News Analysis: strong commitment, low expectation

By Xinhua

Jerusalem : Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian National Authority (PNA) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday asked the negotiating teams from both sides to begin drafting a joint statement next week ahead of a U.S.- brokered Mideast peace conference.

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During a two-hour meeting held at Olmert’s official resident in Jerusalem, the leaders talked in broad terms about their vision for a peace deal, and instructed drafting teams to start work next week on a joint statement, ahead of the U.S.-hosted peace conference.

It was the two leaders’ sixth meeting in several months. Although the two sides repeatedly voiced their commitment to a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and wished to contribute to the success of the November conference, significant gaps between their positions remain as before.

It is expected that the negotiations will be tough and complicated. The brief period left until November makes it difficult to bridge the gap between the two sides.

First of all, the two sides are far apart on how detailed the declaration should be. Israel is seeking a vague statement of principles, leaving the details to be thrashed out in bilateral negotiations after the gathering. However, The Palestinians are pressing for the core issues, such as borders, Jerusalem and refugees, to be included in an explicit “framework” statement along with a timetable for implementation.

According to the PNA sources, the major demands that the Palestinians will present at the start of negotiations includes immediate freeze of settlement construction and evacuation of outposts in the West Bank, the future border based on the 1967lines, safe passage between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state, and recognition of refugees’ right of return. Several of these demands are unacceptable to Israel.

Meanwhile, on the Israeli side, a weak and divided government produces fear that if Olmert agrees to make substantive concessions on these sensitive issues, he will witness a political melt down. His coalition might crumble, because two partners, Shasand Yisrael Beiteinu, will walk out.

Yisrael Beiteinu chairman and Minister of Strategic Affairs Avigdor Leiberman plans to define his “red lines” for the joint declaration of principles next week, which might rule out compromise over refugee issue and call for territorial exchanges on both sides.

Shas ministers, however, have asked to closely examine the essence of the concessions, especially regarding Jerusalem, before the document is drafted.

Other ministers are expected to mount obstacles as well. Minister of Pensioner Affairs Rafi Eitan from the Gil Pensioners Party vehemently opposes dividing Jerusalem.

Another major obstacle is that the lack of Israeli confidence in the Palestinian ability of implementing any agreement at all.

Ministers from Olmert’s Kadima party, such as Shaul Mofaz and Avi Dichter, claimed that the prime minister should not rush into a permanent agreement that includes excessive concessions to a Palestinian leadership, which is incapable of enforcing its authority in the territories.

So far, since Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip in mid June, the U.S. and Israel have adopted a policy of building up the Fatah-led government in the West Bank and strangling the Hamas government in Gaza. Local analysts believe that the policy would make Hamas try to sabotage the peace Israeli-Palestinian talks, either by portraying Abbas as “collaborator” of Israel who makes concessions on Palestinian vital interests or by resorting to violence. Dozens of Israeli soldiers were wounded in a Qassam rocket attack by Gaza gunmen at a training base of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) three weeks ago.

There is grave concerns that several successful attacks and the ensuing Israeli retaliation could well make any agreement impossible.

Realizing the difficulties ahead, both Israel and the Palestinians warn against having too high expectation of the peace conference. Some of them even mentioned that dangerous repercussions will emerge if the upcoming peace conference fails.

On Tuesday, Israeli Defense officials said that it was unlikely anything concrete would come from the negotiating talks and it was important to begin lowering expectations ahead of the peace conference so it would not trigger a third Intifada (Uprising) if it failed.

Similarly, a top Fatah official warned against raising expectations on the eve of the conference. He pointed out that the second Intifada erupted a few months after the Camp David summit.

The official was quoted by Jerusalem Post as saying that “the failure of next month’s conference could bring another catastrophe upon us.”