At the end of this year’s two-day annual 22-member Arab League Summit, leaders “absolutely and decisively” rejected the State of Israel as a Jewish state. At the Summit held in Kuwait March 25-26, leaders said that Israel has caused trouble in the region, blocking peace efforts. The reason centers on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank where hundreds of thousands of Israelis now live. The Arab Summit also says that Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem are being “desecrated” because of the change in Jerusalem’s demographics and geography.
The declaration of the Summit leadership states that they hold Israel “entirely responsible” for stalling the peace progress as well as for the ongoing tension in the region. Furthermore, they “regard the state of Israel as illegitimate.” This is in direct response to a key demand from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Palestinian leaders give recognition of the state in their ongoing peace talks. Netanyahu has asserted that there can be no peace with the Palestinians unless Israel is recognized as the homeland of the Jewish people. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rejects even having this demand as part of the discussion.
With the Arab Summit’s leadership declaration, Palestinian President Abbas’ assertion was upheld and he said that Israel had waged “a criminal offensive.” Speaking on behalf of Palestinians, he says that Israel harms Palestinian refugees who have been historically dislocated. He also speaks of the human rights of this large Arab minority in Israel, citing arrests and demolition of Palestinian homes, as well as suppressing the Palestinian economy.
On the second day of the Summit, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry interrupted his visit to Rome in order to work towards ameliorating relations with President Abbas and Netanyahu in separate peace talks. The Palestinian president’s strong rhetoric, however, in leading Arab Summit leaders to reject Israel as a Jewish state, set the stage for difficult negotiations. Abbas also charged Israel with intentionally forestalling peace efforts.
Israeli response is likens Abbas’ words to a torpedo in the midst of a peace process. Israeli officials say that Abbis is claiming that “rejectionism” is a virtue. They called Abbas a “maximalist” – an extremist who refuses to compromise. They said that his behavior undermined U.S. President Barack Obama’s vision of peace and the process that Secretary Kerry has been trying to move forward since talks picked up again last July after a five-year hiatus.
The issues that are being stalemated are delineation of Israel’s borders (back to pre-1967), the position of Palestinian refugees, security for both sides, and Israel’s requirement to be officially recognized as a Jewish state. Kerry’s present efforts center on the extension of an April deadline by which the two sides would cease discussion even if no agreement or compromise has been reached.
Netanyahu’s bottom line is that he will never cede east Jerusalem, which holds the city’s most holy sites. Israel is currently poised to release the fourth in a series of Palestinian detainees, which was part of an agreement last July. For Abbas, their release is his bottom line. Little progress has been made in bringing together the two sides.
The U.S. has indicated that may exert direct pressure on the Palestinians to pressure them to extend the peace talks beyond the April deadline. If they do not agree, the repercussions may include closing off funds or closing down the Palestinian Embassy in Washington, D.C., which would be a loss for Palestinians’ in their long-sought legitimacy. The bottom line for the U.S. is that both sides do not declare failure when the deadline arises, but instead continue their negotiations. President Obama’s vision is for the two states – Israel and Palestine – to co-exist side by side in peace and security.
President Abbas made a televised statement, broadcast by Israel HaYom (Israel Today) that the Palestinians had responded affirmatively last summer. He also said that they have been true to their word in follow-up to see peace negotiations succeed and that this effort was recognized by the United States. He said that Israel’s demand that it be seen as a Jewish state will continue to be rejected by leaders from the Arab Summit.
By Fern Remedi-Brown