward’ or Tempest in a Mideast Teapot?

Kerry Backs Plan, But Neither Israel Nor the Palestinians Are Sure

Breakthough? Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Arab League leaders in Washington.
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Breakthough? Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Arab League leaders in Washington.

By Nathan Guttman

Published May 11, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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For Secretary of State John Kerry, it was a “very big step forward” when Qatar’s prime minister offered new flexibility in the Arab League’s long-standing plan for Arab states to recognize Israel in exchange for a settlement of the Palestinian issue.

But Kerry, who is still relatively new in his position, got an early tutorial on the icebound positions of the immediate parties and of some of the Arab League member states when it comes to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and efforts to achieve a two-state solution to the problem.

Neither Israel nor the Palestinians shared his enthusiasm. And some leaders of countries within the Arab League soon disavowed the Arab League official’s seeming concession.

For some time now, the Obama administration has been playing up the potential usefulness of at least some elements of the 2002 Arab League plan as part of its effort to revive moribund peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority — in particular, its offer of “normal relations” for Israel not just with a new state of Palestine, but with all 23 state members of the Arab League if and when an agreement is reached.

But so far, Obama administration efforts to revive the Arab plan have succeeded only in accentuating gaps within the Arab world and in provoking wariness from Israel.

It was one day after Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden met in Washington with Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani on April 29 that Kerry announced his breakthrough: Al-Thani, who leads the follow-up committee on the Arab League’s peace initiative, had offered leeway on the plan’s insistence that the border for a Palestinian state be identical to the border Israel had with Jordan before the 1967 Six Day War.

Under previous governments (though not this one), Israel, which rejects going back to the earlier border, had proposed land swaps with the Palestinians to compensate them for West Bank territory that Israel wished to retain in a final agreement. In his meeting with Kerry, al-Thani appeared to accept this idea. The Arab League, he said, would support an agreement that tweaked the borders with a mutually agreed on “minor swap of land.”


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