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President Obama with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office
JERUSALEM – Are the Israeli and U.S. governments misleading the public about the status of talks aimed at creating a Palestinian state?
The Israelis and Palestinians have political reasons for minimizing any breakthroughs in confidential talks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maintains a government coalition with nationalist parties that may bolt if they become aware of negotiations aimed at relinquishing strategic territory. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas could lose face if he is seen talking to Israel before the Jewish state gives in to his demand to halt all Jewish construction in eastern sections of Jerusalem in line with a similar 10-month freeze imposed by Netanyahu in the West Bank.
While both governments, along with the U.S., have been minimizing the prospects of negotiations, WND has learned from multiple Middle East security and diplomatic officials over the past few weeks that Israel and the PA are negotiating indirectly via the U.S., Jordan and Egypt to outline a future Palestinian state that would encompass much of the West Bank.
Just yesterday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended a tree-planting ceremony in the West Bank town of Kfar Etzion, where he declared, “Our message is clear: We are planting trees here and we are here to stay.”
That statement may be misleading, however. Netanyahu’s government has been involved in intense talks with the U.S. and Egypt outlining the borders of a PA state. In those talks, Netanyahu’s team stressed that Israel expects to maintain the main settlement blocs – Ma’aleh Adumim, Ariel and the Etzion bloc, while much of the rest of the West Bank would be evacuated.
From that perspective, Netanyahu’s statement that Israel will “stay” may be technically accurate if the prime minister was only discussing the Etzion town in which he planted a tree yesterday. His statement, though, was largely interpreted by commentators here as meaning he intends for Israel to retain the West Bank.
Netanyahu pushed home that message yesterday when he further stated Israelis would continue building in the West Bank and that those places will forever be an inseparable part of Israel.
“There is a national consensus regarding this issue in Israel, and this recognition is slowly permeating the international arena,” Netanyahu said. “Today’s tree planting reinforces this international position.”
Last week, President Obama himself lowered expectations about a breakthrough in Israel-Palestinian talks. In an interview published in Time magazine, Obama acknowledged that the effort “is not where I want it to be.”
“This is just really hard,” Obama said. “Even for a guy like George Mitchell, who helped bring about the peace in Northern Ireland. This is as intractable a problem as you get.”
Obama told the magazine that Israelis and Palestinians face strong political pressure to avoid “meaningful” talks, “and I think that we overestimated our ability to persuade them to do so when their politics ran contrary to that.”
He continued, “I think it is absolutely true that what we did this year didn’t produce the kind of breakthrough that we wanted, and if we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high.”
George Mitchell, Obama’s envoy to the Middle East, last week wrapped up a four-day visit to the region with reports claiming there were no major breakthroughs on issues.
Middle East security and diplomatic officials from Egypt, Jordan, the PA and Israel, however, told WND in separate interviews over the course of the last few weeks that Israel is in advanced stages of outlining a future Palestinian state that would encompass most of the West Bank. Also, Jerusalem is being discussed between Israel and members of the Obama administration, the officials said.
To point out the advanced levels of the current talks, a PA official told WND that a recent visit by Obama’s national security adviser, Jim Jones, centered around security arrangements for the borders of a future Palestinian state in the West Bank.
Just after the visit, Netanyahu made cryptic public remarks that any future deal with the Palestinians “would require an Israeli presence on the eastern side of the prospective Palestinian state.”
According to a diplomatic source, border arrangements discussed by Jones included a contingent of Jordanian troops as well as private Palestinian firms and international soldiers participating in patrolling the Palestinian side of a future border.
Regarding international forces, one Jordanian security source said there are “very serious talks about bringing international forces to the borders between the West Bank and Israel, especially the Jordan Valley, where the Israelis would have security guarantees from an international force working in collaboration with the Palestinians.”
According to the Middle East security officials, Netanyahu agreed in principal to establish a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders – the Gaza Strip, West Bank and eastern Jerusalem. However, Israel would retain what are known as major settlement blocks, including Ariel, Gush Etzion and Maale Adumim.
The officials said the formula, established under Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, would call for a 100 percent territorial exchange, meaning that any West Bank Jewish communities retained by Israel would be compensated to the PA using other land, such as territory in the Israeli Negev alongside the Gaza Strip.
Status of Jerusalem up for talks
With regard to Jerusalem, talks between the U.S. and Israel are in their infancy.
The officials from the Obama administration most publicly identified with brokering Israeli-Palestinian talks include Jones and Obama’s envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, George Mitchell. However, WND has learned Dennis Ross, an Obama foreign policy adviser who served as Mideast envoy to the Clinton administration, is actively engaged in brokering a deal regarding Jerusalem. Indeed, Ross showed up in Jerusalem with Jones.
Israeli diplomatic sources said Ross wants to use the formula established under the Clinton administration that would see Jewish sections of Jerusalem becoming Israeli while areas largely inhabited by Arabs would become Palestinian. About 100,000 Arabs live illegally on Jewish-owned land in Jerusalem.
The fact that the talks are ongoing through mediators leaves Netanyahu and Abbas open to declaring that there are no direct negotiations.
Israeli leaders in the recent past claimed talks were not occurring or did not include certain territories only later to admit the territory in question had been ceded in secret negotiations.
After months of denials that the status of Jerusalem was on the table during negotiations, Olmert’s office finally confirmed in August 2008 that Jerusalem had been included in talks. Also, weeks before he departed office, Olmert gave an interview to Israel’s leading daily, Yediot Aharonot, admitting that during negotiations he offered Abbas 94 percent of the West Bank and peripheral areas of eastern Jerusalem. Olmert’s office repeatedly had denied such talks.
Similarly, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ran for office in 2000 on the very election platform that he would not withdraw from the Gaza Strip. Sharon was running against Amram Mitzneh, a leader of Israel’s leftist Labor party who had pledged to evacuate Gaza. In 2004, Sharon did an about face and announced his Gaza disengagement policy. One year later, Sharon pulled all Jewish communities out of the Gaza Strip.
Obama to ‘guarantee’ strategic territory to Palestinians
Obama is planning to issue a letter in the next few weeks guaranteeing U.S. support for a plan to give much of the West Bank and eastern sections of Jerusalem to Palestinians within two years, WND has learned.
The presidential letter is slated to stress U.S. commitments to Israeli security as well.
It would state the final borders of a Palestinian country will be determined by direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations but that the U.S. supports a Palestinian state in the general 1967 borders.
According to a source in Netanyahu’s office, the Israeli leader is pushing against a formal letter from Obama, recommending the U.S. president issue an official oral declaration instead.
The contents of the letter are being discussed by Israelis with both Egypt and the U.S. and separately by the Palestinian Authority with Egypt and the U.S. Egypt is a key broker in the matter.
WND has learned that last Monday Israeli National Security Adviser Uzi Arad was in Egypt on a secret visit to discuss Israeli-Palestinian talks as well as the content of Obama’s future declaration.
Arad’s visit until now has not been reported by the news media.