Understanding Netanyahu’s Rejection of the Arab Peace Initiative

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.

FMEP Issue Brief: Direct talks need international support to succeed

The idea that “direct, bilateral negotiations are the only viable path to achieve an enduring peace,” is repeated often in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The truth of it is obvious; any

(L-R) Quartet Representative Tony Blair, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and EU representative Catherine Ashton

lasting agreement will require the full buy-in from both Israelis and Palestinians, and it is unlikely that an imposed settlement of the conflict would hold. The frequency with which this axiom is repeated suggests that an imposition of an agreement by outside actors such as the United Nations, the European Union or even the United States is a real possibility. In fact, virtually no one seriously suggests that an agreement simply be imposed on Israelis and Palestinians.

The real issue is how the statement is defined. In general terms, supporters of Israeli policies take this rule to mean that no pressure should be brought upon Israel, as any such pressure is seen as undermining bilateral negotiations. Opponents of Israel’s occupation, on the other hand, tend to see outside pressure, in the form of international diplomacy or economic pressure, as crucial to incentivizing both sides into serious negotiations and toward making the difficult compromises necessary to achieve a final agreement.

As the administration of President Barack Obama enters its final months, there has been a good deal of speculation about what, if anything, the outgoing president will do about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Relatively free of political pressure, it seems to make sense that Obama would not want to leave this conflict as it stands, with a peace process in shambles, an increasingly isolated but aggressive Israel and a Palestinian population in deep despair and seeing violence as the only available, albeit futile, route open to them.

According to reports, the administration is considering several options: a United Nations Security Council resolution on the two-state solution, a resolution on the settlements or some combination of the two, either at the UN or in a statement of final status parameters by Obama. Any of these alternatives are staunchly opposed by Prime Minister Netanyahu and his supporters in the United States.

In order to counter such measures, the argument being made is that only bi-lateral talks can resolve the conflict, and therefore no outside pressures can be brought, in accordance with the Netanyahu government’s view that outside pressure is incompatible with direct negotiations.

In fact, outside pressure does not interfere with bilateral talks, it facilitates them. One example would be last year’s completion of the agreement to halt potential military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. The United States and Iran were the key players, but the involvement of the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany – countries that had a variety of views of and interests in the agreement – clearly helped keep negotiations on track and helped both sides to make difficult compromises.

When dealing with a conflict between two peoples that are equally passionate about their nationalism, rights, fears and historical claims, but far from equal in terms of negotiating strength, outside influence is indispensable. The compromises both Israel and the Palestinians would need to make to come to a final agreement will be difficult and will face strong domestic opposition. As with Iran, international advocacy for compromise will be indispensable for embattled leaders in both sides.

But external pressure would serve a more direct purpose in the case of Israelis and Palestinians. Israel currently has a government that, despite its Prime Minister giving lip service to a two-state solution, has worked hard to prevent one from ever coming about. Israelis who voted for Likud, the Jewish Home and other right wing parties, by and large, oppose the creation of a Palestinian state. Most Israelis see a Palestinian state as a huge risk, even if they support the creation of one. Meanwhile, Israel is an economic and political oasis in an unstable region, with the majority of its citizens enjoying a standard of living comparable to most Western countries. Without outside pressure, any Israeli leader, much less a right wing one, has no reason to take the tough, politically risky decisions that ending the occupation would entail.

On the Palestinian side, a fractured and divided leadership makes any political progress difficult. This is compounded by the loss of confidence among the Palestinian populace in both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and the failure of two decades of negotiations to free Palestinians from the occupation. The reality that any agreement will require compromise on both sides is complicated for Palestinians by their view that they have already sacrificed 78% of their homeland for the possibility of a sovereign homeland on the remaining 22%.

The political will required for an agreement with Israel is unlikely to be forthcoming from a Palestinian leadership that is perceived as corrupt and comfortable in positions of relative wealth and power in Ramallah. Only external pressure can push that leadership to make these decisions. The alternative is political chaos and an unknown future leadership that will almost certainly have to show more steadfastness than willingness to compromise, at least in the short run.

It is, of course, conceivable that the two sides might eventually talk again even without any outside pressure. But, as has been the case for over twenty years, talking does not lead to results by itself. The international community, especially the United States, is not merely justified in putting expectations on both sides and creating consequences for failing to meet those expectations; doing so is a requirement if there is ever to be a diplomatic resolution to this conflict.

The claim that outside pressure is the same as dictating a solution is simply false. Those making such a claim must be asked why. Opposing outside influence on both Israel and the Palestinians, and claiming that any pressure is the same as imposing a solution, is a sure way to block peace, to keep Israel and the Palestinians locked in conflict, and to prevent the realization of a two-state solution.

Quartet Meeting Produces Nothing, Highlighting American Failures

This piece was originally published at LobeLog

The anticipated meeting of the Middle East Quartet (the United States, Russian Federation, United Nations and European Union) took place Monday. The result was what has become pretty standard for Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy and peacemaking: nothing.

(L-R) Quartet Representative Tony Blair, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and EU representative Catherine Ashton

The Quartet is incapable of doing anything unless the US can do something, and the US refuses to take any action outside the realm of “direct negotiations between” the Israelis and Palestinians. The goal of this meeting was to try to come up with a formula that would bring the Israelis and Palestinians back to the table.

The failure to come up with that formula led to the Quartet ending the meeting without a statement. There was simply nothing to say.

The Europeans pushed for this meeting, which the US had hoped to postpone to gain more time to bring the Palestinians back to the table. Perhaps it was the American inability to do that which prompted the EU’s insistence; that’s certainly fair speculation.   Continue reading