Clarification from Mahmoud Abbas — but not clarity

Does Mahmoud Abbas have the right to refuse, on behalf of Palestinian refugees caught up in fighting in Syria, the reported condition set by Israel [that these Palestinian refugees give up their Right of Return to their original homes that may be in areas now inside Israel] — in order to allow these Palestinian refugees to come to into the West Bank now?

Well, he said in Cairo on Wednesday night [9 January] that he refused this reported Israeli condition — which he said was communicated to him by UN Secretary-General BAN Ki-Moon — anyway.

Mahmoud Abbas and his delegated representatives have engaged in negotiations with Israelis for decades — and during this time, in some of these conversations, he was involved in conversations in which it was said, or rather speculated, that surely not every Palestinian refugee around the world would want to return to his/her original homes…

Some of these conversations, incoherent in part, full of innuendo that can’t be communicated by transcription, have been revealed in release of documents like the Al-Jazeera Palestine Papers.

In response, Palestinian critics have said that the Right of Return is an individual, not a collective right — and that Abbas had no right to give it up pr waive it in negotiations on behalf of each and every Palestinian.

Now, we are faced with the opposite situation.

It was Abbas himself who said, in mid-December, during fighting that had reportedly emptied 95% of Yarmouk Camp [which is now a suburb of Damascus], that Palestinians forced to flee that violence should be allowed to come to the West Bank.

He asked for the UN to help.

Now, we learn from a report in the Times of Israel today, that:

    “Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas rejected an Israeli offer to allow Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria to enter the Palestinian territories on condition that they forgo their ‘right of return’ to Israel proper, Abbas told the Egyptian press on Wednesday evening.  Following a meeting with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, Abbas said that he had appealed to the UN to intercede on behalf of Palestinian refugees living in Syriaand demand that Israel allow them to enter the West Bank and Gaza.  UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told Abbas that Israel agreed to the request, on the condition that the refugees sign a document in which they forgo the ‘right of return’ to areas within Israel.  Abbas said he rejected that condition”.  This is published here.

The Associated Press, economizing with words, reported that:
“The fate of Palestinians uprooted by Israel’s creation is an explosive issue. Israel worries that a mass influx of Palestinians could destroy the notion of a Jewish state. Last month, Abbas asked the U.N. to seek Israeli permission to bring Palestinians caught in Syria’s civil war to the Palestinian territories. Abbas said in comments published Thursday that Israel linked its acceptance to refugees relinquishing claims to returning to what is now Israel. Abbas says ‘we rejected that’. Israeli officials declined comment”. This was published by the Washington Post here.

Did Mahmoud Abbas think his proposal to allow Palestinian refugees caught up in fighting in Syria was only a temporary solution?

Did Mahmoud Abbas think that he was  offering Palestinian refugees [mainly from Yarmouk Camp] just shelter from the immediate conflict now?

Israeli paper says Palestinian negotiators agreed to swap Sheikh Jarrah [and put it under Israeli sovereignty]

The idea of “land swaps” arose in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations since the Camp David talks in late July 2000.

The Geneva Initiative, signed in Geneva in December 2003 between representatives of Israeli and Palestinian “civil society” [who included or who were in close touch with the former Camp David negotiators] said these proposed “land swaps” should be carried out on a 1:1 basis [of equal size, and also of equal quality].

In an article by correspondent Barak Ravid published today, Haaretz included the following new information as background [it’s left to the final paragraph]:

    “The Palestinians also showed readiness to make certain compromises in Jerusalem, during both the Camp David and the Annapolis talks. The Palestinians were ready to leave under Israeli sovereignty most Jewish neighborhoods founded in East Jerusalem after 1967, with the exception of Har Homa. Also, the Palestinians even expressed agreement to the plan for international administration over holy sites, and offered to leave the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood under Israeli sovereignty in a territorial swap“. This is published here.

Palestinian negotiators are supposed to have agreed that Sheikh Jarrah will be put under Israeli sovereignty? This is the first report about any such Palestinian agreement.

    Israel extended its law and administration to Jerusalem in June 1967, a few weeks after the Six Day / June war — a move tantamount to [but not quite] annexation. This move was declared null and void, and has not been recognized, by almost all UN Member States. At that time, boundaries of a new “Greater Jerusalem” were drawn up by the Jerusalem Municipality, including Sheikh Jarrah and a larger crescent of land extending in an arc from Ramallah in the north to almost Bethlehem in the South. Since then, Israel considers this as Jerusalem, more or less — although a large area of “Greater Jerusalem” was West Bank land before the June 1967 war and the subsequent Israeli military occupation. In 1980, the Israeli Knesset adopted a Basic Law declaring Jerusalem as its eternal + undivided capital [and annexing the Golan Heights].

