U.S. Mulls Formulating a Principles Paper on Core Issues of Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

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U.S. President Donald Trump delivers a speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on May 23, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump delivers a speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on May 23, 2017.Credit: GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP

The Trump administration is considering drawing up a set of principles for resolving the core issues, which would be the basis for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on ending the conflict, Israeli, Palestinian and American officials say.

The White House has not yet decided on the outline of principles with which the administration will attempt to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The possibility of drafting a “Principles Paper” is the subject of internal debates among various administration officials dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Last Thursday, two days after the end of U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to the region, his envoy Jason Greenblatt came to Jerusalem and Ramallah, meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. An Israeli source familiar with these talks said the envoy and the two leaders discussed some ideas the administration is considering with regard to the plan to resume negotiations. The source stated that Greenblatt wanted to hear from them what plan they would like to see for resuming negotiations and how they wish to see the process conducted, as well as what they would like to see as its outcome.

A few days after this meeting, Netanyahu, in a meeting with Knesset members, provided a peek at some options being considered by the White House, hinting that one possibility is the outline of principles. “The current administration fervently wishes to put something on the table,” said Netanyahu in a closed meeting with Likud MKs last Monday. “We have positions that are important for us, but that doesn’t mean that these are acceptable to them,” he said.

Netanyahu and his senior advisers are preparing for the possibility that the Trump administration would want to draw up a Principles Paper as a first step in restarting negotiations, or will present the two sides with such a document as an American proposal that would serve as the basis for resuming talks on a final settlement. “We estimate that they will bring a plan but we don’t know what it will be,” said an Israeli official.

A Palestinian official confirmed that in talks between Abbas and U.S. administration representatives, the latter informed him that they were considering issuing a Principles Paper aimed at solving core issues, one that would guide the negotiations. He added that the Americans did not present any concrete proposal or outline for resuming peace talks. “The ball is in the Americans’ court,” he said. “There is a reason we are saying nothing. We were asked by the Americans to wait and we’re complying. We intend to conduct serious negotiations on all issues.”

Further evidence that the White House is considering a Principles Paper on core issues surfaced at a briefing by a White House official to correspondents on Air Force One last Tuesday, shortly after Trump left Israel on his way to Rome. The official was asked what the next stage would be in the attempts to advance peace talks. He said, “We want to set forth a common set of principles that everyone wants to abide by.” The White House would not elaborate.

So far no decision on the outline for renewing talks has been made by the White House. Stuart Jones, the assistant secretary of state for near East affairs, said in a briefing to correspondents in Washington on Tuesday that no formal mechanism has been established yet for restarting the talks or managing them. An Israeli official said, “The Americans don’t yet know where they’re going with the peace process.”

Israeli officials said the Principles Paper is the focus of American deliberations. They said there are arguments within the administration about whether this is the right course of action and if so, what such a document should look like. The Americans are considering whether such a document should be presented in the framework of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, with active American involvement, or whether they should engage in separate consultations with both sides after which such a document would be put together, serving as an American proposal which would be the basis for resumed talks. “One conception is that the principles document should come first, with the two sides then discussing ‘parameters’” said the Israeli source. “Not everyone in the administration shares this view.”

Kerry precedent

In early 2014 then-Secretary of State John Kerry tried to formulate a document of principles for solving core issues, holding separate consultations with both sides. Netanyahu agreed in principle to receive this document, with some reservations, whereas Abbas never responded. Kerry publicized the main points in a speech he gave on December 28, 2016, three weeks before Donald Trump’s inauguration. Israel rejected the principles Kerry put forth even though they included the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. The Palestinians did not reject the speech but expressed some reservations. Sunni Arab states welcomed the speech.

Over the last few days Netanyahu has started emphasizing a list of principles he will demand be fulfilled in any future agreement with the Palestinians. Netanyahu, who for months has refrained from giving interviews to Israeli media outlets, repeated these principles in conversation with singer Yoram Gaon on Army Radio last Tuesday. He stated that in any agreement the Palestinians would have to relinquish their demands for a return of refugees to Israel and recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, as well as leaving control of security across the entire West Bank in Israel’s hands.

The Palestinian president’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, responded to Netanyahu’s words regarding continued Israeli control of security in any future agreement, noting that such declarations will not lead to an accord. “These statements perpetuate the conflict and the occupation, since peace and security will not be achieved without complete Israeli withdrawal from territories captured in 1967, chiefly from East Jerusalem. We won’t agree to any deal that leaves even one Israeli soldier on Palestinian land, and Netanyahu’s words prove that Israel is uninterested in helping the peace efforts led by the American administration.”

The PLO’s executive committee that met in Ramallah on Tuesday issued a statement saying that the Palestinian leadership strongly rejects any proposal that is based on temporary borders and interim agreements, which they say is what Netanyahu is proposing.

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