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Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (PBS.org)

JERUSALEM – Israel and the Palestinians have been conducting behind-the-scene negotiations regarding handing over most of the West Bank to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, according to top Egyptian and European diplomatic sources who told WND they were directly involved with the talks.

The West Bank borders Jerusalem and is within rocket-firing range of Tel Aviv and Israel’s international airport.

The Egyptian and European sources told WND the negotiations for an Israeli withdrawal were mediated by Egypt and the European Union, with U.S. input. The sources said major changes in Israeli-Palestinian affairs are expected within a few weeks to two months.

According to an aid to European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, speaking on condition of anonymity, there will be a “historic political evolution and movement in negotiations in the next few weeks and few months, unseen since the Camp David peace talks in 2000.”

During the Camp David talks, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered late-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and eastern sections of Jerusalem.

According to the top diplomatic sources speaking to WND, Israel has agreed in principal to hand over most of the West Bank in deal with Abbas.

The sources said Israel is studying the transfer of responsibility in the central and southern West Bank to Abbas’ security forces, which reportedly are receiving aid, weapons and training from the U.S.

They said one proposal being considered for the northern West Bank would see Jordan and the EU supervise the transfer to Abbas’ security forces.

Still being debated is the role of Hamas, which leads the PA and maintains the majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament. Negotiations between Abbas and Hamas leaders for a national unity government have mostly fallen through.

Yesterday, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said he viewed any Palestinian elements recognizing the state of Israel as a partner for negotiations “even if it is Hamas.”

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made similar comments.

So far, Hamas has refused to recognize Israel, but recently offered a 10-year truce with the Jewish state. In a series of interviews this past weekend, Hamas leaders told WND during any 10-year truce period they would build a large Palestinian army and plan for the destruction of Israel.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently announced she is planning to mediate talks between Olmert and Abbas next month.

Asked about the alleged behind-the-scenes negotiations to hand over the West Bank, a spokesman in Olmert’s office stated he “doesn’t know about any West Bank withdrawal.”

Olmert was elected prime minister on the platform of carrying out a withdrawal from the West Bank, but after this summer’s Lebanon war he has stated a West Bank withdrawal would not occur.

Olmert in August called the policy of unilateral withdrawal a “failure” and said it was “no longer relevant.” But he can argue handing the West Bank to Abbas in an agreement is not unilateral.

Regarding a West Bank withdrawal, Israeli Interior Minister Roni Bar-On said this summer, “The withdrawal plan is not dead, though its implementation has been postponed. The plan is now on the shelf or in the freezer, but when the time comes it will be accessed.”

Several recent public opinion polls showed the majority of Israelis now oppose a West Bank withdrawal. The leaders of Egypt and Jordan have expressed reservations about withdrawal plans, fearing terrorism can spill over into their respective countries.

Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000. It had occupied a small section of Lebanon’s border with Israel following repeated attacks by Palestinian terrorists in the area. Since the withdrawal, Hezbollah has staged numerous attacks against Israel, including rocket bombardments of civilian population centers, raids against military outposts and ambushes and kidnappings of Israeli troops. Hezbollah built an arsenal in south Lebanon of more than 13,000 short- and medium-range rockets capable of hitting central sections of the Jewish state

Israel withdrew last August from the Gaza Strip. Since then, rockets have been fired almost daily into nearby Jewish communities, Hamas has been elected to power and both Israeli and Palestinian officials have stated al-Qaida has infiltrated the territory. Israel says the Palestinians have smuggled hundreds of tons of heavy weaponry into Gaza and are preparing for a large-scale confrontation.

Israel in June mounted a major ground invasion of Gaza after Hamas carried out a raid against a military installation in which Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was abducted.


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