The government is not interested at this time in heeding Construction and Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit's call to negotiate first with Saudi Arabia and other "moderate" Arab states, and only afterward with the Palestinians, a Foreign Ministry source told The Jerusalem Post over the weekend. In the past, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he looked favorably at certain aspects of the Saudi initiative of 2002, which was the basis for the Arab League's proposal of that same year. The Arab League promised to normalize relations with Israel if it withdrew to the pre-Six Day War lines.
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Nevertheless, the Foreign Ministry source said over the weekend that the government did not accept the proposal in 2002 and it was not going to do so now.
On Wednesday, Sheetrit said the divisions within the Palestinian Authority left Israel little choice but to seek negotiating partners with Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab countries. "Israel and the Palestinians are in a stalemate. There is nowhere to move. We are deadlocked," Sheetrit said at a panel discussion in Tel Aviv sponsored by the Geneva Initiative.
"Hamas does not recognize Israel. It is very difficult to have a peace agreement with people who want to eradicate the state," he said. "It is impossible to see them as a partner."
The moderate forces within the PA, which recognize Israel, are very weak, Sheetrit said. The PA is divided to such a degree that there is no clear central authority, he added.
In light of this, Sheetrit renewed his call, which he has been making since 2002, to negotiate with moderate Arab states on the basis of the Arab League proposal, even though he does not accept every aspects of it. Still, he said, it is a good starting point for negotiations.
That's particularly true today, when the moderate Arab states believed that peace with Israel would help isolate Iran and stem the rising tide of extremism, Sheetrit said.
Even Saudi Arabia "accepts that we will not go back to the 1967 borders," Sheetrit said. The discussion should now be about a comprehensive permanent agreement, he said.
"There is no point in any more interim agreements. There is no point in any more unilateral steps or 'convergence,'" Sheetrit said, referring to Olmert's earlier plan to unilaterally withdraw from large parts of the West Bank.
Sheetrit said that once a comprehensive deal was approved by the moderate Arab states, the Palestinians would endorse it as well. He did not say what such an agreement would entail.
Panel member and former PA cabinet member Kadoura Fares of Fatah disagreed with Sheetrit. He said the recent Palestinian summit in Mecca paving the way for a Palestinian Authority unity government had strengthened the position of PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, making him a better negotiating partner for Israel.
Fares also said that Cpl. Gilad Schalit, who was kidnapped near the Gaza Strip by Hamas on June 25, was alive and well. But, he added, he had not seen him personally.
Fares said Hamas's agreement to abide by past PLO-Israel agreements could be interpreted as acceptance of Israel's existence, even if the Islamist movement did not formally recognize it.
Included in those agreements that Hamas has accepted is one that speaks of a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders, Fares said.
He said that during a recent meeting in Damascus, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal told him he had given Abbas a mandate to negotiate with Israel on condition that he hold fast to two principles. The first is the creation of a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders and the second is the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes along the lines of UN General Assembly Resolution 194.
Fares said he hoped that something substantive would come out of the meeting scheduled next week between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Abbas and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Fares attacked Israel's continued settlement activity, and asked that Palestinian security prisoners be released and road blocs be dismantled.
Sheetrit said Israel was not supporting or financing new settlements, adding that "nothing illegal is being done."
Fares responded by saying the issue now was the expansion of existing settlements.