Arab and Israeli officials are expected to step up talks this week with Washington to follow up on a 29 April meeting in the US capital between US Secretary of State John Kerry and the Arab Peace Initiative Committee – a development that appears to indicate the resumption of long-suspended Palestine-Israel negotiations.
Kerry is expected to return to the Middle East for further talks "probably late this month," according to a diplomat in the region close to the peace process.
The Monday meeting in Washington, in which the Arab delegation was led by Qatari Prime Minister Hamad Ben Jassem, essentially offered three things to Israel and the US.
The first was a nod of interest in resuming direct negotiations without any Israeli commitment to halt construction of illegal Jewish-only settlements on Palestinian territories seized in 1967. Just before the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, the Palestinian Authority (PA) had attached that condition to any resumption of talks.
The second was agreement – in principle – on the idea of a land swap between Israel and a future Palestinian state, whereby Israel might hold on to some of its key settlements.
The concept of a land swap has been on the table of all proposed final-status settlements since the Wye River talks hosted by former president Bill Clinton in 1997. During the 2000 Camp David talks, which Clinton held with late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Barack, the concept of a land swap was considered.
But according to an informed Arab diplomat, the question today is different.
"Before we were talking about a limited land swap of no more than 2 to 4 percent [of land], provided that the Palestinians were going to get a bit over 20 percent of historic Palestinian land," he said. "Today we aren't talking about a limited land swap, nor are we talking about Palestinians getting 20 percent of historic Palestine."
In the 2000 Camp David talks, Arafat was willing to settle for a land swap of around 3 percent. This figure was raised to around 4 percent or slightly more when direct and indirect negotiations left off.
The third offer came in parallel with Kerry's talks with the Arab delegation, with PA officials announcing a plan to temporarily suspend attempts to secure Palestinian membership in several UN organisations. The PA secured non-member state status at the UN last year despite US-Israeli opposition based largely on concerns that Palestine would in future be able to take legal action against Israeli violations of international law.
Arab diplomats say it was impossible to ignore Kerry's interest in a resumption of peace talks.
"Israel is aggressively eating up the occupied Palestinian territories in a way that will make a two-state solution impossible. US President Barack Obama is in his second term, which gives him a bit of leverage when it comes to pressuring Israel. Arabs have no alternative but to embrace – and try to influence – the US scheme to ensure that it accommodates the Arab point of view as much as possible," one Washington-based Arab diplomat argued.
"What the Arabs are trying to do is encourage US interest and see where that will go," he added.
The Arab Peace Initiative
According to another Washington-based Arab diplomat close to the peace process, Arabs diplomats at the meeting told Kerry that they are "committed to the text and spirit of the [current form of the] Arab Peace Initiative with no amendments whatsoever."
In 2002, the Arab Summit in Beirut made a comprehensive peace offer – proposed by Saudi Arabia – that included a full Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian and Syrian territories occupied in 1967 to allow for the establishment of a viable and independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, along with a fair settlement of the Palestinian refugee problem. In return, there would be full peace between all Arab states and Israel.
From the outset, Israel has been lukewarm about the proposal and has not at any point committed itself to basing negotiations on its terms. All direct Palestinian-Israeli talks conducted in the wake of the initiative were not directly linked to the collective Arab peace offer.
The proposed amendments, according to informed Arab officials who spoke to Ahram Online, were agreed upon by the Qatari prime minister and Kerry at a meeting that was not attended by the rest of the Arab Peace Initiative delegation. However, the proposed changes were reportedly inspired by talks between the two senior diplomats and their Palestinian counterparts.
Arab negotiators say the trouble with restarting the stalled peace talks began long before the debate over the proposed land swap – which, according to some, could make it impossible for Palestinians to realise a state with contiguous borders.
"To resume direct talks the PA would need at least a symbolic suspension of Israeli settlement construction and the release of some key Palestinian prisoners," said one Arab negotiator.
According to another negotiator, Israel would also need to agree to resume talks from where they left off.
In the assessment of diplomats close to the issue, both demands seem unlikely.
Kerry's plan is based on kick-starting direct talks between Palestinians and Israelis on two issues that are essential for both sides: security, which is an Israeli prerequisite, and borders, a Palestinian pre-requisite.
The hope is that after these matters are settled, negotiations could move on towards a viable settlement of the thorny Jerusalem issue, which would most likely be inspired by the 2000 Camp David offer, effectively granting Israel control over most of the city but allowing a symbolic Palestinian presence at Muslim sites.
The refugee problem, meanwhile, could be based on the 2000 blueprint offering a gradual return of around 100,000 – out of some four million Palestinian refugees – but which would not grant second- or third-generation refugees the right of return.
PA sources speaking off the record say that, like other Arab delegations – except, perhaps, the Qatari one – they are not very hopeful. They say, however, that they will give the American effort a chance – before it becomes too late for the two-state solution to be achieved, "which is kind of the case already."
Palestinian resistance outfits Hamas and Islamic Jihad, for their part, have expressed concern over the planned new basis for negotiations, but have promised concerned Arab capitals – including Cairo and Doha – that they would allow the PA to give it a try at least and take an official position when a final offer is made.
Hamas, which is more influential than Islamic Jihad, had previously told Cairo that the minimum it could agree to was a full Israeli withdrawal from all Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 – with a land swap of no more than 2 percent.
'Insufficient land for a state'
To start the talks, however, Kerry would need to convince the Israelis to halt construction of a new settlement in E1 in the northern West Bank.
"If this happens, it would be completely pointless to start talks because this [construction of the E1 settlement] would split the West Bank into two parts and make it impossible to talk of a serious state," said another Arab diplomat.
According to Abdel-Alim Mohamed, director of the Palestine-Israel desk at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, it is already "far too late to speak of a serious Palestinian state."
"Even if Israel does not start a new settlement project, there is already insufficient land left for a state – not to mention that whatever is left is hard to connect and is very poor in resources," he explained.
"In 2010, then-Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa rightly said that the peace process was 'dead' and that Israel was not at all serious about reaching a final and just peace settlement," Mohamed added.
"Today he has been proven right. Arabs have to consider alternatives to the two-state solution, which can never deliver a viable Palestinian state – with or without land swaps."
For his side, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday he would put any peace deal with the Palestinians to a referendum.