Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Israeli PM confirms intention to negotiate with Abbas on formation of Palestinian state

Haaretz : By Aluf Benn and Barak Ravid
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert confirmed Wednesday that he intends to engage in negotiations with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas on the formation of a Palestinian state.

Olmert was responding to a Haaretz report, according to which he offered to hold negotiations toward an 'Agreement of Principles' for the establishment of a Palestinian state comprised of the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank. ...

The prime minister added that there are "other quiet understandings" with the PA, in addition to the confidence-building measures Israel has taken. These include the release of prisoners affiliated with Abbas' Fatah movement, amnesty for wanted Fatah men and the transfer of withheld tax funds.

Olmert's proposal to Abbas is based on his view that it is important to first discuss issues that are relatively easy for the two sides to agree upon. The prime minister also believes that such an accord will enjoy the overwhelming support of the Israeli public and the Knesset. ...

"Just so it's clear, [Abbas] carries full responsibility and he is ready to take a risk. There are risks for Israel as well, but we are strong enough to take that risk," he continued. ...

"I want to start a political process with all my might, and to let things move forward. If it is appropriate for other states to help, like Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, we will welcome it, but we won't wait for them and sit inactively in order to start the process. We are the ones to lead and the ones to initiate, because we believe that progress on the peace process serves the interests of Israel."

If Olmert's proposal is accepted by the Palestinians, the two sides will begin negotiations on the characteristics of the Palestinian state, its official institutions, its economy, and the customs arrangement it will have with Israel.

After an "Agreement of Principles," the two sides will tackle the more sensitive diplomatic issues, like final borders and the transit arrangements.

There is the rub. Can negotiations focus first on less divisive issues, and then progress (perhaps as Abbas' willingness and ability (and Israel's) to implement are tested, as under the road map), or is there a need to confront and reach resolution on the ultimate issues up front, even if implementation is staged over time? The Israelis, of course, are concerned that any concessions will become a floor for future demands (e.g., as the price for bringing in Hamas and its constituency down the road).

I continue to mourn the failure of Camp David. That was the moment of greatest promise. I think it's gotten harder, not easier, least unless the Saudis and other Arab countries jump in all the way, and are prepared for necessary concessions on resolving the situation of Palestinian refugees through compensation and permanent settlement in Palestinian (and not Israeli) territories and elsewhere (as citizens, if they wish) in the Arab world.

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