Netanyahu keeps calling for talks with Abbas. Is he serious?

For a leader often accused of not wanting to talk peace with the Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sure does a lot of talking about wanting to talk to the Palestinians.

In a series of three statements this month, Netanyahu repeatedly stressed the need for peace with the Palestinians. He called the peace process one of his highest priorities and hinted that a renewal of talks might be underway.

Responding to a question about the peace process on Twitter on May 12, Israel’s Independence Day, Netanyahu said “there’s nothing I want more or am more active on, in many ways you don’t know.” Later that day, speaking to foreign diplomats in Jerusalem, he asked for help arranging a meeting between himself and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“I have taken steps that no other prime minister in Israel’s history has taken to advance peace,” he said. “Every minute that President Abbas refuses to accept my call for peace robs Palestinians and Israelis of the opportunity to live without fear.”

Netanyahu’s commitment to a Palestinian state, even in theory, has remained a question mark and divided observers of Israeli politics since he took office in 2009. Both his defenders and his critics point to different sets of gestures and statements he’s made that signal support for, or opposition to, a two-state solution. In the lead-up to elections 14 months ago, he dismissed the possibility of a Palestinian state on his watch.

But in a talk to North American Jewish federations last November, he said he “remain[s] committed to a vision of two states for two peoples where a demilitarized Palestinian state recognizes the Jewish state, and Israel will continue to work for peace in the hope that what is not achievable today might be achievable tomorrow.”

At the same time, Abbas repeatedly has declined another round of negotiations, saying he would only talk without preconditions and insisting on Israeli good-faith measures. Before the last series of talks, in 2013, Israel released 82 Palestinian prisoners before the two sides met. Netanyahu’s defenders say Abbas’ reticence shows that the Palestinian leader remains the main obstacle to a deal.

“This process has two sides, and I think the central problem isn’t Israel but Abu Mazen,” said former Israeli Deputy National Security Adviser Shaul Shay, using Abbas’ nom de guerre. “Abu Mazen isn’t prepared to reach an agreement, so things are stuck not necessarily because of Israel.”

Abbas instead has turned to international forums, including the United Nations, to recognize a Palestinian state and hold Israel accountable for what he calls violations of international law. 

Most recently, Abbas endorsed a French-led initiative to convene an Israeli-Palestinian peace conference for the summer, an initiative Israel opposes.

The France initiative is just one of three factors leading Netanyahu to emphasize peace talks again, analysts say. The others include the possibility of the center-left Labor Party joining his coalition and a desire to project optimism on Israel’s Independence Day.

The French initiative calls for a regional peace conference to be held in the summer. Should negotiations fail, France has vowed to recognize a State of Palestine. Israel thus far has refused to participate, saying the statehood recognition threat gives the Palestinians no incentive to negotiate in good faith.

“The only way to advance a true peace between us and the Palestinians is by means of direct negotiations between us and them, without preconditions,” Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday. “Any other attempt only makes peace more remote and gives the Palestinians an escape hatch.”

Netanyahu is also enmeshed in negotiations with the Knesset’s largest opposition party, Labor, which advocates a settlement building freeze and renewed peace talks. Rumors have swirled in recent days that party chairman Isaac Herzog is ready to sign on in exchange, in part, for being named Israel’s foreign minister. Herzog acknowledged the negotiations in a May 12 Facebook post, but said he was not yet ready to join the government.

“If I receive a mandate to stop the next campaign of funerals and to block the danger of an international boycott, to bring back the United States and Europe as allies, to open negotiations with regional states and to separate from the Palestinians into two states so as to stop the continual campaign of terror, then I’ll know my hands are on the steering wheel,” the post read.

Netanyahu’s peace talk may also have been prompted, analysts say, by a need to give a sort of “State of the Union” on Independence Day. While prospects for peace may be dim, Shay said, relations with the Palestinians are still of paramount importance.

“On Independence Day, the prime minister talks to the people and surveys what the situation is and what the future will hold,” Shay said. “You can’t ignore this central subject.”

Renewed negotiations have seemed remote recently. A brutal war in Gaza followed the collapse of talks in 2014. Last year saw the formation of a right-wing Israeli government, succeeded by a wave of terror that is only now fading.

“He sees a theoretical possibility but not a practical one,” said Dror Zeevi, a Middle Eastern studies professor at Hebrew University, referring to Netanyahu. “If things come together, it’s possible he would be ready for a deal, but I don’t think it’s practical in the current government.”

Those who insist Netanyahu is sincere about renewing talks point to his 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, where he committed to supporting a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel. They note that he froze West Bank settlement growth in 2010 and freed Palestinian prisoners to jump-start negotiations in 2013 and 2014. Since taking office seven years ago, Netanyahu repeatedly has called for direct negotiations with Abbas.

“He’s ready to make concessions,” said Ephraim Inbar, director of Bar-Ilan’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “Everyone knows he’ll make concessions. He was ready to freeze settlements. There are concessions he won’t make for security reasons, for historical reasons, and the nation agrees with him.”

Others point to Netanyahu’s decades-long opposition to Palestinian statehood prior to 2009. Since the building freeze, they note, Netanyahu has expanded settlements throughout the West Bank. And in March 2015, two days before Israeli elections, Netanyahu told the Israeli news website NRG that a Palestinian state would not rise while he is prime minister.

Gershon Baskin, who has acted as a conduit between the Netanyahu government and Palestinian leaders, told JTA that Abbas has thrice offered to begin secret direct talks with Netanyahu. Each time, Baskin said, Netanyahu has refused.

“The point isn’t negotiating anymore — it’s making decisions,” Baskin said. “[Netanyahu] doesn’t do anything in terms of policy to show that a two-state solution is what he wants. Nothing on the ground indicates that.”

But others insist it is Abbas offering the “Mixed Messages,” as the Washington Institute for Near East Policuy titled a recent report on the Palestinian leader and Israel.

“It is not just that Abbas and the P.A. turned their backs on any peace talks with Israel — a position they have hewed to ever since” turning to the international community for unilateral actions, wrote David Pollock, the Kaufman fellow and director of Project Fikra at The Washington Institute. “It is also that they had decided thenceforth to seek independent statehood for themselves without paying any price at all to Israel — neither the end of claims and conflict, nor a compromise on refugees, nor formal agreement on any other issue. In other words, their objective was land without peace.”

Hamas political chief confirms negotiations with Israel

Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal confirmed that his organization is negotiating with Israel over a long-term truce and described the talks as “very positive.”

In an interview with a London-based Qatari newspaper published Friday, Meshaal said former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is one of the mediators and that talks have not yet produced an agreement.

In the interview, according to the Times of Israel, Meshaal listed five obstacles standing in the way of a long-term cease-fire with Israel: reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, which was badly damaged in last summer’s war between Israel and Hamas; removal of the blockade and opening of the border crossings; addressing Gaza’s high rate of unemployment; allowing the construction of a seaport and airport, and building water and electricity infrastructures in the territory.

Meshaal said, “We do not want wars, but the legitimate resistance against the occupation will continue so long as the occupation and settlements continue, but we do not seek wars.”

Earlier this week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied reports that his government was negotiating with Hamas, the Islamist terrorist organization that governs Gaza. “Israel officially clarifies that there have been no meetings with Hamas. Not directly, not through another country and not through intermediaries,” he said in a statement issued Monday.

Netanyahu denies reported negotiations with Hamas

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office denied reports that Israel has been negotiating with Hamas.

A statement from his office Monday was in response to media reports claiming that direct talks took place recently and were in their final stages.

“Israel officially clarifies that there have been no meetings with Hamas. Not directly, not through another country and not through intermediaries,” the statement said, the Times of Israel reported.

Hours earlier, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that direct talks between Israel and Hamas took place recently in an African country. The same day, Haaretz quoted a Turkish official saying that Israel and Hamas are in the final stages of negotiating a long-term truce that would end Israel’s naval blockade on Gaza in exchange for an end to Hamas attacks on Israel.

Based on Arabic-language news sources, Israeli newspapers had reported that the agreement has been approved by the Shura Council, Hamas’ legislative body, and that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is mediating the accord, with Hamas negotiating in partnership with Turkey and Qatar.

Here’s why Hamas and Israel may be secretly negotiating

After more than a decade of failed diplomacy, Israel could be close to signing a major agreement with the Palestinians.

They’re just not the Palestinians you thought.

After years of vowing not to negotiate with Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, Israel may be finalizing a deal with the terrorist group that reportedly would lift Israel’s blockade of Gaza in exchange for a cessation of Hamas rocket attacks and tunneling into Israel for at least eight years.

Israeli officials have flatly denied the reports. On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office released a statement saying that its policy of non-negotiation with Hamas had not changed.

“Israel would like to officially clarify that it is not holding any meetings with Hamas, neither directly, nor via other countries, nor via intermediaries,” the statement said.

But there may be some truth to the reports, which have appeared in the Arabic-language press and have received considerable attention in the Israeli media. A senior official in Turkey, an ally of Hamas, told the Hamas daily al-Resalah that an agreement was near, the Times of Israel reported. The official, Yasin Aktay, is an adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and said Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal came to Turkey to brief the Turkish leadership about the agreement.

After three wars in the past six years, Israel and Hamas may have a mutual interest in securing a longer-term truce that will stave off another round of fighting. Hamas would be able to rebuild Gaza — and perhaps restock its arsenal — while the Israelis would get a reprieve from Hamas rockets that is longer than two years.

“It seems to me that Hamas absorbed some [Israeli military] operations, and they’re interested in getting to an arrangement that will allow them to live in Gaza in quiet,” said Ephraim Inbar, the director of Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “Israel is also interested in a long-term cease-fire.”

Arabic news sources reported that the agreement could include the construction of a port in the Gaza Strip. Ships en route to Gaza would pass through a port in Cyprus, where they would be examined by either Turkish or NATO authorities. The agreement also would include permits for thousands of Gazan day laborers to work in Israel, and in exchange Hamas would commit to ceasing all rocket attacks and tunneling into Israel, according to the Times of Israel.

The deal reportedly has been approved by the Shura Council, Hamas’ legislative body. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is said to be mediating between the sides.

Gershon Baskin, who helped negotiate the 2011 Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange that freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, said he was inclined to believe Netanyahu’s denials and doubted that an agreement was close. Israel has no incentive to sign an agreement that would strengthen Hamas while weakening Palestinian moderates in the West Bank who oppose Hamas, Baskin said.

“It’s insane for Israel to even think about entering into that kind of agreement,” Baskin said. “It’s a victory for Hamas, and the question is: You’re giving Hamas a victory as Hamas continues to build its soldiers and its army. For what? It’s not a plan to demilitarize Gaza.”

If negotiations are taking place, it would be a major reversal for a government that previously considered Israel-Hamas talks anathema — at least officially. Last year, Israel called off peace talks with the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority when the Fatah faction and Hamas signed a unity pact.

