Far from easy
Direct talks between Palestinians and Israelis are moving forward, but the ride is rough, reports Dina Ezzat
in Sharm El-Sheikh
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BRAINSTORMING IN SHARM:|
It is hoped that Mubarak's talks with Abbas, Clinton and Netanyahu will provide the appropriate prelude to the Jerusalem round. But first Israel must demonstrate political flexibility and a commitment to compromise
Despite carefully worded diplomatic statements, tension was in the air in Sharm El-Sheikh on Tuesday as senior Israeli, Palestinian and US officials met in the hope of furthering prospects of concluding a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the new round of direct talks are being held under the sponsorship of the United States and with the help of Cairo and other Arab capitals.
The source of tension was not just the refusal of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to commit to extending a temporary freeze on the construction of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Tension was also prompted by the failure of Israel to agree with the Palestinian Authority on the details of the agenda for talks. According to one Palestinian source in Sharm El-Sheikh, Israel was not showing flexibility on either matter.
Meanwhile, Palestinians, according to reliable sources, find little reason to believe that the US can make good on its promise to get Netanyahu to at least agree to extend the current settlement freeze in practice, without having to publicly announce it, when it expires 30 September. The Palestinian concern is simple: if Israel is building homes for Israeli citizens on land in the West Bank, what land will be left for a would-be Palestinian state?
Palestinians are also frustrated by the Israeli insistence that any framework for peace be conditioned on Palestinian acceptance and recognition of the Jewish nature of Israel. According to Palestinian sources, this effectively prejudges the nature of any final settlement, and in particular is a threat to the rights of Palestinian refugees. It also raises dangerous questions about the fate of Palestinians in what is now Israel.
The final status issues that direct talks should cover include: the refugees, water, Jerusalem, borders and security. Upon the launch of the first phase of direct talks in Washington earlier this month it was agreed that all these issues would be discussed in the course of 12 months, during which the US administration is hoping that Abbas and Netanyahu conclude a framework agreement to be endorsed by Arab states and the international community. For the time being, however, Palestinians are complaining of Israeli attempts to direct the agenda according to Israeli priorities.
"Palestinians do not mind discussing the issue of security, but a good focus on the issue of borders would facilitate the talks, because once the borders [of both Israel and Palestine] are defined it would be easier to decide the rest of the issues, because it would be a matter of each side deciding for themselves within their borders," said Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit in Sharm El-Sheikh. Talks that started Tuesday morning, ending late afternoon, were followed by extra talks attended by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In consecutive meetings held Tuesday, President Mubarak met with Clinton and Netanyahu and then briefed Abbas. Clinton also met independently with both Abbas and Netanyahu before getting them both together in talks attended also by US Presidential Middle East Envoy George Mitchell. Speaking to the press after this meeting, Mitchell announced that both Abbas and Netanyahu discussed some but not all core issues and that both are convinced that a deal could be reached within a year, during which security would be upgraded.
The parties, according to Mitchell, decided to continue the talks that aim to establish "two states for two people". He declined to clarify whether this statement meant that the US is adopting Israel's position on the Jewish identity of Israel, saying this would be something that the parties would decide through talks.
As the various delegations were leaving Sharm El-Sheikh bound for Jerusalem, where they would hold another round of talks, nobody in Sharm El-Sheikh was willing to speak of optimism -- just serious work ahead that should produce progress. On Wednesday in Jerusalem, Clinton said that Palestinians and Israelis are getting down to business and are serious about resolving their differences. "They have begun to grapple with the core issues that can only be resolved through face to face negotiations," Clinton said ahead of a meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres.
For his part, Peres appeared optimistic. "A few months ago we did not think we could move to direct talks and it happened," he said. But according to a senior aide to Abbas, who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity from Ramallah, "It is one thing to go to the talks and another to conclude a deal." He added that Abbas went to direct talks against his better judgement in response to Arab, American and Western demands and that he has been "and still will be" showing flexibility on the modalities of negotiations and their mechanisms, but "ultimately Abbas cannot sign onto the Israeli wish for him to recognise the Jewish nature of Israel or to abandon all historic and legal right for Palestinians in East Jerusalem".