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Land swaps – deal-breaker or deal-maker

This posting has these items:
1) Ma’an: Mashaal rejects land swap with Israel;
2) Juan Cole: Israeli Pundits Slam Kerry as Naive, Messianic for Arab League Concession;
3) Gulf Times: Arab League flags shift in peace initiative terms;
4) AP: Israeli chief negotiator welcomes Arab peace plan;
5) Al-Ahram: Arabs set conditions for resumption of ‘peace process’;

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr (L), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C) and Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi take their seats at the start of their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Cairo March 3, 2013. Jacquelyn Martin/ Reuters

Mashaal rejects land swap with Israel

By Ma’an news
May 02, 2013

BETHLEHEM — Hamas politburo chief Khalid Mashaal on Thursday rejected an Arab League endorsement of land swaps between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

Speaking with the Al Jazeera, Mashaal said any such concession would harm the Palestinian cause. The plan was announced on Monday after Arab League officials met with US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Mashaal said the Kerry-backed plan was a bid to find economic peace between Arab states and Israel by integrating it into the region.

The Hamas leader said the movement was prepared to use all available options to liberate the Palestinian territories and that it was his goal to do so over the next four years. He further pledge greater efforts to release Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.

The Arab League leaders led by Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al-Thani, from fourth from left, with Secretary of State John Kerry and Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby, speaks to the media following their meeting at Blair House in Washington, Monday, April 29, 2013. Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP.

Kerry met with Arab League officials to discuss the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, whereby 22 Arab states would agree to normalizing ties with Israel in a return from territory it occupied in 1967.

Israel’s lead peace negotiator Tzipi Livni Tuesday praised as “important” a concession.

Hamas keen on implementing unity deal
Mashaal also said Hamas was prepared to implement a unity deal with rival faction Fatah, whose movement currently dominates the Palestinian Authority. The unity deal, he said, should be based on partnership and the holding of elections.

He denied any involvement in Egyptian security issues and said Egypt recognised Hamas as a legitimate entity.

His comments follow reports that President Mahmoud Abbas will head to Cairo in May to advance the unity deal.

Egypt is expected to push for a Palestinian unity government after the meeting as well as a date for elections.

Meanwhile, Fatah leader Faisal Abu Shahla told Ma’an that there were no plans for meetings between Fatah and Hamas.

Fatah and Hamas signed an agreement in Cairo in 2011, pledging to set up a caretaker government of independents to pave the way for parliamentary and presidential elections within 12 months, but its implementation stalled over the government’s make-up.

Israeli Pundits Slam Kerry as Naive, Messianic for Arab League Concession

By Juan Cole, Informed Comment blog
May 02, 2013

Secretary of State John Kerry has wrung a concession from the Arab League, which now says that some minor changes in the 1967 border between Israel and the Palestinians are acceptable, with small land swaps. This position would have been important if there were a peace process, since many Israeli settlements on the Palestinian West Bank are not very deep into it, and so could remain on that land if Israel relinquished some territory of its own to the Palestinians in recompense. All of this is a bit of a fantasy, of course, since the Israelis don’t intend to relinquish anything at all, and are plotting some way to steal all Palestinian land and resources and find a way to keep the Palestinians stateless or perhaps ultimately to ethnically cleanse them. Since the initiation of the Oslo Peace process, the Israelis have settled hundreds of thousands of squatters on Palestinian territory and grabbed almost all the water on the West Bank.

Hard line expansionist Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is said to be afraid that the concession means that Kerry will again push for a two-state solution. Netanyahu wants to grab all Palestinian land and resources over time.

Netanyahu is not the only one unsettled by this unwelcome outbreak of reasonable diplomacy. Many Israeli pundits in the Hebrew press attacked, minimized or ridiculed the Arab League announcement. Insofar as they don’t want a Palestinian state or to halt Israeli squatting, they aren’t happy about Kerry acting as though there were real peace negotiations going on. There were a few peaceniks who welcomed the Arab League statement, but they seem to be being outshouted.

