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Obama’s plans for ending the conflict

coteretAgreement now, peace later

Shimon Shiffer, Yediot, August 27 2010 [front-page]

The Obama administration intends to present Israel and the Palestinians with a new outline for ending the conflict.  Yedioth Ahronoth has learned that the Americans will pressure the sides to sign a framework agreement for a final status arrangement within a year — but the agreement would be only implemented within a number of years, apparently up to ten years at the most. The US administration intends to invest all possible efforts to ensure that the direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians, which will be officially launched next Thursday, will end in an agreement and not in a crisis, as happened in the previous rounds of negotiations.  Barack Obama, whose standing in the polls is at a low, very much wants to score a first success in the Middle Eastern arena — in light of the ongoing bloodbath in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For this purpose, the US president intends to become personally involved this time: Director of the Middle East department at the National Security Council Dan Shapiro told leaders of Jewish organizations in the US that Obama intends to visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the course of the coming year.  The US president wishes to take advantage of his visit to persuade both peoples to support painful compromises for peace.

A few days ago, the leaders of Jewish organizations in the US held a conference call with three of the most senior figures who set the administration’s Middle East policy.  The most senior of the three, Dennis Ross, has been a partner to all the talks between Israel and the Palestinians since the Oslo Accords.  Ross is currently considered Obama’s number one expert on Middle East affairs.  Alongside Ross, the participants of the conference call included Dan Shapiro and David Hale, deputy of special envoy George Mitchell.

Yedioth Ahronoth has obtained the summary of the minutes of the conference call, which were prepared by the White House.  The document provides a fascinating glimpse into the administration’s plans for the coming period.  According to the American plan, the negotiating teams of Israel and the PA will conduct intensive talks with the aim of reaching a framework agreement on a final status arrangement within a year.  The intensive talks will be held in isolated locations, so that the teams will be able to quietly discuss the core issues of the final status agreement: The future of Jerusalem, borders, settlements and refugees.  Binyamin Netanyahu and Abu Mazen will be called upon to meet frequently in order to resolve problems and move forward the stages of negotiations.At points in which the negotiations meet an impasse, senior administration officials will intervene in the talks and will present bridging proposals to the sides.  In addition, the US will try to persuade the moderate Arab states to make gestures towards Israel and influence the Palestinians to compromise.

At the end of the intensive year, the framework agreement for ending the conflict is supposed to be signed.  From that moment onward, the agreement will be implemented gradually over a number of years.

“Many people will try to sabotage the talks.  Our challenge will be to ensure their success,” Ross assessed.  “What can be learned from the mistakes that caused the previous attempts to resolve the conflict to fail,” the Jewish leaders asked.  “I have learned that a situation must not be accepted in which the sides speak one way inside the room and another way outside the room,” Ross replied.  In other words: The administration will not look kindly upon a situation in which the senior Israeli and Palestinian figures cast muck at each other outside the conference rooms.  “Is Netanyahu capable of reaching an agreement that will receive political support in Israel?” the Jewish leaders asked.  Hale replied that Netanyahu had assured [the administration] that he was capable of doing so.  “We consider him a strong partner who is committed to the process,” Hale said.

Senior political sources in Israel, however, reveal that Netanyahu has not yet prepared any firm position for the direct talks.  The government is still not in agreement on the outline for the final status arrangement — not to mention the issue of the construction freeze.  “Bibi will escape from Washington by the skin of his teeth,” a senior source in Jerusalem assessed.  Minister Dan Meridor, with Netanyahu’s knowledge, is trying to persuade Ross and Shapiro to consent to the outline he proposed for the end of the freeze period on September 26: The construction freeze would only continue in the isolated settlements, but construction would be renewed in settlement blocs that are expected to remain under Israeli sovereignty.  As of now, only one minister from the forum of seven supports this idea: Ehud Barak.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman believes that the Americans should be told that construction within the settlement blocs would continue without restrictions, whereas in the isolated settlements construction will be renewed according to the natural growth of the residents.  The Palestinians, for their part, have already clarified their demands for the start of the talks: Establishing a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.  At the start of the talks, they will demand that Israel withdraw from territory in the northern Dead Sea as a gesture for the continuation of the negotiations.  The PA is expected to consent to a land swap with Israel: In exchange for giving up 3.9% of the area of the West Bank in which the settlement blocs are located, the Palestinians expect to receive land in the Negev.

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