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.