The USG [United States government] Open Source Center [OSC] translates comments from the Hebrew press in Israel:

Israeli Writers Unmoved by Arab League Announcement, Note Influence of ‘Messianic’ Kerry Activism
OSC Summary
Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Israeli commentators on 1 May discuss the 29 April Arab League decision to embrace a modified version of their decade-old Peace Initiative with an emphasis on mutually agreed land swaps between Israel and the Palestinians. Most writers estimate that the Arab League announcement is not likely to cause a breakthrough in the peace process, and one prominent commentator notes that the United States’ “activism” on the issue is detrimental and motivates Palestinians seeking to “leave mark” on reality by carrying out terror attacks.

Activism of “Messianic” Kerry Motivates Palestinian Militants

Shim’on Shiffer writes in “Terror Raises Its Head” on page 4 of Yedi’ot Aharonot : “The security establishment refuses, as of now, to define the large number of Palestinian attempts to attack settlers in the recent period as the start of a third Intifada. However, officials in the political-security establishment are willing to admit that unrest can be identified under the surface — unrest that could turn into a kind of uprising. According to our intelligence officials, the activism being displayed by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who believes that an arrangement between Israel and the PA can be promoted, actually assists this worrying trend: It motivates Palestinian elements that wish to make a mark on reality by encouraging terror attacks.”

“On the Israeli side too, Kerry has difficulty finding buyers for his merchandise. People here call him ‘naive,’ and say that he is behaving in an irrational manner, even ‘messianic.’ Kerry’s interlocutors in Israel rejected with contempt the proposals he raised for gestures towards Abu Mazin. ‘We will not free prisoners and we won’t be anyone’s patsies,’ said to me yesterday a senior official who is involved in the talks. Moreover, officials on the Israeli side have discerned tension between the White House and the State Department. In other words, they understand that Obama shows no interest in renewing the negotiations. The US president, my sources tell me, doesn’t believe–unlike Kerry–that solving the conflict will resolve all the problems of the region.

“Similarly, the statement made by the Qatari prime minister, according to which the Arab League would consent to a land swap between Israel and the Palestinians, did not find an attentive ear on the Israeli side. More precisely, the only person who is willing to adopt the proposal is Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. But the justice minister has no partners in the current government. On the contrary, the Netanyahu government has a solid majority that is opposed to the two-state idea. And so the deadlock intensifies –and terror raises its head, as we saw yesterday.” (Tel Aviv Yedi’ot Aharonot in Hebrew — Independent, centrist, second-largest circulation daily) . . .

‘External’ Arab Initiative Has ‘No Meaning’

In Maqor Rishon’s editorial “The Seriousness of the Arab Initiative,” David Merhav claims that the Arab Initiative has “no meaning,” as it cannot generate a “Palestinian agreement on a political roadmap” that will put an end to the conflict. “HAMAS answers to Iran, not to the Qatari prime minister. Abu Mazin — who is dependent on funds from the United States, Europe and Israel, and lacks support in the Palestinian Authority — cannot afford to obey the Arab countries and risk an internal uprising that will topple the rule of the PLO. This doesn’t mean that a political settlement to the conflict is unattainable — but it relies on an internal Palestinian decision, and not on an external decision made by Arab countries.” (Jerusalem Maqor Rishon in Hebrew — right-of-center daily)

Netanyahu, Abbas ‘Can’t Reach’ Comprehensive Peace Agreement

In his piece titled “Nothing New in the Arab League Proposal” in Israel Hayom, Dan Margalit states: “It’s clear that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas can’t reach a comprehensive peace agreement. Perhaps they might be able to come to a partial, interim agreement, but neither wants to be the first to say so to the other. Discussions about real or imagined flexibility, like the Qatari prime minister’s statement, are helpful, while the renewal of terror, as seen at Tapu’ah Junction on Tuesday, is harmful.” (Tel Aviv Israel Hayom in English — Website of English-language version of Yisra’el Hayom, Israel’s largest circulation daily distributed free of charge; owned by American businessman Sheldon Adelson, a staunch supporter of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu; URL:

