THE ISRAEL REPORTSeptember/October
EREZ (September 14) - With a hearty handshake followed by ceremonial speeches, Foreign Minister David Levy and Palestinian negotiator Mahmoud Abbas formally launched talks last night at the Erez junction for a final peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Both the government and the Palestinian Authority hope to achieve an agreement within a year, with a February target date for drawing up a framework accord. Yesterday's historic session came on the sixth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Principles, facilitated by the Oslo Accords, on the White House lawn.
Yet in an interview with The Jerusalem Post yesterday, Minister for Regional Planning Shimon Peres estimated it would take "roughly two years" for a final-status deal to be reached. He also recommended that, due to the difficulties ahead of the negotiators, discussion of the Jerusalem issue should be delayed until the sides are nearer to reaching agreement. The full interview will appear on Friday.
Peres's statement contrasts with Prime Minister Ehud Barak's frequent promise "to put an end to 100 years of conflict" between Arabs and Jews by the end of next year. "Barak can, of course, have his own assessment," said Peres, "but I believe that some issues will be impossible to sort out so quickly."
Both Levy and Abbas, a deputy to PA Chairman Yasser Arafat, were optimistic about meeting the deadlines, although they each outlined their widely differing starting positions.
"Israel's fundamental principle will be no return to the 1967 borders," Levy said. "A united Jerusalem will remain the capital of the State of Israel. Blocs of settlements will remain under Israeli control. No foreign army will exist west of the Jordan River."
Abbas, on the other hand, said, "We aspire to live within the borders of an independent Palestinian state in the June 4, 1967 boundaries, with holy Jerusalem as its capital, and to achieve a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and to dismantle the Israeli settlements in accordance with Security Council Resolution 465."
He said no one should doubt the Palestinians' will to establish an independent state.
He said the Palestinians want a just solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees and called for the dismantling of Jewish settlements on occupied land.
"The road ahead of us is difficult and marked with obstacles, but as Palestinians and Israelis we are determine to remove our obstacles and difficulties so we can achieve a comprehensive and lasting peace for the peoples of the region, including the Syrians and Lebanese, on the basis of the principle of the return of land for peace" Abbas said.
Levy also was optimistic, describing his brief meeting with Abbas, as "constructive and positive."
"We must remember that both sides will have to reach a compromise that is liable to involve taking painful decisions," Levy said at the ceremony. "With God's help, this settlement will end 100 years of conflict, filled with suffering, between the two peoples."
Abbas said the occasion marks a turning point in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
"Let us make history with required courage, patience, and wisdom. The past was marked with denial. Let the future be based on mutual recognition of self-determination. It is time to heal. It is time to reconstruct. It is the time for peace and peacemakers," he said.
Barak warned in broadcast remarks last week that final-status talks could be an exercise in futility in the absence of a preliminary blueprint.
Echoing these comments, Levy said: "If we don't succeed in reaching an agreement on a framework within five months, it follows that we will not be able to reach a final settlement by September 2000. So we must make every effort."
Barak set his sights low. In a radio interview Sunday, he said that if the two sides do not agree on an outline by February, they might have to forgo a final peace accord and instead - by mutual consent - negotiate long-term interim agreements on most issues.
"Long-term interim agreements" would also be a "very important achievement," he said.
Not for the Palestinians, who seek an all-or-nothing outcome. PA Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said yesterday that "we will never accept a deal by which we can accept a Palestinian state on land the Palestinian Authority controls now, in exchange for leaving some of the final-status issues, such as Jerusalem and refugees, for open negotiations."
Justice Minister Yossi Beilin also took a harsh view of long-term interim agreements.
"That would be an invitation to the extremists on both sides to torpedo the agreement," he said.
US Middle East envoy Dennis Ross also expressed optimism, saying that while he has no illusions about how difficult the negotiations will be, the important thing is that they resume. He added that February 2000 is a realistic deadline if both sides negotiate intensively.
Ross said the US will play an active role in the process, from President Bill Clinton down, but ultimately it would be up to the parties themselves to forge an accord.
"With the right kind of spirit, with the right kind of determination, if the will is there and there is a genuine effort to negotiate in good faith, I believe the parties are not being too ambitious. I believe it is possible," Ross said.
Speaking on the sixth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Principles by the late Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat on the White House lawn, Peres advised the negotiators to first clear out of their way the issues which are "easier to resolve" - borders, defense arrangements, and diplomatic status - while leaving the prickly issues of refugees and Jerusalem for the last phase of the talks. "It will be a lot easier to tackle these difficult issues with all the rest already agreed upon."
Citing publicity's "destructive" impact on any innovative ideas, Peres refused to detail his own ideas for a settlement on Jerusalem. Still, he said that rather than split the city, negotiators can expand it, possibly alluding to the Beilin-Abbas document of 1996. That non-binding paper suggested locating the Palestinian parliament in Abu Dis, which borders on Jerusalem in the east.
Peres conceded that he is not participating in the current negotiations, though Barak has spoken with him several times.
Meanwhile, aides to Barak expressed dismay at various ministers' pronouncements on the peace process, saying they might weaken Jerusalem's position.
The response followed Beilin's remarks and Industry and Trade Minister Ran Cohen's statement that a failure by the negotiators to create a Palestinian state "would lead to new disasters."
(News agencies contributed to this report.)©Jerusalem Post 1999