JERUSALEM - The Obama administration is exploring whether a long-abandoned initiative proposed by Saudi Arabia 11 years ago could become the basis for a regional peace agreement between Israel and its neighbors, according to Israeli and Palestinian officials.
With U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry due to arrive in the region over the weekend, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been conferring with other Arab leaders on the viability of the plan, which calls for a normalization of relations between Israel and all the Arab states in exchange for the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state.
Israeli and Palestinian officials confirmed to McClatchy Newspapers that President Barack Obama raised the possibility of using the Arab Peace Initiative, as the plan was known, as a framework for an agreement when he was in the region last month.
"It was raised directly by Obama during his visit and during his closed-door discussion with the Palestinian leadership," said a senior Palestinian official directly involved in the talks. "It was made clear to the Palestinian leadership that this would be the new direction of U.S. diplomacy in the region."
The official said that White House officials laid the groundwork for the renewal of the Arab peace initiative two weeks before Obama's visit to Israel and the West Bank when they spoke with Palestinian negotiators in Washington.
"They were told then that this would be the focus and that it had great potential," said the Palestinian official, who asked not to be further identified because of the sensitivity of the talks. He said Obama, Kerry, Abbas and Palestinian negotiators Mohammed Shtayeh and Saeb Erekat discussed the topic for several hours during the president's visit to Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority has its headquarters.
"He asked us during that time not to take any unilateral steps in the U.N. or moves that would anger Israel," the Palestinian official said, referring to Obama. He added that it was his understanding that Israel had agreed not to announce any new settlement construction projects for eight weeks.
"Kerry asked for a quiet time to give the new diplomacy a chance," the official said.
The State Department is keeping quiet on precisely what Kerry will discuss with the warring parties when he arrives in Israel and the West Bank for a two-day visit, which begins Sunday and will include time in Jerusalem and Ramallah before Kerry travels to London for the G-8 summit, and then on to China, South Korea and Japan.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland insisted at a briefing for reporters this week that the secretary's frequent travel to the Middle East _ this will be his third trip in less than a month _ wasn't a sign of new shuttle diplomacy but rather his own communications style, and she played down the significance of Kerry's visit, reiterating that he wasn't going to be "putting down a plan."
"The president, with his trip, committed very strongly that if the parties are ready to move, we are ready to help them, and that he wants Secretary Kerry to explore what's possible," Nuland said. "But, again, we're not at the stage of knowing what's possible."
Adding to speculation that the Obama administration is pressing ahead on a Middle East peace effort is a series of White House visits over the next month by key regional leaders, including the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, the emir of Qatar, the king of Jordan and the president of Turkey.
All of those countries are deeply involved in the civil war in Syria, but White House press secretary Jay Carney said Friday that Obama would use the visits to "discuss the complex developments in the broader Middle East, so not just Syria, but including Syria." He said the leaders also would talk about Obama's trip last month to the Middle East, as well as "broader developments in the Arab spring."
The Arab Peace Initiative, which also has been referred to as the "Saudi peace plan," was first proposed in March 2002 at a meeting of the Arab League. It stipulated that Israel withdraw from areas occupied in the 1967 Middle East War _ namely the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip _ and allow the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state. In return, Arab nations would pledge to adopt normal relations with Israel and effectively declare the conflict over.
Ariel Sharon, then Israel's prime minister, immediately rejected the plan. Subsequent Israeli leaders have periodically warmed to, and then rejected, the plan. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who openly opposed the plan when he was opposition leader in 2007, has since quietly voiced support for it, including in closed-door meetings with Egyptian and Jordanian officials.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that the Netanyahu government "has publicly praised the Arab Peace Initiative. It's a great improvement on previous Arab positions, and we look forward to engaging on it."
The Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv think tank with close ties to the government, recently published an essay arguing that in light of changes in the region it could be wise for Israel to revisit the plan.
"Perhaps the Arab Peace Initiative can now afford Israel an opportunity to consolidate its Zionist vision of the secure, legitimate, democratic nation-state of the Jewish people," said the essay, which was written by institute researcher Gilead Sher and Tel Aviv University professor Illai Alon. "It is true that the Arab initiative is in Arab interest, and otherwise would not have been proposed in the first place. However, had Israel and the international community been open to a dialogue based on the initiative at that time, it is not inconceivable that Israel's situation today would have been more secure and stable."
"Precisely now, in light of developments in the Arab world and the relative fluidity inherent in every revolution, the possibility of influence is greater and the price Israel will eventually have to pay to reach its national goals and attain peace with the Arab world may be lower," the essay concluded.
Peace talks between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership have been at an impasse since September 2010, when direct talks broke down as Israel refused to extend a partial moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank unless the Palestinian Authority recognized Israel as a Jewish state. Israeli officials have since called on the Palestinian leadership to return to the negotiating table with no preconditions, while Palestinians have refused to hold talks while settlement construction continues on the land they want earmarked for their future state.
Privately, Palestinian officials have blamed Obama for the impasse, saying he had urged them to insist on a construction moratorium and had promised to press the Israelis to agree to the condition.
"That old model of the roadmap had left both sides with a map that only had dead ends," said a Palestinian official who ahs taken a senior role in previous talks. He asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to comment on ongoing talks. "My understanding is that Obama wanted the new push to shake things up, to offer a new, comprehensive plan instead of getting bogged down in the mud of the old talks."
Frenkel is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent. Hannah Allam and Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed to this story.