A recently revised Arab peace initiative has received positive responses in many Israeli quarters this week, with remarks by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even being interpreted as a sign of support for a proposal he previously rejected.
Politicians and commentators on the left and the right – including the Israeli President and the government’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians – welcomed the latest effort from the Arab League, shepherded by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
The initiative, presented to Mr. Kerry on Monday by a high-level Arab delegation, renews a 2002 call for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace in which all Arab states normalize relations with Israel in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from territories captured in the 1967 Middle East War. But whereas previous versions of the proposal had been rejected in Israel for being an all-or-nothing ultimatum, the initiative has been amended to allow for negotiations to determine the exact location of a border between Israel and a Palestinian state.
This revision would allow Israel to keep certain occupied areas in which it has built large settlement blocs, in exchange for ceding to a Palestinian state Israeli lands commensurate in size and quality.
Israeli President Shimon Peres, speaking in Rome, embraced the development. “The ministers of the Arab League once again expressed their support for the two-state solution, which is also accepted by us, and a broad structure of support is being created for making progress.”
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is the government’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians, applauded the new wording. “It is good news that should be welcomed,” she said.
It is important to note, Ms. Livni added, that “during days of turmoil in the Arab world, [the Arab states] are committed to normalization with Israel when an agreement is reached with the Palestinians.”
While Mr. Netanyahu has not yet formally commented on the Arab initiative, remarks he made Wednesday to senior Israeli Foreign Ministry officials indicate a surprising degree of commonality.
Speaking in his capacity as acting foreign minister, Mr. Netanyahu said: “The purpose of the future agreement with the Palestinians is to prevent the eventuality of a bi-national state and to guarantee stability and security.”
“It’s not about a Palestinian state,” he said. “It’s about a Jewish state.”
Israel, Mr. Netanyahu said, “has to make sure that, at the end of the negotiations … there is recognition for our nation state.”
In these lines, the Prime Minister said two things he has not said before, noted Ben-Dror Yemini, a columnist for the Maariv newspaper.
“When he said that recognition of Israel as a Jewish state should come ‘at the end of the negotiations,’ that was a positive signal on his behalf,” Mr. Yemini said. In recent years, Israel has made such recognition a condition for agreeing to negotiations on a Palestinian state.
“And he referred to the ‘eventuality of a bi-national state,’” Mr. Yemini noted. “That’s the first time he’s acknowledged that there’s a risk involved if there are no negotiations.” Most Israelis do not want a bi-national state.
He’s sending a very meaningful signal, Mr. Yemini said.
Mr. Yemini urged support of the Arab initiative in his column Wednesday, taking many readers by surprise. “We don’t have to accept all the terms right at the start,” he explained, but the approach “is a good way going forward.”
Opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich also called on Mr. Netanyahu to endorse the plan, and said she would even possibly join his government if right-wing parties pulled out of the coalition should he agree to the initiative.
For their part, the politicians on the right were uncharacteristically tight-lipped Wednesday, but the initiative will be criticized by several elements in the coalition, especially by many in the Prime Minister’s own Likud party, Mr. Yemini noted. The party moved far to the right in choosing those who would lead the Likud list in January’s national election.
Should members of the Jewish Home party, Yisrael Beitenu and the Likud bolt from the government, Ms. Yachimovich’s Labour party alone, with 15 seats in parliament, couldn’t save the coalition.
“We may see a situation much like Sharon faced in 2005,” Mr. Yemini conjectured, referring to the opposition then-prime minister Ariel Sharon faced when he decided to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from the occupied Gaza Strip. The tension split the Likud party. But, with the Israeli public largely behind him, Mr. Sharon established Kadima, a makeshift group that led a coalition government for four more years.
“These days,” Mr. Yemini said, “anything’s possible.”