“Instead of choosing peace, Abu Mazen formed an alliance with a murderous terrorist organization that calls for the destruction of Israel,” Netanyahu said at the time, using P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas’ nom de guerre. “Whoever chooses the terrorism of Hamas does not want peace.”

Israel, however, has negotiated with Hamas indirectly in the past. Mediated talks in 2012 and 2014 ended Israeli military operations in Gaza. At the end of August 2014, an Egyptian-mediated pact ended a Gaza conflict that saw more than 2,000 Palestinians and 70 Israelis killed. The cease-fire also called for restarting indirect talks on easing the blockade of Gaza and disarming the territory.

An Israel-Hamas agreement may be especially opportune now as Israel aims to strengthen ties with neighboring countries that share its fears about the Iran nuclear agreement. Saudi Arabia reportedly wants to create a broad, Sunni-based alliance that includes Hamas to counter Iran’s regional ambitions. Hamas, however, has received funding and weaponry from Iran.

For Israel, another positive side effect of an accord could be improved relations with Turkey, which supports Hamas. Relations between Turkey and Israel deteriorated in 2010 after nine Turks were killed when Israeli soldiers stormed a Turkish boat, the Mavi Marmara, trying to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza.

Since then, Turkey and Israel have negotiated over Israeli compensation for the victims. An Israeli pact with Hamas could make Turkey more amenable to an agreement of its own with Israel. But on Monday, a statement from the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office said, “As for relations with Turkey, agreement is still far off.”

Even if an Israel-Hamas accord does strengthen Israel’s regional position, it could harm Israel’s relationship with the Palestinian Authority, signaling to moderate Palestinians that violence pays, Baskin said.

“It destroys the Palestinian Authority, it destroys Palestinian moderates,” he said. “It gives the Palestinians the message that you only get concessions from Israel through violence or force.”

Hamas, Israel reportedly negotiating long-term accord

Israel and Hamas reportedly are negotiating a long-term deal that would end Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip in exchange for an end to Hamas attacks on Israel.

Based on Arabic-language news sources, Israeli papers are reporting that negotiations on the agreement are in their final stages, and that the agreement has been approved by the Shura Council, Hamas’ legislative body. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is mediating the accord, and Hamas is negotiating it in partnership with Turkey and Qatar.

The agreement reportedly would include the construction of a port in the Gaza Strip. En route to Gaza, ships would pass through another port in Cyprus, where they would be examined by either Turkish or NATO authorities. According to the Times of Israel, the agreement also would include permits for thousands of Gazan day laborers to work in Israel. In exchange, Hamas would commit to ceasing all rocket attacks and tunneling into Israel.

Negotiations received encouragement recently from Saudi Arabia, which aims to create a broad, Sunni-based alliance to counter Iran’s regional ambitions, according to Haaretz. The same newspaper reported that the Israel-Hamas agreement would improve Israel’s ties with Turkey, which deteriorated after nine Turks were killed when the Israel Defense Forces stormed a Turkish boat aimed at breaking Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza in 2010.

Hamas negotiator on Israeli detainees was released in Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange

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Iranian nuclear talks expected to go past scheduled deadline

Negotiations for an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program will go past the scheduled deadline, several officials said from Vienna, where the final round of talks was underway.

The agreement was scheduled to be concluded on Tuesday.

On Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif left the negotiations and flew home to Tehran for consultations after first meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Zarif is scheduled to return on Tuesday, the deadline day for the talks.

The talks between Iran and the six world powers were expected to continue for a few days beyond the deadline, according to reports.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the world powers do not have to sign a deal in Vienna.

“No deal is better than a bad deal,” Hammond said. “There are red lines that we cannot cross and some very difficult decisions and tough choices are going to have to be made by all of us.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the deal on Sunday, saying “there is no demand that Iran change its behavior and its violations are being completely overlooked. Its extreme demands, as well as the concessions to Iran, are increasing.”

President Barack Obama said in April that the interim framework agreement achieved then was “a good deal” that “meets our core objectives, including strict limitations on Iran’s program and cutting off every pathway that Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon.”

Netanyahu and other critics of the deal, which would gradually lift sanctions on Iran, say elements of the emerging deal allow Iran to continue a degree of uranium enrichment that would enable it to creep toward nuclear offensive capabilities.

U.S., Iran resume talks on preliminary nuclear deal as deadline looms

The United States and Iran resumed negotiations on Thursday aimed at clinching a nuclear deal before a March 31 deadline, and officials close to the talks said some kind of preliminary agreement between Tehran and six powers was possible.

As the talks began, Washington and Tehran took opposing stands on Saudi-led air strikes in Yemen against rebels allied to Iran who are fighting to oust the country's president, but it was unclear whether this would affect the nuclear talks.

The two sides are seeking a political framework accord by the end of this month that would lay the foundations for a full deal by June 30.

Under a final settlement, Tehran would halt sensitive nuclear work for at least a decade and in exchange, international sanctions on Iran would be lifted. This would aim to end the country's 12-year nuclear standoff with the West and reduce the risk of another war in the Middle East.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz met their Iranian counterparts, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Atomic Energy Organization chief Ali Akbar Salehi, in the Swiss city of Lausanne.

Earlier, Iranian media quoted Zarif as condemning the Saudi-led military operation against the Shi'ite Muslim Houthi fighters in Yemen, and demanding that it stop.

By contrast, Kerry spoke to the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council members on Thursday and welcomed their decision to take action against the Houthis, a senior U.S. official said.

However, neither Kerry nor Zarif responded when asked by a reporter in Lausanne to comment on the air strikes.

Speaking to reporters traveling with Kerry from Washington on Wednesday, a senior State Department official said the six powers – the United States, Britain, France, Germany,Russia and China – would not rush to complete a framework agreement with Iran just because there was a March 31 deadline.

But the official said the parties had made progress at last week's inconclusive round of negotiations in Lausanne.

“We very much believe we can get this done by the 31st,” the official said. “We see a path to do that.” The official added, however, that there was no guarantee of success.

Salehi also said a deal was possible but not certain. “It is difficult to forecast whether we can reach a result at this round of talks but we are moving toward reaching a mutual understanding in all technical issues,” he told Iranian state television.

Israel, Saudi Arabia, France and U.S. Congress have all raised concerns that the administration of President Barack Obama might be willing to conclude a deal that would allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapons capability in the future.

The State Department official said: “Any political understanding needs to address in some way all of the elements of a final agreement.”

“We do not know what form this will take … We have always said it needs to have specifics. We will need to communicate as many specifics as possible in some form or fashion (to the public and U.S. Congress).”

Those elements include the different ways to a nuclear weapon, ensuring that it would take Iran at least one year to produce enough high enriched uranium for a single bomb, research and development into advanced centrifuges, transparency measures and monitoring, and sanctions relief for Iran.


Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, opposes the idea of a two-step process. Iranian officials say they fear a written framework accord would curtail Tehran's negotiating space for the final deal.

Iranian officials have also suggested they could accept some kind of statement or political declaration in Lausanne, as opposed to a formal written agreement.

Officials close to the talks said deep disagreements remained between Tehran and the powers, while divisions had also emerged in recent weeks between the United States andFrance on what to demand of Tehran. U.S. officials say the six are united.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who last week phoned his negotiation team to tell them to keep a tough line in the talks, will join the talks on Saturday. Other ministers may also arrive at then, officials said.

Iran denies Western allegations it is seeking the capability to procure atomic weapons. But Israel, which is believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, has previously threatened Iran with military attack.

With the Republican-led U.S. Congress threatening to vote on new sanctions against Iran if there is no agreement this month, the Obama administration is pushing hard to secure a deal. Obama has vowed to veto any new sanctions moves.

Other officials said some kind of memorandum of understanding that would satisfy U.S. needs for Congress and Khamenei's demands was possible by Sunday.

The main obstacle, Western officials say, remains Iran's refusal to compromise on sanctions, research and development and other issues. Salehi disagreed, saying it was the Western powers who need to compromise.

“Iran has demonstrated its political will and it is up to the other side to take a step forward and show that it has the political will to allow a resolution of the problem,” he was quoted as saying on Iran's Press TV website.

Negotiations progress as cease-fire holds

Indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas are moving forward as both sides adhere to a renewed cease-fire.

A Palestinian negotiator in Cairo reported agreement “on many points” Thursday, according to the French news agency AFP.

Rockets were fired from Gaza as a previous three-day truce expired at midnight Wednesday, and Israel responded with airstrikes over the coastal strip. But despite exchanging fire, the sides agreed to extend the truce for five days to continue negotiations in the Egyptian capital over an end to this round of conflict, which began July 8.

Hamas is demanding an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza, an opening of border crossings with Israel and Egypt, and the construction of a seaport and airport. Israel is demanding that Hamas cease rocket fire and disarm. Egyptian mediators have proposed that Palestinian Authority forces man the border crossings.

Little progress reported at Cairo truce talks

Negotiators at the Israel-Hamas truce talks in Cairo said they were still far from an agreement.

Palestinian officials said Tuesday that the current three-day cease-fire between the sides will be the final one unless Israel and Hamas make progress toward a truce. The cease-fire, which began Monday, is the second three-day truce between the sides after a month of fighting.

“We’re standing before a difficult negotiation,” Hamas deputy political leader Mousa Abu Marzook said, according to the Times of Israel. “The first truce passed without an acceptable achievement to note. This is the second and final truce. The seriousness right now is clear. What’s necessary is for the delegation to achieve what the Palestinian people wishes of it.”

Israeli negotiators also reported little progress at the negotiations. Israel has called for another three-day truce to allow negotiations to continue.

Hamas is demanding an end to Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip and the building of an airport and seaport, and Israel is demanding Gaza’s demilitarization. Palestinian negotiators, including representatives of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group, reportedly rejected an Israeli offer of a seaport in exchange for the demilitarization.



Palestinians to leave Cairo on Sunday unless Israel resumes Gaza talks

Palestinian negotiators will leave Cairo on Sunday unless Israel agrees to return to Egyptian-mediated negotiations to end the war in Gaza, senior delegation member Moussa Abu Marzouk said.

“Within the next 24 hours, the delegation's presence in Egypt will be determined,” Abu Marzouk, the deputy chairman of Hamas' political bureau, told Reuters in an interview late on Saturday at the delegation's hotel near the Cairo airport.

He said the decision would be made after a meeting on Sunday with Egyptian mediators, who have met separately with each party about at least three times this week.

Delegation head Azzam Ahmed told Al Arabiya television the Palestinian factions in Cairo for the negotiations would leave “if it is confirmed to us that (Israel) will not return except with conditions.”

Israel has said it will not take part in truce talks while violence is ongoing. Its delegation has not returned to Cairo since it left early Friday morning, shortly before a 72-hour cease-fire expired.

The Palestinians refused to extend the cease-fire, saying Israel was stalling and had refused to accept demands including an end to the blockade of Gaza and the opening of a seaport.

