Just as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were reporting serious progress in the marathon Taba talks, a double murder of two Tel Aviv residents shopping in Tulkarm prompted Prime Minister Ehud Barak to suspend the intensifying effort for an election-eve peace deal. The move appears to be temporary, however, as the two sides are set to meet back in Taba on Thursday, once the terror victims are in the ground.
Soon after the latest round of direct talks were launched at the start of this week, the Palestinian team reported headway due to new Israeli concessions. The Israeli delegation was less upbeat and more evasive about details, but did note the Palestinians seemed unusually serious about reaching an agreement this time.
By Tuesday afternoon, media reports were rife with new developments on the tough issues of Jerusalem, borders, settlements and refugees. For the first time, both sides were pouring over detailed maps showing their respective proposals for handling Jerusalem and Jewish settlement blocs in Judea/Samaria, and some participants indicated the parties could begin drafting a joint paper by Friday.
Then came news of the abduction and execution by masked Palestinian gunmen of two owners of a trendy restaurant in Tel Aviv who visited Tulkarm to buy flowerpots, ignoring standing IDF orders for Israelis to stay out of Palestinian areas. Facing an uphill election battle, a miffed Barak recalled the heads of his negotiating team from the Sinai resort of Taba to protest their deaths.
But Barak called a meeting of his "peace cabinet" this evening and, in keeping with their recent policy, the non-governmental left-leaning forum looks anxious to rejoin the talks soon after the funerals are over tomorrow. It is proving an instant replay of recent events. Just last week, Barak broke off contacts for a day following the murder of a Jewish farmer in southern Gaza, and then postponed by a day a meeting of his peace cabinet after the body of a 16-year-old Israeli boy - lured to Ramallah and murdered - was disinterred, identified and reburied in Israel.
Familiar with the drill, the Palestinian team stayed in Taba to await the return of their counterparts. Lower-level Israeli officials also remained behind in nearby Eilat, signaling the delegation heads would be back soon.
The swift resumption of negotiations only adds to the sense of urgency surrounding Barak's bid, in the heat of an election, to ink a landmark peace deal for presentation to voters on February 6. Maintaining a commanding 20% lead in the latest polls issued two weeks before balloting today, Likud candidate Ariel Sharon called on Barak to stop the talks. And even members of Barak's cabinet agreed the talks were "improper" so close to an election date.
But ardent doves in Barak's peace cabinet pressed for the negotiations to continue. Justice Minister Yossi Beilin argued today that "extremists" should not be given a "veto" over the talks.
Senior officials in the Palestinian Authority quickly condemned the Tulkarm murders, and Palestinian radio broadcasts used strikingly strong language to publicly note the Palestinian leadership's displeasure with the action. But top PA figures also criticized Barak's recall of his negotiators. ISRAEL RADIO on Wednesday quoted Palestinian negotiator Hassan Asfour as saying, "Palestinians are killed every day, as well, and yet the Palestinians are continuing with the negotiations." This, in turn, upset IDF officers riled by the equating of the murder of innocent Israeli shoppers with the deaths of Palestinians engaged in violent attacks on Israelis.
Yesterday's recall came just before the working group dealing with Jerusalem was to meet, where Israel was expected to further clarify its newest offer on Jerusalem. In accord with the parameters laid out by former US President Bill Clinton, Barak reportedly is now willing to give the Palestinians sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem, while the so-called "sacred zone" in and around the Old City would be shared under a "special regime." The special arrangements would encompass the Old City, the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives, the ancient City of David (Silwan), Mount Zion, and other religious sites just outside the walls of the Old City.
The Israeli plan is based on recommendations by a committee of experts on Jerusalem headed by Moshe Amirav, who also advised Barak along similar lines before Camp David. The basic premise of the proposals, Amirav says, is that there be two capitals in Jerusalem: "Al-Quds" for the Palestinians, and "Yerushalayim" for Israel. A special committee, with members from both sides of the city, would oversee the special regime for the sacred zone, provide services there, run day-to-day life, and draw up building codes. A special police force made up of Israeli, Palestinian and foreign police would be trained and deployed to handle security in the zone.
Press reports differed over whether the Western Wall or Jewish Quarter would be included in this special regime or kept under full Israeli sovereignty. Under the joint-sovereignty idea, national symbols - such as flags - would not be displayed at the religious sites. It is this "shared sovereignty," Amirav says, that Barak has in mind when he repeats his carefully worded sentence: "I will not sign a document transferring sovereignty of the Temple Mount to the Palestinians."
Amirav has also suggested placing the entire Temple Mount under sovereignty shared among Israel, the PA, the Security Council, and some Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco.
None of these suggestions, however, satisfied the Palestinians. Saeb Erekat rushed to tell reporters that Barak's ideas for shared rule were "non-starters... If the Israelis insist on this position, I think we are not going to get anywhere." Erekat told reporters.
This may have been what led to an apparent backtrack by Barak in campaign speeches and press releases yesterday. He assured voters: "The holy sites will remain under Israeli sovereignty in any agreement... Israel will maintain the affinity of the Jewish nation and the Jewish tradition to the site, giving expression to the special character of the city as a holy site to all the religions." Later in the day, he clarified further: "There is no question. In any arrangement, the Western Wall, the Jewish Quarter, the City of David, and Mt. of Olives will all be under Israeli sovereignty, period."
On the issue of refugees, some new ideas have been tabled by Beilin, a PA source said. One idea is to base an agreement on UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and UN Security Council Resolution 242, thereby limiting the right of return to Israel to the first generation of refugees, while agreeing to the right of return to the Palestinian areas for the rest, said Israeli and Palestinian sources. There are about 30,000 first-generation refugees still living.
After Israel reduced its demands in Judea/Samaria from 11% to 7%, the Palestinians countered with maps allowing settlement blocs in less than 4%, below the Clinton threshold. They also rejected Israel's request to lease additional land in the Jordan Valley and elsewhere.
Likud MK Tzahi Hanegbi this morning said that, if elected, Sharon will revoke all of Barak's concessions since Camp David and begin negotiations with the Palestinians from scratch. According to Hanegbi, a Sharon government will be obligated to honor only agreements ratified by the Knesset, and will not conduct negotiations if the Palestinians continue the violence.
"Negotiations... under fire, two and a half weeks before elections, are improper, immoral, ineffective and incorrect," charged fellow Likud MK Limor Livnat. But peace cabinet member Yossi Sarid of Meretz said, "If I must choose between failure in elections, heaven forbid, and a victory or accomplishment in the peace process, long live peace."
One Israeli diplomatic official close to the Israeli negotiating team said that the Palestinians seemed interested in concluding some type of joint paper to use as a jumping off point for future negotiations with a Sharon government. The official cautioned that the suddenly serious Palestinian approach may be an attempt to trap Sharon. "If Sharon wins, they could then easily place the blame on him for a breakdown of the talks," the official said, adding that this would be more difficult to do if they were dragging their feet or publicly being very being inflexible at Taba.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.