Ball Is “In the Palestinian Court”

In a commentary on page 22 of Ma’ariv titled “Hollow Initiative,” Eli Avidar, former Israeli representative in Qatar, states that “since the outbreak of the wave of revolutions known as the Arab Spring, the Arab League has been having difficulty functioning; its weakness was revealed to the entire world in the Syrian civil war.” “If the Americans need the Arab League to achieve a breakthrough, this is a sign that the situation is truly difficult. The ball is not in Qatar, it is in the Palestinian court. During his latest visit to Ramallah, President Obama asked the PA chairman, ‘what are you Palestinians willing to do in order to renew the negotiations?’ The administration is still waiting for an answer. As long as Abu Mazin continues his purge of the moderate camp in the Palestinian government, instead of making a commitment to the peace process, the chance of resuming meaningful talks remains slim. No festive declaration in Washington will change this.” (Tel Aviv Ma’ariv in Hebrew — Independent, centrist, third-largest circulation daily)

Reaching Solution “Almost Impossible” But “We Must Try”

Another commentator in the same paper, Ben-Dror Yemini, thinks differently. In a column titled “Say Yes,” Yemini writes: “This does not mean a dramatic breakthrough has been reached; the major contested issues are still on the table — the refugee problem, the status of Jerusalem, the security arrangements, and especially how to prevent the West Bank from becoming a branch of the Gaza Strip. It isn’t easy nor simple, almost impossible. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. On the contrary, we must try. It’s important to remember that Israel succeeded to flourish because it said ‘yes’ more often than not. The Arabs, and particularly the Palestinians, are down in the dumps due to their insistence to say ‘no.’ There is no need to trade places.”

Arab League flags shift in peace initiative terms

By Gulf Times
May 01, 2013

The Arab League flagged a shift in the terms of its 2002 peace initiative to incorporate mutual land swaps under an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, a step welcomed by Israel and Washington yesterday.

The principle of land swaps has been affirmed by Israeli and Palestinian leaders in previous rounds of talks but has never formed part of the Arab initiative unveiled by Saudi Arabia in February 2002.

Under the original plan, the League’s 22 member states would forge full diplomatic relations with Israel in exchange for “total withdrawal by Israel to the June 4, 1967 lines” and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

But the Arab League said on Monday it could involve a “comparable and mutual agreed minor swap of the land” to reflect the realities on the ground.

Details of the revamped proposal emerged following talks in Washington between top Arab League members and US Secretary of State John Kerry.

However, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat played down the significance.

“This is not something new. The Arab delegation presented the official Palestinian position: Upon Israel’s unequivocal acceptance of the two-state solution on the 1967 border, the State of Palestine as a sovereign country might consider minor agreed border modifications equal in size and quality, in the same geographic area, and that do not harm Palestinian interests,” Erakat said.

His Israeli counterpart, Tzipi Livni, hailed the Arab League announcement as “very good news”, although another official was much cooler.

“Israel welcomes the encouragement that the Arab League delegation and the secretary of state have given to the diplomatic process,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The two sides can present their positions when the negotiations start.”

Livni described the move as “an important step”, saying she hoped it would lead to a renewal of direct peace talks that collapsed just weeks after they were relaunched in September 2010.

“The statement that was made by the Arab League today is a very positive statement,” she told AFP.

“I believe it is very important for the Palestinians to understand that the Arab world supports a negotiated peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians that ends the conflict,” she said, stressing the details would have to be hammered out by the two sides, “and hopefully soon”.

“I hope that the Arab League’s statement and position can help in relaunching negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The sooner, the better.”

Echoing Livni, Kerry said yesterday it was “a very big step forward”.

Details of the new stance were briefly mentioned by the Arab League delegation’s leader, HE the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor al-Thani, at a news conference with Kerry.

“The Arab League delegation understands that peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis is starting (and) is a strategic choice for the Arab states,” he said.

