After Prime Minister Ehud Barak gave his approval, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators launched an intense round of peace talks in Sinai on Sunday to try to reach a framework agreement before the February 6 election in Israel. Barak is playing down expectations and blaring his "red lines" to Israeli voters, but his negotiating team seemed a bit surprised by the Palestinian side's sudden willingness to quickly ink an accord.
Barak convened his "peace cabinet" on Saturday and decided to send a delegation to the marathon talks scheduled to last up to ten days in the Sinai resort town of Taba. Barak admitted that the chances of success are small, with just over two weeks left until the election for a new prime minister. Israeli political analysts speculated that Barak was playing along to forestall a challenge from his left flank by arch-dove Shimon Peres.
But after weeks of stalling (not to mention decades of intransigence), the Palestinians finally appear anxious to conclude a deal with the caretaker Barak government, since polls show hawkish Likud leader Ariel Sharon likely will replace him. PLO chief Yasser Arafat thus is eager to get Barak to state for the record the generous offers he has made of late - which includes over 95% of Judea/Samaria, the Temple Mount and half of Jerusalem, among other concessions. Arafat could then cite these as Israel's opening positions in future negotiations, without having to give anything himself.
The basis of the talks is the plan outlined by former US president Bill Clinton in the weeks before leaving office on Saturday, dealing with the issues of refugees, Jerusalem, security arrangements, borders, and the division of water sources. The Palestinians have submitted some two dozen reservations about the Clinton proposals, which they want to renegotiate with Israel.
But in a move designed to signal both Arafat and the Israeli electorate not to expect too much flexibility, Barak's cabinet voted to "take note" of three firm positions: Israel will never allow the right of Palestinian refugees to return to inside the State of Israel, Barak will not sign any document which transfers sovereignty over the Temple Mount to the Palestinians, and Israel insists that in any settlement, 80 percent of the Jewish residents of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza will remain in settlement blocs under Israeli sovereignty.
And the head of the Israeli negotiating team, Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, rushed to "clarify" today that, indeed, the talks aimed at resolving the Palestinian refugee problem are being conducted on the basis of Israel's position that there will be no right of return to inside the State of Israel.
Palestinian negotiators have countered that if these are Israel's positions, then the talks are doomed to failure and there is no point in meeting at all. They said there is now only two options: an agreement or ongoing intifada.
But Palestinian Authority sources also noted that over the last few days Israel has began to present maps, all of which have been rejected. "The offers are getting better, but the settlements around Jerusalem and the settlement blocs are still the problem," said one PA source.
The sides met Sunday night and discussed the framework of the talks, which are expected to continue "around the clock" with the two delegations breaking up into four different work groups dealing with each of the most sensitive issues. Some reports claimed Arafat would attend the opening rounds, but he was scheduled instead to travel to Saudi Arabia today to raise support for the continuation of the intifada. In a related development, yet another round of security talks aimed at reducing the violence ended inconclusively yesterday.
The Taba talks have little support in the Knesset and even within Barak's cabinet. Several cabinet ministers raised objections to holding talks so close to the election, with Interior Minister Haim Ramon telling Barak the timing is not "proper, ethical, or right." Conducting negotiations now taints the peace process, argued Ramon, since it looks - even in the eyes of those who support it - as if it is being conducted for political gain.
Barak responded by saying that the government does not have the ethical right not to try to do everything to push the process forward. Saying that the negotiations need to proceed now "as if there were no election," Barak said that "it is preferable for us to be there, than not to be there. We are in the midst of a violent conflict, and the solution is a diplomatic one. We do not need to be the ones who stop the negotiations."
The initial round of the Taba talks are expected to continue until Wednesday, when the cabinet is scheduled to meet again to decide whether or not they should proceed further.
Sharon voiced strong criticism on Sunday for the holding of the Taba talks: "There is no doubt that the renewal of talks tonight is an attempted 'grab' for electoral purposes, by a government that does not exist." Sharon reiterated today that he would honor an agreement if it is accepted by the Knesset.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.