Secret ‘peace talks’ exposed
FROM WND’S JERUSALEM BUREAU
Israel, Palestinians still attempting major pact before January
By Aaron Klein
JERUSALEM – Despite media reports painting a dismal picture of negotiation prospects, Israel and the Palestinian Authority are still quietly working to conclude a major agreement before President Bush leaves office in January, informed Israeli and Palestinian sources told WND.
The sources, including a senior Palestinian negotiator, said the aim is to reach a series of understandings to be guaranteed by the U.S. that would result in an eventual Israeli withdrawal from the vast majority of the West Bank.
The understandings would also grant the PA permission to open official institutions in Jerusalem but would postpone talks on the future status of the capital city until new Israeli and U.S. governments are installed next year.
The original plan, initiated at last November’s U.S.-sponsored Annapolis summit, was to create a Palestinian state, at least on paper, by January. The summit launched talks aimed at concluding a final status agreement on all core issues – borders, the status of Jerusalem and the future of so-called Palestinian refugees.
But a final agreement has been hampered by several recent events here, most notably Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s decision to resign amid corruption charges, leading to general elections scheduled for February that will see a new prime minister elected. The candidate for office from Olmert’s Kadima party, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, is said to oppose reaching a deal on Jerusalem or refugees ahead of elections, fearing it will harm her prospects among center-right voters. Livni is Olmert’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians.
In spite of the upcoming elections and the Israeli government’s subsequent political instability, teams of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have been quietly meeting regularly the past few weeks in hope of concluding a series of understandings on key issues. Informed sources said any understandings reached will be backed up by Bush in an official letter. It is unclear how much weight such a letter will carry under a new U.S. administration.
According to the sources, neither side expects to conclude any deal on the status of Jerusalem or Palestinian “refugees” before January, putting aside those issues for future talks. Instead, negotiations are focused on reaching an agreement emphasizing borders, particularly a pledged Israeli evacuation of the vast majority of the strategic West Bank, which borders central Israeli population centers.
A Palestinian source told WND the U.S. is said to favor Israel withdrawing from nearly the entire West Bank. The source said the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem has been closely monitoring Israeli activities in the territory, which the source said has led to the Jewish state clamping down on what are termed “illegal outposts,” or Jewish structures built in the West Bank without government permission. Israel has recently announced a series of small West Bank evacuations, including the threatened forced removal of Jews who legally purchased a house in the ancient city of Hebron.
Also being heavily negotiated is an agreement that would allow the PA to official open institutions in Jerusalem. WND previously reported the PA already has been quietly operating in Jerusalem,
apparently with tacit approval from the Israeli government. But the expected agreement to be concluded before January would give the PA official operational status in the city, likely leading to the opening of scores of Palestinian institutions there.
According to Israeli law, the PA cannot officially hold court in Jerusalem. The PA previously maintained a de facto headquarters in Jerusalem, called Orient House, but the building was closed down by Israel in 2001 following a series of suicide bombings in Jerusalem. Israel said it had information indicating the House was used to plan and fund terrorism.
Thousands of documents and copies of bank certificates and checks captured by Israel from Orient House – including many documents obtained by WND – showed the offices were used to finance terrorism, including direct payments to the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades terror group.
In parallel with an understanding on the West Bank and Jerusalem institutions, the PA is pushing for a massive prisoner release to be pledged before January. A senior Palestinian negotiator told WND the PA requested that all Palestinian prisoners – meaning even convicted terrorists responsible for murdering Israelis as well as members of the rival Hamas terror group – be freed as part of the deal.
While the negotiator conceded such a massive release is unlikely, he said the PA’s hope is that Israel will grant a large release, possibly including the freedom of convicted murderer Marwan Barghouti.
Barghouti is a founder of Fatah’s Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades terror group, the most active Palestinian terror organization. He has boasted of planning the intifada, or Palestinian terror war, launched in September 2000, after then-PA President Yasser Arafat turned down an Israeli offer of a Palestinian state and instead attempted to “liberate” Palestine by force. Barghouti is serving five life sentences for his direct role in murdering Israelis.
Other understandings that Israel and the PA are attempting to reach before January surround water and natural resources.
While it wasn’t clear whether any understanding would actually be reached, the timing apparently favors all involved leaders.
With Bush set to depart office in January, sealing a deal between Israel and the Palestinians would bode well for his legacy, which some analysts say is hampered by what is described as an unpopular war in Iraq, an economic meltdown and a growing crisis with Russia.
Olmert is Israel’s most unpopular prime minister. Tainted by corruption charges and a heavily mismanaged war in Lebanon in 2006, Olmert would also like to depart office with a deal in hand. Also there is some concern in Jerusalem that President-elect Barack Obama may push Israel into further concessions during future negotiations, so some argue a deal on key issues while Bush is in office may be in Israel’s interests.
Abbas’ term in office expires Jan. 10. His future leadership is sure to be contested by Hamas and by some in Fatah’s young guard who want him to be replaced by Barghouti. Abbas’ ability to tout an agreement in which Israel is compelled to retreat from the West Bank and release Palestinian prisoners could help his fading street popularity. Also, Abbas is said to be greatly concerned by the prospects of February’s Israeli elections resulting in opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu coming to power. Netanyahu has announced repeatedly, including as recently as yesterday, he would suspend negotiations with the PA.