Foreign Policy Blogs

Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Obama


On January 13, Marvin Kalb, a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, published an interesting post on his blog on the think tank’s website. Kalb contended that in order for Israel to stir up the peace process pot, it should publicly accept the 1967 lines as the basis for a permanent peace agreement with the Palestinians. Why? Because in 2002, in what has become known as the Arab Peace Initiative, Saudi Arabia spearheaded the unanimous passing by the Arab League of a resolution that called for recognition of and normalization of relations with Israel after it withdraws to the 1967 lines and accepts a “just” and “agreed upon” solution to the Palestinian refugee problem (based on United Nation General Assembly Resolution 194). Almost a year ago, at the whims of Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic maneuvers, key Arab officials agreed to amend the initiative to allow for minor swaps to the 1967 lines.

But the question remains: Why now? Kalb argues that since Israel and Saudi Arabia have recently fallen into “an odd alliance” (they have never had any formal relations) over their displeasure at the Obama Administration’s cutting an interim deal with Iran, Israel could further this convergence by accepting the Saudi-initiated proposal, specifically by coming out in support of the 1967 lines as the basis for an agreement. Kalb hopes that this would spur more action towards Arab-Israeli peace.

Kalb timed the publication of his blog post very well. Just a few days later, The New Yorker’s David Remnick published a 17,000-word article on President Obama, based on personal interviews conducted over the past couple of months, in which the president showed inklings of similar thinking. Queried on his feelings about Israel and the Gulf State’s annoyance at the United States for its negotiations with Iran, Remnick writes that Obama’s response is basically “use that.” Remnick quotes Obama:

“What’s preventing them [Israel and the Sunni states] from entering into even an informal alliance with at least normalized diplomatic relations is not that their interests are profoundly in conflict but the Palestinian issue, as well as a long history of anti-Semitism that’s developed over the course of decades there, and anti-Arab sentiment that’s increased inside of Israel based on seeing buses being blown up…If you can start unwinding some of that, that creates a new equilibrium. And so I think each individual piece of the puzzle is meant to paint a picture in which conflicts and competition still exist in the region but that it is contained, it is expressed in ways that don’t exact such an enormous toll on the countries involved, and that allow us to work with functioning states to prevent extremists from emerging there.”

In other words, President Obama would like for Saudi Arabia and Israel to get past their mutual misgivings and enter into a sort of alliance, even if the alliance is critical of his administration. He aims to tone down many of the conflicts simmering in the Middle East, not necessarily eliminate them completely. (Obama is also referring to how he believes that scaling back Iran’s nuclear program to a non-threatening level through negotiations is more of a realistic goal – and has more of an up side – than engineering a regime change and/or undertaking any military operation against Iran).

In his blog post, Kalb reports that Kerry has actually already been in talks with Saudi officials about modifying the Arab Peace Initiative to recognize Israel as the Jewish state – and include a special provision about non-Jewish citizens of Israel as fully equal under the law in an attempt to meet Palestinian demands. Kerry hopes that this would do two things: 1) give Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas political cover from the wider Arab world if he were to accept Israel as a Jewish state, and 2) cajole Netanyahu and the Israeli government into making more concessions for peace.

According to The Times of Israel, the latter goal may have partially come to fruition already. In an article published on December 30th, it reported that according to Likud sources Netanyahu has accepted the 1967 lines as the basis for the borders of a Palestinian state and that Kerry had proposed to Israeli and Palestinian officials that the Palestinians publicly accept Israel as a Jewish state in return for Israel officially accepting the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations. However, the article says nothing about Kerry trying to convince the Saudis to amend the Arab Peace Initiative. The Times of Israel also reported that “there was no confirmation” from the Prime Minister’s Office about Netanyahu’s alleged acceptance of the 1967 lines as the basis for a deal.

In fact, Netanyahu is probably smart to publicly withhold his acquiescence to the 1967 lines as the basis for a peace agreement. First, most members of his Likud party in the Knesset would almost certainly disown him in protest and Netanyahu’s coalition could fall apart completely. Additionally, according to several polls conducted over the past couple of years, Israelis are mostly opposed to the idea of the 1967 lines as the basis for a peace agreement with the Palestinians if no other elements of a prospective agreement are presented as well. Therefore, if it is indeed true that Netanyahu has accepted the 1967 lines, he may want to only acknowledge this publicly in the framework of a broader peace plan, whether it be the framework agreement that Kerry aims to reach – or the Arab Peace Initiative. A poll conducted late last spring found that if Netanyahu supported the amended Arab Peace Initiative, a large majority of Israelis would as well (other polls have found that without Netanyahu’s support, acceptance of the Arab Peace Initiative is well under 50%).

It all sounds like a fantastical dream with scant probability of coming true: Israel and Saudi Arabia form some sort of alliance after Netanyahu accepts the Arab Peace Initiative (along with the 1967 lines) as a basis for talks following the addition of language in the plan that refers to Israel as a Jewish state, Abbas and Netanyahu reach a framework peace agreement on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative, and in the meantime Iran agrees to reduce its nuclear capabilities to a level that America and most of the international community can live with. Indeed, even Obama probably understands the likelihood of any of this happening is not very great: in his interview with Remnick, Obama admitted that the chances for both an agreement with Iran and an Arab-Israeli peace settlement are each less than 50%.

So why even try at all? The Obama Administration’s answer seems to be “better to try and fail than to not try at all.”



Justin Scott Finkelstein
Justin Scott Finkelstein

Justin Finkelstein recently received a Master's degree from New York University in Near Eastern Studies. He has spent most of his academic career and thereafter studying the Arab-Israeli conflict. His Master's thesis explored and analyzed the competing histories of the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem (1947-1949) and the potential for its solution.

He is currently a Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia. He has traveled to both Israel and Morocco and has attended the Middlebury Arabic School program.

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