WASHINGTON - The Bush administration may delay its planned international peace conference until late November, so that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas will have more time to formulate a joint declaration.
Olmert and Abbas will meet today at the prime minister's official residence in Jerusalem, and for the first time, their negotiating teams will also be present. The two leaders will first hold a private meeting and then brief the negotiating teams on the aims of the joint declaration.
This will be the start of the official negotiating process, which to date had been held behind closed doors between Olmert and Abbas.
There are significant gaps between the two sides' starting positions, and a particularly bitter dispute revolves around the essence and substance of the joint declaration they are expected to draft.
Olmert is now rejecting titles such as "declaration of principles" or "agreement of principles." Instead, he is proposing a general "declaration of interests" - a term that did not exist in previous negotiations - that would serve as a starting point for detailed negotiations to begin following the summit, which is scheduled to take place in Annapolis.
He is also demanding that the declaration include a reference to two previous documents: President George W. Bush's letter to prime minister Ariel Sharon on April 14, 2004, and the road map for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Bush letter to Sharon stated that the border between Israel and the future Palestinian state could not be identical to the 1949 armistice line (i.e. the Green Line), due to the presence of "Israeli population concentrations" in the West Bank. Israel interprets this as referring to the large West Bank settlement blocs. The letter also says the final border will be established by agreement, which Israel interprets as referring to territorial exchanges.
The road map lays out a three-stage program for establishing a Palestinian state, and states that in the first stage, the Palestinian Authority must wage war on terrorism and reform PA institutions, while Israel must remove all illegal outposts established in the West Bank since 2001.
Abbas and his supporters in the Palestinian leadership fear that the United States has adopted Israel's position on the issue of the declaration, and would prefer a general statement. The Palestinians are demanding a detailed document that includes clear references to all the "core issues" of a permanent settlement - borders, Jerusalem and refugees. The Palestinians would also like to see a clear timetable for implementing such a settlement.
According to sources who spoke with senior PA officials in recent days, the following are the main demands that Abbas will present at the start of negotiations:
* Settlements: Israel should declare an immediate freeze on construction in the settlements and quickly evacuate the outposts, as well as several settlements.
* Borders: The declaration should state that the future border will be based on the 1967 lines. Exchanges of territory will be limited to 2 or 3 percent of the West Bank in order to ensure territorial contiguity for the future Palestinian state and prevent the division of the West Bank into several cantons surrounded by settlements. The territory to be exchanged must be equal in quantity and quality.
According to another Palestinian proposal, instead of referring to borders, the declaration would refer to the area of the Palestinian state in the West Bank (about 6,500 square kilometers).
b Safe Passage: The Palestinian state should have a sovereign area that will be used for passage between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
b Jerusalem: East Jerusalem, including the Old City, should be the capital of the Palestinian state and under full Palestinian sovereignty.
b Refugees: Israel should recognize its responsibility for the suffering of the Palestinian refugees and compensate them.
However, several of these demands are unacceptable to Israel, and the major differences in the two sides' positions guarantees that the negotiations will be difficult and complicated.
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