Palestinians: Israel asked to annex 6.8% of West Bank
Quartet to meet Monday; UN Secretary-General: 2009 will hopefully bear fruit for the Middle East.
Israel proposed to annex 6.8 percent of the West Bank and take in 5,000 Palestinian refugees, the chief Palestinian negotiator said Friday, speaking for the first time in detail about the yearlong U.S.-backed negotiations that failed to produce an agreement.
Israel never revealed its position on the future of Jerusalem, the most contentious issue in the negotiations, said negotiator Ahmed Qureia.
His comments appeared aimed, in part, at providing a record of the Israeli position ahead of leadership changes in Israel and the United States. Israel's elections are scheduled for February 10, and polls suggest Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu is poised to become Israel's next prime minister.
Netanyahu opposes large-scale territorial concessions and has said he would not continue the negotiations in their current format. He has said he would try to focus on improving the Palestinian economy instead.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also faces a leadership challenge from his Hamas rivals, who rule Gaza and say Abbas' term in office ends in January.
The office of outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declined comment Friday on the specifics provided by Qureia. However, Olmert aides noted recent Olmert speeches, in which he said Israel would have to withdraw from much of the land it occupied in the 1967 Mideast War, including the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem.
Qureia told Palestinian reporters on Friday that Israel wants to keep four blocs of Jewish settlements - Ariel, Ma'aleh Adumim, Givat Ze'ev and Efrat-Gush Etzion.
He said Israel initially asked to annex 7.3 percent of the West Bank, then reduced the demand to 6.8 percent. He said Israel presented maps for both offers.
"Israel offered to give some of its own territory as compensation for the annexed areas, but not an equal trade in size and quality," Qureia said.
The negotiator said the Palestinians did not accept the Israeli offer, arguing that some of the areas Israel wants to annex would be vital to the creation of a Palestinian state.
Qureia has said in the past the Palestinians are willing to consider an annexation of some settlements and a land swap, but on a much smaller scale.
He said the Palestinians repeatedly raised their demand for a division of Jerusalem, but that Israel's chief negotiator, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, never presented an Israeli position.
Olmert has said Israel would have to give up some Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. However, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Shas Party, a member of Olmert's coalition, has threatened to quit if Jerusalem is discussed in the negotiations.
Olmert will step down as prime minister after a successor is selected. He has already been replaced by Livni as head and the ruling Kadima party and its next candidate for prime minister.
Qureia said Olmert's offer of 5,000 refugees over five years was rejected, but noted that the Palestinians don't seek the return of all refugees and their descendants, a group of several million.
"To say that not a single refugee would be allowed back or that all the refugees should be allowed back is not a solution," he said. "We should reach a mutual position on this issue."
Israel has adamantly refused to accept large numbers of Palestinians, saying mass repatriation would destroy the Jewish character of the state.
The negotiations were launched a year ago, at a U.S.-hosted Mideast conference in Annapolis, Maryland.
Since then, Qureia and Livni have met repeatedly, in parallel to talks between Olmert and Abbas. Qureia said he last spoke to Livni by phone a month ago.
Olmert paid a farewell visit to outgoing U.S. President George W. Bush in late November, and Abbas is to meet with Bush at the White House next week.
Qureia said he hopes Barack Obama will make solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a priority when he takes over as U.S. president in January. "We hope that we will not have to wait for intensive U.S. involvement," he said.
The Palestinian negotiator said it's possible Netanyahu, if elected, will seek to erase the last year of negotiations. "There is a possibility that if Netanyahu wins, he will begin things from the point of zero," Qureia said, adding that while each side kept notes during the negotiations, there is no joint written record.
Qureia noted that during a term as prime minister in the 1990s, Netanyahu signed two interim agreements with the Palestinians, despite his hard-line positions.
"Therefore, a person in the position of responsibility could change contrary to his position in the opposition," Qureia said. "At the end of the day, we'll deal with anyone who wins the election."
Quartet to discuss Mideast peace at UN headquarters Monday
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said earlier Friday that the diplomatic group on the Middle East peace process, or quartet, will meet Monday at UN headquarters.
"It is a year which I hope will bear fruit in the Middle East," Ban said in a conference in Geneva announcing the quartet meeting in New York.
"Somewhat below the radar, Israelis and Palestinians have been engaged in direct, intensive negotiations, and have created trust and a framework where none existed only two years ago," he said.
"They are setting the stage for peace and are determined to continue," he added. "It is up to the international community to help them realize that long-elusive dream."
Ban said he has invited several Arab governments to take part in the quartet discussions along with the four principals: the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and high-ranking EU officials will attend the meeting under Ban's leadership.
The quartet has called for the establishment of a Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel. Various security and political steps have to be carried out before the two-state solution is achieved under what is known as a road map to end the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.