As a new Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal reportedly from Israeli President Shimon Peres was floated in the media this week, there were reports that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has decided to accept a Palestinian state with provisional borders, something he had flatly ruled out. The change stems from Hamas’ forceful take-over of the Gaza Strip in June, according to Yaakov Bar Siman Tov, a professor in the International Relations Department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“Until what happened in Gaza, he was against it,” he said. “Now that Gaza is outside [of his jurisdiction], it has allowed him to be for provisional borders” until Gaza is eventually added.
The idea of a provisional Palestinian state is included in phase two of the international road map for peace and is perhaps now being embraced by Abbas “to take the parties outside of the current stalemate,” suggested Yoram Meital, chairman of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev.
“But there are three or four weak links in this idea,” he continued. “The first is that a Palestinian state with provisional borders is not the end of the discussion and does not tackle the final status issues. It will not save the parties tough negotiations [in the future].”
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Tuesday that Peres proposed to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that he consider turning over to the Palestinians areas of the West Bank equivalent to 100 percent of the territory Israel conquered in the Six-Day War in 1967. In addition, the existing large Israeli settlement blocs, which comprise about 5 percent of the West Bank, would remain part of Israel and the Palestinians would receive a comparable amount of Israeli land in return — possibly Arab communities, should residents agree.
The plan was also said to include a provision that the Palestinian flag would fly over the Temple Mount, that the Palestinians would have sovereignty over it, and that the three main religions would control the other holy sites of Jerusalem, according to David Kimche, president of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the Israel Policy Forum’s Israel Advisory Council.
In return for Israeli concessions, the Palestinians would agree that there would be no Palestinian right-of-return to Israel, he said Haaretz reported.
Olmert’s office later issued a statement denying that such a plan was under consideration.
And Meital cautioned that no Israelis would support a withdrawal from the West Bank without adequate Palestinian security forces firmly in control. He noted that this week the Palestinian leadership “admitted they can’t control” some areas.
Kimche said he understood the Palestinians were still insisting on an agreement on what a permanent Palestinian state would look like, even though it could not be achieved today. But, he said, Abbas was “insisting on a timetable for implementing a final status agreement.
”Peres’ plan is “yet another trial balloon,” Meital said, and should be thought of in that context.
“We now have a couple of balloons in the air,” he said. “We have Olmert’s idea about adopting an agreement of principles, we have [President George W.] Bush’s idea for an international conference in the autumn and the Arab League initiative. So if Abbas has aired this new idea [of an interim state], we should see it as yet another balloon. But all of these ideas lack one fundamental issue: the fact that Hamas is cut out and that Israel is striking a deal on the assumption that the Gaza Strip can be separated from the West Bank, which is not true.”
Danny Rothschild, former deputy director of Israeli Military Intelligence who was involved in peace talks with Jordan and the Palestinians, voiced skepticism that Abbas would agree to an interim state.
“Abbas is not in a position to make such a decision,” he said. “Both leaders [Abbas and Olmert] are in very weak positions and neither can take any substantial positions.”
Rothschild noted that when Abbas and Olmert met Monday in the West Bank city of Jericho, they met privately for some time and “people know very little of what went on.”
“Everyone is speculating and I wouldn’t take for granted any of the spins that are running in the media,” he said.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, agreed, saying “There is a lot of media hype and we have no basis of knowing what is real.”
And he cautioned that although Olmert, Abbas and Bush all need an agreement “for their own political purposes,” anything they agree to could fall apart just like the Israeli-Lebanese agreement in the early 1980s. “Unless the governments are strong enough to implement the terms, it could actually be damaging because it creates false hopes,” he said. “Olmert is not strong enough to push through significant territorial concessions. It took the army a whole day just to clear out two houses this week in Hebron. And Abbas is going to be lucky to hold onto what he’s got. Can he really sell the abandonment of Palestinian refugee claims or the legitimacy of a Jewish-Israeli presence in Jerusalem? He’ll be attacked for violating [former Palestinian President Yasir] Arafat’s legacy.”
There have been numerous published reports in recent days of attempts to resolve the rift between Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah group. The Jerusalem Post reported Wednesday that the Hamas leader in exile, Khalid Meshal, has asked Yemini authorities to try to mend the rift. And it said that low level discussions have been held between representatives of the two groups. Olmert reportedly told Abbas Monday that if Fatah and Hamas unite again to form another unity government, he would break off all contact with the Palestinians, thus dooming any immediate prospects for statehood.
Abbas briefed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about the talks Wednesday in Cairo.
And he later told reporters that Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip was destructive and that he would not hold talks with it.
But Steinberg said it is unclear whether Abbas’ goal is to “reach an agreement with Israel or to use talks with Israel as a lever to put pressure on Hamas to reconcile their differences and get his old job back.”