Israeli-Palestinian peace talks about to resume?

Jan 8, 2010 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

January 8, 2010
Number 01/10 #02

Following some additional efforts by US envoy George Mitchell, and trips to Cairo by both Israeli and Palestinian representatives, there is increasing speculation in Israel and elsewhere that the Palestinian Authority may soon agree to renew peace talks.

Haaretz reports that the Israeli government was particularly optimistic in the wake of the meeting between Egyptian President Mubarak and PA President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday. This is despite the fact that publicly, Abbas continued to insist on a total building freeze in the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem, before any talks begin, and other Palestinian officials are demanding a guarantee that the talks will begin from the point where they ended in 2008 – meaning the offer of former PM Olmert must now be the starting point for negotiations. For more on the hopes in Israel that talks may resume soon, CLICK HERE. More international comments following the Abbas-Mubarak meeting are here. Meanwhile, the Israeli Government has reportedly rejected an American idea to discuss borders first, before other aspects of peace are discussed.

Earlier, veteran Washington insider Steve Rosen had some important details about US efforts via Mitchell to renew talks, and especially about efforts to agree on Terms of Reference (TORs in diplomatic parlance) that will apply to any negotiations, and will affect any American guarantees related to the process. According to Rosen, Israeli PM Netanyahu and Mitchell have essentially reached agreement on what Israel requires from the TORs, with Netanyahu offering compromises on borders, refugees, and a timeline for negotiations. However  there is still work to do with Abbas and the PA, according to Rosen. For all the details of what is under discussion, CLICK HERE. Mitchell has also made some public comment in interviews explaining where the talks are at in recent weeks – with his key statements summarised here and here.

Finally, last week, Israel’s Supreme Court made a ruling that a Highway, Route 443, which crosses the West Bank near Jerusalem, and was closed to West Bank Palestinian traffic after repeated terror attacks in 2001, must be re-opened to such traffic, and Canada’s National Post comments on the ruling. The paper gives some background on the decision, such as the fact that Israel has spent US$3 billion on roads for Palestinians to travel between towns without encountering Israeli checkpoints. It also criticises those who argue that it shows Israeli mistreats Palestinians, instead arguing that the ruling shows “how mightily Israel struggles to balance its own obvious security needs with the rights of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians.” For the paper’s complete argument, CLICK HERE. More detail on the reasons for, and dilemmas of, this ruling comes from the Jerusalem Post.

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Israel believes Abbas on the verge of agreeing to peace talks

By Barak Ravid, Avi Issacharoff, Mazal Mualem and Natasha Mozgovaya

Haaretz, Jan. 6, 2009

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed cautious optimism Monday that talks with the Palestinians will soon resume.

“In recent weeks, I’ve had the impression there is a certain change in atmosphere, and I hope that a maturation that would enable the negotiating process to move forward has occurred,” he told a meeting of his Likud faction at the Knesset.

Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office said Netanyahu was particularly encouraged by Monday’s meeting between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.  

For weeks, Abbas has been insisting that he will not resume negotiations unless Israel completely freezes construction in West Bank settlements and in East Jerusalem. But at Monday’s meeting, Abbas repeatedly said that he would postpone any decision on whether or not to restart the talks until he sees what happens during next week’s visit to Washington by two senior Egyptian officials, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.

Israeli officials now believe that Abbas will agree to resume the talks after that visit, or else after U.S. envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell’s visit a few days later. However, they predicted, he will first try to wrest as many guarantees as possible from the American administration.

Nevertheless, in an interview with the Palestinians News Agency after his meeting with Mubarak, Abbas reiterated that his view on the need for a complete settlement freeze has not changed.

“The minute there is a complete freeze on the settlements and recognition of the international community’s decisions, we will return to the negotiating table without reservations,” he said.

A senior member of the Palestinian negotiating team also told Haaretz on Monday that Abbas’ demand for a freeze on construction in East Jerusalem has not changed.

Abbas enjoys considerable support for this precondition in the Arab world: The Arab League is backing him on it, and though Egypt has been pressing him to resume negotiations, Saudi Arabia has pointedly refused to join the Egyptian effort.

Abbas insisted that he was not seeking any American guarantees beyond this. “We don’t want guarantees; we want a clear, well-prepared basis for negotiations,” he said.

But in practice, Palestinian sources said, he apparently plans to insist that this “basis” include a guarantee that talks will resume at the point at which they left off under Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert.

According to Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki, the Abbas-Mubarak meeting focused on an Egyptian proposal for reviving the talks that includes a promise of a Palestinian state within two years and American letters of assurance to both Israel and the PA about the nature of the final-status agreement.

Prior to the meeting, Zaki stressed that at the moment, these are ideas only. “Everyone is thinking about the best way to restart the talks,” he told the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram. “If these ideas are realized, everyone will welcome it.”

