On Monday, just two weeks after saying that he accepted the “general idea” of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected it as a basis for talks with the Palestinians. This rejection is actually more than it seems, and it is important to understand both what the API itself says and, concomitantly, what Netanyahu’s rejection implies.
Netanyahu actually made two statements about the API, both problematic. One was that he wanted the Arab League to alter it to reflect Israel’s demands. The second was that if this was a “take it or leave it offer” Israel would leave it.
With the first point, Netanyahu implied that Israel’s concerns are not sufficiently addressed by the Arab League proposal. In fact, the Initiative offered a major break from longstanding Arab state policy regarding Israel. It promised not only peace with Israel but normal relations with the entire Arab world. The economic benefits to Israel there are enormous, opening Arab markets in a way never before conceived, much less offered. Back in 2011, former President Bill Clinton expressed frustration at Netanyahu for his unwillingness to accept the API. “This is huge,” Clinton said, “It’s a heck of a deal.”
But there’s a bigger implication here, one even more crucial today than it was in 2002 when the League first made the offer. “Normal relations” also means security cooperation. That means Israel can work openly with Arab states to combat ISIS and other groups in the region that pose security threats. That is a major step forward for Israel, the Arab states and the whole world. Today, there is covert cooperation between some Arab states and Israel, but opening that up to public view would massively expand the cooperation between not only Israel, but the United States and Europe as well with the Arab world. It would literally change the landscape in fighting terrorist groups. It would also rob ISIS, al-Qaeda and other groups of a powerful recruiting tool.
Moreover, the API does not set hard and fast boundaries on negotiations. It sets out a framework, one entirely consistent with the international diplomatic consensus, and one that has been endorsed by the Quartet (the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russian Federation). It does not supersede other framework proposals, such as the Clinton Parameters or the Roadmap to Peace; it simply becomes one of several points of reference. But it’s a crucial one because it is the only one that commits the Arab states to peace and normal relations with Israel. If Israel truly wants peace, the API is indispensable.
This leads to Netanyahu’s second objection. Ever since the offer was first made in 2002, the Israeli right and its allies have portrayed it as an ultimatum. Indeed, this was precisely the wording that the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) used in 2007, when the Arab League repeated its offer. But it is no such thing. It is a framework, like the other documents mentioned. The major difference is that it presents such a framework from an Arab, rather than an American or international point of view. Netanyahu presents that as a problem. In fact, it is a crucial component of talks, because only such a document can commit the Arabs to a regional peace with Israel.
Does the Proposal Need Revising?
Netanyahu objects to the entire section of the Initiative that lays out expectations of Israel. There are three clauses there:
- Complete Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders (in 2013, the Arab League amended this to clarify that land swaps are expected to happen that will modify these borders, although this was well understood by all parties all along)
- Acceptance of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and,
- “Achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194.”
One can understand that if Israel was being asked to accept this as the terms of a final status arrangement, they would not do so. But these conditions are meant to be the basis for an agreement, not the outcome. The Quartet made this clear in 2007 when it stated, “The Quartet welcomed the re-affirmation of the Arab Peace Initiative, noting that the initiative is recognized in the Roadmap as a vital element of international efforts to advance regional peace.”
But Netanyahu has long made it clear that he rejects using the 1967 borders as a basis for talks, that he refuses to divide or share Jerusalem and that he expects the issue of refugees to be off the table completely. So it comes as no surprise that Netanyahu rejects the entirety of the API that deals with its expectations of Israel.
The refugee issue is a challenging one, to be sure, and Netanyahu is not unique among Israeli leaders, past and present, in contending that this is an issue Israel should not have to deal with. One expects that this will be the Israeli position in any negotiation. But to insist that an issue of such importance not be discussed as part of final status negotiations is neither a realistic nor acceptable position for the international community. The API recognizes the difficulty Israel has in this and balances the great weight the refugee issue has for Palestinians, reflected in its citing of UNGA 194, with Israel’s concerns by stipulating that the solution would have to be one Israel can “agree upon.”
It is important to point out, however, one place where the API does need to be revised due to current events: The Golan Heights. Given the situation in Syria, it is not reasonable, at this point, to expect Israel to consider returning the Golan Heights to Syria. Syria’s ongoing civil war, which has turned it into a failed state, would not only mean that Israel would be taking an unreasonable security risk in handing the Golan over, but for little gain, as Syria has nothing to offer Israel in return. Its government is too embattled to make any real peace with anyone, and it could not dependably maintain the security of that border.
A way needs to be found to separate the issue of the Golan from that of the Palestinians. This must be done carefully, as it cannot imply recognition of Israel’s unilateral annexation of the Golan Heights. It must also provide that, at such time as the Syrian civil war ends and a government arises whose sovereignty over the Golan can be recognized, Israel will be expected to enter into good faith negotiations to determine the Golan’s final disposition.
Strong US action needed
The API should not be controversial, at least outside of Israel. It has been praised by President Barack Obama, former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and a host of other Western leaders, as well as being endorsed by the Quartet. It clearly aligns with the international consensus on a resolution of this conflict. The George W. Bush administration referenced in its 2002 Roadmap for Peace.
Netanyahu, for his part, approves of the Arab League’s offer of normalization with Israel, but rejects anything that Israel would have to do to get that normalization. He’s happy to accept concessions from others, but not make any himself. That’s not an acceptable negotiating posture, and it is important for the Obama administration to make that clear.
In the face of Netanyahu’s rejectionism, the Obama administration should restate its support, with some reservations, for the basic substance of the API. In a 2009 speech at the Brookings Institution, then-Senator John Kerry called the API “The basis on which to build a Regional Road Map that enlists moderate Arab nations to play a more active role in peacemaking and to paint a clearer picture than ever before of the rewards peace would bring to all parties.”
The administration need only reiterate this, and make it clear that this does not mean the United States endorses every aspect of the API, but that the API represents one piece of the broader framework under which the Israelis and Palestinians would conduct final status talks.
With this latest evidence of Netanyahu’s rejectionism, he has opened the door for Obama to strengthen the framework for potential negotiations to finally end Israel’s nearly 50-year old occupation. In his waning months, it is time for Obama to step through it.