Israel launched more than 30 air attacks in Gaza on Saturday, killing nine Palestinians, and militants fired rockets at Israel as the conflict entered a second month.

The diplomatic deadlock suggests that Israel's seven-year blockade of Gaza and intermittent offensives may have had the opposite of their intended effect – the elimination of armed resistance and the marginalization of Hamas, which it denounces as a terrorist group.

“The Palestinian people don't have anything to lose,” said Abu Marzouk in the hotel's lobby flanked by guards.

“The Palestinian people do not have many choices: either be killed under the blockade or be killed by mortar and (war) planes,” he said, suggesting that the blockade has killed more Palestinians than the wars.

Gaza officials say the current conflict has killed 1,890 Palestinians, most of them civilians. Israel says 64 of its soldiers and three civilians have died in the fighting, which started on July 8.

Maher al-Taher from the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which does not usually toe the Hamas line, echoed Abu Marzouk's comments.

He told Reuters earlier in the day that Israel's plan to push the Palestinians to rebel against Hamas had backfired.

“Instead the people have gathered around the resistance factions,” he said.

“Palestinians have become convinced that Israel is targeting everyone,” he said. “We believe Israel is digging its own grave and will pay the price.”

Reversible Iran deal puts more pressure on final talks

By dropping earlier demands that Iran shut down an underground uranium enrichment plant and ship material out of the country as part of a preliminary deal, nuclear negotiators have kicked some of the toughest questions forward to talks for the next year.

The curbs to its nuclear program that Iran agreed to on Sunday are easier to reverse than measures that were previously called for by the six global powers seeking to prevent Tehran from developing an atomic bomb, experts say.

To opponents of the deal, like Israel, which branded it an “historic mistake”, that is a fatal flaw. But supporters say the compromise was necessary to halt Iran's nuclear advances so that the real bargaining could begin, and should help keep both sides focused on the final negotiations which lie ahead.

A senior Western diplomat acknowledged that Iran could resume its most controversial activity – production of 20 percent enriched uranium – if it should decide to abandon the deal or if final talks fail.

But by making it easier for inspectors to detect any such move, the preliminary accord requires Tehran to demonstrate its sincerity while a final deal is hammered out.

“This is all about testing their good faith. We would pick that up very quickly if they did it,” the envoy said.

“Any agreement like this represents an element of compromise. Given where we were six months ago, to get the two sides together to agree something, there had to be some compromise from both sides.”


Instead of requiring Iran to take steps that would be hard to undo, the powers' demands focused on stopping the higher-grade enrichment and halting future progress in other parts of the nuclear program for six months, while increasing inspections to determine if Iran is complying.

For their part, the United States and European Union have protected their future negotiating position by leaving most of their economic sanctions against Iran in place.

“Each side would retain enough leverage – one, in the form of continued economic penalties; the other in the form of a continued nuclear program – to maintain incentives for a grander bargain and guard against the other's potential reneging,” said Iran expert Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group think-tank.

The most controversial part of Iran's nuclear program has been its enrichment of uranium, which is first turned into a gas and then spun at high speeds in centrifuges to increase the concentration of the fissile isotope that is needed to make either fuel for a reactor or the core of an atomic bomb.

Tehran says it is refining uranium only for peaceful purposes and has the right to do so under international treaties. Western countries believe it has no such right and no legitimate need for an enrichment program of its own.

In addition to lower-grade work which began in 2007, Iran has since 2010 been enriching uranium to 20 percent purity, which Western countries see as a small technical step from reaching the 90 percent level needed to make a bomb.

In fruitless meetings during 2012, the powers sought a confidence-building, interim deal that would require Iran to stop its higher-level enrichment, close its Fordow enrichment site and send its stockpile of the higher-level uranium abroad.

Those demands were dubbed “stop, shut, ship” by diplomats. In the end, the November 24 deal in effect dropped two of the three demands: it obliges Iran to “stop” 20 percent enrichment but says nothing about “shutting” Fordow or “shipping” material out.

The same number of centrifuges can continue to spin, producing lower-level enriched uranium at Fordow – built deep inside a mountain near the holy Shi'ite Muslim town of Qom to shield it from any military attacks – and at Iran's other enrichment plant close to the central town of Natanz.

And instead of sending out the stockpile of 20 percent uranium, Iran will dilute it or convert the gas to a less proliferation-sensitive oxide powder.

The United States says this will “neutralize” the material. But experts say Iran could in theory convert the powder back, although it has agreed not to build a facility to do so.

“This is not a roll-back of the program,” said Olli Heinonen, former deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and now an expert at Harvard University. Instead, he said, it represents a “temporary halt” of many of the nuclear program's elements.

Apart from the enriched uranium, Western countries are also concerned that Iran could produce plutonium at Arak, an unfinished research reactor where Tehran says it intends to make medical isotopes. Plutonium can be used as an alternative to enriched uranium to build a bomb core.

Sunday's deal requires Iran to halt activity at Arak, although it may contain a loophole allowing it to build components off-site. In comments unlikely to go down well in Western capitals, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Wednesday that construction would continue at Arak, though he said there would be no new equipment installations.


Western officials and experts accept that the deal leaves Iran's nuclear program largely in place for now.

“For the time being, Iran will be allowed to retain most of its current infrastructure, which will have to be substantially reduced at a later stage,” said Robert Einhorn, the U.S. State Department's non-proliferation adviser until earlier this year.

“But the first step will prevent Iran from sharply ramping up its capabilities in the next six months,” he wrote in Israel's Haaretz newspaper.

Former chief U.N. nuclear inspector Herman Nackaerts said Iran, if it wanted to, could quickly resume higher-level enrichment at Fordow, but because of expanded inspections, including daily visits by IAEA monitors, it would easily be caught if it did so.

“It is technically easy to do that and it can quickly be done,” Nackaerts, who retired in September, told Reuters. “Of course, when the inspectors are there every day they will notice that.”

Western diplomats acknowledge that Iran's commitments are largely reversible so far, but say the deal takes care of the most urgent concerns while talks are under way.

“This first stage is one where the program is slowed in some ways, capped in others, but Iran can resume quickly,” said a second Vienna-based diplomat.

“The main issues that we were concerned about are all covered by this. As we move on we will tackle more and more difficult things,” said the first senior Western diplomat.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Justyna Pawlak in Brussels; Editing by Peter Graff

Abbas: Palestinian peace negotiators quit over absence of progress

Palestinian peace negotiators resigned over a lack of progress in talks with Israel, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said.

Abbas said he would try to convince the negotiating team to change its mind or find new negotiators, Reuters reported Wednesday, citing an Abbas interview with Egyptian CBC television. The Palestinian leader said he would need a week to get his team back in place.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Wednesday in a statement to Reuters TV that negotiations with Israel were frozen over the announcement of new housing construction in the settlements.

Meanwhile, Israeli lawmakers called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt peace talks over Wednesday’s stabbing death of an Israeli soldier in northern Israel by a Palestinian residing illegally in Israel, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Why the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks must work

Cynicism about new Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts comes in a variety of flavors. There is the lazy cynicism of allegedly objective pundits: “Only a fool would believe that this could work.” There is the cowardly cynicism of the disillusioned: “I won’t be fooled again!” And there is the malicious, smirking cynicism of crypto-peace opponents: “It’s foolish to think this can ever work, or that the Palestinians can ever be trusted, or that settlers can ever be removed.” What the latter really mean, of course, is: “I want this to fail, and this is my way of helping.”

Let’s be clear: The current Kerry-backed peace effort is probably the last, best hope for achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace in this generation. The situation on the ground — code mainly for settlement expansion — is nearing a tipping point after which a two-state solution will no longer be available (many settlers gleefully argue the point has already been passed). The end of the two-state solution doesn’t then magically create some new alternative — it just plays into the hands of zero-sum extremists on both sides, with devastating implications for everyone else. Until eventually, perhaps after another generation or more of Israeli-Palestinian mutual bloodletting and mutual efforts at delegitimization, both peoples come to a realization, as they did in the 1990s, that their respective aspirations for peace, security, self-determination and a better future for their children will only be realized at the negotiating table. 

[Related: Why David Suissa thinks peace talks will fail]

For anyone who truly cares about Israel and Israelis — as opposed to those who prioritize land over peace, settlements over security, and Greater Israel over Israel’s good standing in the community of progressive, democratic nations of the world — must recognize that the stakes today are too high to give in to self-indulgent cynicism and self-protective defeatism.

Yes, there are reasons for skepticism about the current peace effort. The provocative and self-defeating march of Israeli settlements goes on. The release of Palestinian prisoners is reopening painful wounds for Israelis across the political spectrum. And rhetoric that is inconsistent with a commitment to peace and coexistence continues to emanate from both sides. 

At the same time, there are compelling reasons to believe that this new peace effort can succeed, starting with the personal investment of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, backed by power-hitters like Special Envoy Martin Indyk, leading negotiations, and Gen. John Allen, focusing on Israeli security issues. The Quartet and Tony Blair remain active, focusing on economic issues, and the European Union and the Arab League are playing positive supporting roles.

Likewise, there are solid reasons to believe that this effort is serious. Both sides have publicly committed to negotiating for nine months. Neither side wants to be the one that walks away and is blamed for destroying the process — creating a negotiations-preserving dynamic. Moreover, the parties have agreed to secrecy, insulating the effort from destructive real-time “crowd testing.” And finally, these negotiations are taking place in the context of unprecedented recognition of both the fact that the window is closing on the two-state solution and that achieving the two-state solution is a vital U.S. national security interest.

It is also clear that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can deliver if he wants to. He has the trust of the majority of the Israeli public, strong Knesset support for entering talks, and, if cornered by right-wing members of his coalition, he has a new pro-peace coalition available. Likewise, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can deliver if he wants to and if the agreement on offer from Israel is indeed serious. Abbas is a founder of the Palestinian national movement, committed to nonviolence, and has long experience negotiating with Israel. He ran for president of the Palestinian Authority on a platform that centered on his commitment to negotiate a two-state agreement with Israel, and, according to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former (and current) Israel negotiator Tzipi Livni, went a long distance toward doing exactly that.

Finally, recent reports of a single poll notwithstanding, polling has shown, year after year, that both peoples want peace and would support the compromises necessary if packaged together as an end-of-conflict-end-of-claims agreement.

At this time, we would do well to recall the words of Yitzhak Rabin, who famously said that he would “fight terrorism as if there is no peace process” and “pursue peace as if there is no terrorism.” Today, the greatest threat to peace efforts is not terrorism, but cynicism, skepticism and spoilers on both sides. In this context, Rabin’s wise formula becomes: “We must fight skepticism and spoilers as if there are no peace negotiations, and we must doggedly support the pursuit of peace at the negotiating table, refusing to allow skeptics, cynics and spoilers to demoralize us or distract us from our goal.”

Lara Friedman is director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now.

