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(photo credit: AP)
Definitions of what constitutes a demilitarized Palestinian state and a settlement freeze are expected to be high on the agenda of talks Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman will hold in Washington Wednesday, the highest level meetings between the two countries since Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's address Sunday at Bar-Ilan University.
Netanyahu, during his speech, said any Palestinian state "must be demilitarized, with ironclad security provisions for Israel. In order to achieve peace, we must ensure that Palestinians will not be able to import missiles into their territory, to field an army, to close their airspace to us, or to make pacts with the likes of Hizbullah and Iran."
Without going into details, Netanyahu said he was asking "our friends in the international community, led by the United States, for what is critical to the security of Israel: clear commitments that in a future peace agreement, the territory controlled by the Palestinians will be demilitarized."
He also said he was asking for "real monitoring, and not what occurs in Gaza today."
Among the issues Lieberman is expected to begin discussing with the US are the types of ironclad security provisions and monitors Israel has in mind.
Lieberman is scheduled to meet Wednesday with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Adviser James Jones, and other leading congressional figures. He is also expected to meet with Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday.
One senior Israeli government official said Netanyahu was looking for an agreement on the principle of demilitarization, and for international understandings to guarantee same. These guarantees, he said, were a prerequisite for moving toward a Palestinian state.
"The international community must guarantee that the Palestinian state will be demilitarized," the official said. "And then mechanisms will have to be put into place to ensure that it remains so."
Netanyahu and Lieberman clearly have their work cut out for them, however, as both US and European officials have reacted with skepticism to the notion.
The Los Angeles Times quoted US officials as expressing reluctance to give such guarantees, adding that Palestinians probably would not agree to it in negotiations.
"We take the security of Israel very seriously, but we need a solution that works, and this would be very difficult for the Palestinians to swallow," the Times quoted the official as saying. He added that America was "a long way away from the point where we'd be talking about this kind of arrangement."
Nevertheless, the demilitarization principle has been a cornerstone of Israeli policy in negotiations with the Palestinians from Oslo through Camp David. At Camp David, in fact, it was one of then-prime minister Ehud Barak's four "red lines," the others being no withdrawal to the 1967 lines, that Jerusalem would remain unified under Israeli sovereignty and that Israel would not recognize any legal or moral responsibility for solving the problem of the Palestinian refugees.
In the past, a number of ideas about how to ensure demilitarization have been bandied about, ranging from Israeli control along the Jordan River to ensure that no heavy weaponry is smuggled in, to the introduction of an international observation mechanism in the new Palestinian state that could include control over the border crossings.
Outgoing NATO Chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has in the past not ruled out the stationing of NATO troops in the West Bank, on condition this was part of a final status agreement, and had been agreed to by both sides.
According to Israeli officials, what Israel wants to get now is international agreement on the principle, something Lieberman is expected to begin discussing in Washington, with the mechanism to be worked out later in negotiations with the Palestinians.
Another issue that will likely dominate the talks - Lieberman's first visit to Washington as foreign minister - will be the settlement issue.
US President Barack Obama, while saying for a second time on Monday that there was "positive movement" in Netanyahu's speech, called once again at a press conference in the White House, alongside visiting Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, for a "cessation of settlements."
"And there is a tendency to try to parse exactly what this means," Obama said, "but I think the parties on the ground understand that if you have a continuation of settlements that, in past agreements, have been categorized as illegal, that's going to be an impediment to progress."
This was Obama's first comment on the settlements since Netanyahu's speech, in which the prime minister said that while Israel would not build new settlements or expropriate land for existing communities, it would not freeze all settlement construction.
Netanyahu reiterated that position in an interview Tuesday on CBS, saying that the future of the settlements would be determined in final negotiations, and that the goal of the natural growth construction was to enable "people [to] live normal lives until that final peace agreement is reached. Then we'll decide on the rest."
Netanyahu said the dialogue with the US on this matter was continuing, and that he would be discussing it next week at a meeting in Paris with US envoy George Mitchell. He also said he hoped a "common position" could be reached, "because we'd like to move the peace process forward."
At a press briefing on Tuesday, Mitchell expressed a sense of urgency in concluding the negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, saying, "Our focus right now is to create the context for the resumption and early conclusion of meaningful negotiations."
He spoke of wrapping up his series of discussions with the various parties in a "matter of weeks, not many months," suggesting reports the Obama administration will be unveiling its vision for the Middle East by the end of July could be correct.
He did not give a firm timeline but said the US was pursuing these efforts "as vigorously as possible," and all the parties - Israel, Palestinians and the Arab states - must take "tangible steps."
For the Israelis, he said that meant halting settlement construction. When pressed to define "natural growth" in the settlements, a major bone of contention between the US and Israel, he stressed there was "no universally used and accepted definition," but said, "The most commonly used measure is the number of births."
While the US would like to see Israel do more with respect to the settlement issue, Mitchell did praise Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for endorsing a two-state solution in his speech on Sunday. "The important thing about the prime minister's speech is that he included in his objectives a Palestinian state, so there now is a common objective which was not the case until that speech was made," he said.
When asked about Netanyahu's insistence that such a state be demilitarized, he responded: "The US will not take any action which undermines Israeli security. The Palestinians are entitled to a viable, geographically contiguous state that provides independence and dignity to their people. We do not regard these two objectives as irreconcilable."
In terms of Netanyahu's demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, Mitchell pointed out that Netanyahu had not set the demand as a precondition to talks. "It's best to get into negotiations, that's what negotiations are about," he said. "Our objective is not to try to prejudge each issue before there's even been a first meeting of the parties."
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