US Secretary of State John Kerry is reportedly seeking to hold new direct intensive talks between Israel and the Palestinians under the auspices of regional Arab nations.
The Times of Israel, citing Israel’s Channel 10, reports that Kerry is calling for negotiations to last two months, and involve Arab countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar.
As part of the initiative, according to the report, the Obama administration will ask Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to publicly express positive statements about the general intent of the 2002 Saudi Peace Initiative in order to help bring the Arab countries on board.
That in itself might be a tall order. The Saudi plan calls for normalization of Arab relations with Israel in exchange for withdrawal by Israel from East Jerusalem, including the holy places of Jerusalem’s Old City, turning the Golan Heights over to Syria, and allowing a “right of return” to Israel for millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees from 1948.
Israeli governments have previously dismissed the proposal as a “non-starter” for both establishing an independent Palestinian state and at the same time allowing Palestinians to flood into Israel. Vague, non-binding positive statements about the plan’s intent, however, may be palatable even to Israel’s hawkish government if it means involving moderate Arab governments in a comprehensive regional peace process.
While asking Israel to speak favorably about the Saudi plan, US officials would ask Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to delay for a few months his intended proposal for a UN Security Council resolution setting a deadline of November 2016 for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
During Wednesday’s White House press conference with President Obama, Netanyahu hinted that there might be wider Arab involvement in the peace process.
Netanyahu said that things were “changing in the Middle East” allowing a new “commonality of interest between Israel and leading Arab states, and I think that we should work very hard together to seize on those common interests and build a positive program to advance a more secure, a more prosperous and a more peaceful Middle East.” He added that the US and Israel should “think outside the box” and “see how we can recruit the Arab countries to advance this very hopeful agenda.”