Islamist movement Hamas moving closer to Iran

This story originally appeared on

The Islamist Hamas movement has sharply criticized the Palestinian Authority for resuming peace talks with Israel, saying that President Mahmoud Abbas is giving in to American pressure. The criticism comes as Hamas moves toward a rapprochement with Iran, despite differences over Syria.

“The (Israeli-Palestinian) negotiations will not lead to anything — it’s just wasting time,” Hamas deputy foreign minister Ghazi Hamad told The Media Line. “Israeli is trying to use the talks as an umbrella to continue its aggressive measures against the Palestinian people, especially in the West Bank and Jerusalem.”

Hamad said that in the days prior to the resumption of talks, Israel announced plans to build thousands of homes in areas that Israel captured in 1967.

“It is just a silly game,” Hamad said. “There are talks and negotiations but no outcome and no results. What we see on the ground is just the facts of the occupation: more settlements, more barriers, more checkpoints, more arrests, and more confiscation of land.”

Hamas, which controls the densely populated Gaza Strip, and Fatah, in charge of the West Bank, have been trying to hold “reconciliation talks” for several years to find a way to hold long-overdue Palestinian elections. The two factions signed an agreement in March 2011 that has yet to be completed or implemented to any degree at all. The “reconciliation talks” were supposed to resume the same day that the Israeli — Palestinian negotiations got under way, but were cancelled over the differences of opinion between the two rival camps.

“Reconciliation wasn’t on the horizon anyhow,” Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian spokesman and current professor at Bir Zeit University told The Media Line. “The effect on both sides will depend on the future of the talks. If they will show progress, this will empower Fatah and weaken Hamas. If they fail, it will help Hamas and weaken Fatah.”

Khatib said that he, like many Palestinians, is not optimistic that the negotiations will produce a breakthrough. The Israelis and Palestinians remain far apart on many issues, including final borders, Jewish “settlements” and the so-called “right of return” for Palestinians who left what is now Israel in 1948.  

“I’m not optimistic the talks will lead to anything,” Khatib said. “The Americans want them, and the parties cannot afford to say no to the Americans.  But the Americans can’t afford to make them productive,” he said, hinting the US must pressure Israel to make more concessions.

Hamas has been facing a growing financial crisis since Egypt began dismantling Gaza’s “tunnel economy” by sealing scores of underground tunnels through which nearly everything imaginable from weapons to food staples and even vehicles were brought in from the Sinai Peninsula. Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by the US and Israel, had also been using the tunnels to bring large sums of money into Gaza. It also levied taxes on goods coming through the subterranean routes. Sealing the tunnels is part of the Egyptian military’s campaign against Jihadists and terrorists in the Sinai.  

Ideologically, Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and has always been close to that movement in Egypt. Under former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Hamas saw its influence in Egypt growing. Last month when Morsi was ousted and the Egyptian army appointed a caretaker government, Hamas lost its ally atop the largest Arab nation, now ruled by those with little love for Hamas.

Tension is also rife in Hamas’ relationship with Iran over the Gaza-based group’s support for Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Al-Assad, a client of the Islamic Republic. While Shi’ite-majorit Iran, and its primary ally, Lebanon-based Hizbullah, have been supporting Assad in the Syrian civil war, Sunni Hamas has supported the Sunni rebels against the Shi’ite Hizbullah, and the Alawite (a break-off from Shi’ism) Assad.

Despite the tension, Hamas and Iran seem to be moving toward rapprochement. Hamas needs the money Iran can offer, as well as its political support.

“We are not jumping from this country to that country according to our mood,” Hamas official Ghazi Hamad said. “We are a Palestinian national movement and we are not in the pocket of any regime. If Iran is willing to support our people, okay. We are not interested in cutting off the relationship with Iran and we think we can overcome this crisis.”

Barak: Israel did not promise not to attack Iran

Israel did not promise the United States that it would abstain from attacking Iran while negotiations are going on, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said.

“We are not committing to anything,” Barak told Israel’s Army Radio during an interview from Bogota, Colombia. He added that Israel’s dialogue on the subject with America is “direct and open.”

Barak said the current negotiations between Iran and six world powers on Iran’s nuclear program taking place in Istanbul, Turkey, need to be “purposeful and results-oriented. They need to clarify if Iran is genuinely willing to stop its military nuclear program or not.

“For this we don’t need months upon months. It requires a few direct meetings where all the demands are put on the table. There you can see if the other side is playing for time, drawing it out through the year, or if indeed the other side is genuinely striving to find a solution.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on April 15 that the decision to continue the talks in five weeks in Baghdad amounts to a “freebie” for Iran, allowing them to continue to enrich uranium “without any limitation, any inhibition.”

Barak, who is on a five-day visit to Colombia and the United States, said that Israel believes the talks “will probably not have an impact or bring the Iranians to cease their nuclear program.”

“Of course we will be happy to be proven wrong,” he added.

Barak said, “The world must find a way of preventing this; not for Israel, but for the stability and peace of the world.”

Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes; the West fears that Iran may be enriching uranium in order to produce a nuclear bomb.

Netanyahu has called on the international community to halt Iran’s nuclear production by force if necessary, and has warned that the window in which to prevent Iran’s production of a nuclear bomb is rapidly closing.

Obama responded to Netanyahu’s “freebie” accusation on April 15, saying, “The notion that somehow we’ve given something away or a ‘freebie’ would indicate Iran has gotten something. In fact, they’ve got some of the toughest sanctions that they’re going to be facing coming up in just a few months if they don’t take advantage of these talks.”

Barak was scheduled to meet with his U.S. counterpart, Leon Panetta, on April 19 in Washington.

Netanyahu to call on Abbas to return to the negotiating table

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intends to send a letter to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in which he will call on him to return to the negotiating table, promptly and without preconditions.

A senior Israeli official said the letter would be a response to a similar communiqué Abbas plans to relay to Netanyahu in the upcoming days.

The Israeli message will stress among other diplomatic statements the Israeli willingness to resume the talks that took place in the Jordanian capital Amman, under the aegis of the Jordanian king and the in Quartet of Middle East peacemakers.


Israel cautiously welcomes big-power talks with Iran

Israel on Wednesday cautiously welcomed the planned resumption of big-power nuclear talks with Iran, insisting that Tehran be denied the means to turn uranium into bomb fuel.

With Israel speaking increasingly loudly of resorting to military action to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, the talks could provide some respite in a crisis that has driven up oil prices and threatened to suck the United States into its third major war in a decade.

Tuesday’s announcement of new talks followed a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the United States, where President Barack Obama said the talks offered a diplomatic chance to quiet the “drums of war.”

“I’m very happy that they are opening discussions,” said Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror.

“There will be no one happier than us, and the prime minister said this in his own voice, if it emerges that in these talks Iran will give up on its military nuclear capability,” he told Israel Radio.

Taking up Iran’s offer of talks with the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the powers sought assurances on “the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program, while respecting Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.”

A date and venue for the talks have yet to be agreed.

Past contacts with Tehran, whose often secretive nuclear projects have stirred foreign suspicions of a hidden bomb program, stumbled in disputes over the scale of its uranium enrichment and stockpiling of the fissile material, which can power energy reactors and, if purified further, provide fuel for warheads.

Ahead of his White House meeting with Obama on Monday, Netanyahu demanded Iran’s enrichment stop and its uranium with a higher than 3.5 percent purity, the level used for electricity generation, be removed.

Speaking separately to Israel’s Army Radio, Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary, Zvi Hauser, said those terms held.

Uranium bomb fuel must be enriched to 90 percent. Iran has significantly shortened any such leap in the future by enriching some of its uranium to 20 percent, saying this concentration was required to produce medical isotopes.

Netanyahu has also said Iran must dismantle an underground enrichment facility near the city of Qom, which experts say is designed to survive any air strikes, part of what Israel calls a “zone of immunity” being sought by Tehran.

Israel, widely believed to be the region’s only nuclear power, has threatened to attack Iran’s nuclear sites if they deem diplomacy at a dead end.

While not ruling out a U.S. military option, Obama has urged Israel not to hasten to war, saying Washington’s interests were also at stake.

Iran’s approach to the six world powers for talks comes as it suffers unprecedented economic pain from expanding oil and financial sanctions.

“It should be clear that without a real military alternative, the Iranians will not relent in the negotiations. And without there being a serious alternative, they will not enter the negotiations, and in any event there has to be readiness for the negotiations failing,” Amidror said.

Netanyahu’s spokesman Liran Dan said there had been no U.S. effort to veto or endorse any military action by Israel on Iran.

“A red light was not given. And if we’re already talking about colors, then a green light was not given either,” he said in remarks to both radio stations. “If there are red lines being discussed, they are not between us and the Americans, but rather, between the international community and Iran.”

Editing by Janet Lawrence

White House describes ‘progress’ in Jordan talks

The Obama administration heralded progress in Israeli-Palestinian talks held under Jordanian auspices.

“We believe that those talks offer the parties a real opportunity to make meaningful progress towards peace,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday ahead of a visit by Jordanian King Abdullah II. “So we support this progress, but we obviously recognize that there’s a long road to travel here to get to a final result.”

Israeli and Palestinian officials have said the talks have barely advanced since their launch in Amman earlier this month, with divisions on whether to freeze settlement building still deeply entrenched.

Later Tuesday, after a joint meeting, President Obama praised Abdullah for his role in cajoling the sides back to talks, which had been suspended since October 2010.

“We talked about the importance of us continuing to consult closely together to encourage the Palestinians and the Israelis to come back to the table and negotiate in a serious fashion a peaceful way forward,” he said. “And the Jordanians have taken great leadership on this issue, and we very much appreciate their direction on this issue.”

No breakthrough on Mideast peace, talks to go on

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators made no breakthrough during their first high-level discussions in more than a year on Tuesday, but agreed to hold further talks in Amman on a confidential basis, Jordan’s foreign minister said.

Tuesday’s talks were aimed at agreeing terms under which the two sides’ leaders – Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – could resume talks.

Negotiations foundered in late 2010 after Israel refused to renew a partial freeze on Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, as demanded by the Palestinians.

Nasser Judeh, who hosted the talks, reported no significant progress but added: “The important thing is the two sides have met face to face.”

“We held today a serious discussion that aims at launching peace talks at the earliest possible opportunity over final status issues.”

The Jordanian foreign minister added that from here on the sides would keep details of the meetings secret. That could boost the chances of progress by easing immediate pressure from Israeli or Palestinian public opinion not to make concessions.

The Palestinians say they cannot hold talks while Israel cements its hold on land it captured in a 1967 war and on which they intend to establish an independent state. Israel says peacemaking should have no preconditions.

Abbas said before Tuesday’s talks that Palestinians could take unilateral steps if Israel does not agree to halt settlement building in the occupied West Bank and recognize the borders of a future Palestinian state.

“If they don’t … there are measures that we could take. But we will not declare them now because they have not been finalized. But we will take measures that could be difficult,” Abbas told a group of judges in Ramallah.

