Senior leaders of Israel's peace camp refuse to call it quits - even during the throes of an election campaign they appear certain to lose - pressing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to enter marathon peace talks with the Palestinians in hopes of reaching a framework accord before the February 6 balloting for a new premier.
With Barak still trailing badly in the latest polls, the idea for non-stop negotiations to try to wrap up a deal within the next two weeks was tabled by Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami at a meeting in Cairo late Wednesday with Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat and host Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The proposal to hold the intensive round of talks in the Sinai resort town of Taba was accepted by Arafat, who told reporters on his return to Gaza: "We agreed to [attempt to reach an accord], and we have informed the peace process co-sponsors that we are willing to do this."
But Barak reportedly has been hesitant to approve the initiative. Citing the terrorist murder of a Jewish youth this week, Barak decided on Friday to postpone until Saturday evening a meeting of his "peace cabinet" to discuss whether to send a delegation to the marathon sessions. Barak's office rushed to clarify today that no decision had been made yet, after top Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) said this morning that the negotiations would commence in Taba on Sunday and are to last ten days.
Instead of presenting the electorate with a document containing Israeli concessions that many contend would tie the hands of a future Likud-led government, Barak has wanted to focus on reducing violence and campaigning for re-election on the idea of a "unilateral separation" from the Palestinians if negotiations continue to bog down.
But prominent peace cabinet members - foremost among them Ben-Ami, Shimon Peres, Yossi Sarid, and Yossi Beilin - feel that Israel should continue negotiating at full speed ahead, while the opportunity presents itself. Ben-Ami claimed yesterday that Barak also "is very keen on moving ahead in the peace process... This policy continues, regardless of the political calendar in Israel."
Ben-Ami added in Turkey today that the two sides are closer to peace than we have ever been before." He declined to give details but added: "You can gauge from the essence of that comment how close we are."
One diplomatic source said some in Barak's "peace cabinet" - a non-governmental forum recently set up by Barak that includes resigned Cabinet minister Sarid - remain unfazed in their pursuit of peace. "Ben-Ami feels that this is an historic opportunity that may not reappear for a long while," he said. The nationalist camp, however, argues that Barak has no mandate to negotiate with the Palestinians at this time, since he has resigned and lost the support of the Knesset and the people.
On the Palestinian side, Arafat last month stalled for almost two weeks before responding to a set of American bridging proposals outlined by departing US President Bill Clinton, but indications are that he is now ready for intensive negotiations over the Clinton blueprint for a final-status accord. Arafat has nothing to lose and everything to gain from the move, since the talks could "set in stone" Barak's far-reaching concessions so far without Arafat having to compromise on anything himself.
Recent sporadic, direct Israeli-Palestinian contacts, aimed at renewing security cooperation and addressing Palestinian reservations to the Clinton plan, have been unproductive and full of rancour. Ben-Ami said the Cairo talks on Wednesday were "in-depth, detailed and at some points, even pointed." Much of meeting reportedly was devoted to mutual recriminations.
Meanwhile, hearings continue before Israel's Supreme Court over five private petitions demanding that Barak's caretaker government stop conducting negotiations with the Palestinians during the election period. In preparation for the first hearing on the petitions last week, the Court asked Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein for a legal opinion and response on behalf of the government. A representative of Rubinstein wrote that the Basic Law: Government did not impose restrictions on a transitional government and therefore it was not behaving illegally in negotiating with the Palestinians. However, he warned that because people suspect that election considerations were influencing its decisions, the government must behave with "utmost caution" during such a period.
The seven-justice panel then adjourned and submitted a question to Rubinstein whether the government was acting with "utmost caution." In a written response, Rubinstein told the High Court of Justice on Wednesday that at this late date, it is the Knesset and the people who should judge whether or not the government is behaving properly.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.