Ex-Arab League chief said that only settlement freeze can thaw ties with Israel

Without genuine and serious peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, and a freeze on settlement construction, Arab states will not consider thawing their relations with Israel, a former head of the Arab League said.

Amr Moussa, who stepped down as secretary general of the powerful Sunni Arab alliance in 2011, rejected Israeli predictions that the Arab world could open up to Jerusalem without concrete movement toward a final peace deal. He spoke to The Times of Israel on Saturday, on the eve of a visit to Israel by US President Donald Trump, who has vowed to bring the unenthusiastic sides back to the negotiating table after a three-year hiatus.

The current Israeli government and US administration have expressed support for a regional approach to peace between Israel and the Arab states — one that would not necessarily be contingent on reaching a final status Israeli-Palestinian deal. That would fly in the face of the Arab Peace Initiative, which conditions Arab-Israeli normalization on Palestinian statehood.

“A peace deal, or rapprochement, that jumps over the Palestinian question will be directly and violently opposed by Arab public opinion,” Moussa said on the sidelines of a World Economic Forum conference on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea. “I don’t think any Arab government would be safe just ignoring the Palestinian question and forging peace with Israel.”

Washington has been busy over the last month laying the groundwork to restart peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Trump will be in Israel and the West Bank on Monday, and is expected to use the visit to advance his goal of achieving what he’s termed the “ultimate deal” between the two sides.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is ostensibly committed to a two-state solution to the conflict, he did not mention the idea when he met Trump in February, and has said he is willing to give the Palestinians a “state-minus.”

He has, however, shown support for regional peace, but has not gone into detail as to what such a deal would look like. Netanyahu has said Arab countries see Israel “increasingly as an ally,” especially due to a shared interest to curb Iranian influence.

In his February meeting with Netanyahu, Trump said he wanted to pursue “a much bigger deal” in the Middle East, which would include “many, many countries.”

Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister, said he believed it was too early to speak about a new American peace push.

“I haven’t seen anything substantial from Trump until now, so I can’t pass judgement yet,” he said.

Egypt and Jordan already have peace treaties with Israel, while Qatar maintains quiet trade ties with the Jewish state. But since Netanyahu started his second run as prime minister in 2009, Arab states haven’t expressed a desire to publicly advance relations with Israel outside the context of a deal with the Palestinians.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that some Gulf states had expressed willingness to expand ties in exchange for confidence-building steps by Israel toward the Palestinians, such as curbing settlement building.

While Trump was visiting Riyadh on Saturday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said his kingdom “stands prepared to work with the United States in order to bring about peace between Israelis and Palestinians and Israelis and Arabs.”

Moussa said that if Israel “creates an atmosphere more conducive to meaningful and productive negotiations, it would make the whole atmosphere in this region and the Arab world much easier to talk to and listen to.”

The Arab League, along with the Palestinians, has continued to back the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which would see all Arab and Islamic countries normalize ties with Israel in exchange for a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines, with a “just” solution to the Palestinian refugee issue.

While Netanyahu has said he could support the Arab Peace Initiative with modifications, the Palestinians and the Arab League have rejected any revisions to the offer.

Israelis are known to maintain secretive business ties with Gulf Arab states, despite there being no diplomatic relations. Moussa acknowledged that such ties exist, but said they don’t qualify as normalization.

“Jumping over the Palestinian question will lead us nowhere,” he insisted.

In preparation for Trump’s visit to Israel, Netanyahu’s cabinet discussed a number of economic incentives for the Palestinians, including the opening of the Allenby Bridge crossing between the West Bank and Jordan 24 hours a day, progress on industrial zones near Jenin and Tarkumiya (west of Hebron), and more efficient arrangements for handling Israel’s transfer to the PA of taxes it collects on PA exports.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, are set to ask the Trump administration for an airport in the West Bank, hotels on the the coast of the Dead Sea, a power station in the northern West Bank, and a cement factory in Bethlehem, as part of a large economic incentive package.

Asked if there could be a gradual warming of relations between Israel and Arab states as Israeli-Palestinian peace talks progress, Moussa said small economic steps would not be enough to break the ice.

“Just building an airport,” he said, wouldn’t justify the steps toward normalization that Israel would surely demand in exchange. “And who will finance such an airport? The Arab world,” he said. “What [Netanyahu] says is that he would allow that as the occupying power. No, I don’t think he should [be able to exact] a price for this.”

However, said Moussa, “If we address the issue of the settlements, then that’s a different story.”

“If the prime minister decides to stop building settlements for a certain period of time, this period of time will be invested in with quick, well-supported negotiations… And once it proves viable, and not just window dressing, the region will move,” he said.

Source: timesofisrael.com

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