The Jewish state said in November it would accelerate settlement building activity the day after the Palestinians won recognition as a state by the U.N. cultural body UNESCO.

Judeh said the two sides had until January 26 to make progress and that meetings would take place in Jordan “on a continual basis, without prior announcement of time and date”.


The Quartet of Middle East mediators – the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations – set a three-month deadline last October for the two sides to make proposals on issues of territory and security, with the aim of reaching a peace deal by the end of this year.

The Amman talks brought together Quartet representatives, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Israel’s Yitzhak Molcho.

Established a decade ago, the Quartet has stepped up attempts to broker talks in recent months after U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration failed to revive peace talks.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Washington was hopeful the Amman meeting “can help move us forward on the pathway proposed by the Quartet”.

Jordan, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994 and has strongly backed Abbas, is worried that the failure to address issues at the heart of the conflict could renew violence that could endanger its own security.

The majority of Jordan’s population are Palestinians descended from those displaced during successive Arab-Israeli wars since the Jewish state’s foundation in 1948.

Most countries deem Israel’s West Bank settlements illegal. Israel disputes this, and says it would keep settlement blocs under any peace deal, in accordance with understandings reached in 2004 with then-U.S. president George Bush.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government also criticises Abbas for seeking a reconciliation with the Islamists of Hamas, who control Gaza and reject permanent co-existence with Israel. Abbas has balked at Israel’s demand that he recognize it as a Jewish state.

Additional reporting by Jihan Abdalla in Ramallah and Alister Bull in Washington; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Ben Harding

Israel, Palestinians to meet Tuesday

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will meet this week after more than a year of deadlock in peacemaking, officials said Sunday, but both sides played down prospects of any imminent resumption of talks.

Yitzhak Molcho of Israel and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat will meet Tuesday in Jordan alongside representatives of the Quartet of Middle East mediators – the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

“This aims at reaching a common ground to resume direct talks between the two sides and to achieve a Palestinian-Israeli peace accord … by the end of 2012,” the official Jordanian news agency Petra quoted Mohammad al-Kayed, spokesman of the Foreign Ministry in Amman, as saying.

“It is essential that both sides take advantage of this opportunity,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement released in Washington.

Negotiations stalled in late 2010 after Israel refused to renew a partial freeze on Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank as demanded by the Palestinians.

The Palestinians say they cannot hold talks while Israel cements its hold on land where, along with the Gaza Strip, they intend to found a state. Israel says peacemaking should have no preconditions.

The Israelis and Palestinians will meet bilaterally as well as with the Quartet in Amman, according to Kayed and Clinton.

Israel said Molcho would “take part in the Quartet meeting” yet made no mention of Erekat in its statement, or of direct contacts with the Palestinians.

Wasl Abu Yossef, a senior figure in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s umbrella PLO executive, described Tuesday’s meeting as a forum for the sides to “offer their positions on security and borders” as requested by the Quartet in October.


“This is not a resumption of negotiations,” Abu Yossef told Reuters in Ramallah, the seat of Abbas’s administration.

Erekat said the meeting would be “part of ongoing Jordanian efforts to compel Israel to comply with its international legal obligations … specifically its obligation to freeze all settlement construction.”

Most countries deem the settlements illegal. Israel disputes this, and says it would keep settlement blocs under any peace deal in accordance with understandings reached in 2004 with then-U.S. president George W. Bush.

For its part, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government criticizes Abbas for seeking a reconciliation with the Islamists of Hamas, who control Gaza and reject permanent coexistence with Israel. Abbas has also balked at Israel’s demand that he recognize it as a Jewish state.

But both sides have been rattled by upheavals that have bolstered Islamists in Jordan and Egypt. Fierce pro-Palestinian sentiment in both countries, among the few Arab countries to have relations with Israel, often backs Hamas rather than Abbas.

Established a decade ago, the Quartet has in recent months taken a leading role in attempts to broker new negotiations, stepping in after U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration failed to revive diplomacy.

“As the president and I have said before, the need for a lasting peace is more urgent than ever. The status quo is not sustainable and the parties must act boldly to advance the cause of peace,” Clinton said.

Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Kevin Liffey

Leaked maps show gaps in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations

This time there are maps—not that they necessarily help.

After the collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000, the Israeli and Palestinian sides bickered about who had offered what, and the competing historical narratives were adopted by either side and around the world.

This time, the proposed territorial concessions that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian negotiators discussed are visible in living color—in a set of leaked Palestinian Authority documents published by Al Jazeera.

The maps are significant because they show how close the two sides are on some issues—for example, which would control certain Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem. But they also show that the gaps on other issues remain far from resolution, particularly regarding Jewish settlements deep inside the West Bank.

Back in 2000, Dennis Ross, now the lead negotiator on the issue, talked President Clinton into not committing anything to paper because he said the controversy that would ensue from maps and percentage sheets outweighed the value of getting things down in writing. He especially distrusted the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Instead of squelching controversy, however, the absence of written proposals and maps stoked it.

Now the leaked maps will help keep the Palestinian and Israeli positions straight.

The map detailing Olmert’s alleged offer to the Palestinian side shows Israel giving 5.5 percent of territory in Israel proper in exchange for 6.8 percent of the West Bank. The swaps that Ahmed Qureia, a former PA prime minister and a top negotiator, reportedly proposed in January 2008 to then-Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni were a 1:1 ratio and amounted to trading to Israel less than 2 percent of the West Bank.

The Palestinian Authority accounts of meetings with Israeli and American interlocutors reveal many areas of agreement, most of which have been known widely for years. The Palestinians want recognition of the rights of Palestinian refugees and their descendants from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, but they also acknowledge that the refugees ultimately will remain where they are living now.

“If the Arabs will be part of the solution, there will be no problem in this issue,” Qureia told Livni in 2008. “We have to engage countries that host the refugees.”

Such compromises appear contingent on the relationship between Palestinian and Israeli leaders. Ties between the Palestinian Authority and the Olmert government in 2008 were better than they are now between the Palestinian Authority and Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. In 2008, direct negotiations were a matter of course, not an aspiration.

How mutual suspicion affects talks is made evident in the leaked report of an October 2009 meeting between George Mitchell, the top U.S. envoy to the region, and Saeb Erekat, the lead PA negotiator. Erekat says that if Netanyahu insists on rejecting refugee rights at the outset, the “Palestinian leadership can only respond by insisting on full exercise of right of return.”

The same dynamic, in which friendlier talks lead to more expansive proposals, applies to territory. In May 2008, in another meeting with Livni, Qureia apparently outlined a deal that would allow Israel to retain a chunk of Gush Etzion, the bloc of Jewish settlements south of Jerusalem, near Bethlehem, as well as nearly all of the Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem. In the October 2009 meeting with Mitchell, Erekat says construction in some of those neighborhoods is inhibiting talks.

The most striking theme that recurs in the documents is how far apart the parties are when it comes to balancing Israel’s reluctance to relocate settlers with Palestinian demands for territorial contiguity in the West Bank.

“In the end the whole matter isn’t merely the value of exchange but the reality of those Israelis and where they live,” Livni says in an exchange from the Jan. 27, 2008 meeting between Livni and Qureia in Jerusalem.

Qureia responds, referring to Maaleh Adumim and Givet Zeev, large West Bank Jewish settlements that serve as bedroom communities for Jerusalem, “I can’t accept Maaaleh Adumim settlement as a reality because it divides the West Bank, and the same goes for Givat Zeev settlement.”

If anything, the documents shatter the illusion that there is a bottom-line consensus about certain settlements being annexed to Israel in a final-status agreement. Many groups refer to these as the “everybody knows” settlements, such as Maaleh Edumim and Efrat, both near Jerusalem.

In fact, the gap is broader than expected, and helps explain why PA President Mahmoud Abbas turned down Olmert’s offer in mid-2008. Olmert refused to give Abbas the map, so Abbas scribbled it down on a paper, and it became known as a “napkin map,” which is what Al Jazeera published this week.

Another “everybody knows” myth shattered by the leaks is the notion that the Palestinians would accept as swaps Negev desert lands adjacent to the Gaza Strip. In the leaked documents, the Palestinians scoff at such swaps and want equally as arable land as the lands they would cede.

The Olmert map, in its attempt to maximize the amount of settlers Israel would retain, resembles a proposal advanced last week by David Makovksy, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a leading pro-Israel think tank in Washington. Makovsky, who is close to Ross, says he has presented the map to officials in the Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. governments.

“The goal of ‘Imagining the Border’ is to present a menu of options for resolving the territorial component of the conflict, meeting Palestinian demands of minimal land swaps with a 1:1 ratio while allowing Israel to annex areas containing the majority of West Bank settlers,” Makovsky says.

Makovsky manages to narrow the gap between Olmert’s 6.8 percent and Qureia’s 1.9 percent to 3.7 percent, but he retains the “fingers” Olmert’s map thrust into the West Bank to capture large Israeli settlements. The Palestinians insist those are unacceptable.

Sticking points seem never-ending. The Palestinians regard Latrun, an area southwest of Jerusalem secured by Israel in one of the Independence War’s bloodiest battles, as “no man’s land” because of its designation as such on some maps. They regard its retention by Israel as a concession. Israel and the international community view it as Israeli territory.

Such nitpicking has a toll.

According to the documents, Livni starts the May 4, 2008 meeting at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem dryly: “Based on what I have heard in the trilateral meeting with Condoleeza Rice, I believe that your offer will not be exciting,” she tells Qureia, referring to the then-U.S. secretary of state.

The Palestinians are unrelenting in pleading with the Americans, in meeting after meeting, to press the Israelis to freeze settlement growth.

“Everyone is saying look at what they get from violence, etc.,” Qureia tells Rice in a July 16, 2008 meeting in Washington. “Please. We need your help on settlements” and on the removal of roadblocks and other Palestinians demands.

Settlements continue to dog the talks today.

The Palestinian posture now is not to return to direct talks until Israel reinstates a freeze on Jewish building in the West Bank. Palestinian allies are circulating a resolution in the U.N. Security Council that blasts Israel for settlement building and urges a return to talks. The Obama administration is opposed to the resolution but has not said whether or not it will veto it.

Occasionally, however, the leaked documents show a surprising concession emerges from talks that the sides thought were secret.

Livni, apparently warning the Palestinians not to make an issue of Israel’s Law of Return, tells Qureia and Erekat in January 2008 that “Israel was established to become a national home for Jews from all over the world. The Jew gets the citizenship as soon as he steps in Israel, and therefore don’t say anything about the nature of Israel, as I don’t wish to interfere in the nature of your state.”

That seems to undercut a policy that she introduced and that now haunts talks: That Palestinians need to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

In the same exchange, Erekat also tosses aside the Palestinian doctrine that all Jewish settlers need to leave the West Bank.

“We don’t mind to have settlers live as Palestinian citizens who have all rights under the Palestinian law,” he says.

Barely months into talks, will the freeze freeze a peace deal?

