As preparations were made for a new round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks beginning Sunday in the Israeli southern port city of Eilat, upbeat statements from both sides did little to mask an undertone of pessimism.
“There is absolutely no delay in the deadlines,” Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat said Sunday, referring to the May deadline to hammer out a framework of a permanent peace treaty in September.
The same day, however, a London-based Saudi newspaper quoted a senior Palestinian negotiator, Mahmoud Abas, also known as Abu Mazen, as saying: “I believe that in light of the current Israeli policy, we will not reach a solution either in May or September.”
And Israel’s chief negotiator, Oded Eran, also dismissed the upcoming deadline, saying: “I don’t want to attach importance to the date. If we don’t reach it in May, we can reach it in June. … There is a likelihood we will reach an agreement in the next few months.”
But the Israeli public has become less sanguine as deadline after deadline has come and gone in the peace talks. In an op-ed column Monday in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, veteran Israeli journalist Danny Rubinstein wrote that the Palestinians have not budged from their initial position: an independent state on the West Bank and Gaza with Israel returning to its June 4, 1967 borders, and East Jerusalem serving as the Palestinian capital.
“If you study the endless series of speeches and announcements concerning the negotiations made by Palestinian public figures … you won’t find a single reference reflecting any willingness to accommodate Israeli positions,” he wrote.
Eran appeared to reflect some of that sentiment Sunday when he said that in negotiations it is “impossible for one side to reach 100 percent of its wishes and dreams. And if this is the case, then it is a bad agreement. We have to take painful decisions.”
But Abu Mazen bluntly insisted that the Palestinians had made painful compromises that led to the creation of a Palestinian Authority, and that “we are unable to take more painful decisions.”
Eran also suggested that discussions on the future status of Jerusalem be delayed several years. He told Israel Radio that in a few years perhaps “both sides will understand that a subject that seems very strange can be solved in more formal understandings. … If we don’t achieve a full accord on the question of Jerusalem, it is possible to reach an understanding on certain aspects and to declare that the others will be re-examined in a few years.”
The Israeli cabinet minister overseeing Jerusalem, Chaim Ramon, said he too did not foresee an immediate resolution of the Jerusalem issue. He said Israel insists on keeping a united Jerusalem its capital, and the Palestinians want “divided sovereignty over the city. Because the Palestinians refuse to compromise, there will be no accord.”
And on Tuesday, a Palestinian official, Nabil Shaath, told reporters that there can be no peace treaty unless the future of Jerusalem was resolved.
“We want a comprehensive settlement, we don’t want a partial one,” he said. “The days of the interim agreements are over.”
Jordan’s King Abdullah II, following his first official visit to Israel Sunday since becoming Jordan’s ruler 14 months ago, suggested that “Jerusalem has enough room for a Palestinian and an Israeli capital. On the religious side, I believe that Jerusalem should be a city for all of us — an open city.”
Despite the seeming intransigence of both sides, it is known that there have been back-channel talks. The Jerusalem Post Tuesday quoted an unnamed Palestinian official as saying that during one of those sessions Israel offered to withdraw from more than 90 percent of the West Bank. Although officials in the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak declined comment, other sources told the paper that such an offer was “absurd.”
The report came just a week after Barak reportedly told President Bill Clinton earlier this month that he was willing to cede 70 percent to 80 percent of the West Bank to a Palestinian state.
Among those orchestrating back-channel talks with the Palestinians since the early 1980s is the Hebrew University’s Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace. Its executive director, Edy Kaufman, said in an interview during a recent trip to New York that these informal talks between Israeli and Palestinian academics have been quite fruitful over the years.
In fact, he said, some of the Palestinians they met with were later tapped to become part of the formal Palestinian negotiating team.
“Palestinian universities were there before there was a government,” Kaufman observed. “You have to get to know each other and feel that one is not going to double-cross the other. We don’t tell anybody and they don’t.”
Kaufman said that it has become clear over the years that “in formal meetings with diplomats, it is difficult to speak informally and to put yourself in the shoes of the other. I can’t visualize Arafat role-playing with Barak. There is a limit to what you can do in official diplomacy. We can be informal. We represent nobody but our own minds, and we can be creative in the process of coming up with solutions.
“We call it track 2. Oslo [another back-channel conducted in secret by Palestinian and Israeli officials] was track 1. All of this was going on while the formal talks in Washington were paralyzed.”
Some of the issues the academics agreed on during their talks, such as the sharing of water aquifers, were later incorporated into the Oslo Accords, Kaufman noted.
The Truman Institute has 18 different projects now under way with Palestinians, several dealing with the key issues of a peace treaty — including water, Jerusalem, refugees and settlements. And Kaufman said the institute is also working with Palestinian academics to “create an atmosphere with public opinion that would be supportive of an accord.”
Toward that end, it is working on rewriting Palestinian and Israeli textbooks that now present only one view of history.
“We’re negotiating what to put in the curriculum and what to call the wars,” he said. “Our 1948 War of Liberation they call ‘the Catastrophe.’ We call the war in 1967 the Six Day War; they call it ‘June War’ because they don’t like the reference to six days.
“Our 1982 Peace in the Galilee Operation they call the Lebanon War. … We would like our children to know the narrative of the other. It’s not easy to have a shared history.”