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Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US secretary of state John Kerry in Jerusalem.
Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US secretary of state John Kerry in Jerusalem.

US ready to base new Middle East talks on Arab peace plan

John Kerry resurrects a plan previously ignored by Israel in his attempt to promote peace between the Jewish state and the Palestinians. Hugh Naylor reports from Ramallah

RAMALLAH // It has been the diplomatic equivalent of a New Year's resolution - many tout its importance but few actually want to submit to it.

Yet the 11-year-old Arab Peace Initiative again has become the centrepiece of efforts to end the stalemate in the Middle East peace process.

During his recent visits to the region, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, has proposed using it as the basis for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Palestinian and Arab officials say.

The initiative, which the Arab League endorsed again in 2007, offers Israel a normalisation of relations with Arab governments in return for its withdrawal from the territories captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

In Israel yesterday after holding talks with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, Mr Kerry called the Arab initiative "a very important statement" and "a way forward for the Arab world to make peace with Israel".

He added that discussions with officials during his three-day visit to the region were "not just about getting the parties into direct negotiations. It's about getting everybody in the best position to succeed".

Mr Kerry appears to have persuaded Mahmoud Abbas to at least consider the Arab peace plan as a starting point for fresh talks.

The secretary of state met the president of the Palestinian Authority on Sunday and reportedly asked him to consider modifying the Arab plan's language on borders and security to make it more palatable to Israel.

Mr Abbas flew to Qatar the next day to discuss Mr Kerry's proposal with Arab League foreign ministers. A delegation representing the 22-member regional bloc is scheduled to hold talks in Washington on April 29 to discuss the initiative with US officials.

First proposed during a 2002 Arab League summit in Beirut by King Abdullah Saudi Arabia, who was then crown prince, the peace initiative called on Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights, which are claimed by Syria.

The plan also called for a just and agreed upon solution to Palestinian refugees, as well as Israel's acceptance of an "independent and sovereign" Palestinian state over the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

In return, the Arab states would consider "the Arab-Israeli conflict over, sign a peace agreement with Israel, and achieve peace for all states in the region".

Israel never formally responded to the offer. In 2007, before he became prime minister, Mr Netanyahu rejected it, citing Hamas's rise to power in the Gaza Strip after Israel unilaterally withdrew from the territory two years earlier.

Territorial withdrawal, he said, "does not advance peace, but rather establishes a terror base for radical Islam".

Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian analyst and writer in Jordan, said Washington's interest in the Arab plan reflected its rising concern over Israel's footing in a region beset by uprisings and at risk of turning more unstable.

"The Americans are waving the Arab initiative in front of the Israelis and saying: 'Look, this is a golden opportunity for you to be recognised in the region because things may get much worse for you in the future'," Mr Kuttab said.

Yet some observers indicate that Washington may be wasting its time trying to resurrect the Arab plan.

"The US administration knows what needs to be done to start the peace process, but you have a government in Israel that won't let it do so because it's more committed to the settlers than peace," said a senior Palestinian official, referring to the Palestinian insistence that Israel halt settlement construction before talks resume - a demand rejected by Israel and the US president, Barack Obama.

Talal Okal, an independent analyst in Gaza, said it would be nearly impossible for Hamas to resist the pressure to reject the Arab initiative outright if it showed signs that it might succeed.

The Islamist group's official stance calls for Israel's destruction, although its officials have tacitly accepted the idea of a two-state solution with Palestine existing next to Israel.

Israeli officials may be the least-inclined party to accept the Arab plan, said Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Israel's Bar-Ilan University.

They chafed under the plan's "take-it-or-leave-it" style because, Mr Inbar said, they preferred directly negotiating terms with the Arab states. Still, he added, "even if just for PR reasons, Israel should have done a better job at responding" to the Arab offer.

In the future, Israel's main objection to the peace plan would centre on the turmoil embroiling the region.

"All the Arab countries are in chaotic situations, so a burning questions is, 'Can you make peace with a country like Syria?'" Mr Inbar said.

hnaylor@thenational.ae

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