The one thing conspicuous by its absence when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat down Wednesday for talks with senior Foreign Ministry officials was a statement addressing the recent development on the Arab Peace Initiative. On Monday, the Arab League endorsed a Mideast peace plan that would allow for small shifts in Israel's 1967 border, moving it closer to President Barack Obama's two-state vision. Netanyahu, who is also acting foreign minister, listened to the department heads complain about budgetary problems and concluded with a short policy overview. Those in the room waited to hear him make even the slightest reference to the announcement by Arab League representatives, but he didn’t say a thing.
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It should be noted that the announcement, read by Qatari Prime Minister Sheik Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani, didn't present a major addition to the Arab League Peace Initiative. It simply an added another nuance. It was a baby step forward. In practice, the principle of territorial exchanges first came to the fore in the negotiation rounds following the 2000 Camp David Summit. Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat agreed then to land swaps with Israel for roughly three to four percent of West Bank land. Also, in the negotiations after the Annapolis Conference in 2007 and 2008, the Palestinians agreed to swap roughly 1.9 percent of land in the West Bank for land in Israel. In September 2010, after several rounds of talks between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinians again offered in a written agreement to swap 1.9 percent of West Bank land. Verbally, the Palestinians expressed their willingness to go as high as four percent.
Nevertheless, it's not every day that Arab states make positive declarations, and certainly not with respect to Israel. After being informed of the Qatari prime minister's declaration, Netanyahu held discussions with his advisors and some government ministers on Tuesday morning to formulate Israel's response.
At first, Netanyahu considered coming out with a very positive response. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is responsible for the Palestinian negotiations portfolio in the government, pushed for this approach. Livni is very familiar with the Qatari prime minister, who is referred to by the nickname HBJ. When she was foreign minister in the Olmert government, Livni developed a level of personal trust with HBJ and even visited Qatar's capital, Doha.
Livni, who rushed to air a message welcoming the Arab League announcement on the radio, pushed Netanyahu to issue an official response in his name and even perhaps in his own voice. She argued that the Arab League announcement should be welcomed without quibbling over its content. But the terror attack in the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar Tuesday morning, in which an Israeli man was stabbed to death by a Palestinian, re-shuffled the deck, and Netanyahu lost his appetite for issuing a positive public response.
Ultimately, though, Netanyahu's lukewarm response to the Arab League announcement didn't stem from the terror attack but from the fact that he still refuses to publicly accept that negotiations with the Palestinians will be conducted on the basis of Israel's 1967 borders with territorial exchanges. When Obama declared his support for this principle in a speech in May 2011, Netanyahu harshly attacked him in a famous lecture in front of cameras outside the Oval Office. So in place of the Netanyahu's official comments welcoming the Arab League announcement was a cold statement in the name of "political officials," which thanked the Arab League for encouraging the Palestinians to return to negotiations.
Former senior officials who worked with Netanyahu during his previous term said that in conversations behind closed doors he agreed in principle to conducting negotiations on the basis of the 1967 borders with territorial exchanges but refused to say as much publicly. Netanyahu was said to view such a statement as an additional concession before reaching the negotiating table. The Americans and Palestinians saw in Netanyahu's position proof that he was not really interested in promoting a two-state solution.
United States Secretary of State John Kerry, who managed to extract the new declaration from Arab League representatives, was disappointed by the lukewarm response from Netanyahu, but also emphasized that progress had been made in renewing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Kerry preferred to emphasize the positive responses of President Shimon Peres and Livni to the announcement.
Kerry's problem is that despite his efforts to promote the Israel-Palestinian issue in recent weeks, there has been no real movement. Netanyahu and Abbas have remained hunkered down in their entrenched positions. The Palestinian president continues to demand a settlement-building freeze, the freeing of Palestinian security prisoners and peace talks conducted on the basis of the 1967 borders with territorial exchanges. Netanyahu continues to demand that negotiations be held on national security topics and Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. He refuses to make significant gestures toward the Palestinians and publicly opposes negotiations conducted on the basis of the 1967 borders with territorial exchanges. Under the circumstances, it's hard to see peace talks being renewed in the near future. It appears that what was is what will be.
In the meeting with Foreign Ministry officials Wednesday, Netanyahu declared once again that an agreement with the Palestinians would defuse the threat of Israel becoming a bi-national state. Netanyahu may understand that the two-state solution is necessary for the continued existence of the Zionist enterprise, but he does almost nothing to promote it. Instead of undertaking a diplomatic initiative he continues to focus primarily on public relations.