JERUSALEM – A dormant, decade-old Mideast peace plan has suddenly emerged as a possible key to breaking years of deadlock between Israel and the Palestinians.
A top Palestinian official said Sunday that the visiting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed interest in reviving the so-called Arab Peace Initiative, a 2002 plan in which the Arab world offered comprehensive peace with Israel in exchange for a full pullout from all territories it captured in the 1967 Mideast war. Arab officials confirmed the Arab League was set to discuss the matter on Monday.
The initiative was revolutionary when it was introduced by Saudi Arabia's then crown prince, King Abdullah, and later endorsed by the 22-member Arab League at a summit in Beirut. However, the plan was overshadowed by fierce Israeli-Palestinian fighting at the time and greeted with skepticism by Israel. The Arab League re-endorsed the plan in 2007, and technically, the offer remains in effect.
Key obstacles remain. Israel has not softened its objections to the plan, and the Palestinians turned down a request from Kerry for changes in it.
In the 1967 war, Israel took control of the West Bank, east Jerusalem, Gaza Strip, Sinai and Golan Heights. Israeli returned the Sinai to Egypt in 1982 in the framework of a peace treaty and pulled out of Gaza unilaterally in 2005. Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, and peace talks with Syria over the territory have repeatedly failed.
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been deadlocked since late 2008, in large part over the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians refuse to talk while Israel settles its population on the occupied territories where they want to establish their state. They have demanded that Israel accept the 1967 lines as the basis for a future Palestine. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejects a return to the 1967 lines and calls for talks with no preconditions.
The 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation has also endorsed the 2002 Arab peace initiative.
The plan, if adopted, considers the Arab-Israeli conflict "ended," offers "normal relations" with Israel and calls for providing "security for all the states of the region."
Israel has rejected a return to the 1967 lines for both security and spiritual reasons. Israeli leaders have long argued that the 1967 frontiers are indefensible. In addition, a return to those boundaries would mean a withdrawal from east Jerusalem, home to the city's holiest Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious sites.
Israel has annexed east Jerusalem, and Netanyahu has vowed never to share control of the sensitive area. The Palestinians say there can be no peace without establishing their capital in east Jerusalem. These conflicting claims to east Jerusalem are perhaps the most emotional and explosive issue in the conflict.
Kerry on Sunday kicked off what is expected to be several months of shuttle diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinians with a stop in the West Bank for talks with President Mahmoud Abbas.
It was not immediately clear whether the Arab initiative came up in Sunday night's talks. A senior State Department official said the meeting "included a discussion on how to create a positive climate for negotiations," but that Kerry had asked all participants to keep the details confidential. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of Kerry's orders not to brief reporters.
Abbas spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, said Abbas urged Israel to release Palestinian prisoners it is holding, called on Israel to halt settlement construction and urged Israel to commit to a solution based on the 1967 lines. He did not say whether the Arab peace initiative was discussed but confirmed Abbas was leaving Monday for talks on the plan at an Arab League meeting in Qatar.
Mohammed Subeih, the Arab League's undersecretary for Palestinian affairs, confirmed a special committee on the peace initiative would hold "an urgent meeting" in Doha on Monday.
He said the prime minister of Qatar would chair the meeting, and foreign ministers of key countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Palestinians, would attend. The Arab League's chief Nabil El-Araby is also expected, he said.
Subeih said the committee would form a delegation, chaired by El-Araby and the Qatari prime minister, to travel to Washington in the coming weeks. In Washington, the delegation will try together with the American side draw a road map to "end Israeli occupation," he said.
Earlier Sunday, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said Kerry has been floating the Arab initiative as a possible way out of the deadlock.
Officials say Kerry has proposed two small changes to make it more palatable to Israel, saying the 1967 lines could be modified through mutual agreement and pressing for stronger security guarantees. Security-obsessed Israel has grown increasingly jittery during the upheaval that has swept through the Middle East over the past two years.
Speaking to the Voice of Palestine radio station, Erekat said the plan could not be changed. "Kerry asked us to change few words in the Arab Peace Initiative but we refused," he said.
Israeli officials refused to comment on the matter. An Israeli official said the Israelis were planning to offer "a wide spectrum of ideas" to Kerry when they meet with him in the current days. The official declined to elaborate. He spoke on condition of anonymity because nothing has been formally presented yet.
In the past, Netanyahu has described the Arab peace initiative as a welcome sign of acceptance from the Arab world but refused to accept it in its current form. Netanyahu has said that presenting the plan as an ultimatum would undermine negotiations.
But after years of deadlock, and growing international isolation over continued Israeli settlement construction, Netanyahu could find himself in a difficult position if the offer is again extended.
AP writers Mohammed Daraghmeh and Bradley Klapper in Ramallah, West Bank and Hamza Hendawi in Cairo contributed to this report.