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    June 29, 2009 Edition 25                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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Revelations regarding the Abbas-Olmert peace talks
. A fundamental difference of understanding        by Ghassan Khatib
Israelis should understand that Palestinians have a concept of compromise that is different from theirs.
  . A blow to the chances for peace        by Yossi Alpher
Every so often, a national leader makes statements in an interview that redefine his position on the world stage.
. Accounts of the Annapolis process        by Mkhaimar Abusada
Abbas is certainly in no position to accept a peace offer less than that which Yasser Arafat rejected in Camp David in 2000.
  . A critical absence of urgency        by Yariv Oppenheimer
Conceivably, it was the absence of an American role that eliminated a sense of commitment to close the deal.

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A fundamental difference of understanding
by Ghassan Khatib

In recent weeks we have witnessed an exchange of public statements between former Israeli PM Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas regarding the Annapolis negotiations process. The exchange is reminiscent of the post-mortem that followed the failure of the Camp David final status negotiations between Ehud Barak and the late President Yasser Arafat.

Part of the reason for these statements, undoubtedly, is an attempt by Olmert to secure himself a positive place in the history of the peace process. Another reason, however, would seem to be an attempt to score another point against the Palestinian side by making the argument that it has yet again wasted an opportunity for peace.

Nevertheless, studying the details of the statements it is clear that the negotiations between Olmert and Abbas never went beyond touching the surface of the fundamental aspects of the conflict. In fact, most of the negotiations centered around only one of the five issues that need resolution, namely borders (though that does indirectly touch on another, i.e., settlements). According to Olmert, on the issues of Jerusalem and refugees there were either no negotiations or an Israeli refusal to include them on the table.

The Annapolis process also reflected a recurring problem with the Israeli attitude to negotiations. It has happened more than once that the Israeli side insists on including certain issues while excluding others and then presumes that it is undertaking a comprehensive process. When the process then fails, the Israeli side conveniently forgets that one of the reasons for failure is exactly the issues that were excluded. With Annapolis, these included the issues of Jerusalem, refugees and sovereignty.

Israelis need to understand that Palestinians are coming from a position that is based entirely on international law. In other words, the Palestinian position cannot and will not veer from the specific rights that United Nations Security Council resolutions as well as international legality guarantee Palestinians.

As long as international legality, including the US-brokered 2003 roadmap, considers Israeli control over the territory occupied in 1967 an illegal, belligerent and military occupation, Palestinians will continue to insist on a settlement that secures a complete end to that occupation.

Similarly, the Palestinians will continue to insist on a solution to the refugee problem that is based on the relevant stipulations of international law, which give Palestinian refugees a right of return. By the same token, East Jerusalem is occupied territory. It must either become the capital of a future sovereign Palestinian state or, should Israel insist that the eastern and western parts be unified, Palestinians must have the same rights in all the city that Israelis do.

Finally, Israelis should understand that Palestinians have a concept of compromise that is different from theirs. The Israelis are coming to the table with the idea that they are going to compromise on the occupied territories, i.e., the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians, on the other hand, come to negotiations with the understanding that the original dispute with Israel is over historic Palestine, and the 1967 borders are themselves a compromise that cannot be further compromised.

This means that the Israeli acceptance of a Palestinian state on the borders of 1967 is the other side of the coin for Palestinian recognition of Israel on these same borders. Until Israel is able to understand where Palestinians--and international legality--come from, we will continue to move from one wave of violence and sacrifice to another.- Published 29/6/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president for community outreach at Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning.

A blow to the chances for peace
by Yossi Alpher

The Israeli-Palestinian final status negotiations launched by the Annapolis meeting of late 2007 never seemed to have a serious chance of success. The leaders on all sides--Israeli, Palestinian and American--were either too weak or too disinterested. Some supporters of the negotiations, which lasted throughout most of 2008, went so far as to argue that even hopeless talks were important as a means of underpinning the security and economic confidence-building measures being implemented simultaneously in the West Bank. And if the talks did somehow succeed, their outcome was in any case destined by Annapolis to become a "shelf agreement" that awaits completion of phase I of the roadmap and the restoration of PLO rule in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and former Israeli PM Ehud Olmert recently discussed with the American press (in interviews in the Washington Post on May 29 and Newsweek of June 13, respectively) the extent to which they actually reached agreement in their 2008 negotiations. The "product" they describe is roughly similar to the Clinton parameters of 2000, the Taba agreements of early 2001 and the unofficial Geneva accords of 2003. Bearing in mind the two leaders' apparent inability to even contemplate implementing an agreement, these appear to be the not-so-original details of yet another virtual Israeli-Palestinian exercise in peacemaking.

