Pearls for coal
There is little chance of Israel and the PA bridging divisions ahead of the US-sponsored peace summit, reports Khaled Amayreh from occupied East Jerusalem
Palestinian and Israeli negotiators began a series of secret meetings on Monday in an effort to draft a joint document for the upcoming US-sponsored peace conference, scheduled to take place in Annapolis, Maryland, in November. The two sides continue to be deeply divided on the major issues at the heart of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
According to Palestinian officials close to the talks, the two negotiating teams are likely to spend more time on formulating and asserting their own respective opening positions than bridging the gaps between them. While the Palestinian Authority continues to seek a final-status settlement on the basis of UN resolutions 242 and 338 and within the framework of what is generally termed the "land-for-peace formula" Israel, which views the occupied territories as "disputed" rather than "occupied", is adamant in its rejection of the right of return and determined to retain major Jewish settlement blocks on occupied Arab land.
Azmi Al-Shuebi, a former Palestinian cabinet minister, told Al-Ahram Weekly that "bridging proposals" were being considered to overcome differences pertaining to the extent and depth of the putative Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.
The main proposal in this regard foresees a "land swap" whereby Israel annexes 3-5 per cent of the total area of the West Bank, mainly in and around East Jerusalem and west of the Separation Wall, in return for which Israel cedes the would-be Palestinian state a comparable area of land in Israeli proper.
It is a catch-22 situation. Israel is offering the Palestinians sandy terrain in the Negev desert along the Gaza borders in exchange for annexing large Jewish settlements, including Ma'ali Adomim, Pisgad Ze'ev, Ariel, Efrata and Gush Itzion, in and around East Jerusalem. As one Palestinian official put it, the proposal is like swapping a pearl for a piece of coal of the same size.
The decision to begin drafting the joint Israeli-Palestinian document does not mean the series of recent high-profile meetings between Abbas and Olmert has been successful. According to observers both sides want to appease Washington and avoid any impression of impeding progress.
Olmert told the Israeli cabinet this week that he and Abbas had not come to any conclusions during their meeting on 4 October, intended to formulate a mutually-accepted perception of what any final-status settlement should look like.
"There were no agreements or understandings between me and Abu Mazen," said Olmert, adding that they had done no more than "survey the problems and central issues that are the basis for negotiations that will lead to two states for two peoples".
Olmert's remarks showed that despite his "positive" and "cordial" meetings with Abbas the two men are still dealing with formalities and procedural issues.
It is probably safe to assume that if the current talks continue at such a snail's pace the two sides will go to Annapolis without an agreement, which will in turn doom the conference to failure.
According to Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi, the success or failure of the upcoming conference depends on the willingness of the Bush administration to get involved. Ashrawi told the Weekly there were two main factors militating against the conference: first, the Bush administration has yet to demonstrate any real willingness to pressure Israel and, second, the internal Palestinian situation is more hapless than ever. Ashrawi criticised the make-up of the Palestinian negotiating team as "the same old incompetent faces that remind us of the failures of the Oslo era".
Meanwhile, Israel's stalling tactics this week prompted former Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei to warn that if a joint Israeli-Palestinian statement on the final-status issues is not formulated before the Annapolis conference the Palestinians may well not attend.
The veteran Oslo-era Palestinian negotiator and former prime minister pointed out that the principles of a final solution were clear to both sides, and what is needed now is a decision.
Olmert has been heaping praise on Abbas, insisting that "for the first time, there is a Palestinian leadership that wants to reach peace with Israel based on two states living side by side in security and where Israel will be a Jewish state." The Israeli premier has described Abbas as "consistent and systematic... against terrorism and ready for serious dialogue with Israel".
Such praise, coming from a man known among Palestinians more for deceitfulness than rectitude, has been met with apprehension, fuelling rumours that Abbas will compromise over Jerusalem and the right of return, the two issues that, more than any other, define the Palestinian- Israeli conflict.
Salman Abu Sitta, a prominent advocate of the Palestinian right to return to the homeland as anchored in UN Resolution 149, this week warned Abbas against "dealing lightly with the right of return".
"We are aware of the pressure you are facing to abandon Palestinian constants," Abu Sitta wrote in an open letter addressed to Abbas this week. "But what has drawn our attention more than anything else are Israel's attempts to redefine the idea of the two-state solution. Israel now wants mutual recognition of a national homeland for the Jews and, on what is left of the land, Palestine, a national homeland for Palestinians."
Palestinian apprehension about the dangers of a hasty deal being imposed that excludes the right of return prompted a number of Damascus-based Palestinian factions to call for meeting in the Syrian capital to reassert Palestinian national goals, including the right of return. The factions, which include Islamic and leftist groups, are expected to warn Abbas against succumbing to US pressure to sacrifice the right of return in exchange for an unviable Palestinian statelet in the West Bank.
Israeli grabbing of Palestinian land has continued unabated as Olmert talks about peace with the Palestinians. On Monday, the Hebrew press reported that the Israeli army had decided to seize land east of Jerusalem with the aim of building thousands of additional settler units.
The establishment of the new settlement, dubbed E-1, would block the remaining physical continuity between the southern West Bank (Hebron and Bethlehem) and the Ramallah region.