Extract from an article in Issue 17, December 10, 2007 of The Jerusalem Report. For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report
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Looking ahead to the Annapolis conference and beyond, Minister Without Portfolio Ami Ayalon says Israel must do all it can to clinch a deal with the Palestinians before the end of next year. Otherwise, he warns, time for a two-state solution with the Palestinians could run out.
In an extensive interview with The Jerusalem Report, Ayalon, a former Commander of the Israel Navy and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief, who narrowly lost a run-off for the Labor party leadership to Defense Minister Ehud Barak last June, says he believes Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will be able to overcome right-wing opposition to a peace deal, and that, in this context, Labor's support for his peacemaking efforts will be crucial. Excerpts:
The Jerusalem Report: Can the process Annapolis is meant to launch succeed?
Ami Ayalon: I think the Israeli public does not fully understand the implications of failure. There is a question mark over how long the paradigm of two states for two people will continue to be a viable option. I don't want to speak in apocalyptic terms, but if there is no option of two states for two peoples, then there is no option for a Jewish and democratic Israel. Secondly, if this process fails, it is only a matter of time before Hamas takes over the West Bank, and with Iraq to the east and Hamas to the west, the stability of Jordan becomes problematic. On the other hand, the new American-led pragmatic axis in the Middle East is unified around three goals: stopping Iran going nuclear; confronting radical terror in its al-Qaeda-Sunni or Hizballah-Shi'a forms; reaching a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of two states for two peoples. And we need to do just about anything for this process to succeed.
So how do we go forward? It seems the prime minister has pulled back from earlier agreements.
Given the fact that there are two weak leaderships hamstrung by domestic politics, we should see Annapolis as a first step in a process that takes no more than a year. We should start sensing success no later than next September or October. The deal needs to be wrapped up in 2008. 2009 will see a new administration in the U.S., both we and the Palestinians will be going into election years, and the Iranian problem will move to center stage. We need to understand that 2008 is our window of opportunity.
What about the core issues?
As far as I am concerned, the Peoples' Voice document I signed with (Palestinian Prof.) Sari Nusseibeh should be the basis for an agreement. That is two states for two peoples; in Jerusalem - Arab neighborhoods to Palestine, Jewish neighborhoods to Israel and a special regime for the Holy Places; refugees to the Palestinian state, which would be demilitarized, with its security guaranteed by the international community; and borders on the basis of the 1967 lines, with land swaps. There should be no problem for the government to accept these principles. Sixty-five to 70 percent of the Israeli public back them as a basis for a permanent peace deal. And if you add guarantees Israel would get from the international community and the U.S., then you get 75-78 percent approval.
How, then, do you explain what seems to be the prime minister's surrender to the right? And what guarantee is there that in six or nine months time that scenario will not repeat itself?
As I say, my assumption is that the prime minister doesn't want to lose his coalition at the beginning of the process. But I think he knows any prime minister who goes into an election with an agreement in his pocket will win. Therefore, it's a question of timing. [Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor] Lieberman's campaign against the process won't stop at Annapolis. Labor's position in favor of the process will be crucial in counteracting the people inside the government who oppose it.
How far would you go?
We must be ready for concessions, but we must also have red lines: My red line is on the refugees. I am not prepared to have any Palestinian refugees returning to Israel as part of a political agreement. We can consider cases ad hoc on humanitarian grounds, but it shouldn't be part of a peace agreement between us and the Palestinians.
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