With less than four weeks left in office, US President Bill Clinton is holding to a Wednesday deadline for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to agree to accept his "outline of principles" for resolving their differences. The short time fuse has intensified debate in Israel over surrendering parts of Jerusalem, especially the Temple Mount, and forced PLO chief Yasser Arafat into a critical decision concerning the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees.
On Saturday, Clinton culminated a week of renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Washington by presenting the two sides with bridging proposals that collectively would form the framework of a final-status agreement. He gave the two sides until tomorrow to accept his ideas as the basis for further talks.
If both parties agree, Clinton would invite both Barak and Arafat to Washington this weekend for separate meetings as part of one final effort to broker a framework deal. Clinton has set January 10 as the last day he can commit to the process before turning his full attention to handing over the Oval Office to President-elect George W. Bush. Even if an outline agreement is quickly concluded, months of negotiation will still be necessary to work out all the details of the deal, and some press reports indicate the Bush team may allow Clinton to continue his involvement at the center of the process.
In recent days, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has said he has little choice but to respond positively to Clinton's proposals, but he first wants to hear what Arafat intends to answer. Arafat and other Palestinian Authority officials have expressed reservations so far, but not outright rejection.
After meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Monday, Arafat charged Clinton's proposals "did not remove the obstacles on the path to peace." He claimed that the proposals were not significantly different from those made at the failed Camp David summit in July.
The core of the new initiative reportedly involves Israel conceding most of east Jerusalem, including sovereignty over the Temple Mount, in exchange for the Palestinians abandoning demands that millions of Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to Israel. Both sides have asked for more time and suggested submitting alterations to the ideas. But Clinton has informed them that no extensions would be granted and no changes would be accepted, although he would be willing to clarify issues. Clinton has made clear that if the Palestinians insist on the right of return for refugees, there would be no agreement under his watch.
Arafat is consulting with his negotiating team and the PLO leadership about the proposals, and looks to be leaning toward submitting questions for "clarification," trying to buy a little time to decide on the refugee question. Arafat has never prepared the Palestinians for a compromise on the "right of return" and several Arab states home to large Palestinian refugee populations - Lebanon, Syria and Jordan - are anxious to know what he plans to do. Lebanon in particular just announced that it will not allow the question of the refugees to be solved at 'the expense of the national rights of the Lebanese people.'"
Palestinian sources said yesterday that it was likely Arafat would accept the American ideas, but would submit a long list of questions on the details. "At this point, it looks like we will aim at a framework agreement before the end of Clinton's term, and to save Barak before the elections... Then we will discuss the details with a new Israeli and American government," a PA source said.
Meanwhile, Barak offered few details of the outline deal to his ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday. In media interviews since, he has offered several reasons why he has little choice but to accept the American bridging proposals.
On an Israeli TV talk show on Monday night, Barak said: "The natural tendency is of course to want a lot of changes... If the other side agrees to accept the (ideas) as they are, then we too will need to accept them." He repeated earlier claims made to his cabinet that Israel's peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan would be endangered if the Clinton ideas were rejected. He also said he had to show respect for Clinton, who had worked so hard on the Oslo peace process over the past seven-plus years. Nevertheless, Barak admitted an agreement will be "as difficult as hell for us emotionally."
Although Barak is now up for re-election on February 6 and hopes to have a deal in hand to present to Israeli voters, he insists that he cannot reveal any details of the Clinton package, since it would harm Israel's negotiating position. Before conveying an answer to Clinton on Wednesday, Barak will convene his "peace cabinet" and visit Mubarak in Cairo to review the terms under discussion.
According to numerous reports, those basic terms include:
* Israel will relinquish 95% of Judea/Samaria and all of Gaza to a Palestinian state. Another 5% of Israeli land will be transferred to the Palestinians in the Halutza area in the Negev, adjoining the Gaza Strip. The area to be annexed by Israel will contain about 75% of the settlers in three blocs close to the Green Line, meaning that some dozens of Jewish communities will be evacuated. Note that at Camp David, Barak agreed to give up 89% of Judea/Samaria and 1% of Israeli territory alongside Gaza. Also note that Barak has already ordered the IDF to plan and erect a security fence along the pre-1967 lines from the Carmel range south to the Latrun area.
