The signs are multiplying: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has exploited to the hilt his refusal to talk with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. U.S. envoy George Mitchell is hungry for action. Netanyahu is whiling away the time, and soon people will begin asking him why he went to so much trouble to return to the Prime Minister's Office. In such circumstances, renewing the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations seems an obvious way out for all parties, even if a few more weeks of preparations are needed.
Speaking on uber-interviewer Charlie Rose's PBS television show last week, Mitchell spelled out the aims of the negotiations he will broker, specifically: "full implementation" of the Arab peace initiative. The latter calls for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the Shaba Farms area to the June 4, 1967, borders and the establishment of a Palestinian state and "a just and agreed-upon" solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, in return for an end to the conflict and the full normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world. And Mitchell wants to achieve all this within two years.
The envoy's optimism may seem excessive, but it is not diminishing. In Northern Ireland, where Mitchell acquired his reputation as an international peace broker, he encountered the same tendency for each side to say no and to blame the other for everything. He did not give up until the two sides changed their minds and reached an agreement. Mitchell believes he can use the same tactic in the Middle East and is not deterred when the complexity of the conflict is explained to him.
"If it were [former Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat facing me, everything would look different," Netanyahu has told his aides.
In the meantime, the Arab states, led by Egypt, which is impatient with the stagnation in the talks, have agreed to try to soften the Palestinian demands, but in essence nothing has changed. Even if Abbas has dug in his heels, the international community still blames Israel for the continuation of the conflict - because of its insistence on controlling the territories and filling them with Jewish settlers, and its efforts to "Judaize" East Jerusalem. As a result, there is global sympathy for the Palestinians and support for the establishment of a Palestinian state soon.
"We are pushing for negotiations that are not time-restricted and are conducted from 'the bottom up,' explained a top cabinet minister this week. "There's no way a final-status agreement could be obtained within two years."
Israel's Ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, told The Washington Post last week that Mitchell's timetable is "unrealistic and might prove counterproductive."
The Palestinians want a faster pace and seek U.S. backing for the establishment of a state within the 1967 borders, with minor territorial exchanges and a capital in East Jerusalem. To this Netanyahu says: Okay, but let's open up everything to negotiations, and we too have demands - recognize Israel as a Jewish state and commit to the end of the conflict and an end to your claims. According to the cabinet minister, such counter-demands are aimed at making it clear that discussion of a final status agreement will lead nowhere and that it's better to start with small steps, from below, as it were.
Mitchell is proposing that the parties discuss only the border, an issue that appears to be less complicated. As soon as the boundaries are drawn, the settlements problem will solve itself. It will be clear to Israel where it may build and where it may not. The Palestinians will also then be free to build their state-in-the-making. The issues of Jerusalem and the refugees will be set aside. But Netanyahu objects to focusing on the border.
"It's a trap," the same ministerial source said. "We only give, we don't get anything."
In meetings of the "forum of seven" senior ministers, Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon has warned against making any concessions regarding territories or the evacuation of settlers. In his opinion, each time that Israel has given something up since the Oslo Accords were signed, it has paid in blood. And evacuations only send a message of weakness and encourage the enemy.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak believes in an interim arrangement. He supports moving up Phase II of the road map, which calls for the creation of an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders. He believes this will take two years to negotiate and an additional three years to implement, and that by then Israel will finish developing its anti-rocket defense system. Barak assumes that the interim arrangement will necessitate the evacuation of settlers; the majority of them will leave under a voluntary arrangement involving monetary compensation, while others will choose to remain as citizens or permanent residents of Palestine. He believes that only a few settlers will choose the latter option. The Palestinians object vehemently to an interim arrangement, which they see as an Israeli plot to stick them with a fragmented, besieged state. But Barak hopes they can be persuaded to agree that a state without permanent borders is better than what they have now.
Netanyahu has asked Barak why he insists on an interim arrangement, saying that a final-status arrangement is preferable. But the forum of seven has heard the prime minister identifying with Ya'alon's opposition to evacuating settlements on the grounds that it would be interpreted as a weakness. Netanyahu has also said that this time around, he realizes the importance of establishing a diplomatic basis for taking certain measures vis-a-vis the Palestinians.
After the prime minister announced a 10-month freeze on construction in the settlements, and accelerated Jewish building and settlement in East Jerusalem - which has infuriated the Palestinians and the Americans - his associates say he had no choice. Netanyahu remembers how the right forced him out of the government during his first term as prime minister after signing the Wye River Accord with Yasser Arafat. He needs to strengthen his coalition.
According to a veteran negotiator who served in senior positions with Netanyahu's predecessors, the obstacles to an agreement with the Palestinians are in fact the issues that appear easiest to resolve.
"You [journalists] write that everything will fall through over Jerusalem and the refugees, but these are trivialities," the negotiator said recently. "The agreement will stand or fall on issues of daily life, on the security arrangements. The real problem is that [the Palestinians'] perception of independence is entirely different from ours." What Israel sees as legitimate security demands the Palestinians view as a continuation of the occupation and of Israeli control.
When Ehud Olmert was prime minister, Israel submitted to the Americans its security demands in a future agreement with the Palestinians. Israel Air Force Commander Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan, then the head of the Israel Defense Forces plans and policy directorate, coordinated the drafting of this so-called eight-point document. Olmert's diplomatic advisor, Shalom Turgeman, oversaw the diplomatic aspects. On his last trip to Washington, in November 2008, Olmert asked the outgoing administration of president George W. Bush to pass the document along to the incoming administration of President Barack Obama. Olmert's advisors say this was done.
Among Israel's demands in the eight-point plan were the rights to supervise Palestine's border crossings, to fly in Palestinian airspace, to regulate radio frequencies and to build hilltop warning stations. In daily life, it looks like this: The people of Nablus are used to hearing IAF aircraft in mock dogfights above the city and to seeing the forest of antennas on Mount Eival - and Israel wants this to continue.
There is no clearer manifestation of a country's sovereignty than its ability to decide who and what will enter its territory. From Israel's perspective there is no greater danger than an open Palestinian border through which rockets will flow into the West Bank. The rockets from Gaza have made life in southern Israel a nightmare. Rockets from the West Bank would threaten Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion International Airport, and all of Israel would become a firing range for Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Netanyahu sees disarmament of the Palestinian state and the prevention of weapons smuggling into its territory as the main issue. When Barak showed him the eight points, the prime minister commented that supervision of the border must be "effective." In a speech about two weeks ago, he said: "I doubt that anything can do this except for a real presence of the state of Israel, of Israeli forces."
Barak is proposing the establishment of a "regional framework" to supervise the border that could include both Jordan and Israel. The supervision would begin on the Jordanian side, providing depth, while the regional nature of the mechanism would downplay Israel's involvement. It is not clear that the Jordanians will be keen on the idea. Amman's relationship with Netanyahu's government is terrible, and he does not want to bring them into the peace process because of the special status in Jerusalem that is promised to them in the peace agreement.
In any case, the discussion is still theoretical: Mitchell's deputy, Fred Hoff, who has taken on the security brief in the negotiations, still does not know who will be facing him on the Israeli side - Barak and his people, or National Security Advisor Uzi Arad.
Mitchell will return to the region this week, where he will continue to work out the format for the negotiations. It is not clear whether there will be direct or indirect talks between the parties but it does not appear that Abbas and Netanyahu will hold frequent meetings as Abbas and Olmert did. It is more likely that Yitzhak Molcho, the prime minister's envoy, will pursue the exchanges discreetly. At some point - one year from now, two years from now - the time for decisions will come. And then Netanyahu's promises and Mitchell's declarations about the possibility of an agreement will be put to the test.
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