Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent embrace of the Arab Peace Initiative is, to say the least, unnerving. Certainly the response of Arab leaders to his action reflects the dangers for Israel inherent in the plan. President Obama seems to be preoccupied these days with Syria and Iran as well as serious domestic issues and is largely leaving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Mr. Kerry. But the secretary of state seems poised to roil things up without any prospect of real progress.
The Arab Plan, launched in 2002, was approved by the 22-member Arab League at a summit in Beirut. It essentially called for a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world and normal relations – in return for Israel’s full withdrawal from all the land captured by Israel in 1967, including the Golan Heights. For obvious reasons, Israel rejected the notion of full withdrawal.
The Arab League reaffirmed its offer in 2007 with the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation endorsing it as well. Israel again stuck to its position that, among other things, full withdrawal would compromise its security and was a prescription for more war and thus a non-starter.
Mr. Kerry recently met with the prime minister of Qatar, the secretary-general of the Arab League and representatives of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority to, according to one participant, raise the possibility of modifications. Specifically the secretary of state reportedly proposed, in order to make the plan more palatable to Israel, that the 1967 lines “be modified” through mutual agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
But the word from the Arab camp was that it could agree only that “minor” and “comparable” land exchanges based on the 1967 lines would be acceptable. The idea that Israel would retain the settlement blocs it has established – which recent U.S. presidents, including Mr. Obama, have endorsed to a greater or lesser extent – was rejected out of hand.
What is particularly disturbing about the Kerry approach is that it is wholly inconsistent with President Obama’s insistence that Israel and the Palestinians negotiate a deal between themselves. Indeed, the Palestinians can now claim that Mr. Kerry effectively backs their seeking recognition from the UN as an alternative to negotiating Palestinian statehood with Israel. Why is he backtracking from Mr. Obama’s call, in line with Israel’s position, for negotiations with no preconditions?
At any rate, it is hardly reasonable to expect Israel to place any confidence in the commitments of Arab leaders. Not only has the Arab Spring underscored what an ephemeral thing “Arab leadership” really is, it has also revealed the strong undercurrent of popular opposition in Arab countries to any rapprochement with Israel. So no matter the extent of Israeli concessions in any future peace deal, the promise of normal relations is, in the end, unenforceable.
In sum, all Mr. Kerry has accomplished is to publicly draw U.S. policy away from support for Israel’s approach to negotiations as articulated by President Obama. For all his vaunted experience in foreign policy and international relations, he seems clueless. When former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice did much the same thing during the previous administration, President Bush did little if anything to rein her in. It is to be hoped that President Obama won’t make the same mistake with Mr. Kerry.