Perhaps the protocols the leaders left behind will prove useful for future peacemakers. But we also have to hope that the ultimate failure of their negotiations will not negatively affect the willingness of the next generation of leaders to try again. Personally, this is why I opposed the Annapolis process: to engage in negotiations that have no chance of reaching fruition and success is liable to mean adding yet another layer of failure to the increasingly depressing structure of abortive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking enterprises. That is liable to deter rather than assist the next set of negotiators. How many more times will Israeli and Palestinian leaders agree to risk their political careers and perhaps their lives and reinvent the very same peace wheel, only to see it fall off its axle?

Olmert says he offered Abbas 93.5 to 93.7 percent of the West Bank, along with 5.8 percent in land swaps and a Gaza-West Bank safe passage corridor. Abbas recalls the offer as 97 percent. Both agree that Israel agreed to accept a small number of Palestinian refugees, with Olmert adding that he rejected the right of return and offered limited return to Israel as a "humanitarian gesture". Olmert also offered to, in effect, internationalize the Jerusalem Holy Basin. Olmert's interviewer reports that Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat "confirmed that Olmert had made the offer. . . . [Olmert] was serious."

Erekat claims the Palestinians needed time to study Olmert's offer and prepare a reply and that time ran out when Olmert resigned and Israel invaded the Gaza Strip. But that's not what Abbas says (nor has anyone in his entourage denied what he told the Washington Post's Jackson Diehl)--and this is the troublesome part for anyone examining this negotiating experience for clues as to future chances of success.

Every so often, a national leader makes statements in an interview that redefine his position on the world stage. Abbas appears to have done this. Abbas chose to interpret whatever statement of empathy Olmert made about the refugees--the effort the Israeli leader apparently undertook to offer the Palestinians some sort of psychological closure regarding the events of 1948--as acceptance of the right of return, while the Israeli prime minister understood he was saying the opposite and rejecting the right of return. Abbas looks at an offer of virtually the entire territory of the West Bank, internationalization of the disputed holy sites in Jerusalem and (according to him) the right of return, turns it down and says "the gaps were wide".

Can we Israelis be blamed for suspecting that we really do not have a partner for a two-state deal?

This is very bad news indeed. Abbas is about as moderate as the Palestinian leadership gets. Olmert proved to be about as moderate as the Israeli leadership gets, placing himself on a par with Yossi Beilin, the chief Israeli architect of the Geneva accords. I know of no other Israeli leader who would wish to offer the Palestinians even more in order to close the gap. I myself would not have offered as much: I believe Palestinians must accept an unequivocal Israeli position that the right of return contradicts the very spirit of a two-state solution. I also would argue that the West Bank-Gaza safe passage corridor is "worth" a lot more than around one percent of the "swaps" calculation, if only because a Palestinian state cannot survive without it.

Be that as it may, I can only hope that somewhere, waiting in the wings, is the Palestinian leader capable of broadly accepting at least Olmert's offer--and without distorting it. Or that some sort of international leadership, Arab or American, will prove ready and able to persuade the Palestinian leadership and public to make the necessary concessions. Otherwise, the chances of a successful two-state breakthrough in the near future were definitely reduced by Abbas' statements.- Published 29/6/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Accounts of the Annapolis process

by Mkhaimar Abusada

The election of Barack Obama to the White House has revived efforts at stimulating peace negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. These last broke off at the end of 2008 when Israel launched its war on Gaza and the ruling Kadima party subsequently lost elections to the current right wing coalition under Binyamin Netanyahu in February 2009.

The US administration led by Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made it clear to Israel that the two-state solution is the only basis for any peaceful settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and that Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank must be completely halted, including what Israel calls natural growth. In his speech at Cairo University on June 4, Obama warned that ongoing settlement construction undermined the peace process and, by implication, US interests.