“The Arab League delegation affirmed that agreement should be based on the two-state solution on the basis of the 4th of June 1967 lines, with the possible of comparable and mutual agreed minor swap of the land.”

Such a position marks a departure from the original text of the proposal, and comes closer to the US position as laid out by President Barack Obama in May 2011 that any agreement must be “based on the 1967 lines with mutually-agreed land swaps”.

Since taking office on February 1, Kerry has plunged into the maelstrom of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the hope of breaking the impasse and seeing a resumption of some form of talks.

He has suggested the Arab Peace Initiative could provide a framework for a future deal.

For Israel, the principle of swapping land is a way to hold on to densely populated Jewish settlement blocs built on occupied Palestinian land.

Although the Palestinians accept the idea of “minor and mutually agreed land swaps” they have rejected outright any idea of letting Israel hold on to large swathes of settlements.

Until now, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has categorically rejected outright any return to what he has said would be the “indefensible” lines before June 4, 1967.

Israeli chief negotiator welcomes Arab peace plan
By Josef  Federman,  Associated Press
April 30, 2013

JERUSALEM  — Israel’s chief peace negotiator on Tuesday welcomed the Arab League’s decision to sweeten a decade-old initiative offering comprehensive peace with Israel, hoping the gesture would help get peace talks back on track after years of standstill.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s comments revealed the beginnings of what could become a rift in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government. Livni, a former foreign minister known to support broad concessions to the Palestinians, is eager to restart peace negotiations. Netanyahu says he wants to resume negotiations, but he has given no indication that he is prepared to make the concessions demanded by the Palestinians and the international community.

The original 2002 Arab peace initiative offered Israel peace with the entire Arab and Muslim world in exchange for a “complete withdrawal” from territories captured in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians claim the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, all seized by Israel in 1967, for their future state. Israel withdrew from Egypt’s Sinai in 1982 and Gaza in 2005. It also holds the Golan Heights after failed peace talks with Syria.

Speaking on behalf of an Arab League delegation to Washington, Qatari Prime Minister Sheik Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani on Monday called for an agreement between Israel and a future Palestine based on those 1967 lines. But unlike in previous such offers, he cited the possibility of “comparable,” mutually agreed and “minor” land swaps between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Al Thani spoke after talks with Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been pushing Arab leaders to embrace a modified version of the Arab peace plan as part of a new U.S.-led effort to corral Israel and the Palestinians back into direct peace talks. The changes are meant to win Israeli support, since the modified version could allow it to keep parts of the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Livni called the Arab decision an “important message.” While she indicated she has some concerns about the plan’s details, she said Israel should respond positively.

“True, the road is still long, and of course we cannot accept all the clauses as holy. But sometimes it’s possible to rise up above the difficulties and say in short: It’s good news that should be welcomed,” she said in a Facebook post.

Later, Livni said the decision sent important assurances to both sides.

“It is important for the Palestinians to know that they have the support of the Arab world for a negotiated peace agreement that ends the conflict. It’s imperative for the Israeli public to know that peace with the Palestinians means peace with the entire Arab world, she said. “I hope that the message that comes from Qatar will help launch the negotiations as soon as possible.”

Netanyahu had no immediate comment. In the past, he has said the initiative is a positive sign from the Arab world, but has not endorsed it. Netanyahu rejects a return to the 1967 lines.

Silvan Shalom, a senior Cabinet minister in Netanyahu’s Likud Party, played down the Arab League’s decision, saying, “there is nothing new here.”
“In principle, I support renewing the process. Of course, I don’t accept the 1967 lines,” he told Israel Radio. “If the Arab League wants to be a partner to this process, then we welcome it, but this is not negotiations.”

The dormant Arab initiative has suddenly emerged as a possible key to breaking years of deadlock as Kerry tries to get talks going again.

Negotiations have been frozen since late 2008, in large part because of continued Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians have demanded a freeze in construction and want Israel to commit to the 1967 lines as the baseline of negotiations. Netanyahu says talks should begin without any preconditions.

