x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Arab League states soften stance on Palestinian final borders

Qatari Prime Minister calls for possibility of 'comparable' mutually agreed and 'minor' land swaps between the Israelis and the Palestinians if there were to be a two-state vision.

WASHINGTON // Arab countries endorsed a Middle East peace plan that would allow for small shifts in Israel's 1967 border if there were to be a two-state vision.

Speaking on behalf of an Arab League delegation to Washington, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani called for an agreement between Israel and a future Palestine based on Israel's border before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. But, unlike in previous such offers, he cited the possibility of "comparable," mutually agreed and "minor" land swaps between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Sheikh Hamad spoke late on Monday after his delegation met across the street from the White House with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been pushing Arab leaders to embrace a modified version of their decade-old "Arab Peace Initiative" as part of a new US-led effort to corral Israel and the Palestinians back into direct peace talks.

Those negotiations have hardly occurred at all over the past four-and-a-half-years amid deep disagreement over Israeli settlement construction in lands the Palestinians hope to include in their country.

"We've had a very positive, very constructive discussion over the course of the afternoon, with positive results," Mr Kerry said at Blair House, speaking with Sheikh Hamad at a podium beside him and senior officials from six other Arab governments behind them.

He praised the Arab League for the "important role it is playing, and is determined to play, in bringing about a peace in the Middle East - and specifically by reaffirming the Arab Peace Initiative here this afternoon, with a view to ending the conflict."

Mr Kerry said that he and Mr Biden stressed the vision that Mr Obama outlined in 2011, when he became the first US leader to publicly declare Israel's pre-1967 lines as the basis for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.

The declaration, while including the caveat of mutually agreed territorial trades between the two parties, raised a furor in Israel and led to public sparring only days later between Mr Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when the Israeli leader visited the White House.

While little has changed in Israel's public posture, the remarks by Sheikh Hamad suggest that Mr Kerry has had some success, at least, in coordinating a more unified regional strategy between the US and its Arab partners.

Top officials from the Arab League, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Saudi Arabia attended the meeting.

Although revolutionary when it was introduced by Saudi Arabia and endorsed by the 22-member Arab League, the initiative has never been embraced by Israel. And Palestinian officials have previously spoken out against any changes to its terms.

What was striking, and perhaps most limiting, about the initiative was its simplicity, offering Israel comprehensive recognition in the Arab world in exchange for all lands conquered in the 1967 war.

It's unclear what effect the modified conditions, as outlined by Sheikh Hamad Thani, might have on the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.