Settlements and their expansion have always been a sticking point in Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations and the Annapolis process proved no exception. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, insists that Israel's continued settlement building is ultimately what "poisoned the atmosphere" during the Annapolis process. In a recent interview with Newsweek, he said 60 percent of conversations with his Israeli counterparts during the Annapolis process were devoted to arguments over the settlements.

President Obama and Hillary Clinton are right to take a harder line on settlements. In spite of Olmert's moderate rhetoric, his policies were deeply flawed. During the last full year of his term, construction tenders for new buildings in the settlements increased dramatically--by a multiple of 38 in East Jerusalem, according to one study. Olmert and his dovish government failed to remove the hardest-core outposts deep in the West Bank, illegal even under Israeli law and which seven in 10 Israelis are eager to abandon, according to polls.

For Israel, however, settlements are the purest expression of the Zionist ethos. Long-established Israeli policy to create these facts on the ground has made it impossible to establish a contiguous Palestinian state. This in return has moved Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to refuse any negotiations with Netanyahu before he accepts international demands regarding settlements.

In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Abbas reiterated that he would wait for the Obama administration to force a recalcitrant Netanyahu to freeze Israeli settlement construction and publicly accept the two-state formula before being willing to enter into negotiations.

George Mitchell, the US peace envoy, is now shuttling between Cairo, Tel Aviv and Ramallah to restart the stalled peace negotiations. Trying to build on what progress was made during the Annapolis process, he hopes to reach an agreement within two years. One problem he is facing is that Netanyahu does not want to start where those negotiations ended.

At the end of his term, Olmert tried one last maneuver in an effort to secure a legacy of his own. In an interview with Newsweek, Olmert revealed that he met with Abbas in September 2008 and produced a map of Israel and the Palestinian territories. He says he offered Abbas 93.5 to 93.7 percent of the Palestinian territories, along with a land swap of 5.8 percent and a safe-passage corridor from Gaza to the West Bank.

He also confirmed that the Holy Basin of Jerusalem would come under no sovereignty at all and be administered instead by a consortium of Saudis, Jordanians, Israelis, Palestinians and Americans. Regarding refugees, Olmert says he rejected the right of return and instead offered, as a "humanitarian gesture", a small number of returnees, although "smaller than the Palestinians wanted--a very, very limited number."

Saeb Erekat confirmed that Olmert had made the offer. "It's very sad," Erekat said. "He was serious, I have to say." But time eventually ran out. A few months after Olmert presented his offer, Israel declared war on Gaza. Shortly after that, Olmert was out of power.

Abbas acknowledged that Olmert had shown him a map proposing a Palestinian state on 97 percent of the Palestinian territories though he complained that the Israeli leader refused to give him a copy of the plan. He also asserted that Olmert "accepted the principle" of the right of return of Palestinian refugees and offered to resettle thousands in Israel, but that Abbas had turned it down. "The gaps were too wide," he said, especially on Jerusalem.

Abbas is certainly in no position to accept a peace agreement offering less than what Yasser Arafat rejected in Camp David in 2000. Abbas also can't accept any offer before he overcomes the deep division between his Fateh movement, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which rules Gaza and has vowed to reject any agreement reached by Abbas with Israel.

In his speech on June 25, Khalid Mishaal, the leader of Hamas, reiterated his movement's conditions for peace: a full end to the Israeli occupation, an independent and sovereign Palestinian state on all land occupied in 1967, with East Jerusalem its capital, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees based on UN resolution 194.

That, in other words, is the Palestinian consensus. Neither Olmert in 2008 nor Ehud Barak in 2000 came close enough, even if Olmert's offer may be seen as more serious than Barak's or indeed the Clinton parameters. Unfortunately, it is hard to imagine Netanyahu and the current right-wing coalition coming anywhere close to this or going the extra necessary distance.- Published 29/6/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Mkhaimar Abusada is a professor of political science at al-Azhar University in Gaza.

A critical absence of urgency

by Yariv Oppenheimer

On the thirteenth anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, at a memorial ceremony on Mt. Herzl in early November 2008, then-PM Ehud Olmert delivered one of his last speeches in office. He sought to leave the mark of his vision regarding the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the solution required by the state of Israel.