In 2000 and 2008, previous Israeli governments offered deals based on land swaps, but no agreement was reached. Netanyahu has refused to accept that concept.
The Arab initiative in effect endorses the Palestinian position on borders, while offering Israel the vision of a broader regional peace.
During a swing through the region earlier this month, Kerry called the plan “a very important statement.”

“I think the Israeli government should embrace it with both hands,” said Erel Margalit, a member of the dovish opposition Labor Party. Margalit said he was in the process of forming a parliamentary lobby to support the initiative. He refused to provide details on its size or composition, saying it was in the preliminary stages.

Dov Lipman, a lawmaker in the centrist Yesh Atid party, a member of Netanyahu’s coalition, also welcomed the Arab League’s offer. He said the party had not formulated a formal response, but said it was “very consistent” with the party’s platform seeking a negotiated peace deal with the Palestinians.
Although the Palestinians have endorsed the concept of land swaps in negotiations, they opposed any changes in the Arab peace initiative.

Nabil Shaath, an aide to President Mahmoud Abbas, said Israel must first commit to the 1967 lines, and then the extent of the swap can be finalized.
“Any swap should come at the end of the process, and should be slight and acceptable,” he said.

Arabs set conditions for resumption of ‘peace process’

Despite plethora of obstacles, US and Arabs – with Qatar at vanguard – discuss means of resuming long-stalled ‘peace process’ between Palestinians, Israel

By Dina Ezzat, Ahram-online
03 May 2013

Arab and Israeli officials are expected to step up talks this week with Washington to follow up on a 29 April meeting in the US capital between US Secretary of State John Kerry and the Arab Peace Initiative Committee – a development that appears to indicate the resumption of long-suspended Palestine-Israel negotiations.

Kerry is expected to return to the Middle East for further talks “probably late this month,” according to a diplomat in the region close to the peace process.

The Monday meeting in Washington, in which the Arab delegation was led by Qatari Prime Minister Hamad Ben Jassem, essentially offered three things to Israel and the US.

The first was a nod of interest in resuming direct negotiations without any Israeli commitment to halt construction of illegal Jewish-only settlements on Palestinian territories seized in 1967. Just before the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, the Palestinian Authority (PA) had attached that condition to any resumption of talks.

The second was agreement – in principle – on the idea of a land swap between Israel and a future Palestinian state, whereby Israel might hold on to some of its key settlements.

Land swap?
The concept of a land swap has been on the table of all proposed final-status settlements since the Wye River talks hosted by former president Bill Clinton in 1997. During the 2000 Camp David talks, which Clinton held with late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Barack, the concept of a land swap was considered.

But according to an informed Arab diplomat, the question today is different.

“Before we were talking about a limited land swap of no more than 2 to 4 percent [of land], provided that the Palestinians were going to get a bit over 20 percent of historic Palestinian land,” he said. “Today we aren’t talking about a limited land swap, nor are we talking about Palestinians getting 20 percent of historic Palestine.”

In the 2000 Camp David talks, Arafat was willing to settle for a land swap of around 3 percent. This figure was raised to around 4 percent or slightly more when direct and indirect negotiations left off.

The third offer came in parallel with Kerry’s talks with the Arab delegation, with PA officials announcing a plan to temporarily suspend attempts to secure Palestinian membership in several UN organisations. The PA secured non-member state status at the UN last year despite US-Israeli opposition based largely on concerns that Palestine would in future be able to take legal action against Israeli violations of international law.

Arab diplomats say it was impossible to ignore Kerry’s interest in a resumption of peace talks.

“Israel is aggressively eating up the occupied Palestinian territories in a way that will make a two-state solution impossible. US President Barack Obama is in his second term, which gives him a bit of leverage when it comes to pressuring Israel. Arabs have no alternative but to embrace – and try to influence – the US scheme to ensure that it accommodates the Arab point of view as much as possible,” one Washington-based Arab diplomat argued.

