x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Israel's nod to peace bid draws mixed reaction

In spite of a positive stance on the Saudi initiative, the motivation for remarks made by Peres and Barak remains unclear.

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK // After six years in the cold, the Arab peace initiative, first proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002, seems to have gained some traction in Israel. First Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, proposed putting Israel's various peace talks on one track last month at the United Nations, calling on King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to further the initiative.

That stance was supported last Sunday by Ehud Barak, the leader of the Labor Party and current defence minister, who told Israel Army Radio that with individual negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians making little headway, it may be time to pursue an overall peace deal for the region. "There is room in the Israeli coalition for the Saudi initiative," he said. "We have a mutual interest with moderate Arab elements on the issues of Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas."

Then on Thursday, after talks in Sharm el Sheikh with Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, Mr Peres, whose role is mostly ceremonial, elaborated a little on his position. He was careful to stress that promoting the initiative should not replace direct Palestinian-Israeli negotiations but should come in "tandem". He also said that although he does not "accept all of the Saudi plan and it needs to be negotiated further, its spirit is correct".

Their statements caused a flutter of excitement in the region. But in spite of the positive stances vis-à-vis the Arab peace plan that Mr Peres and Mr Barak appear to be adopting, it remains far from clear what has motivated these remarks and why now. What they are not, though, is a wholesale endorsement. That should not be surprising. From an Israeli perspective, the initiative suffers from a number of shortcomings. It is, for one, short on detail, being more a restatement of international resolutions, notably UN Security Council Resolution 242 and UN General Assembly Resolution 194.

Israel unequivocally rejects Resolution 194, which calls for allowing Palestinian refugees to return to the lands and homes from which they were uprooted in 1948. Israel also disagrees with the Arab and international understanding of Resolution 242, arguing that, at least in the case of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, 242 does not oblige Israel to withdraw from all occupied territory. Presumably, when Mr Peres says he does not accept "all the plan", the Arab call for a full withdrawal from land occupied in 1967 is among his reservations.

This has prompted outright scepticism among some analysts. What Mr Peres is in fact saying, said Ali Jarbawi, a Palestinian analyst, is that "we accept the Arab initiative, but you have to change it". "If Israel wants, it could accept the plan and solve the whole damn problem in one day. Israel is simply buying time so as not to reach a settlement." Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that Israel is very keen on the one thing the initiative does bring to the table that has not been on offer before, namely wholesale normalisation with the Arab world. And with bilateral talks having yielded little result, some detect the beginning of a strategic rethink in certain Israeli circles.

"Among the moderate left, there is some movement," said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst. "Five years ago, the notion of a comprehensive process was anathema. A lot of this current talk has to do with frustration in dealing with non-state actors like Hizbollah and Hamas, as well as the Iranian dimension." Mr Alpher said he saw greater readiness on behalf of elements in Israeli political circles and the Israeli security establishment to "welcome regional and Arab involvement in solving our relations with out most problematic neighbours".

The devil, however, remains in the detail. Should Arab-Israeli negotiations function as a kind of umbrella for bilateral talks, what would that entail? Does Israel, for example, expect the Arab world to be more likely to reach some "compromise" on Jerusalem than Palestinian negotiators? And where would this leave Palestinian negotiators? Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian analyst and former minister of planning in the Palestinian Authority, said he was concerned that Israel was trying to bypass the Palestinians to negotiate directly with the Arab world.

"The mere fact of Israeli-Arab negotiations would be the beginning of the end of the independence of Palestinian decision-making over Palestinian issues." That, he said, would be resisted by all Palestinians. That concern may explain why Mr Peres was so careful to stress in Egypt that bilateral negotiations should not be replaced, even though Mr Barak seemed to suggest as much in his statement last Sunday. Certainly, should the Arab world attempt to promote a deal Palestinian negotiators would not otherwise have accepted, Fatah and Hamas, the estranged Palestinian factions, might find an unlikely common cause against which to unify.

Nor is it likely that the Arab world would countenance such a move. The Saudi peace plan is clear in demanding a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli and Syrian-Israeli issues before normalisation can begin. The Arab League has so far rejected the kind of piecemeal approach that Mr Alpher said Israel would like to see, "a little bit of peace, for a little bit of normalisation". That position was asserted again in Sharm el Sheikh by Suleiman Awwad, a spokesman for Mr Mubarak, who said Egypt rejected the idea that Arab countries together hold talks with Israel before the Palestinian issue is resolved.

Aluf Benn, diplomatic editor of Haaretz, a left-wing Israeli newspaper, suggested instead that the timing of these remarks offered a better clue as to their purpose. "The political context is to set an agenda for the new American administration and a new Israeli government." That new agenda would be to supplant bilateral talks in favour of negotiations under an Arab umbrella. These efforts are borne out of frustration in Israel with the perceived lack of ability on behalf of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to speak for all Palestinians, Mr Benn said. However, he added: "I don't put much into it."

"Since it's an Arab initiative and there is no formal negotiating track, so you can say nice words without changing anything on the ground." okarmi@thenational.ae