Netanyahu, at his meeting with Likud MKs, also stressed that the current flurry of diplomatic activity is focused solely on ideas for reviving the talks. Commenting on reports in the press about various concessions he has allegedly agreed to make on final-status issues, he said, “The peace plans that are being ascribed to me in the media are untrue.”

“We are serious in our intention to reach a peace agreement, but we will insist that the outcome of the negotiations be determined at the negotiating table,” he continued. “Israel is ready for negotiations with the Palestinian Authority without preconditions.”

At a meeting Monday with former British prime minister Tony Blair, who is now serving as the Quartet’s special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu urged the international community to press Abbas to resume the talks.

“We must start talking,” he said. “The international community must refrain from taking steps that are liable to cause the Palestinian side to harden its positions. Instead, everyone must act in a way that will encourage the Palestinians to return to negotiations.”

The Quartet is comprised of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

But unlike Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman expressed pessimism yesterday about the possibility of talks with the Palestinians achieving results in the near future even if they do resume.

“It will not be possible to reach a complete agreement in two years,” Lieberman warned Blair during his meeting with the envoy. “It is not a realistic target. We must begin direct talks without committing to any deadline. In the past, we have set deadlines that were not kept and it led to violence.”


Netanyahu’s New Agreement with Mitchell


Foreign Policy, DECEMBER 18, 2009

For a year or two at an early stage in his career, I commuted to and from our adjacent offices each morning and evening with Martin Indyk, later a top peace-process official of the Clinton administration at the Camp David negotiations and now vice president for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. I had just left the Rand Corporation to work at AIPAC, the main pro-Israel lobbying organization in Washington.

Even in those pre-Oslo days of 1982 to 1983, Martin was a True Believer in the idea of a grand land-for-peace bargain between Israel and moderate Palestinians. Reviewing each day the latest installments in the Middle East epic as we rolled down Rock Creek Parkway, we argued all the way. I heaped scorn on any solution that required Israel to trust Palestinian intentions, and I held that Israel’s security could only be based on a qualitative military edge and the balance of power. I told Martin that he and our mutual friends Dennis Ross, Aaron Miller, and Dan Kurtzer, though with the noblest of intentions, were pursuing an illusion.

Martin emphatically thought I was wrong about the Middle East, and he also thought I was blind to an enduring reality in Washington. He said that Democratic and Republican administrations of the left and right may come and go, and some presidents will have less confidence in Middle East peacemaking than others, but no U.S. president will be able to sustain a policy of benign neglect of the peace process for long. The American people, the United States’ European allies, and U.S. friends in the Arab world all need to have a ray of hope. They need to believe that active diplomacy under U.S. leadership is bringing closer a resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, because it is a conflict that roils other American interests and destabilizes U.S. relations in the region and throughout the world. Martin often cited our friend, the late Peter Rodman, who taught us that U.S. policy in the Middle East is a bicycle. You can keep your balance if you roll forward even at a snail’s pace, but if you try to stand still you will fall off.

Martin never did succeed in converting me to the peace camp, but over time I saw the undeniable evidence that he was right about the imperatives of U.S. foreign policy. Sooner or later, every president turns to the peace process, and the Mideast advisors who move to the president’s inner circle are the ones he thinks have the best ideas about how to move forward toward a contractual peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

I think Benjamin Netanyahu has gone through a personal evolution a little like my own. He continues to be profoundly skeptical that signing a piece of paper can put an end to this conflict. He is a fierce advocate of defensible borders and military strength as the true guarantors of Israel’s security. Nevertheless, he has come back to a second term as prime minister with a deeper appreciation of the reality that his relations with the United States, Europe, and moderate Arab neighbors depend on the perception that he can be a partner in the search for diplomatic progress with the Palestinians. And he certainly knows that many harbor doubts about him.

That is why Bibi agreed to do something unprecedented, something that six previous

Israeli prime ministers since the 1993 Oslo Accords (Rabin, Peres, Barak, Sharon, Olmert, and Netanyahu himself in his previous term) refused to do. Very much against the will of his party and coalition, Netanyahu consented to putting a freeze on “natural growth” of settlements. He has drastically curtailed the volume of construction starts, even in the “consensus” settlement blocs that he believes were conceded to Ariel Sharon by George W. Bush.

Now, below the radar, Netanyahu is making a series of additional concessions to Barack Obama and his Mideast peace envoy, George Mitchell. Their current priority is negotiating “terms of reference” to permit the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (TORs in negotiators’ vernacular). Dismissed by some as mere “talking about talking,” TORs are in fact vital elements to create the parameters for serious negotiations. For example, then-Secretary of State James Baker shuttled around the region for eight months to negotiate the TORs that made the 1991 Madrid conference possible. All that was done just to phrase a letter of invitation that all sides could accept. The result was far from trivial; it was a framework that opened the way to all the direct negotiations that followed over the ensuing two decades.

