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March 12, 2010

Al-Arabiya TV Director: Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations Should Continue Even without Settlement Freeze

On March 3, 2010, the Arab Peace Initiative Follow-Up Committee, made up of Arab foreign ministers, approved the renewal of indirect Palestinian-Israeli negotiations for a period of four months only. Following this decision, 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, Al-Arabiya director-general and former editor of the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote an op-ed for the paper in which he criticized the Palestinian custom of obtaining Arab permission to negotiate with Israel, which dates back to the era of Yasser Arafat.

In his op-ed, Al-Rashed stated that the current international support gives the Palestinians the best possible opportunity to establish their state, and added that both Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud 'Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have to deal with opposition at home, but that right now Abbas must focus solely on Palestinian interests.

Inquiry & Analysis No. 596

Behind the Scenes of Arab Politics: Arab Sources on Renewing of Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations

By: H. Varulkar*

On March 3, 2010, the Arab Peace Initiative Follow-Up Committee, comprising Arab foreign ministers, decided to give "one last chance" to negotiations with Israel, approving the renewal of indirect talks between Israel and the PA for a period of four months only. The committee convened in response to U.S. pressure on PA President Mahmoud 'Abbas to renew negotiations with Israel, and on the Arab countries to back him in this move. The Arab backing is meant to enable 'Abbas to back down from his demand that negotiations with Israel be conditional upon an absolute freeze on Israeli settlements, including in Jerusalem.

The committee's decision represents a partial and time-limited withdrawal from its former resolutions, which backed 'Abbas' demand for a complete settlement freeze. Following its November 12, 2009 meeting, the committee issued a statement saying: "[We] uphold the Arab position that the renewal of negotiations [between Israel and the PA] requires Israel to meet its legal obligations and put a complete halt to [the construction in] the settlements..." The committee's stance therefore represents a softening in the overall Arab position - not just the Palestinian position - in response to American pressure.

It should be noted, however, that even at the November 2009 meeting, the foreign ministers already discussed the steps to be taken in the event that the talks fail. According to the concluding statement, one of the options would be to call for a special Security Council meeting to discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders within a definite period of time. Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim Aal Thani said at the meeting that the next Arab League summit would have to consider revoking the Arab peace initiative altogether. The possible failure of the talks was also addressed by the Saudi daily Al-Watan in its November 16, 2009 editorial. The daily stated that the failure of the talks has created a situation in which the Palestinians have new options, such as the return to armed resistance.

The recent decision of the follow-up committee, which places a time limit on the talks and discusses alternatives to negotiations, is another step in the new policy adopted by the Arabs since January 2009, which places conditions and constraints on the Arab peace initiative. At the January 2009 economic summit in Kuwait, Saudi King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz announced that the Arab peace initiative "would not stay [on the table] forever." Likewise, the concluding statement of the March 2009 Doha summit placed constraints on the initiative in response to Syrian pressures: it stipulated that Israel must not only accept the initiative as is, but must also begin to meet its obligations as set out in the initiative's "sources of authority" - namely U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338. These resolutions exclude the element of normalization with all Arab countries, which does appear in the Arab peace initiative.

Saudi Arabia's acquiescence to the decisions of the follow-up committee (in November 2009 and March 2010) indicates that even this country is gradually withdrawing from its peace initiative. (The Arab peace initiative was already amended significantly, immediately after its presentation in 2002, at the insistence of the Arab countries, who added a clause on the Palestinians' right of return). In fact, the Saudi consent represents another step towards aligning its positions with the other Arab countries, as explicitly stated by Saudi Foreign Minister Sa'ud Al-Faisal after the March 3 meeting.

On March 10, 2010, the follow-up committee held an emergency meeting at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, to address the Israeli government's decision to approve 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem. The committee demanded that Israel cancel the decision, otherwise it would be pointless to hold negotiations. According to Arab League secretary-general 'Amr Moussa, Mahmoud 'Abbas told him that he had no intention of starting negotiations in the present circumstances.

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