Arab League slights boycott of Israel by backing ‘land swaps’

Israel/PalestineMiddle East
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Yitzhar settlement, near Nablus. (Photo: Gili Yaari / Flash 90)

Until last week the Arab world’s position on Israeli borders was firm.
Then Secretary of State John Kerry visited the Middle East and the Arab League reversed its stance on settlements, backing “land swaps” between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Despite an offer that posed squaring relations with the region, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ignored the resolution. Having already renounced similar proposals from the Arab League in the past, Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh condemned it as well.

Yet the change in the Arab League’s policy on a return to 1967 borders was not a political throwaway. The resolution itself has concrete implications on Arab League member nations. It brings into question their stated boycott of Israel, which began in 1948.

In 2002 the Arab League first offered to fully normalize relations with Israel and their 22-member states. The Arab Peace Initiative required an Israeli pullout of the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and Lebanon, the establishment of East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, and a “just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.” The Arab League also compelled the Palestinian leadership to build a “comprehensive peace with Israel” beyond a cessation of hostilities. In essence the document was a plan for a two-state solution that would end the row between Israel and the rest of the Middle East.

After the initiative was passed, a Central Boycott Office was established to moderate adherence from member countries. However of the 22 countries that signed onto the boycott, only Syria and Lebanon have ever implemented strict non-normalization laws, leaving the initiative firm in platitudes alone. Still al-Akhbar English regularly reports on Israeli products hitting the shelves of major Lebanese cities. Vegetables, cosmetics and even cigarette lighters from Israel have been spotted, despite the law and popular sentiment against the sale of Israeli goods.

Even more, for Egypt the “land swaps” offer is bark from a toothless dog. Agreements such as the Camp David Accords weaken the impact of the Arab League’s offer of peace for trade and diplomacy. In 1980 Egypt began selling oil to Israel and opened diplomatic relations. Adding in security cooperation with the Israeli military over the Rafah crossing to Gaza and asylum seeker arrests in the Sinai, Egypt has in practice undercut any meaningful boycott of Israel. 

But still Israeli leaders have rejected the plan since 2002. They have maintained their opposition on the grounds of the policy originating from a body that they were not part of, and because of vagueness on Palestinian refugees. For Israeli officials, refugees are a non-negotiable. The Jewish state is adamant that they will not cede on allowing the return of any Palestinian refugees to inside of Israel’s 1948 borders. Akiva Eldar noted in al-Monitor days ago that Israel will not accept the notion of “land swaps” because it already considers large swathes of the West Bank their territory. Therefore rejecting the Arab League’s offer on land swaps,

is a natural reaction, given the views of those leaders — it’s obvious they cannot trade sovereign Israeli territories for other territories that they also regard as their own and call ‘Judea and Samaria,’ despite the fact that the rest of the world defines them as ‘occupied territories.’ This is a non-starter. Even a child understands that in order to trade stamps with a friend, both of them have to at least agree that each is the proprietor of his own collection. As far as Israel is concerned, it owns most of the other side’s stamps, as well.

The sentiment of “already owning” the West Bank is common in official Israeli discourse. “I think the answer to this killing should be by building. That we should find an appropriate place and an appropriate time to do it legally,” said Israel’s Defense Minister Danny Danon. Danon was making condolences for a settler who was stabbed to death while hitchhiking days ago in the West Bank. Speaking to Arutz Sheva, “We will make sure that there will be more Jews in Yehuda and Shomron [the West Bank],” continued Danon.

Danon’s response is worth noting in the context of the Arab League’s land swaps because it demonstrates for the Israeli government settlement building is both a legal process and a punitive force against Palestinians. If Israel already assumes claim of the West Bank and is committed to populating it with “Jews”—in the words of Danon—then the concept of land swaps becomes a concession, rather than a step towards ending the occupation.

Conversely, the Palestinian Authority (PA) backed the proposal in 2002, 2009 and then again after the recent land swaps augmentation. But Hamas officials, who initially gave conflicting statements on their support, ultimately indicated a complete rejection of the initiative years ago. After last week’s announcement, the political leadership in besieged Gaza again renounced the proposal.

“To those who speak of land swaps we say: Palestine is not a property, it is not for sale, not for a swap and cannot be traded,” said Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s disputed Prime Minister of the PA. “The so-called new Arab initiative is rejected by our people, by our nation and no one can accept it,” he continued.

And in the sphere of reconciliation between rival Palestinian parties, the land swaps offer tilts political leverage to Hamas in advance of conciliatory talks expected later this month.

Internally, the Arab Peace Initiative has served as a source of division between Fatah and Hamas. Fatah has continuously demanded Hamas adopt the resolution as a precursor to reconciliation. Yet it would be an overstatement of the importance of the initiative to qualify it as reason for the lack of Palestinian political unity. For Fatah vis-à-vis the PA, accepting the resolution brings them closer alliance to the Arab League. For Hamas, rejecting the initiative gives them a bargaining chip with  in their discussions of a unity government.

Yet even though the land swaps offer was seemingly dead on arrival, the pronouncement on settlements marks a formal change of direction from Arab League itself. In the past when countries like Lebanon had discovered Israeli products on the shelves, they were promptly removed. Now the “land swaps” language seems to indicate the Arab League is open to broad normalization with Israel despite the ongoing occupation.


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