When the fat lady sings on Sept. 26, it may only be an intermission.

That’s the word from an array of Mideast experts across the political spectrum. They are predicting that the seeming intractability between Israel and the Palestinians over whether Israel extends a settlement moratorium beyond its end date will not scuttle the peace talks.

Instead, the observers say, the sides are likely employing the brinksmanship that has come to characterize Middle East peacemaking.

“Is this is a last-minute minuet before a compromise on both sides?” asked Steve Rosen, the former director of foreign policy at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “I don’t see the kind of anxiety you would associate with a collapse. They seem to be acting with something up their sleeve.”

Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, also saw compromise in the offing.

“Neither party can afford to be seen as scuttling the talks,” he said.

Israelis and Palestinians both are speaking—off the record, at least—in terms of an imminent threat of rupture, just weeks after direct negotiations restarted. Such talk begs the question of why the Obama administration relaunched the talks with much fanfare if the sides were not ready to go.

“It’s almost inconceivable that the administration would have gone down this road with all the hype without push and pull for both sides” on the settlement issue, said Aaron David Miller, a longtime negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations, and now a fellow at The Woodrow Wilson Center.

Miller noted the praise lavished by Obama on the negotiators and the inclusion of the Egyptian and Jordanian leaders in the launch of the talks.

If the deadline scuttles the talks, he said, “it will go down as being one of the more boneheaded plays in the history of negotiations.”

Miller said he believes that the sides were bluffing when they hinted—or outright said—no compromise was possible.

Each side has sent out mixed signals. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said last week that there was “no choice” but to go ahead with talks, before meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. At the same time, his aides were leaking to the media that continuing the talks depended on an extension of the moratorium on Israeli construction in the settlements.

Israeli officials have suggested that they are preparing some kind of extension by telling American Jewish groups that they will need their backing when the Israeli settlement movement reacts adversely to a building freeze beyond Sept. 26.

On the other hand, in a conference call Monday with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not mention the possibility of a compromise. And his top aide, Ron Dermer, made it sound as if Israeli officials were bracing for a period of tensions over the settlement issue.

“We might have to agree to disagree for the next few months,” Dermer said on the issue of settlements. The carrot for the Palestinians, he said, was a final-status agreement that would put both sides past the settlement issue.

The question is how to get past the looming Sept. 26 date—or at least Sept. 30, when Israel’s Sukkot holidays end and the construction industry returns to work.

Ibish predicted that Abbas and his negotiators could live with Israel moving ahead with the building starts that have been put on hold for 10 months, when Netanyahu imposed the moratorium—as many as 2,000, according to an Americans for Peace Now analysis—but only if the Netanyahu government did not launch major new projects.

“Whatever the Israelis say, no one is going to believe it because of the grandfathering built in” to the moratorium, Ibish said. “What’s important that the Israelis don’t do anything further to radically alter the landscape.”

That would include holding back on major starts outside the “consensus areas,” settlement blocks adjacent to Israel that are likely to be incorporated in a final deal in exchange for land swaps. According to this view, it would also mean no building in a corridor between Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement of Maaleh Adumim that would choke off the main north-south route; no land appropriations; and no building in eastern Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods.

Rosen, who now directs the Middle East Forum’s Washington project, said an out may be Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader who is now in Washington and New York to meet with U.S. and United Nations officials.

As defense minister, Barak has veto over new initiatives: He could nix them while the Palestinians look the other way regarding settlement projects already in the pipeline. At the same time, Barak’s reputation as a go-it-alone dove could give Netanyahu cover with settlers. The prime minister could tell hawks that Barak is slightly out of control.

Meantime, each side is trying to extract as much as it can or concede as little as possible before talks continue, said Scott Lasensky, an analyst with the congressionally funded U.S. Institute of Peace who tracks the region.

“Brinksmanship is a hallmark of Arab-Israeli negotiation. There’s no doubt the question will go to the last minute with uncertainty,” he said. “There’s been some good will, there’s been a warming of ties, everyone has an interest in making sure that this is renewed.”

Brinksmanship, on the other hand, often develops a momentum of its own, and there’s a chance it could scuttle the talks by the deadline, said David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank.

The risk now, Makovsky said, was that with the talks still in their early stages, the sides were more beholden to hard-line constituencies than they were to a breakthrough.

“They don’t know if a deal is reachable, so why alienate your constituencies if a deal isn’t reachable yet,” he said.

Stephen P. Cohen, another longtime Middle East watcher and backer of an Israeli-Palestinian deal who has consulted with members of the Obama foreign policy team, said the administration’s leverage was the imminence of a permanent-status deal.

“I think Bibi [Netanyahu] wants to make a substantive agreement that would convince Abu Mazen [Abbas] that it’s worth staying even though he hasn’t renewed the settlement freeze because the substantive agreement allows Abu Mazen to stay,” said Cohen, the president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development.

Blair calls for immediate direct negotiations

Tony Blair called for “face-to-face,” direct negotiations between the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority as soon as possible.

But the former British prime minister, now the Quartet representative to the Middle East, emphasized in a speech to the AIPAC policy conference that “faith in peace” on both sides must be restored and must be done “patiently, and over time, on the ground.”

“It can’t only be negotiated top down,” said Blair, who was well received by the crowd. “It has also to be built bottom up” via a “reality created and sustained,” he said, adding that “details matter” and are the difference between “paralysis and possibility.”

Blair praised Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s efforts to build Palestinian civil institutions in the West Bank, and said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak “deserve credit for the steps they have taken in response,” such as opening many main checkpoints.

The former British leader also spoke out strongly against Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, saying that “they must know that we will do whatever it takes to stop them from getting it.”

“The danger is if they suspect for a moment we might allow such a thing,” he said.

Obama administration must pursue Mideast peace

Across America, the Jewish community is joining with the rest of the nation to congratulate our next president. President-elect Barack Obama ran a campaign promising change, and Americans have made very clear that they are anxious to take him up on that promise. He will enter the White House at a time of great uncertainty, however, and those who would see real change take root will have to be very clear with the administration about their hopes for the future — particularly regarding the Middle East.

Many in our community have long prayed for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and in his acceptance speech, Obama sounded a promising note. “To those who seek peace and security,” he said, an hour after winning the election, “we support you.” As a lifelong advocate for a fair resolution to the conflict, I know the importance of such words — and know even more the importance of action.

The past eight years have seen an unprecedented level of diplomatic neglect on the part of the United States government, as President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said all the right things but have done very little to back up their words.

As a result, rather than move forward toward the resolution that all sides have already agreed must be our goal — a mutually acceptable two-state solution — Israelis and Palestinians remain locked in despair, and among both people, frustration has reached new heights.

Oddly, the current president seems to have forgotten that Israelis and Palestinians are not the only people who need an end to their entirely resolvable conflict — America needs it, too. Consider the blow it would be to Iran, Hezbollah and extremists across the globe if America were to mediate an end to Arab-Israeli fighting.

In the course of his campaign, Obama turned to the Jewish community to declare his support for Israel, saying that Israel’s security is “paramount.”

But if he really believes this to be true, he will have to understand that words of support are not enough. He will have to work to achieve the one thing that can bring the Jewish state true security: true peace.

If the newly elected president truly wants to advance Israel’s security, he will engage in genuine diplomacy from his very first days in office. He will vigorously pursue an agreement, appointing an envoy with the international credibility to do the hard work involved in negotiation. And he will make very clear to all parties that agreements made are to be honored.

It’s hard to believe this will happen, though, unless the new administration has gotten clear indication that it will be supported in its efforts by American Jews. To that end, the more than 85 percent of us who have said that we back a two-state resolution of the conflict have to take it upon ourselves to tell President Obama unequivocally: We will stand by you as you pursue a just, durable two-state solution. We will make our positions known in the House and the Senate, and we will communicate them to the American public. Because we are pro-Israel, we will advocate for peace.

American leaders have long turned to our community for guidance on the question of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and for that reason, I recently signed an open letter addressed to the president-elect, calling on him to dedicate himself to achieving a viable two-state agreement by the end of his first term.

Spearheaded by Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, the letter has been signed so far by some 700 members of the American Jewish clergy, all of whom know that our highest calling is to “seek peace and pursue it.”

The potential costs of failing to achieve a just two-state solution to this bloody conflict are too awful to consider. We must apply ourselves to seeing to it that the decades of death and fear are brought to an end, and a new era begins. Tell President-elect Obama and those he names to his government: The time for peace is now.

Rabbi Arnold Rachlis is the spiritual leader of University Synagogue in Irvine; a past president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association; chair of MAZON – A Jewish Response to Hunger; and a member of the Rabbinic Cabinet of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom. He has served in Washington, D.C., as a White House Fellow and as a senior foreign affairs adviser in the State Department.

Why Obama is better than McCain for Israel

I wouldn’t gamble with Israel’s future. Why would you?

Most arguments in favor of Sen. John McCain and his approach to Israel rest on his greater experience and knowledge. Yet, put simply, McCain is a gambler — in practice, in personality and in judgment.

No supporter of Israel should want Israel’s future placed in the hands of an unpredictable and temperamental gambler, whose actions and phrases cannot be anticipated. And why would a supporter of Israel want to place the Jewish state’s future in the hands of an inexperienced, ideological, unpredictable, unknowledgeable and barely known President Sarah Palin in the event of a tragedy that would elevate her to the presidency?

With a reputation for fiery verbal outbursts against associates at home and abroad, McCain’s fundamental approach to policy-making is based on snap decisions and quick, emotional judgments. Some examples include picking Palin in the first place, rushing back to Washington to “help” in the bailout and flip-flopping on regulation, Bush and his tax policy.

While both candidates have strong records backing Israel, there are differences. McCain benefits from having been in public life longer than Sen. Barack Obama, but his global policies are more likely to harm the Jewish state. He stresses a belligerent confrontationalism even more stark than President Bush’s, seemingly closer to Palin’s.

When McCain doesn’t approve of another country’s policies, he sees its government as an actual or potential foe, as in the case of Russia or even apparently NATO member Spain. He follows in the Bush tradition of unilateralism and an America going its own way.

He celebrates Iraq as central to the war on terror, which differs radically from the views of most of our allies. His policy on Iran is similar to the failed approach of Bush — talk loudly but without a clear policy, only drifting. Regarding Russia, McCain has been clear in his determined opposition to the Putin regime, but Israeli leaders are asking for U.S. consultations with Moscow over Iran. How can McCain’s Cold War-style Moscow policy possibly produce that kind of dialogue?

Take a look at Israel’s security today and compare it to eight years ago. Is Israel better off now than when Bush assumed office in 2001?

Eight years ago, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria were all weaker, and the Palestinians were less divided, more stable and more capable of dialogue with Israel. As well, Jordan, critical to Israel’s security, is now threatened from within and without.

