US Secretary of State John Kerry made a fresh push Monday to relaunch the moribund Middle East peace process, meeting top Arab League officials in a bid to revive a decade-old Saudi plan.
Far from the cameras, the new top US diplomat held talks with senior ministers from the Arab League, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Palestinian territories to discuss the Arab Peace Initiative.
The ministers, meeting in the privacy of Blair House just a stone’s throw from the White House, were also joined by Vice President Joe Biden, for what Kerry called a “very positive, very constructive discussion.”
Since taking office on February 1, Kerry has plunged into the maelstrom of Arab-Israeli politics hoping to break an impasse and resume the vital Palestinian-Israeli talks which collapsed in late 2010.
After his discussions, he praised “the Arab League’s very important role… in bringing about a peace in the Middle East, and specifically by reaffirming the Arab Peace Initiative here… with a view to ending the conflict.”
Kerry has suggested the Arab Peace Initiative — unveiled in 2002 by Saudi King Abdullah in which 22 Arab countries would normalize ties with Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal from occupied lands — could provide a framework.
Addressing reporters after the talks, he said he had reaffirmed the vision of President Barack Obama of “two states living side-by-side in peace and security, brought about through direct negotiations between the parties.”
Kerry has already traveled three times to the region, meeting senior Israeli and Palestinian officials, pursuing what he has called “a quiet strategy” in an ambitious bid to revive the talks and achieve a peace treaty which has eluded successive American administrations for decades.
Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim, chair of the Arab Peace Initiative follow-up committee, headed the delegation, which also included Palestinian foreign affairs minister Riyad al-Maliki and Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi.
“Peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis … is a strategic choice for the Arab states,” Jassim said after the talks.
He agreed that any deal should be based on a two-state solution, with the borders defined by the June 4, 1967 borders, before Israeli troops seized East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
But Jassim backed Obama’s proposals for a “comparable and mutual agreed minor swap of the land” between Israelis and Palestinians to reflect the realities of the burgeoning communities on the ground.
Earlier, Jassim had welcomed the talks saying he believed it was “an important meeting, an important era, which we hope will lead to peace, a comprehensive peace between the Arabs and the Israelis.”
Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr also attended the talks, along with Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa and top Saudi and Lebanese officials.
The talks came after a “series of productive conversations by the secretary to explore how we can best move regional peace efforts forward,” deputy acting State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told journalists.
They also focused on new proposals from Kerry to promote economic development on the West Bank — a scheme in which he is hoping to attract private sector investment to boost Palestinian trust.