The Arab Peace Initiative, which was adopted at the Beirut summit in 2002, returned to the diplomatic discourse after an April 29 visit to Washington by an Arab League delegation.
Politicians and commentators attributed supreme importance to the statement by Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani at a joint press conference with U.S. secretary of state John Kerry. They saw it as heralding a new, constructive political line by the Arab League, which could provide backing for a political settlement based on a compromise between Israel and the Palestinians.
The relevant words of the Qatari prime minister were: “The Arab League delegation emphasizes the requirement that the achievement of a two-state [solution] must be based on the borders of June 4, 1967, with a possibility of comparable, mutually agreed, and minor land swaps.”1
A few days later, al-Thani explained his position on the Arab Initiative in an interview with Al Jazeera. The notion of a specifically Qatari proposal on land swaps is mistaken: such a proposal has already been raised in the Arab summit conferences and espoused by the Palestinian leadership, and it entails readiness for land swaps comprising 1.5 percent of West Bank territory.
Al-Thani also said that
it was not a matter of any details, because that is a Palestinian matter, and they make the decisions on this issue, and we did not discuss this issue because we are not authorized to deliberate in the name of the Palestinians. All we did is clarify the Arab Initiative, and the general stance that the Palestinian representative who was at the meeting presented.
As for why the Arab delegation journeyed to Washington, here is how he explained it:
The Arab decision to go to Washington was the right one, since we know that Benjamin Netanyahu is not serious about the issues connected to or concerning peace. The visit to Washington dealt solely with clarifying positions in detail to the Americans, namely, that the Arabs are ready for peace while the other side is not. Likewise, the aim was to discuss seriously whether the Americans will play the role of mediator and make key decisions in a number of months, and which side is doing the foot-dragging in the peace process….If we do not succeed in the talks with the Americans, we will once again go to the UN Security Council.2
The Palestinian Authority confirms that there is nothing new in the formula of minor land swaps; Hamas, for its part, completely rejects the implied recognition of the 1967 borders with small mutual adjustments and stresses that the entire territory of Palestine belongs to the Palestinian people. In the Palestinian camp as a whole, there is wall-to-wall consensus on the demand to implement the Palestinian refugees’ and their descendants’ “right of return” to Israel proper, while rejecting out of hand any proposal to settle the refugees outside of Palestine.
The assessment of a change in the Arab League’s position was optimistic and premature. The Arab League has not altered its stance, and the Qatari prime minister’s declaration does not take a different line from those already adopted by institutions of the league. His words reveal that the thrust of the delegation’s visit was basically tactical, aimed at putting the ball back in Israel’s court, pushing Israel into a corner, and preparing the ground for independent political steps by the league in the UN arena if there is no response to the Arab demands.
The border between the future state of Palestine and Israel is one of the central issues between the two sides. The root of the conflict, however, is the refugee problem, and on that issue there has been no change in the Palestinian position or in that of the Arabs, who fully back their line.
In both the Palestinian and Arab view, the Arab Initiative does not entail any concession on the right of return. It says that the Palestinian refugee problem will be solved according to Resolution 194, which means implementing the right of return as the Palestinians conceive of it.
The rebellions of the Arab Spring/Islamic winter have not made the Arab League more moderate on the political level or in its attitude toward Israel, but rather the opposite. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the parent movement of Hamas, distances any possibility of political flexibility.
Moreover, the Arab League and its member states do not see themselves as competent and authorized to make decisions on the Palestinians’ behalf. Meanwhile, on the Palestinian side, the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah (which also, as noted, upholds the right of return) no longer represents all of the Palestinian people, and certainly cannot make a decision in its name on conceding the right of return.
In sum, the statement of the Qatari prime minister was much needed by the U.S. administration, which in these difficult times of Islamic revolts is looking for a peg, however artificial, on which to hang diplomatic activity that gives an impression of advancing the peace process. Otherwise there is no political significance to the statement that would signal a shift in the stance of the Arab League – the same body that has repeatedly failed to resolve crises within the Arab world including the bloody civil war in Syria.