Mitchell’s challenge today is to define such a framework that can bridge differences between Netanyahu and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas. Defying skeptics who say you can bridge a river but not an ocean, Mitchell keeps going at it, and his perseverance is paying off. While no one was watching, Netanyahu has in fact agreed to language that Mitchell can accept. With the Israeli agreement in his pocket, Mitchell is now working to bring Abbas around, according to sources close to the discussions.

The issues are not small. Abbas wants to enshrine the 1967 boundary as sacrosanct, even though that line was merely a military demarcation after the war that ended in 1949 and had never been recognized by the Palestinians or anyone else as a legal border. Reflecting the Israeli consensus, Netanyahu insists that future agreed frontiers have to meet Israel’s security imperatives and reflect post-1967 demographic realities, whether or not they diverge from the former armistice line. But Netanyahu has accepted a solution based on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s formulation: “an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.”

Abbas wants Israeli territorial concessions in Jerusalem as a precondition for negotiations. Netanyahu has accepted that the Palestinians will bring their claims for Jerusalem to the table, but he is not going to make this or any other concession just to bring Abbas to negotiate. Mitchell’s TORs will include implementation of all existing agreements between the parties, as well as the 2003 “Roadmap” for a two-state solution. These already define Jerusalem as a subject for discussion.

Abbas wants an absolute two-year deadline for the achievement of a permanent agreement. Netanyahu is accepting target dates for agreements, but he does not believe achievement can be guaranteed. Mitchell has the language he needs for the TORs regarding target dates.

Abbas wants language that obliges Israel to repatriate and compensate descendents of Palestinians who lost their homes in the upheavals before 1949. Netanyahu has agreed to participate in multilateral solutions for this “refugee” problem, provided these solutions do not include an obligation that will dilute Israel’s own Jewish majority. Mitchell will point out that a solution to the refugee question is already incorporated in the documents to which the TORs will refer.

Abbas wants the 2002 Saudi-initiated Arab Peace Initiative to be the basis of negotiations. Netanyahu has agreed to have it listed among the references, though it is not among the signed agreements whose specific terms are binding. In any case, the Roadmap already contains a positive reference to the Saudi peace plan, and the Roadmap will be a major source document for the TORs.

The Palestinians eschew the concept of interim agreements because they fear that any temporary arrangements will become final. Israel believes that interim steps are a necessity for building confidence between the two parties. The Roadmap’s Phase II already contains “the option of creating an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty,” and the Oslo Accords are replete with interim steps. This will not be an obstacle to agreed TORs.

Mitchell has not announced the agreement with Netanyahu because delicate negotiations with Abbas still lie ahead. He did say on Nov. 25, “We have been in discussions with both Israelis and Palestinians for some time regarding terms of reference for negotiations. We have closed many gaps between them. And while admittedly important differences remain, we’ve made very substantial progress.”

Now, a month later, the work on the Israeli side is done. Netanyahu has put the ball in the Palestinian court.


Editorial: Israel’s open road

National Post, Monday, January 04, 2010

Last Tuesday, Israel’s supreme court ordered that country’s government to reopen to Palestinian motorists a major commuter highway around the outskirts of Jerusalem. Highway 443 carries 40,000 vehicles a day from Jerusalem’s northern suburbs into the city, as well as travellers from the city to Ben Gurion airport, near Tel Aviv.

Despite continual international condemnation of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, the ruling is representative of how mightily Israel struggles to balance its own obvious security needs with the rights of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians.

The road was closed to Palestinians from the West Bank in 2002 when, during the second intifada, five Israeli motorists were killed by snipers in separate incidents within a matter of weeks. The Israeli army also constructed walls or rolled boulders along the route through Palestinian sections to prevent sniping. Palestinians who live inside Israel proper (and who carry Israeli ID cards and have Israeli licence plates) were never barred from using Highway 443, just West Bankers and Gazans.

There is no doubt the closure of 443 was a huge imposition on Palestinians who could no longer use it to get from one West Bank community to another, but rather than ignore their complaints — which would have been the reaction, if Israel were the callous occupier it is often accused of being– the Israeli government and military spent nearly $3-billion building Palestinians a parallel highway system on which there were no checkpoints to delay their trips.

There will undoubtedly be many commentators who jump to the conclusion that this court decision proves Israel is wrong in the way it treats Palestinians. But consider this: The case was brought by an Israeli human rights group– the Association for Civil Rights in Israel–paid for by donations from Israelis, argued in an Israeli court and decided by Israeli judges. And, as institutions in a democratic government, the decision will now be adhered to by the Israeli cabinet and military.

Considering that Jews may be shot merely for walking down a Palestinian street — and there are no Palestinian human rights groups or courts to which they can appeal — Israeli efforts to treat Palestinians with respect, despite the many hundreds of attempted terrorist attacks launched each year from the West Bank and Gaza, are exemplary.

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