There have been previous reports that Palestinian negotiators had indicated that French Hill, Ramot, and Pisgat Zeev to the north of the Old City [as well as Neve Yaakov, which was Jewish property under the Ottoman and British Mandate periods] could be left as is. It was not clear about Gilo to the south, near Bethlehem. But the Palestinian negotiators were adamant about the return of Har Homa [which Palestinians call Jabel Abu Ghneim], and they had also not given in on the very large settlement of Maale Adumim to the east, between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.

But never Sheikh Jarrah…

Continue reading Israeli paper says Palestinian negotiators agreed to swap Sheikh Jarrah [and put it under Israeli sovereignty]

Olmert asks: What happened?

Speaking at a conference at Tel Aviv University today, Israel’s former prime minister Ehud Olmert said that “during his tenure he offered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas an unprecedented peace offer, based on a return to the 1967 borders and a fair demographic land arrangement which would see heavily Jewish areas in the West Bank remain under Israeli control. ‘I offered a land swap, I offered a solution for Jerusalem, where the Jewish part would remain under Israeli authority and the Arab sections would be given to the jurisdiction of a Palestinian state’ … According to Olmert’s plan, the Holy Basin would be demarcated under the rule of five different states with access available to believers of all religions. The offer was based on the agreements reached at a 2007 summit in Annapolis Maryland, Olmert said, and would be carried out in accordance with the Road Map for peace. Olmert said he and Abbas had reached an interim agreement on the Palestinian right of return, but he never received a final response from the Palestinians on the matter. ‘I found Abbas to be a fair partner, opposed to terror’, said Olmert. ‘What happened? That is the question of all questions, which I would answer if I could. I hope that the State of Israel will put at the top of its agenda the fact that there was a peace proposal offered by a legitimate government… It’s time the international community demand an answer from the Palestinians instead of arguing about a building here and a building there’ … Olmert added that he had ‘reached the conclusion that in choosing between the greater Israel and a Jewish, democratic state, I prefer the latter’, saying he knew it would be necessary to withdraw from much of the land the Palestinians want for a state. Olmert also said he had been ‘hours’ from meeting with the Syrian foreign minister during his tenure, but that the talks were canceled after Israel embarked on its offensive in the Gaza Strip”. here.

Why do people wait so long to say these things?

What would have happened if he had said it loudly, publicly, insistently, repetitiously, at the time?

Seymour Hersh hopes for peace in the Middle East…

In the latest issue of The New Yorker, dated 6 April, Seymour Hersh writes:
“Obama’s Middle East strategy is still under review in the State Department and the National Security Council. The Administration has been distracted by the economic crisis, and impeded by the large number of key foreign- and domestic-policy positions yet to be filled. Obama’s appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy for Middle East diplomacy, on January 22nd, won widespread praise, but Mitchell has yet to visit Syria. Diplomatic contacts with Damascus were expanded in late February, and informal exchanges with Syria have already taken place. According to involved diplomats, the Administration’s tone was one of dialogue and respect—and not a series of demands. For negotiations to begin, the Syrians understood that Washington would no longer insist that Syria shut down the Hamas liaison office in Damascus and oust its political leader, Khaled Meshal. Syria, instead, will be asked to play a moderating role with the Hamas leadership, and urge a peaceful resolution of Hamas’s ongoing disputes with Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Syrians were also told that the Obama Administration was reëvaluating the extent of Syria’s control over Hezbollah. (The White House did not respond to requests for comment.)

“A senior White House official confirmed that the Obama transition team had been informed in advance of Carter’s trip to Syria, and that Carter met with Obama shortly before the Inauguration. The two men—Obama was accompanied only by David Axelrod, the President’s senior adviser, who helped arrange the meeting; and Carter by his wife, Rosalynn—discussed the Middle East for an hour. Carter declined to discuss his meeting with Obama, but he did write in an e-mail that he hoped the new President “would pursue a wide-ranging dialogue as soon as possible with the Assad government.” An understanding between Washington and Damascus, he said, “could set the stage for successful Israeli-Syrian talks.”

“The Obama transition team also helped persuade Israel to end the bombing of Gaza and to withdraw its ground troops before the Inauguration. According to the former senior intelligence official, who has access to sensitive information, ‘Cheney began getting messages from the Israelis about pressure from Obama’ when he was President-elect. Cheney, who worked closely with the Israeli leadership in the lead-up to the Gaza war, portrayed Obama to the Israelis as a ‘pro-Palestinian’, who would not support their efforts (and, in private, disparaged Obama, referring to him at one point as someone who would ‘never make it in the major leagues’). But the Obama team let it be known that it would not object to the planned resupply of ‘smart bombs’ and other high-tech ordnance that was already flowing to Israel. “It was Jones”—retired Marine General James Jones, at the time designated to be the President’s national-security adviser—’who came up with the solution and told Obama, “You just can’t tell the Israelis to get out”.’ (General Jones said that he could not verify this account; Cheney’s office declined to comment.)