“What the Arabs are trying to do is encourage US interest and see where that will go,” he added.

The Arab Peace Initiative
According to another Washington-based Arab diplomat close to the peace process, Arabs diplomats at the meeting told Kerry that they are “committed to the text and spirit of the [current form of the] Arab Peace Initiative with no amendments whatsoever.”

In 2002, the Arab Summit in Beirut made a comprehensive peace offer – proposed by Saudi Arabia – that included a full Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian and Syrian territories occupied in 1967 to allow for the establishment of a viable and independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, along with a fair settlement of the Palestinian refugee problem. In return, there would be full peace between all Arab states and Israel.

From the outset, Israel has been lukewarm about the proposal and has not at any point committed itself to basing negotiations on its terms. All direct Palestinian-Israeli talks conducted in the wake of the initiative were not directly linked to the collective Arab peace offer.

The proposed amendments, according to informed Arab officials who spoke to Ahram Online, were agreed upon by the Qatari prime minister and Kerry at a meeting that was not attended by the rest of the Arab Peace Initiative delegation. However, the proposed changes were reportedly inspired by talks between the two senior diplomats and their Palestinian counterparts.

Arab negotiators say the trouble with restarting the stalled peace talks began long before the debate over the proposed land swap – which, according to some, could make it impossible for Palestinians to realise a state with contiguous borders.

“To resume direct talks the PA would need at least a symbolic suspension of Israeli settlement construction and the release of some key Palestinian prisoners,” said one Arab negotiator.

According to another negotiator, Israel would also need to agree to resume talks from where they left off.

In the assessment of diplomats close to the issue, both demands seem unlikely.

Kerry’s plan is based on kick-starting direct talks between Palestinians and Israelis on two issues that are essential for both sides: security, which is an Israeli prerequisite, and borders, a Palestinian pre-requisite.

The hope is that after these matters are settled, negotiations could move on towards a viable settlement of the thorny Jerusalem issue, which would most likely be inspired by the 2000 Camp David offer, effectively granting Israel control over most of the city but allowing a symbolic Palestinian presence at Muslim sites.

The refugee problem, meanwhile, could be based on the 2000 blueprint offering a gradual return of around 100,000 – out of some four million Palestinian refugees – but which would not grant second- or third-generation refugees the right of return.

PA sources speaking off the record say that, like other Arab delegations – except, perhaps, the Qatari one – they are not very hopeful. They say, however, that they will give the American effort a chance – before it becomes too late for the two-state solution to be achieved, “which is kind of the case already.”

Palestinian resistance outfits Hamas and Islamic Jihad, for their part, have expressed concern over the planned new basis for negotiations, but have promised concerned Arab capitals – including Cairo and Doha – that they would allow the PA to give it a try at least and take an official position when a final offer is made.

Hamas, which is more influential than Islamic Jihad, had previously told Cairo that the minimum it could agree to was a full Israeli withdrawal from all Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 – with a land swap of no more than 2 percent.

‘Insufficient land for a state’

To start the talks, however, Kerry would need to convince the Israelis to halt construction of a new settlement in E1 in the northern West Bank.

“If this happens, it would be completely pointless to start talks because this [construction of the E1 settlement] would split the West Bank into two parts and make it impossible to talk of a serious state,” said another Arab diplomat.

According to Abdel-Alim Mohamed, director of the Palestine-Israel desk at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, it is already “far too late to speak of a serious Palestinian state.”

“Even if Israel does not start a new settlement project, there is already insufficient land left for a state – not to mention that whatever is left is hard to connect and is very poor in resources,” he explained.

“In 2010, then-Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa rightly said that the peace process was ‘dead’ and that Israel was not at all serious about reaching a final and just peace settlement,” Mohamed added.

“Today he has been proven right. Arabs have to consider alternatives to the two-state solution, which can never deliver a viable Palestinian state – with or without land swaps.”

For his side, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday he would put any peace deal with the Palestinians to a referendum.

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