Israeli-Palestinian peace talks got under way in Jerusalem for the first time in seven years Wednesday even as Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip tried to derail it by firing more than 20 rockets into Israel.
Five people were lightly injured — including a girl in Sderot who was hit by shrapnel — and it prompted the city’s mayor to say he was resigning, unable to cope with the "desperate" situation there.
"This role is too big for any one person," Eli Moyal told Israel Radio. "I do not want to stay in office until the day 20 children die in Sderot. … I don’t want to make the decision to open schools tomorrow because a Kassam [rocket] might land there and I’ll be blamed for opening the school."
"I just cannot continue dealing with these issues every day," added Moyal, who in recent months has been embroiled in corruption allegations. "Everyone here is desperate. We’ve been neglected for seven years; no one cares anymore."
His comments came just one day after Israel mounted its largest military incursion into the Gaza Strip since Hamas seized control of the area from Fatah in a bloody coup six months ago. The operation, which lasted one day, ended in the deaths of eight Palestinian terrorists — a ninth was killed the next day — and the arrest of another 70. Four Israeli soldiers were lightly injured.
The long anticipated resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks got off to a rocky start. One source who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak said the Palestinians used the session to air their grievances about Israeli settlement expansion — a reference to plans to add more than 300 apartments to the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa — and to protest Israel’s Gaza operation. (See story on settlements, page 38.)
"They said these things are undermining Palestinian public confidence in the peace process," the source said. "The atmosphere was tense."
In response, Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister and chief negotiator, is said to have demanded that the Palestinians take immediate action to halt the Gaza rocket attacks and to impose security in the territories. She noted that an Israeli civilian was killed two weeks ago in a drive-by shooting by two security guards assigned to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The meeting was designed to discuss procedural issues but little was accomplished except to schedule another session in two weeks, just prior to President George W. Bush’s arrival Jan. 9 to lend his support to the negotiations.
When talks resume, Uri Savir, president of the Peres Center for Peace, said he would suggest they concentrate on developing a view of the future rather than plunging immediately into negotiating the four major issues that have been so difficult to resolve.
"I would start with what will be the relationship after a permanent status agreement and then discuss security issues because the more we are confident the agreement will have security clauses that will satisfy us, the more open we will be to later concessions," he said.
This includes, Savir said, a demilitarized Palestinian state, security cooperation, anti-terrorism clauses and implementation of phase one of the road map for peace, which calls for an end to terrorism and the dismantling of the terrorist infrastructure.
The four core issues should be negotiated along the lines outlined by then President Bill Clinton in January 2001, Savir said.
"I think it’s doable," he said. "I would also hold official negotiations and create a secret back channel for creative ideas [to be pursued] that would be brought to the leadership level only towards the end of 2008."
The core issues should be discussed together to permit for trade-offs, such of the removal of the Israeli settlement in Hebron in return for Palestinian agreement that their right-of-return is limited to the territories, Savir suggested.
"Time is in favor of the extremists," he added. "I think the culture of peace can be created. There is a silent majority on both sides that is tired of war."
But other analysts were far less confident. Eran Lerman, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel/Middle East office, said Hamas’s rocket salvo Wednesday morning was clearly an attempt to "do whatever it can to ensure that this [peace talks] blows up."
"They have been openly aggressive about the fact that Abbas was coming to the table at a time when Israel was conducting large scale [military] operations," he said, adding that Hamas even asked Abbas to cancel the talks.
Lerman added that Bush’s role is important.
"He will keep both sides focused and engaged," he said.
Israel’s security cabinet met Wednesday and decided to continue the current military strategy in the Gaza Strip rather than mounting an all-out assault. But Raphi Israeli, a professor of Islamic, Middle Eastern and Chinese history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said Israel is saddled with a "useless government that is not going to decide anything."
"They just want to survive," he said. "They want to show the world they will negotiate, but they are hard pressed to respond to the people who are under missile and rocket fire. They have been talking about a large scale military operation in Gaza for six months and they have done nothing. First they said they didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize the Annapolis meeting. Now they can’t because negotiations have started."
Regarding Gaza, Israeli said the rocket fire from there demonstrates that Abbas has no control there and thus no ability to implement the first step of the road map. And he said he is afraid the Israel government is moving down the same road it did when it signed the Oslo peace accords in 1993.
"People mistakenly believe Oslo was a peace agreement," he said. "It was only a declaration of principles that could never be implemented. Now we realize it was a sham, and I have the impression that Annapolis will repeat the same sham. … The very same people who did Oslo also supported the disengagement from Gaza two years ago and are now coming up with the same rehashed ideas to try to implement what was done at Annapolis. They did not work then and won’t work now."
Other observers note that the big difference between Annapolis and Oslo is that Annapolis brought together a host of Arab countries to endorse the peace process with the promise of normalized relations with Israel if they succeed. But Israeli pointed out that the Arabs at Annapolis refused to shake hands with Livni or to enter the conference room through the same door as the Israeli delegation. The Israelis had to enter through a back door.
"If they had any sense of self respect, they would have gone home immediately," he said, adding that this was the same conference at which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke of the segregation she experienced in the South and how she could therefore sympathize with the Palestinians over the Israeli roadblocks.
"But if we don’t stop the Palestinians at roadblocks, they will blow up more restaurants and buses," Israeli said. "If she does not see the difference, she does not deserve to be secretary of state, I’m sorry."
Mordechai Kedar, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said he too had no hope for the talks.
"They are meant to enhance the personal status of Abbas, [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert, Bush and Rice," he said. "There is no possibility of them succeeding with the Palestinian Authority divided between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. And Abbas himself has no influence in the West Bank. The only influence he has is in the Mukatah [his military compound]. In the West Bank, they call him president of the Mukatah." He has no weight at all."
Kedar pointed out that in recent days Hamas has developed a judicial system in Gaza built "not in accordance with the law of the Palestinian Authority. This is what I am calling a permanent divorce between the West Bank and Gaza because now Gaza has a police, an army, borders and a judicial system — everything separate from the Palestinian Authority."