Although Bush has been seemingly friendly in his attitude toward Israel, his policies, or lack thereof, have consistently eroded Israel’s defensive strength. If McCain continues to pursue these same policies that have already failed, as he claims to be prepared to do, then the situation Israel confronts will only deteriorate further.

In the Middle East — on Iraq, on Iran and on Arab-Israeli relations — McCain offers more of the same policy that has led to Bush’s repeated failures in the region. Indeed, in recent months even Bush has come close to accepting Obama’s policies on an Iraq timetable, on promoting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, on Pakistan and Afghanistan and even on the idea of possibly talking to Iran. Lately, it seems McCain is often more Bush than Bush.

Israel’s security would be enhanced with a fresh post-Sept. 11 approach by a new leader with a better pro-Israel perspective. It is not words but actions that will make the difference for Israel.

The policy framework Obama offers has a much better likelihood of producing positive results than McCain’s. For example, on Iran, Obama would talk to lower-level officials and increase dialogue as Iran demonstrates its seriousness to make concessions. On the contrary, McCain is opposed to dealing directly with leaders in Tehran until they stop enriching uranium — the classic, unproductive Bush policy.

Both campaigns, particularly Obama’s, have been vociferous in advocating intensified sanctions against Iran and maintaining the military option on the table.

Obama envisions a regional policy that takes into account America’s competing challenges, first and foremost with the complexities of the Iraq-Afghanistan-Iran-Pakistan quadrangle, yet also addresses simultaneously Israel and its neighbors, Syria, the Palestinian Territories, Hamas and Hezbollah. (It is worth noting that Obama has consistently said he will explore talking to rogue regimes like Iran and Syria but not to nongovernmental threats like Hamas and Hezbollah). Of course in the tough Mideast, Obama’s policy may not completely succeed, but we already know that McCain’s will definitely fail.

America’s financial crisis also strengthens the argument for Obama. As the stark events of late September have made only too clear, it is the Democrat, with a fresh, experienced and savvy team, who is far more likely to reverse the U.S. economic meltdown.

For an Israel integrally tied to America and its fortunes, a continued U.S. economic decline will only affect its military security and economic standing adversely and dangerously. The candidate who can better fix the economy must be seen as a stronger advocate of Israel than his opponent, no matter how long the latter has made friendly statements toward the Jewish state.

McCain has admitted that he sometimes makes quick and unexpected decisions and then has to live with the consequences. But one wonders why any American should want to live with these kinds of outcomes, but more importantly, why should any supporter of an embattled Israel want to risk the future of the Jewish State on a president known for the temperamental, quixotic and unpredictable whims that guide his decision making?

The Jewish state would be far better off for the next four years with the cool, careful, considered decisions of a strong supporter — Obama.

Steven L. Spiegel is Director of the Center for Middle East Development and a professor of political science at UCLA.

Political realities may doom Olmert’s peace push

With his Kadima Party just weeks away from electing a new leader, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is making a concerted last-ditch effort to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Olmert has drawn up a detailed peace offer and presented it to U.S. and Palestinian leaders. After being shown the plan last week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described it as “very generous.”

Although the Palestinians say wide gaps remain, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Olmert reportedly agreed in talks Sunday to make every effort to wrap up a full-fledged peace agreement by the end of the year.

But both sides are skeptical.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, who are involved in a parallel negotiation that is conducting line-by-line drafting of a final-status agreement, estimate that the process could go on well into 2009 and beyond. They say the effort must be given all the time it needs.

Warning against the danger of rushing things, Livni said artificial deadlines could lead to frustration on the Palestinian side and spark a third intifada. Alternatively, time pressure could lead Israel to compromise on vital interests.

Right-wing opposition to the Olmert-Abbas talks go even further. Opposition leaders have questioned the very legitimacy of Olmert’s conducting a vigorous peace drive so close to the end of his term. Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu described Olmert’s peace plan as “morally and substantially flawed” and warned that it would strengthen Hamas.

There are problems on the Palestinian side, too.

Abbas’ term could end early next year, leaving the Palestinians with a more radical leadership before an agreement is finally wrapped up.

What’s worse is that as long as Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, the chances of implementing any Israeli-Palestinian peace deal are virtually zero.

Olmert’s latest proposal deals with four core issues: territory, security, refugees and Jerusalem.

On territory, he offers the Palestinians 93 percent of the West Bank, with Israel retaining large Jewish settlement blocs in the remaining 7 percent. As compensation, the Palestinians would get an area equivalent to 5.5 percent of the West Bank in Israeli land close to the Gaza Strip, and a land corridor connecting Gaza and the West Bank, linking the two in a single Palestinian state.

On security, Olmert proposes that the future Palestinian state would be demilitarized and barred from building military alliances. Israel would have early warning stations on the Samarian hills in the West Bank, a temporary army presence in the Jordan Valley, a presence at border crossings, control of airspace over Gaza and the West Bank, and access to the main east-west corridors in the West Bank.

On refugees, Olmert categorically rejects the so-called Palestinian right of return: Palestinian refugees would be entitled to return to the Palestinian state in unlimited numbers, but not to Israel proper. Still, there is a small concessionary loophole in the Olmert proposal: 1,500 to 2,000 Palestinians would be allowed to “return” to Israel proper every year for 10 years for “humanitarian reasons.” In other words Israel could, at its discretion, allow the immigration during 10 years of 15,000 to 20,000 Palestinians.

Although Olmert insists that Jerusalem has not been on the negotiating agenda — the Orthodox Shas Party has threatened to topple the government if Jerusalem is so much as discussed — the prime minister does include a temporary solution for the city in his proposal.

The final Israeli-Palestinian document would include reference to “a joint mechanism with a fixed timetable” for resolving the dispute over Jerusalem. Olmert aides refuse to elaborate but say there would be elements in the joint mechanism “attractive to the Palestinians.”

This apparently refers partly to an offer by Olmert to involve other Arab and international parties — including Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, the Vatican and the international Quartet grouping of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — in seeking a permanent solution for Jerusalem and its holy places.

The Palestinians, however, argue that Olmert’s proposals do not go far enough, and they insist that the gaps between the Israeli and Palestinian positions remain wide.

Some analysts suggest that the only realistic way forward would be through American bridging proposals. But the Americans are unlikely to be forthcoming: During a visit in June, when Rice asked for a paper highlighting key points of agreement and disagreement, both sides refused on the grounds that that kind of hands-on American intervention would not be helpful at this stage.

“We and the Israelis told Dr. Rice that the decisions are required from Palestinians and Israelis,” senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told JTA. “I am sure the Americans, the Arabs and the Europeans will stand shoulder to shoulder with us in order to implement whatever we agree. But the decisions are for Palestinians and Israelis.”

Officials close to Olmert argue that even if it can’t immediately be implemented, a joint Israeli-Palestinian document on permanent-status issues would constitute a historic breakthrough.

“We believe it would become a galvanizing point for all the moderates and offer an alternative to the Hamas-Hezbollah-Tehran paradigm,” Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said.

Regev believes that not only would the deal win wide international support and boost the moderates in the Arab world, it also would help resolve the problem of Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

“If we are successful in delineating to a great degree of specificity where the final borders will be, then obviously we will continue to build in the settlements on our side and not in those on the Palestinian side,” he said.

In other words, immediately upon signing the deal, Israel would regard settlements on its side of the border as part of Israel proper, with no extrinsic restrictions on development and growth. Those on the Palestinian side, by contrast, would be seen as living on borrowed time and slated for evacuation.

For any agreement to stand a chance of implementation, its advocates would have to find a way around Palestinian rejectionists — including Hamas in Gaza — and around Israeli opponents. In both cases, opponents may press for new elections, which would serve as a referendum on the peace deal.

That does not bode well for a peace deal. Hamas is unlikely to allow elections in Gaza unless it is sure of winning. On the Israeli side, polls suggest the right-wing opposition will win the next general election.

Should either of these likely scenarios occur, the “shelf agreement” the Olmert administration is working on probably would be shelved indefinitely. That would leave Olmert’s 11th-hour effort to set a new peace agenda, like many others before it, dead in the water of Middle Eastern realities.

Fatah fighters’ escape to Israel and what it means

Even for the complex Middle East it was a moment of exceptional irony. Some 180 Fatah loyalists fleeing a series of shootouts and summary executions by Hamas

on the streets of Gaza ran for the border — banking on the mercies of the enemy they usually target.

Remarkably, Israeli soldiers braved Hamas fire to save the Palestinians. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, however, opted to return the fighters to Gaza. The first group of 35 returnees was promptly arrested by Hamas.

Seeing the danger to their erstwhile foes, the Israel Defense Forces balked at transferring the rest of the Fatah men, while the Association for Civil Rights in Israel appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court to block the forced repatriation. Finally, Israel prevailed upon Abbas to give safety to his own followers, and they were sent to Jericho.

The reaction in the Arab world to this incredible turn of events is instructive. Writing in Beirut’s Daily Star, columnist Rami Khouri offered an assessment of the larger issue:

“This is the latest and most troubling example of how a once-grand and noble Palestinian national liberation movement has allowed itself to degenerate into ineptitude…. As Fatah and Hamas battle it out like a bunch of armed neighborhood gangs, it will not be surprising to see some friends of Palestine quietly walk away, mumbling that if the Palestinians wish to kill each other and destroy their own society, they are free to do so.”

Writing in Al-Hayat, Mohammad Salah goes even further:

“The flight by Ahmad Hilles and other Palestinians to Israel in search of safety away from the bullying and aggression of Hamas affirms that the Palestinian issue is on its way to disappearing, evaporating and being forgotten. It also proves that Israel, for many Palestinians, is a refuge or objective one seeks and heads toward when Palestinians oppress each other.”

The border episode should have been cheered by nongovernment organizations and church groups who insist that peace will come to the Middle East not through governmental fiat, but when people on both sides recognize the humanity of the other.

Other developments, however, indicate that we are a long way off from moving beyond widely held stereotypes in the Arab World that depict Christians as bloodthirsty crusaders and Jews as the offspring of pigs and monkeys. The reaction to a University of Haifa course shows just how much toxicity prevails in the Arab street.

Professor Ofer Grosbard, assisted in a project by 15 Muslim students, quoted verses from the Quran that would help Muslim psychologists reinforce in their religious patients concepts like respect, responsibility, honesty, dignity and kindness. Their selections were vetted by three Islamic clerics.

Nonetheless, the project drew furious responses. Speaking to Gulf News, Dr. Abdullah Al Mutlaq, of the Senior Ulema Board in Saudi Arabia, insisted that the project should not be trusted by Muslims, because it is run by Jews who openly show their hatred to Islam and Muslims, and that Grosbard’s interpretation of the Quran’s lessons in human dignity and kindness would give Muslims the wrong impression of their religion. Not surprisingly, officials of the Palestinian Authority concurred.

