When the latest round of Mid- east negotiations began four months ago, we used the word “hope” a number of times in expressing our desire for a successful outcome. The word was meant to convey the uncertainty that shrouds any attempt at a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Talks have been paralyzed since 2008, which accounts for the skepticism that greeted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s brokering of an agreement to get the two sides back to the table.
There was good reason for the skeptics to come out of the woodwork. While Israel agreed to the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also announced the approval of plans for 900 housing units in Gilo, an area in East Jerusalem that Israel considers to be a neighborhood of its capital.
Kerry called the settlements on the disputed land “illegitimate,” but said he did not think they would undermine the talks.
The secretary of state may be proved right — if the comments by the chief Palestinian negotiator last week are not just a public relations ploy.
Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians are ready to extend the current talks beyond an April deadline if a detailed framework agreement is in place then.
This is the first time Palestinian negotiators endorsed the U.S. idea of seeking a preliminary rather than a final deal by the end of the nine-month period of negotiations. Both sides had agreed to the period at the outset.
Wide gaps still exist between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel’s Netanyahu, but Erekat noted that much ground has already been covered in previous negotiations on a final peace agreement.
“Actually it’s about decisions,” he told reporters in the town of Beit Jalla, adjacent to Bethlehem. “If Netanyahu decides it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.”
The positions of the two sides are well known — and it would seem to be impossible to find common ground.
Minor land swaps
The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. These were territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. They are ready for minor land swaps to enable Israel to keep some of the larger of the dozens of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Netanyahu has refused to accept the pre-1967 lines as a starting point for border talks and rejects a partition of Jerusalem into an Israeli and a Palestinian capital.
While the current round of talks have the same feel as previous ones, the determination expressed by Secretary of State Kerry and his success in getting the two sides to the table do give hope.
One of the issues that has been and continues to be a tough nut to crack is a proposal for security arrangements between Israel and a future state of Palestine.
There are unconfirmed reports that a proposal presented by Kerry would permit Israeli troops to control Palestine’s eastern border with Jordan for at least 10 years.
Israelis are seeking an extended presence.