Olmert spoke directly and courageously about the need to divide the land and return to "the core territory of the state of Israel prior to 1967, with adjustments mandated by the reality created" since then. He underlined the need for international recognition of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state that is divesting itself of the burden of occupation and does not consider the West Bank and Gaza Strip to be part of its future territory. Olmert mentioned the compromises that Israel would have to implement regarding Jerusalem too, and reiterated his belief that only an agreement that guarantees two states to the two peoples would enable Israel to maintain its legitimacy as a Jewish and democratic state.

The prime minister's speech was delivered a few weeks prior to elections, in the twilight of his government's tenure and after he had announced his resignation. It was already fairly certain that Binyamin Netanyahu would reoccupy the prime minister's office within months. At this time, negotiations between the Fateh leadership and Olmert and his entourage over a permanent status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians had also ended. Early on in these negotiations, in view of the Fateh-Hamas schism and the reality in Gaza, there was a general sense on both sides that these talks that had begun after the Annapolis conference were theoretical, almost academic in nature, and that ultimately they could produce no more than a "shelf agreement" that both sides would be hard put to get their publics to ratify and implement.

Recent interviews granted by Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas reflect the changes that have been registered in the Israeli position since the previous attempt to reach a final status agreement, between PM Ehud Barak and President Yasser Arafat at Camp David in 2000. According to Olmert, Israel agreed to withdraw from and turn over to a Palestinian state some 93.5-93.7 percent of the West Bank and to apply the principle of territorial swaps to 5.8 percent.

One particularly sensitive issue on which the two sides registered progress was Jerusalem. The proposal discussed would render the Holy Basin area non-sovereign and administered jointly by Israelis, Palestinians, Saudis, Jordanians and Americans. Olmert agreed that Israel would absorb a larger number of 1948 refugees than mentioned in the past, though still within the framework of a compromise that would effectively prevent the right of return of Palestinians to sovereign Israeli territory and facilitate the return of most of them to the Palestinian state.

In order for these negotiations to have succeeded, the two sides would have needed three key missing elements or components. The first is time: shortly after the beginning of the Annapolis talks Olmert was caught up in proceedings to remove him from office; by the time of the outbreak of the war in Gaza in late December 2008 the talks had ended. Both sides continue to argue that time ran out and that a few more months of talks might have produced a complete and detailed agreement.

But time was not the only missing factor; both sides were also lacking the necessary political capacity. Olmert arrived at the negotiating table as acting prime minister and without significant political support from the Israeli public. After the disappearance from the scene of Ariel Sharon, followed by the Second Lebanon War, it was hard to conceal Olmert's lack of legitimacy in the eyes of the Israeli public; at times his approval rating was as low as three percent. Under these circumstances, the Palestinians understood that even if they attain a far-reaching agreement with the Israeli leadership, the likelihood that Olmert would get the approval of the Israeli public and win the battle with the Israeli right wing led by Netanyahu was slim.

For their part, the Palestinians entered the negotiations divided geographically and politically, with the Fateh-Hamas rivalry generating bloodshed and near-civil war. Thus even had Abbas committed to a peace agreement that comprises the Gaza Strip, the actual chances of implementing such a deal were also slim.

The third component missing from the negotiating process was boldness. During the short time a window of opportunity was open, the two sides failed to take the obvious extra step and agree to the final concessions needed for a deal. The sense generated by remarks made after the talks ended is that there was a readiness on both sides, even the courage to go far, but there was also a hesitation to finalize an agreement and test the publics' readiness to approve it. Despite the pressure of time, the two sides seemed to detach their negotiations from external realities and did not seem pressed to make a decisive move.

Conceivably, it was the absence of an American role in these direct bilateral negotiations that eliminated a sense of pressure and a sense of commitment on both sides to close the deal. Sometimes without such external pressure, and in view of the fact that the atmosphere and preliminary declarations generated by Annapolis fell on such willing ears, the leaders simply do not have a sense of urgency about making painful decisions and ending the conflict.

After this latest round of negotiations, the Israeli and Palestinian peace camps feel frustrated and disappointed. If Abbas and Olmert did not succeed in reaching agreement, it is doubtful that their successors will find more congenial partners for making a better deal.- Published 29/6/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Yariv Oppenheimer is general director of Peace Now.

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Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons.org and yossi@bitterlemons.org, respectively.

Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.