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Netanyahu open to exploring alternatives if direct talks prove impossible
By TOVAH LAZAROFF
23/05/2014
Israel remains committed to talks with the Palestinians, but it refuses to negotiate with Fatah as long as it honors its unity deal with Hamas.
 
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is open to discussion with his coalition partners about alternatives to direct negotiations with the Palestinians should the Fatah- Hamas unity deal take root, an official told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.

But Netanyahu hopes it won’t come to that, the official added.

Israel remains committed to face-to-face talks with the Palestinians as the best path forward to two states for two peoples, the official stressed, but it refuses to negotiate with Fatah as long as it honors its unity deal with Hamas.

Now that talks have been suspended, several government ministers have begun proposing alternatives.

The broad-based options that members of the government have put forward fall into three basic categories: an economic plan, withdrawal from isolated settlements, or annexation of territory in the West Bank.

“No one knows if the Hamas deal is going to stick,” the official said. “If that marriage is not consummated, we are ready to return to direct talks with the Palestinians.”

The Palestinians, meanwhile, have plans to push forward with unilateral statehood, and have already taken some steps toward achieving that goal. But Israel has no day-after plan in the absence of negotiations.

Ministers are now looking to fill that void. Some of their ideas are unilateral plans, while others would involve coordination with the Palestinians.

The latest idea came from Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud), who wants to advance legislation in the Knesset to expand the borders of Jerusalem to include the settlements of Ma’aleh Adumim, Givat Ze’ev and the Gush Etzion bloc.

US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington on Wednesday said that the United States wanted the Israelis and Palestinians to come up with new ideas to arrive at a two-state solution to the conflict.

In the interim, she said, the US has asked the parties to refrain from “unhelpful” action.

It is for this reason, she explained, that when the Middle East Quartet met in Brussels on Monday with US envoy Martin Indyk, it did not publish any statement following the meeting.

“This was a regularly scheduled session and provided an opportunity for Ambassador Indyk and other envoys to assess where things stand and consult on the way ahead,” she said.

“Obviously, at this stage, we’re clearly in a hiatus from the talks,” she continued, adding that “consistent with the approach of President [Barack] Obama and [US Secretary of State John] Kerry, the focus of these discussions and of the effort overall is on getting the two sides to come up with new ideas and avoid unhelpful steps. Hence there wasn’t a statement that came out.”

She spoke just weeks after the latest US-led negotiating process ended on April 29th without any tangible results. When the direct talks began, the US had hoped to arrive at a final-status agreement at the end of nine months. It then downgraded its expectations to a framework agreement of principles that would allow for further talks.

But in the end, even that document was not feasible.

Now, Psaki told reporters, “it remains in the hands of the parties to... make the choices necessary if they want to resume discussions.”

She noted that “there’s a great deal going on in the world, and Secretary Kerry is focused on everything from Ukraine to South Sudan – all the issues we talk about in here every day. But we’re still engaged with the parties.”

Besides the Quartet meeting of representatives from the US, the EU, the UN and Russia, a number of other high-level conversations have occurred on the frozen peace process, including between Kerry and Jordan’s King Abdullah on Wednesday.

Last week, Kerry met separately with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.

Livni and Abbas also met last Thursday night – though the Prime Minister’s Office quickly clarified that Livni didn’t represent the State of Israel in that meeting. Livni herself has explained that the conversation was not part of any formal negotiating process.

Speaking to reporters in the Knesset earlier in the week, she said that in the absence of negotiations, “if we have to think of alternative options to resolve the conflict, that is what we will do.”

For months, however, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett has promoted an alternative and called on the government to annex Area C of the West Bank.

He has repeated this idea to journalists since the end of the talks, and this week published an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal on the matter. In that article, he explained that Palestinians in Areas A and B of the West Bank, which encompass the major cities and outlying suburbs, should have civic autonomy.

“They should hold their own elections, run their own schools, issue their own building permits and manage their own healthcare system. In short, they should run their own lives.

Israel should not interfere in day-to-day governance,” he wrote.

Palestinians living in Area C, he said, would be given full Israeli citizenship. He explained that this would impact about 70,000 people. The United Nations has said that there are 300,000 Palestinians living in Area C.

Bennett said his plan also called for dismantling the security barrier, and free movement for Palestinians in the West Bank.

“Israel can now stay reasonably secure without the barrier,” Bennett wrote. “This will prove especially true if the Israeli government works with the international community to promote Palestinian economic development in Areas A and B.”

He added that “one promising idea is to encourage multinational corporations to invest in Palestinian areas by offering economic incentives such as insurance guarantees and tax breaks. There are also ways to streamline the export process for Palestinian manufacturers so products can reach their destination quickly and in perfect condition. Israel has become known as the ‘Startup Nation,’ but now it is time to build a ‘Startup Region.’”
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