Israel should seize the Arab League's offer

Wherever the truth lies in Syria, Israel’s intervention has inevitably eclipsed the other potential development in her relations in the Arab world

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On one reading, the Israeli bombings of four sites west of Damascus over the weekend represent a dangerous step towards full-scale internationalisation of the Syrian civil war. If Syria or its Hezbollah supporters were to retaliate against Israel, it would bring closer the prospect of regional conflagration.

In the US, moreover, as in Israel itself, the attacks have already prompted hawks to make unflattering comparisons with President Obama’s apparent hesitancy over whether to escalate military help for rebel forces in Syria. And the bombings could reinforce the seductive idea that Western air strikes, or more Israeli strikes with Western assent, offer a possible means of hastening the end of President Assad’s regime.

On another reading, the possible consequences are less dramatic and more complex. Israel appears to be stressing that the purpose of the strikes was not to intervene on the side of the rebels against the Assad regime. Israeli media have been quoting security officials suggesting that retaliation is unlikely. Israel’s stated “red line” – preventing the transfer of heavy weaponry by Syria to Hezbollah – is different from the one defined by President Obama in unscripted remarks last August – namely the use of chemical weapons by the regime against the rebels.

And the US administration’s agonising over whether that line had been crossed was further complicated yesterday by the Swiss member of the UN independent commission of inquiry, Carla Del Ponte, suggesting that opposition armed groups may have used sarin gas.

Wherever the truth lies, however, Israel’s intervention has inevitably eclipsed the other potential development in her relations in the Arab world. Last week – after an Arab League meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry – Qatar’s Foreign Minister, Hamad bin Jassim, made a significant announcement. Having publicly espoused since 2002 a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel based on 1967 borders, the League was ready to envisage “comparable and mutual agreed minor swap[s] of the land” as part of an eventual agreement.

In a period of such regional instability, it seems, if not actually indecent, at least wilfully irrelevant to focus on yet another wrinkle in the seemingly hopeless quest for a just end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But that is not a reason to ignore the Arab League statement.

In the dark days of the second intifada, one of the few signs that – briefly – seemed hopeful was the 2002 Saudi-led initiative at the League’s Beirut summit. This promised recognition of Israel in return for a two-state solution, based on Israel’s borders before its June 1967  conquests of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem in the Six-Day War.

In historical terms, this was the decisive reversal of the League’s famous response at its Khartoum summit in September 1967: “No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.” There are many reasons why the Arab Peace Initiative never gained real traction in Israel, either then or when it was reaffirmed in Riyadh in 2007. But one, at least ostensibly, was that by this time the Jewish settlements – and in particular the largest blocs,  close to the Israeli border – made actual partition on 1967 borders unthinkable to most of the Israeli establishment.

The swap idea isn’t new. It has long been a given for Palestinian negotiators, including in talks between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the previous Ehud Olmert government. But the new wording means the Arab states (including those who do not currently recognise Israel) would underwrite an outcome of any negotiations – in the currently unlikely event of any happening – in which Abbas would agree to Israel’s retaining some of its most populous settlements via one-to-one land swaps of Israeli territory with Palestinians elsewhere. That is one of the reasons Secretary Kerry, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition partners, Tzipi Livni, have welcomed it.

The change of position is easy to belittle. Hamas condemned it. Possibly as a result, the Egyptian Foreign Minister appeared to disavow it over the weekend, even though Egypt was represented in Washington. This illustrates two things. First, the League was prepared to pay a political price for its move, suggesting that it was a genuine attempt to break the deadlock. Second, an initiative can easily be stillborn without a positive response.

Which is just what it has – so far – failed to secure from Netanyahu. He reacted coolly, and indeed refrained from any direct public response to the League’s declaration. Given that it explicitly modifies Palestinians’ repeated reference to “1967 borders” to which the Israeli Prime Minister is so allergic, this strongly reinforces the view that, for all his protestations to the contrary, he has little interest in any negotiations that might achieve an outcome.

The semi-public argument on the right, of course, is that this is no time to be making “concessions” to the Palestinians. Israel find itself in all too unstable a neighbourhood, beset by unpredictable threats – of the sort its weekend bombing in Syria is intended to contain.

But not for the first time, this reflects the narrowest view of Israel’s interests. It is  tedious to repeat but in the long run Israel’s security requires a just agreement with the Palestinians, along with recognition by the Arab world and the internationally ratified borders that go with it.

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