Don’t expect the caretakers of the global civil society to challenge the Arab world anytime soon. Some self-appointed activists, operating in the rarified moral high ground of nongovernmental organizations, refuse to be impacted by the facts. For even as Israelis fought to obtain the safety of Arab fighters on Aug. 5, two boats in Cyprus were preparing a mission to burst through Israel’s sea blockade into an embrace with Hamas. The success of the mission was to be measured by Google hits on BBC and Iranian media coverage, not by any humanitarian cargo for the beleaguered residents of Gaza.

Israel has consistently allowed such supplies in and arranged passage for many critically ill patients to Israeli hospitals. This despite the fact that at least one ill woman from Gaza used the privilege of shuttling back and forth to an Israeli hospital to try to smuggle a bomb that would blow up the very facility and doctors who treated her.

Most nongovernmental organizations (NGO) that see themselves as protectors of Palestinian interests remain blind and silent, both about the Israeli largesse and the rupture of Palestinian society. Have they ever wondered what issues Israelis grapple with, what their needs are in the Gordian knot we call the Holy Land?

Did anyone consider the reaction of the parents of Gilad Shalit to the Fatah rescue? Shalit is the Israeli soldier kidnapped near that very crossing where the Fatah members were saved by other Israeli soldiers.

And what of the bereaved families of Vadim Nurhitz and Yossi Avrahami, two Israeli reservists who took a wrong turn into Ramallah? Taken to a PA police station, they were brutalized and dismembered by a mob. Rather than protect the two soldiers, a PA policeman at the station participated in the lynching.

For too many, repeating empty mantras about the “occupation” is much easier than rethinking the nature of a future Palestinian state and how it would treat its own citizens or its Jewish neighbors. Indeed, too few in the international community care enough to demand a modicum of accountability from the Palestinians.

These events present a microcosm of a clash not between two governments but of two fundamentally different cultures. Nothing will ever change until the world comes to understand the truths that led the Fatah fighters to choose the Israeli enemy over their Palestinian brothers?

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of interfaith relations for the Wiesenthal Center.

Israeli policy headed for radical changes in post-Olmert era

JERUSALEM (JTA)—Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s decision to resign after a new Kadima Party leader is elected in September has opened up the possibility of radical new directions in Israeli policy.

As of now Olmert has four potential successors, since Kadima’s new leader may not be able to stave off new general elections.

Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party and Shaul Mofaz of Kadima are inveterate hawks who see peace, if it is at all possible, being achieved only in drawn-out, painstaking stages. Tzipi Livni of Kadima and Ehud Barak of the Labor Party are pragmatic doves ready to cut to the chase but wary of illusory quick fixes.

Important differences exist within the two camps.

Netanyahu views the current attempt by the Olmert government to reach final peace deals with the Palestinians and the Syrians as foolhardy. He is against what he calls “endism”—trying to end the complex Israeli-Arab conflict with a single stroke—and instead advocates a measured, step-by-step approach.

For example, on the Syrian track, Damascus would have to break with Tehran and demonstrate over time that the breach is final before Israel returns any part of the Golan Heights. Other powers interested in moving Syria away from Iran, including the United States and the European Union, would be called on to provide much of the quid pro quo to Syria, making it possible for Israel to retain at least part of the strategic Golan.

On the Palestinian track, Netanyahu regards the “shelf agreement” Olmert is negotiating with the relatively moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank as meaningless. Under present conditions, with Hamas controlling Gaza, Netanyahu sees no way to implement an agreement now or in the foreseeable future.

Instead, he again advocates a step-by-step framework in which each side progresses only after the other has fulfilled a commitment. Under Ariel Sharon, this performance-based, reciprocal approach led to a stalemate.

Netanyahu hopes that the creation of new economic realities in the West Bank will provide the infrastructure for political progress. The former prime minister strongly backs efforts to that effect by Tony Blair, the special envoy of the Quartet grouping of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.

Like Blair, Netanyahu sees economic progress driving a peace process, not the other way round.

Netanyahu’s top priority, however, would be stopping Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. He has been urging world leaders to impose stronger economic sanctions on Tehran to alleviate the need for force. But if Netanyahu becomes prime minister, a pre-emptive Israeli military strike cannot be ruled out.

Mofaz, although he abandoned the Likud for Kadima, is as hawkish as Netanyahu. In fact, were the current transportation minister to win the Kadima leadership, the split between Likud and Kadima could become a thing of the past. Mofaz left Likud reluctantly when pressed by Sharon, Kadima’s founder, and after Sharon promised to make him defense minister.

The Iranian-born Mofaz takes a long view of historic processes in the Middle East who sees change evolving slowly over decades. Peace, in his view, will come only when conditions are ripe and cannot be accelerated artificially.

On the Syrian track, Mofaz says he is ready to offer “peace for peace”—an old Likud counter to the Arab land-for-peace formula. He also would be unlikely to make territorial concessions on the Palestinian front.

Indeed Mofaz, a former army chief of staff and defense minister, would likely be less industrious than Netanyahu in creating conditions for peace, but more proactive in trying to stop Iran from going nuclear.

Mofaz, who heads the Israeli team in strategic dialogue with the United States, has warned that Iran will cross the nuclear weapons threshold in 2009 or 2010 and said that if the international community fails to interdict the process, Israel will.

Like his colleagues on the right, Barak sees the Middle East as a tough, unforgiving neighborhood in which the weak are devoured—he once famously described Israel as a “villa in the jungle.”

The difference between Barak and the hard-line Netanyahu and Mofaz is his conviction that Israel to survive must be strong and divest itself of the West Bank to ensure a Jewish majority in a democratic state.

After the failure of the Camp David negotiations with Yasser Arafat in 2000, the then-prime minister Barak was quick to claim there was no genuine Palestinian peace partner. That led him to back the notion of unilateral withdrawal as the only way to establish a border between Israel and the Palestinians.

Barak modified his thinking, however, when Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was followed by ceaseless Kassam rocket attacks. He still seems to envisage an eventual unilateral pullout from the West Bank, but only after Israel has an effective anti-missile defense system.

As defense minister, Barak has made the development of a multilayered anti-missile system—one that provides protection against long-, medium- and short-range missiles—a top priority.

Livni, whose parents both fought for the prestate Irgun underground, entered politics in 1996 holding fiercely hawkish positions. But as minister for regional cooperation in the first Sharon government in 2001, she underwent a profound ideological metamorphosis, turning from hawk to relative dove.

A lawyer by training, Livni places supreme importance on Israel retaining international legitimacy by withdrawing to a line close to the 1967 borders and allowing the Palestinians to establish a state of their own.

Livni, now the foreign minister, sees one of the main tasks of government as securing the best post-withdrawal conditions for Israel. For example, she insists that no Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to Israel proper, arguing that the Palestinians cannot simultaneously demand a state and insist that their refugees be settled somewhere else.

Livni was one of the chief backers of Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, but also after the Kassams from Gaza, she says Israel cannot simply leave the West Bank and “throw the keys over the fence.”

Thus, unlike her three main rivals, Livni advocates intensive negotiations with the Palestinians on a final peace deal and bringing in an international force to help implement it. But Livni is in no hurry and would be less likely than Olmert to make concessions on key principles—like the refugee issue—for a deal.

The first stage in the battle to succeed Olmert is scheduled for Sept. 17, when Kadima holds its primary. Livni and Mofaz are the runaway front-runners: A recent poll in Israel’s daily Ma’ariv gave Livni 51 percent of the party vote to Mofaz’s 43 percent.

The second stage in the leadership stakes could come as soon as early 2009. If Kadima’s winner fails to assemble a coalition government, the Knesset will be dissolved and early general elections would be held, bringing Netanyahu and Barak into the picture.

Whoever finally emerges as the new prime minister, a break with Olmert’s policies seems certain.

No simple answer on return of Israeli POWs

In the summer of 2006, two Israeli soldiers — Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser — were abducted by Hezbollah. Israel reacted by launching a war against this Lebanon-based
terrorist organization. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared then that one of the main war aims was to return the two soldiers back home.

The war ended, and almost two years have passed, and the two soldiers are still in enemy hands. A third soldier, Gilad Shalit, was abducted by Hamas in Gaza about the same time. He is alive; his family has just received a brief letter from him.

Hamas is demanding that Israel free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for his release. As for Regev and Goldwasser, we are not sure. The jeep they had been driving was hit so badly, almost burned down in the attack, and the scenes of the charred remains of the vehicle left little hope that the two soldiers had survived. Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, in the most cynical and vicious way, refused to give any hint about their fate.

On Sunday, the Israeli government decided to release Arab prisoners for the two soldiers, but the heated controversy is still going on.

Isn’t this a heavy price? Shouldn’t we condition that Arab prisoners be exchanged only for living POWs? And isn’t all this but an incentive for future blackmailing?

Let’s borrow a page from the history book.

Frederick II of Prussia, known as Frederick the Great, was one of the greatest military commanders of the pre-Napoleonic era. In 1757, during the Seven Years War, he wrote a secret memorandum to his minister of interior on the eve of a decisive battle: “In the contingency that I become a prisoner of war, I forbid to make even the slightest concession to the enemy, and order to ignore anything I should write from captivity. If such unhappy event occurs, I want to sacrifice myself for my country. My brother will take the reins of power, and he and all his ministers will pay with their heads if they pay any ransom for me.”

Recently, several Israel Defense Forces officers in the reserves did the same. Upon being called to active duty, they sent a letter to the minister of defense and the chief of staff of the Israeli army stating that if they fall in enemy hands, they don’t want the government to pay any price for their release. Furthermore, they demanded that in case they become POWs, the government shouldn’t listen to their pleas, because obviously, they would be the result of their captors’ pressure.

All this is about living POWs. But what about dead ones? How far should a government go in order to bring a dead soldier to burial?

When it comes to Israel, the answer is never simple. According to Jewish religious law and tradition, burying the dead is a very sacred commandment. Furthermore, until a dead POW is buried, he is considered missing in action, leaving families in endless, agonizing doubt. If he was married, according to Jewish law, his wife is considered aguna (‘ ‘anchored”in marriage) and can’t remarry.

This is why in the case of Capt. Ron Arad, a jet fighter navigator who became POW in 1986 in Lebanon and has since disappeared, Israel went to great lengths to gain any shred of information about him. At one point, it was suspected that he was killed and buried anonymously in the Jewish cemetery in Damascus.

Ideas were floated to send an elite unit there with a helicopter to find out. Yet when Batya Arad, the mother of the missing navigator, heard about it, she adamantly refused: “I don’t want any soldier to risk his life for a dead body.”

So the debate rages on, touching sore nerves, with no clear-cut answers. It was Geula Cohen, who was a fighter in the prestate, anti-British underground Lehi (Stern Gang), who summed up the dilemma.

“If my son, Tzahi [Knesset member Tzahi Hanegbi, chairman of the Foreign Relations and Security Committee] were taken POW,”she said in one of the controversies over prisoner exchanges, “I would have fought like a lioness that the government should pay any price for his release.”

Then, with the same breath, she added: “And at the same time, I would have expected the government to firmly reject my demands.”

Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem.