WASHINGTON - Arab countries endorsed a Mideast peace plan Monday that would allow for small shifts in Israel's 1967 border, moving them closer to President Barack Obama's two-state vision.
Speaking on behalf of an Arab League delegation to Washington, Qatari Prime Minister Sheik Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani called for an agreement between Israel and a future Palestine based on the Jewish state's border before the 1967 Six-Day War. But, unlike in previous such offers, he cited the possibility of "comparable," mutually agreed and "minor" land swaps between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
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The Qatari PM said the Arab League delegation "understand that peace between the (Palestinians and Israel) - it's a strategic choice for the Arab states," adding that "we all think that we should work together to find a sound economical package to help the Palestinian state."
Al Thani spoke after his delegation met across the street from the White House with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been pushing Arab leaders to embrace a modified version of their decade-old "Arab Peace Initiative" as part of a new US-led effort to corral Israel and the Palestinians back into direct peace talks.
Those negotiations have hardly occurred at all over the past 4 1/2 years amid deep disagreement over Israeli settlement construction in lands the Palestinians hope to include in their country.
Al Thani (L) and Kerry during press conference (Photo: AP)
"We've had a very positive, very constructive discussion over the course of the afternoon, with positive results," Kerry said at Blair House, speaking with Al Thani at a podium beside him and senior officials from five other Arab governments behind them. He praised the Arab League for the "important role it is playing, and is determined to play, in bringing about a peace in the Middle East - and specifically by reaffirming the Arab Peace Initiative here this afternoon, with a view to ending the conflict."
Kerry, who has been to the Middle East three times in his short stint as secretary of state, said that he and Biden stressed the vision that Obama outlined in 2011, when he became the first American leader to publicly declare Israel's pre-1967 lines as the basis for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.
Arab, US officials meet in Washington (Photo: AP)
"On behalf of the President, I reaffirmed, as did the vice president, the US commitment to pursue an end to the conflict based on the vision that President Obama outlined in May of 2011: Two states living side by side in peace and security brought about through direct negotiations between the parties," the secretary of state said.
"The US and Arab League delegation here this afternoon agreed that peace between Israelis and Palestinians would advance security, prosperity, and stability in the Middle East. And that is a common interest for the region and the whole world. The US and Arab League delegations this afternoon also agreed about the importance of this particular dialogue, and so we agreed to continue consultations on a regular basis and to meet as a group as needed in order to try to advance the efforts towards peace and an end to the conflict."
Kerry with representatives of six Arab countries (Photo: AP)
Obama's declaration, while including the caveat of mutually agreed territorial trades between the two parties, raised a furor in Israel and led to public sparring only days later between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when the Israeli leader visited the White House.
While little has changed in Israel's public posture, the remarks by Al Thani suggest that Kerry has had some success, at least, in coordinating a more unified regional strategy between the US and its Arab partners. Top officials from the Arab League, Bahrain, Egypt, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Saudi Arabia attended the meeting.
Although revolutionary when it was introduced by Saudi Arabia and endorsed by the 22-member Arab League, the initiative has never been embraced by Israel. And Palestinian officials have previously spoken out against any changes to its terms. What was striking, and perhaps most limiting, about the initiative was its simplicity, offering Israel comprehensive recognition in the Arab world in exchange for all lands conquered in the 1967 Mideast war.
It's unclear what effect the modified conditions, as outlined by Al Thani, might have on the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.
Israeli officials declined to immediately comment.
Al Thani told reporters as the meeting started that the goal had to be a "fair deal for both parties."
Afterward, he stressed that the support his delegation gave for Mideast peace represented a "strategic choice for the Arab states."
Al Thani, whose country has maintained ties with the terrorist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip, also gave his backing to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' peace efforts and called for greater aid for the struggling Palestinian economy.
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