Diplomacy

04.30.13

How Will Bibi React To Revamped Arab League Peace Initiative?

After meetings with top Obama administration officials, a representative of the Arab League appeared to modify the group's historic 2002 Mideast peace plan to include swaps of territory between Israel and the Palestinians that would modify the pre-1967 division between Israeli and Arab lands. Speaking on behalf of the League after talks with John Kerry, Qatari Prime Minister Sheik Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani said, "The Arab League delegation affirmed that agreement should be based on the two-state solution on the basis of the 4th of June 1967 line, with the (possibility) of comparable and mutual agreed minor swap of the land." The language appears to soften the stance of the original proposal, which mentioned the 1967 border but not land swaps. Those swaps would allow Israel to strike a deal without dislodging some of its most populous settlements, many of which are in close proximity to the so-called Green Line.

Israel's top negotiator and Justice Minister, Tzipi Livni, quickly praised the apparent modification by the Arab League, calling the news "very positive": "Israel welcomes the encouragement given by the Arab League delegation and the Secretary of State to the diplomatic process," she said. While Livni's deal to enter Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling coalition made her Israel's lead negotiator, any diplomatic moves by Israel must go through a super-committee dominated by hard-right members of Netanyahu's government, not least of which are members of the Jewish Home party that oppose any Palestinian state whatsoever. How Netanyahu reacts to the Arab League's statements will matter more than what Livni thinks. And, with history as a guide, things are unlikely to go smoothly.

In May 2011, Obama delivered an address in which he laid out exactly the parameters expressed by the Arab League yesterday. "We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps," Obama said at the time. Still in the opposition in 2011, Livni backed Obama's call then, too. But it was Netanyahu who reacted badly. He released a statement publicly making demands that Obama clarify the remarks—ignoring the remarks about land swaps that the Arab League echoed yesterday—and said Israel's 1967 borders were "indefensible." He complained that withdrawing to the 1967 borders "would leave major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria"—the West Bank—"beyond those lines." The American pro-Israel right was quick to back up Netanyahu: the L.A.-based Simon Wiesenthal Center went so far as to rehash an old reference to the lines as "Auschwitz borders."

The Arab League proposal remains unmatched in the comprehensive recognition it would grant Israel for arriving at a mutually-agreed upon peace deal with the Palestinians. With this week's changes, the deal looks all the more inviting. "Historic opportunity for Israel. Will our government have the guts to sieze it?" tweeted Assaf Sharon, a founder of the new liberal Israeli think tank Molad. Unless Netanyahu has modified his own stances, that seems unlikely. Given his past obstinacy and presumed concern about his coalition—constituting Israel's most right-wing government ever—we shouldn't hold our breath.