Palestinian refugees 224.
(photo credit: AP)
As next month's US-hosted Middle East summit in Annapolis approaches, Israel and the Palestinians have accelerated efforts to set their opening negotiating positions.
Next week, the sides are expected to begin work on a joint statement to be presented at the conference's opening, possibly with the aid of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, expected to arrive in the region next week for an open-ended visit.
The key question is where exactly the parties are determined to set their so-called "red lines," their nonnegotiable bedrock stands, on the three fundamental final-status issues expected to be under discussion: the territorial issue (the borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state, and the impact this will have on West Bank settlements); the status of Jerusalem, including those holy places on and adjacent to the Temple Mount; and the so-called "right of return" for Palestinian "refugees" (the term itself is debatable) living outside Israel and the Palestinian areas.
With both sides jockeying for positions, and each seriously restrained by internal political considerations, it's too early to say on which of these issues there is realistic room to maneuver in negotiations (to say nothing of implementation) and which will prove to be the most problematic.
In the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, after all, red-line positions on both sides have oft-time proven to be far less steadfast than the fabled "Thin Red Line" stand made by the British Army's 93rd Regiment in the Crimean War's Battle of Balaklava, the historical episode that gave birth to the expression.
Still, positions must be set ahead of the negotiations and, based on reports coming out of the preliminary meetings between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, it's possible to intelligently speculate where those red lines might be drawn going into Annapolis.
The issue on which Jerusalem is now looking like it will make its firmest stand, in ways that are both expected and a little surprising, is the Palestinian right of return.
A key indication to the government's thinking were reports last week, emanating from Palestinian sources, expressing displeasure that the Israelis were insisting that US President George W. Bush's "letter of guarantees" sent to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon on April 14, 2004, be included in the guidelines for the summit's joint declaration of principles.
It's as important to remember what that letter doesn't include, as what it does. What it doesn't include is any specific mention of Jerusalem, in part reflecting the long-standing US rejection of the traditional Israeli position that the city remain united under full Israeli sovereignty. That established red-line Israeli stance was itself undermined by the willingness of the Barak government, during the Camp David negotiations, to discuss handing over and sharing parts of the city with the Palestinians.
Indeed, if anyone drew a red line over Jerusalem in 2000, it was Yasser Arafat, who adamantly refused to even consider a compromise on the Old City and its Temple Mount, most notoriously denying the Jewish historical connection to the site and rejecting a Clinton proposal that Israel enjoy a bare-minimum symbolic sovereignty "underneath" the Mount.
Even beyond the fact that Ehud Barak himself is now a senior minister and coalition partner in the current government, a clear sign that Olmert is preparing to show similar flexibility on Jerusalem was the public declaration last month by Deputy Premier Haim Ramon that Israel should be prepared to hand over parts of the city to the Palestinians.
Ramon is now the minister closest to Olmert in formulating Israel's negotiating positions, and it's hard to interpret Ramon's "personal" statement as anything other than a trial balloon for the prime minister, preparing the groundwork for a possible show of flexibility on Jerusalem.
Bush's letter did mention territorial issues, specifically that "in light of new realities on the ground, including existing Israeli major population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949."
Although this appears to back the Israeli refusal of a complete return to what is more commonly (and mistakenly) referred to as the 1967 borders, it's hard to see how, on strictly theoretical terms as a principle of negotiation, this will become a major sticking point in setting the summit guidelines.
On this issue, after all, it was the Palestinians' red line - full Israeli withdrawal to the '67 borders - which got wobbly at Camp David, with Arafat reportedly agreeing to a territorial exchange - in the area of 5 percent - that would allow Israel to keep some of those "major populations centers" (such as Gush Etzion, Ma'aleh Adumim and Ariel).
Abbas has reportedly spoken of agreeing to a similar deal, although demanding it be limited to a smaller area, in the 3% range.
Jerusalem's deepest interest in getting the Bush letter into the summit protocols is undoubtedly the section that reads: "It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final-status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel."
More briefly put, no right of return. Clearly, this is the firmest red line that Olmert is determined to set before heading off to Annapolis, and it is important to understand this position in a broader and more relevant context than has previously been stressed.
Israeli rejection of the right of return has, in the past, often been explained largely in practical terms - that Israel would be committing national suicide by accepting as full returning citizens the millions of Palestinians who today claim to be refugees.
That stance, however, does not answer the compromise proposals that have been put forth on this issue, most suggesting that Israel agree in some fashion to the right of return only in principle, but that practical implementation be strictly limited to special cases (such as family reunification) to a number (usually given in the 30,000 to 50,000 range) that won't significantly alter Israel's Jewish-Arab demographic balance.
Indeed, the co-author (along with Sari Nusseibeh) of the best known of such proposals, Labor's Ami Ayalon, has now joined the Olmert cabinet.
But don't expect his view on this matter to get much of a hearing from the prime minister - the government clearly wants the right of return rejected as a principle in any way, shape or form, before it sits down in Annapolis in front of the Palestinians and representatives of several of the Arab countries in which many of those ethnic Palestinians now live.
Why the urgency on this particular matter? The answer is found in the efforts of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni during the past years to get both the US and other governments to refer to Israel as "the Jewish state," and in the recent reports that Olmert is demanding the Palestinians also put this phrase in some form in the joint declaration.
The formal recognition of Israel as a Jewish state going into final-status negotiations isn't about setting a red line to keep out millions of Palestinians, something that isn't going to happen no matter what terminology is used. Rather, it's a defensive posture against what Jerusalem perceives as a stepped-up campaign on the part of its Arab opponents (and some of their most fervent supporters) to achieve at the negotiating table what they couldn't win on the battlefield.
If a "two-state solution" final-status agreement becomes merely a resolution of territorial border issues, but still denies legitimacy to Israel's status as a specifically Jewish homeland, it sets the stage for the continuation of an ideological struggle against the Jewish state that its opponents believe can be carried on, and eventually won, in generations to come.
It is also a struggle that can be waged both outside and inside Israel's borders, with the latter under the guise of supposedly championing the equal rights of Israel's Arab minority.
Even Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently chose - in New York - to reframe his usual talk of "wiping Israel off the map" in the context of a democratic vote by "Palestine's inhabitants" to eliminate the "Zionist entity."
That's why Israel is seeking a rejection of the right of return, not just in practice, but on the principle that, as it is written in the Bush letter, such a rejection is vital to "Israel's security and well-being as a Jewish State."
According to Ma'ariv, the Palestinians were initially baffled by the Israelis' insistence that the joint statement include specific mention of Israel as a Jewish state, relating it largely to concerns over the status of Israeli Arabs. As the summit approaches, though, there is likely to be more intense focus on this point as its relevance to the debate over the right of return becomes more pronounced.
On this point, the Olmert government will have to hold firm.
Previous governments have already given ground on the territorial issues, including on Jerusalem; holding the red line against the right of return is now as much a matter of survival for Israel as that thin red line in Balaklava was for the Highland troops of the 93rd back in 1854.