Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects need a miracle

Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia told reporters this month he does not think an Israeli-Palestinian agreement can be reached this year “unless there is a miracle.”

On the eve of a June 2 meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israel announced plans to build nearly 900 homes in the occupied West Bank around Jerusalem, despite calls to stop settlement expansion.

The 2003 peace “roadmap” agreed on by the Quartet — the U.S., Russia, the United Nations and the European Union — requires a halt to all settlement activity on the occupied land.

The issue has emerged as a key obstacle in the peace talks launched last November at Annapolis, Md.

“If Israel does not halt these activities, it will be difficult to reach the political settlement,” Abbas told a news conference after his talks with Olmert.

Qurei told The New York Times that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have agreed to start drafting a paper defining their positions. Olmert spokesperson Mark Regev said Israel is still committed to trying to get an agreement on the “core issues” by the end of the year. But Israeli officials have spoken of reaching a “framework” rather than an actual resolution of the fundamental issues. That is not acceptable, Qurei told the Times. “We do not want a framework. We want a comprehensive agreement on all the issues.”

He later said that Israel had presented a proposal for land swaps that would allow Israel to keep 10 percent of the West Bank. The Palestinians rejected this, saying they would not give up more than 2 percent or 3 percent of the already diminished Palestinian territory. Palestinians note that they have previously made enormous concessions with their willingness to accept establishment of a state on less than half the land allotted to them in the 1947 United Nations partition plan.

In a televised speech June 4, Abbas called for talks with Hamas to reestablish Palestinian national unity. The split between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority/PLO has been seen as seriously weakening the prospects for achieving a peace agreement with Israel. A Hamas spokesperson called Abbas’ statement “very positive.”

Meanwhile, Olmert met with President Bush in Washington and pressed him to supply Israel with additional military hardware.

On his return to Israel, June 6, Olmert threatened a major assault on Gaza in response to rocket and mortar attacks that have killed three Israelis recently.

At the same time, despite Israel’s public rejection of talks with Hamas, it is involved in such talks, brokered by Egypt, for a Gaza ceasefire.

Israel has maintained a chokehold on Gaza since Hamas seized power there a year ago, creating what human rights groups say is a humanitarian disaster for Gaza’s population.

Israel is also involved in negotiations with Syria, with Turkey as a go-between, over the possible return of the Golan Heights, which along with the West Bank has been occupied by Israel since 1967.

Olmert is undergoing a corruption investigation at home, and his political coalition is shaky. Prominent rivals are hoping to topple him. Commentators say he is seeking to placate contending domestic political forces. Many question whether he has the political strength to achieve peace agreements.

One of Olmert’s rivals, Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, said June 5 that Israel would attack Iran if it “continues” a much-disputed nuclear program that Iran insists is for peaceful purposes. Mofaz also rejected returning the Golan Heights to Syria.

Much attention now is focused on what a new U.S. administration might do.

The day after Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination, he, Hillary Clinton and John McCain addressed the annual conference of the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

McCain devoted much of his speech to saber-rattling against Iran and dismissing presidential diplomacy. Obama drew a strong contrast with his emphasis on diplomacy, and on an active presidential role in promoting an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. He called on Israel to “refrain from building new settlements.”

Peace advocates generally praised Obama’s remarks, noting his willingness to challenge Israel’s settlements policy before the hawkish AIPAC leadership. But many took issue with his statement that Jerusalem “will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” Obama’s somewhat ambiguously worded remark did not address the core Palestinian demand that East Jerusalem must be the capital of a Palestinian state.

The following day, Obama told CNN, “Obviously it’s going to be up to the parties to negotiate a range of these issues.” A spokesperson told the Jerusalem Post that Obama’s position is that Jerusalem “is not going to be divided by barbed wire and checkpoints as it was in 1948-1967.”

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, notes that the Palestinian position has been that Jerusalem can remain the capital of Israel and remain undivided as long as that does not preclude the Palestinians from also having their capital in a shared city.

suewebb@pww.org