* Jerusalem will be divided and serve as two capitals, with the Palestinians receiving sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, and Israel over all Jewish neighborhoods. In the Old City, the Palestinians will get sovereignty over the Temple Mount, and commit not to dig underneath the mount, where the remnants of the First and Second Temples are buried. The Western Wall, Jewish Quarter, and part of the Armenian Quarter will remain under Israeli control.
* Palestinian refugees will be able to return to the new Palestinian state, but not to Israel, except for tens of thousands of refugees allowed in under humanitarian cases of family reunification. Some reports say Clinton included a provision requiring Israel to permit the entry of 150,000 refugees for resettlement in the Negev. Israel will take part in an international mechanism to be set up for compensating and resettling the bulk of refugees. Homes, businesses and infrastructure abandoned in Jewish settlements in YESHA would be considered part of Israel's contribution to solving the refugee problem.
* When the agreement is signed, the Palestinians will declare an end of the conflict. The Palestinians, however, want to wait until the end of the implementation period, said to be six years, before declaring an end to their claims against the Jewish state.
No maps have been submitted and there are also gaps on timetables and security arrangements, including IDF early warning stations in the Jordan Valley and international troops along the border with Jordan.
Barak has run into his stiffest opposition on the surrender of the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives. Among those now voicing strong criticism of ceding Israeli claims to the holiest site in Judaism are Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, Chief Rabbis Yisrael Meir Lau and Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, Cabinet Ministers Roni Milo (Center party) and Rabbi Michael Melchior (Meimad/One Israel), Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg (Labor/One Israel), Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and even Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Some Israeli political analysts agree that the public will reject such a compromise in the upcoming special ballot for prime minister.
Barak has reportedly agreed to meet with the Chief Rabbis on the question of the Temple Mount, to keep a pledge originally made by the late Yitzhak Rabin to consult the Chief Rabbinate about how to handle Jewish holy sites in negotiations. But Barak hinted on Israeli TV last night that the Temple Mount was negotiable, promising again and again only to "do nothing to impair the affinity of the Jewish people to the site."
Despite aggressive questioning from TV host Nissim Mishal, Barak adamantly refused to elaborate on the sort of proposals being deliberated, insisting that he cannot let the electorate in on the concessions at hand, "for reasons of national responsibility." When pressed to tell the public the truth and own up that he is dividing Jerusalem, Barak shouted at the top of his lungs that he is "trying to bring an end to conflict." Asked why he yelled so loudly, Barak replied that he is "accompanied constantly by images of the fallen, the bereaved parents, the widows and orphans."
Barak vehemently denied that he seeks a deal in order to improve his electoral prospects, but did say that if a deal is struck with Arafat, he expects that he "will win the election big." His opponent in the election campaign, Likud chairman Ariel Sharon, has said he will not honor any agreement Barak concludes with Clinton and Arafat, since he has resigned and does not have the support of a majority in the Knesset to conduct talks.
Meantime, there is much dissension in Palestinian ranks over giving up their demands on the return of refugees and allowing some settlements to remain. The clear majority say Arafat should reject a deal that does not allow the refugees the choice and right, in principle, to enter Israel.
While both sides agree the solution to the refugee problem should be based on UN General Assembly resolution 194, the two sides' interpretations of that resolution are still far apart. The resolution suggests several ways to solve the refugee problem: letting refugees return to their homes, compensating refugees for their suffering and losses, rehabilitating refugees in their host countries, and resettling refugees.
"The refugee problem is the core of the conflict... Without solving it there will not be peace," Palestinian Legislative Speaker Ahmed Qurei told THE JERUSALEM POST. Qurei also told PA Radio that Clinton's proposals don't answer the "yearnings" of the Palestinians. "I believe what was offered until now from the Israeli side is not the maximum they can give," Qurei insisted.
Over the last few days, Palestinian publications have been rejecting any notion of resettling refugees in their present place of residence. ISRAEL RADIO reported Tuesday that there have been calls in some of the refugee camps in the territories for attacks on Arafat if he relinquishes the right of return.
The Palestinian leadership knows, however, that no Israeli government will agree to allowing hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees flood back into Israel proper. Even the most dovish MKs like Yossi Beilin andYossi Sarid draw the line at absorbing masses of refugees, saying it would be tantamount to national suicide. Perhaps that best explains why the Palestinians are finding it hard to give up on the dream of "return."
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.