One could not believe in the negotiations Israel is conducting with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank; one may also believe that the parties want to succeed, but cannot. One also may think that talks cannot proceed without the elected representation of the Palestinian people, who chose Hamas. There are also no negotiations without Gaza. And now, after we have properly frowned on all these negotiations, we may also decide that for the moment, that's all there is: Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni on one side and Mahmoud Abbas and Saeb Erekat on the other - with all their weaknesses.
The talks they are conducting are not meant to bring peace; even they do not pretend that is the case. After 40 years of occupation and bloodshed, all that is on the agenda - shamefully - is a "shelf agreement" that no one can implement at the moment. It is precisely for this reason that this paper, bearing no expectations, will not shame those who sign it. Precisely because it is only a document with mere declarative and symbolic significance - and in this sense it may be a landmark document - it is important that it touch on the core issues.
There is no importance at all to a declaration about the division of water resources between us and the Palestinians, and it really does not matter whether an agreement of principles is made regarding the size of the Palestinian security forces. These are only declarations. The agreement will be important only if partial Israel and partial Palestine make clear, agreed-on cases on the borders of the future Palestinian state, the future of the settlements and a solution to the refugee problem. Without this, there is no point to more meetings. Not only do they waste the negotiators' and our time, they may even be disastrous. We already have learned this from the history of the region: Negotiations that fail immediately create escalations and another depressing round of terrible violence. We have also learned from the failure of the Oslo Accords: An agreement that does not reach out and touch the molten core of the conflict will fail. Therefore, if the negotiators want to move ahead, they must begin with the core issues.
Jerusalem must be the first subject on the negotiating table. If the parties cannot agree on its borders and status, what are these negotiations for? Time will not heal any wounds here: What cannot be agreed on now will only be agreed on after another accursed round of violence, and this, we hope, everyone wants to avoid.
Those who want to postpone discussing the basic issue of principle - borders and settlements - seek only to delude us. Jerusalem is an inseparable part of this issue - and is actually a relatively easy matter to solve, if the parties move in the spirit of the Clinton plan, which has already defined the obvious: Palestinian Jerusalem for the Palestinians, Jewish Jerusalem for the Jews. All that is left is to decide the fate of the huge Jewish neighborhoods that were built on occupied land, settlements in every sense. Their fate must be the same as that of all the settlements, unless the Palestinians receive a just and appropriate return for forgoing them.
The wound that is the settlements must be touched: If Olmert and Livni really and truly want an agreement, they must make clear statements about the future of the settlements. To put off discussion again, as was done to our detriment in Oslo? Why wait? So that instead of a quarter-million land thieves, there will be a half-million? Talks must also be held, of course, on solving the refugee problem; there is no getting away from it.
If Ehud Barak can take credit for any constructive contribution over the history of the conflict, it would be his willingness to discuss the core issues. Barak, who has spoken recently only the language of power and violence, gave the impression that he understood that measured steps cannot cross an abyss. Only one great daring leap will do. Olmert and Livni should take this message to heart. The prime minister now bears the burden of proof. If he truly wants progress, he must take two daring steps. He must discuss Jerusalem first, and he must back up talks with practical moves that are no less far-reaching. The release of prisoners, the lifting of the siege of Gaza, and complete freedom of movement in the West Bank are the fundamental conditions for any talks.
Unfortunately, Olmert will not be the person to divide Jerusalem. He has neither the nerve nor the ability. The minimum that can be asked of him is to reach an agreement in principle with the Palestinian representatives on its borders that for Israel will be the most moderate and convenient that was ever or could ever be made. Only thus will we know there is a prime minister in Jerusalem, and he wants peace.
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