When US Mideast envoy George Mitchell arrives here in early January he is expected to declare a framework for peace talks aimed at reconciling the Palestinian demand for a state based on the 1967 lines, with Israel's goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
According to diplomatic officials, Israel is very close to agreeing with the US on terms of reference for the talks that will be very close to guidelines spelled out by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her statement following Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's announcement in late November of a 10-month settlement moratorium.
In the statement, expected to be the touchstone for the diplomatic process for some time, Clinton said, "We believe that through good-faith negotiations the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements."
Both Israel and the Palestinians have been negotiating with the US for months over how to define the goals of the negotiations, with the Palestinians wanting it to be taken as a given that a state inside the 1967 borders is the starting point of negotiations, and that if the borders are redrawn differently the PA will have to be compensated fully for "lost" territory.
Israel's position is that the 1967 borders are not the starting point of negotiations, and that the borders must be drawn not in accordance with those lines, but rather in a way that will give Israel secure and recognized boundaries.
In this vein, deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal Wednesday trying to counter what Jerusalem feels is a gradual acceptance by many in the international community of the Palestinian demand that the 1967 lines form the basis of the negotiations.
In the piece, Ayalon argued that UN Security Council Resolution 242, the cornerstone document for peace efforts in the region for years, called for peace within secure and recognized borders, but did not say where those borders should be, or that an agreement would necessitate a full withdrawal to the 1967 lines.
The framework for talks that Mitchell will likely present aims to "square the circle" by mentioning the Palestinian stance, as well as the Israeli one, and then saying the goal of the negotiations is to reconcile the two positions.
The major question now, according to government officials, is whether the Palestinians will accept this framework. Israeli officials said that Jerusalem was looking for vague guidelines rather than the specifics sought by the Palestinians.
One official said the idea was to have as "minimalistic" a guideline as possible, since previous agreements such as the Oslo Accords and Road Map provided sufficient parameters for negotiations.
Nabil Abu Rdainah, an aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told Reuters there would be movement in the near future.
"The region will see important political activity in the next two weeks," he said. "The Israeli position is not yet clear enough to the point of re-starting negotiations."
Mitchell, meanwhile, said in an interview published earlier this month on the Web site of the liberal Washington-based Center for American Progress think tank, that the US expected the negotiations to be "time limited, at the end of which all permanent status issues will be resolved, the state of Palestine will be established, there will be an end to the conflict, and Israel will finally have secure and recognized borders and normal relations with its neighbors.
"Our hope is that, during these negotiations, there will be a resolution of the border issue so that Israelis will be able to build what they want within Israel and Palestinians will be able to build what they want within Palestine."
It is widely expected that the border issue would be the first one tackled in the talks, because once that issue was resolved, the contentious issues over settlement building would dissolve since Israel would clearly be able to build in the settlements that would fall inside the negotiated border.
In that interview, moreover, Mitchell stated that the negotiations would "proceed on a variety of tracks." These tracks, he said, "will include high-level direct talks to establish a framework for the negotiations and set a positive atmosphere in which they can proceed; parallel talks between the US and Israel and the US and the Palestinians on key issues, such as security; and lower-level direct talks in which negotiators work through the details of the issues. In the current environment, we think it makes sense to explore a re-launch of negotiations through a mix of these tracks."
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, meanwhile, are scheduled to arrive in Washington next week, according to Arab diplomatic sources.
The two are expected to meet with Mitchell as well as other State Department and White House officials to further discussions on restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The US has, according to Israeli diplomatic sources, been pushing Egypt and other Arab countries to support Abbas if he decides to return to the negotiations.
Another topic set to top the agenda is the situation in Gaza, with international peace activists massed in Cairo to protest a major barrier Egypt is constructing along its border with the coastal Strip.
The officials' trip comes after Israeli envoys Yitzhak Molcho, Netanyahu's top negotiator on the Palestinian issue, and Mike Herzog, Defense Minister Ehud Barak's chief of staff, visited the US last week to speak with Mitchell.
Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report.