(photo credit: AP)
Top Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei said Wednesday the Palestinians are ready to yield parts of the West Bank and Jerusalem to Israel, if compensated with an equal amount of Israeli territory.
He made the statement on the same day that his boss, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, told Palestine TV the size of territory the Palestinians want for their future state is 6,205 square kilometers.
Asked by The Associated Press whether he thought he could get such a commitment from his Israeli counterparts, Qurei said: "Why not? We are still at the beginning. I know that the spirit is good, from what Abu Mazen [Abbas] told us about his meetings with [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert. I think it is okay."
Qurei, a 71-year-old former PA prime minister known as Abu Ala, has dealt with five different Israeli prime ministers during 14 years of negotiations.
Today he heads a four-member Palestinian team that first met earlier this week with Olmert's top aides. He said the US-hosted Mideast conference in Annapolis, Maryland, tentatively set for November 26, is a "very, very, very important opportunity."
If it fails, Qurei said, Israelis and Palestinians will perhaps suffer more than in the blood-soaked years following the unsuccessful Camp David summit in 2000.
Ahead of the November conference, the two sides are trying to write a joint declaration of principles on the so-called core issues of the conflict: borders, Jerusalem, settlements and refugees.
Although Abbas on Wednesday laid out his most specific demands for the borders of a future Palestinian state, calling for a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, sources in the Prime Minister's Office said it was too early to talk about any details.
"The negotiating teams have just started meeting and we are at a preliminary stage," a senior source in the Prime Minister's Office said. "It is very premature to talk about the details of anything."
In his television interview, Abbas said the Palestinians wanted to establish a state on all 6,205 sq. km. of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It was the first time he has given a precise number for the amount of land he is seeking.
"We have 6,205 square kilometers in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip," Abbas said. "We want it as it is."
According to Palestinian negotiating documents, the Palestinian demands include all of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, east Jerusalem and small areas along the Green Line that were considered no-man's-land before the Six Day War.
Abbas said his claim was backed by UN resolutions.
"This is our vision for the Palestinian independent state with full sovereignty on its borders, water and resources," he said.
While the two sides were indeed talking about "core issues," they were not close to talking in as detailed a manner as Abbas implied, a senior official in the Prime Minister's Office said.
"This is jumping way forward," the official said.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators held their first working meeting this week, trying to hammer out a joint declaration in time for next month's conference. The US hopes the document will provide a launching ground for full-fledged negotiations on a final peace agreement.
Despite Abbas's tough public stance, aides to Abbas said he had agreed in recent talks with Olmert to exchange land Israel wants to keep in a final peace deal with an equal amount of Israeli land, allowing Israel to annex the large settlement blocs.
As part of the proposal, Abbas offered Olmert about 2 percent of the West Bank, the aides said. Olmert is said to be seeking 6%-8% of the West Bank, but has said the exact amount of territory should be decided in future negotiations, the aides said.
In exchange for the West Bank land, Israel is reportedly considering transferring to the Palestinians a strip between the Gaza Strip and the Hebron area to allow for a connection between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
In private meetings with Palestinian leaders, Vice Premier Haim Ramon has reportedly also advocated the idea of a swap. It would be portrayed as a win-win situation to skeptics on both sides: Most settlers would stay where they are, and the Palestinians could say they got all of their land back.
Ramon has proposed handing some Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem to the Palestinians, but has been vague about where he felt the line should be drawn. Still, such talk about a possible division had long been taboo in Israel, and Qurei suggested Ramon was testing the public's reaction to the idea.
Palestinian leaders are increasingly promoting the idea of a swap for territory in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, provided they get comparable land in Israel proper, even though it implies recognition that large settlements will remain in place.
Qurei suggested that on the thorny issue of Jerusalem, a declaration would suffice that east Jerusalem will be the capital of Palestine and west Jerusalem the capital of Israel. The sticky details, of who would control key holy shrines and where the line of division would run, could be dealt with later.
In a joint declaration, Qurei said, it would be enough to declare the 1967 lines as the starting point, say the border is open to modifications, based on the principle that the Palestinians end up with as much land as they lost in 1967. The exact border would be worked out in negotiations following the Annapolis conference. Part of the deal would likely be a land corridor linking the West Bank and Gaza, separated by 40 kilometers of Israeli territory, but other swap proposals have not been raised.
Abbas said the joint statement at the conference must deal with the main hurdles preventing a final peace agreement.
"The international conference must include the six major issues, which are Jerusalem, refugees, borders, settlements, water and security," Abbas said.
In a related development, Quartet envoy Tony Blair met Olmert for a private meeting on Wednesday, a day after he met Abbas. No details of the Blair-Olmert meeting were released.