Mitchell to launch proximity talks

Envoy will meet Abbas, Netanyahu amid deep skepticism on both sides.

Abbas and Mitchell 311 (photo credit: AP)
Abbas and Mitchell 311
(photo credit: AP)
US Middle East envoy George Mitchell is scheduled to hold talks in Ramallah on Wednesday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, marking the launch of the “proximity talks” with Israel, PA chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said on Monday.
Mitchell is to arrive in Israel on Tuesday afternoon, and meet with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Thursday. He is set to leave the region later that day.
Erekat said the talks would focus on final-status issues in general and on borders and security in particular, and that the Palestinians were hoping that the negotiations would lead to the drawing of the future borders between Israel and a Palestinian state.
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He did not rule out the possibility that the PA would agree to a tiny land swap with Israel that would keep most of the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the hands of the Palestinians.
Erekat warned that continued construction in the settlements and east Jerusalem would “destroy” the peace negotiations “even before they begin.”
He added that according to agreements reached between the PA and the Obama administration, core issues such as Jerusalem, refugees, water, borders and prisoners would be resolved on the basis of international law and United Nations resolutions.
“This will eventually lead to ending the Israeli occupation of our land and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state,” he said. “Israel is now facing two options: Peace or settlements. Israel can’t combine the two together.”
Not all PA officials share Erekat's optimism
Several senior PA officials in Ramallah did not seem to share Erekat’s optimistic assessment of the proximity talks. Nabil Abu Rudaineh, media adviser to Abbas, said the Palestinians had “given everything and the ball was now in the Israeli court.”
He said that the credibility of the Obama administration, which was trying to relaunch the peace process, was now at stake because of “Israeli obstacles.”
Another official said Abbas was “pessimistic” because he was convinced that the Israeli government did not want peace. “The Americans understand our position and they have actually accepted most of our demands,” he said. “But our problem is not with the Americans; it’s with Israel.”
Concerns over possibility of imposed US peace plan
In Israel, meanwhile, there is skepticism about American planning concerning the indirect talks and what if any strategy the US has in the event that the talks fail or run into significant obstacles when it comes to turning them from proximity to direct negotiations.
The matter will likely come to a head when the four-month period for indirect talks sanctioned by the Arab League expires at roughly the same time that Israel’s 10-month moratorium on settlements construction is set to end.
Though Israeli officials have been assured that the US is not considering presenting its own peace plan in the near future – despite speculation on that front in Washington – there are concerns a US plan could be coming down the pike if the proximity talks falter. Then the US pledge to “hold both sides accountable for actions that undermine trust during the talks,” as articulated by President Barack Obama, combined with American parameters, could put Israel in a bind.
In a related development, Haim Ramon, who served was deputy premier under Ehud Olmert and was one of his trusted confidants, said on Monday at the Institute for National Security Studies conference that the Palestinians turned down Olmert’s offer in 2008 because of disagreements regarding the number of refugees to be allowed into Israel, and because of a Palestinian demand to control the “safe passage” that would have linked the Gaza Strip to the West Bank.
At the end of 2008, Olmert offered Abbas 93.5-to-93.7 percent of the West Bank, a one-to-one swap for most of the rest, and an arrangement whereby no one would have sovereignty over the “holy basin” surrounding Jerusalem’s Old City, but rather it would be administered by a consortium made up of the Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Saudis and Americans.
Ramon revealed that in August 2008, he went to Amman to discuss the refuge issue with Abbas. “We wanted to permit a certain number of refugees into the country over a number of years, and they wanted a different number,” Ramon said.
Minister-without-Portfolio Bennie Begin had a far different take on why the Palestinians rejected Olmert’s offer, as well as that of then-prime minister Ehud Barak in 2000.
The Palestinian rejection of both offers, he said, had to do with “the refusal of the Palestinians to understand that Judaism, beyond just being a religion, is also a nationality. Their refusal to recognize this [Israel] as a Jewish state, like their refusal to recognize that the Temple stood on Mount Moriah, expresses their refusal to accept that we have a title to this land.”