“One issue that may be a casualty of an Obama rapprochement with Syria is human rights. Syrians are still being jailed for speaking out against the policies of their government. Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, said that Assad ‘has been offering fig leafs to the Americans for a long time and thinks if he makes nice in Lebanon and with Hamas and Hezbollah he will no longer be an outcast. We believe that no amount of diplomatic success will solve his internal problems’. The authorities, Whitson said, are ‘going after ordinary Syrians—like people chatting in cafés. Everyone is looking over their shoulder’.”

“Assad, in his interview with me, acknowledged, ‘We do not say that we are a democratic country. We do not say that we are perfect, but we are moving forward’. And he focussed on what he had to offer. He said that he had a message for Obama: Syria, as a secular state, and the United States faced a common enemy in Al Qaeda and Islamic extremism. The Bush White House, he said, had viewed the fundamentalists as groups ‘that you should go and chase, and then you will accomplish your mission, as Bush says. It is not that simple. How do you deal with a state of mind? You can deal with it in many different ways—except for the army’. Speaking of Obama, he said in his e-mail, ‘We are happy that he has said that diplomacy—and not war—is the means of conducting international policy’.

“Assad’s goal in seeking to engage with America and Israel is clearly more far-reaching than merely to regain the Golan Heights. His ultimate aim appears to be to persuade Obama to abandon the Bush Administration’s strategy of aligning America with the so-called ‘moderate’ Arab Sunni states—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan—in a coördinated front against Shiite Iran, Shiite Hezbollah, and Hamas.

“ ‘Of course, the Iranians are nervous about the talks, because they don’t fully trust the Syrians’, Itamar Rabinovich said. ‘But the Assad family does not believe in taking chances—they’re very hard bargainers. They will try to get what they want without breaking fully from Iran, and they will tell us and Washington, “It’s to your advantage not to isolate Iran”.’ Rabinovich added, ‘Both Israel and the United States will insist on a change in Syria’s relationship with Iran. This can only be worked out—or not—in head-to-head talks’.

“The White House has tough diplomatic choices to make in the next few months. Assad has told the Obama Administration that his nation can ease the American withdrawal in Iraq. Syria also can help the U.S. engage with Iran, and the Iranians, in turn, could become an ally in neighboring Afghanistan, as the Obama Administration struggles to deal with the Taliban threat and its deepening involvement in that country—and to maintain its long-standing commitment to the well-being of Israel. Each of these scenarios has potential downsides. Resolving all of them will be formidable, and will involve sophisticated and intelligent diplomacy—the kind of diplomacy that disappeared during the past eight years, and that the Obama team has to prove it possesses”.
This Seymour Hersh article can be read in full in The New Yorker here.

Is there a deal?

Speculation is rising about the possibility of a deal on the eve of an election to replace Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as leader of his political party, Kadima — which may or may not result on his leaving office (depending on whether his successor can form a new government).

This is admittedly confusing, as Olmert has pledged to resign immediately after the party primary on Wednesday.

Here is the fire and the smoke from the Israeli press today:

Haaretz says that “Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is seriously considering Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s proposal of an agreement in principle on the core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos told Haaretz Monday after he met with the two leaders. ‘My conclusion from the talks with Olmert and Abu-Mazen [Abbas] is that the discussion and the proposals are extremely positive. I think that they are very close. I am convinced that these peace talks are going to be irreversible from what they have achieved. Whatever happens in Israeli internal politics and in the U.S. administration – both sides and the international community need to work to make them irreversible’, Moratinos said. Moratinos said that in his meeting with Olmert, he received details of the main points of the Israeli prime minister’s proposal to Abbas, and that the proposal was “based on a long series of bilateral negotiations” between Olmert and Abbas … This afternoon, Abbas is to hold another meeting with Olmert at the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem, and according to the Spanish foreign minister, the Palestinian may then give Olmert his answer. Moratinos said Abbas was ‘impressed by the proposal and he is studying it. They are quite impressed by the proposal and they see it as a serious proposal. In general they consider it positively – but they still need to make the decision’. In a meeting of his own with Moratinos on Sunday night, Olmert told the Spanish foreign minister that he was concerned over pressure being applied by senior Palestinian officials on the PA president to say no to Olmert’s proposal for an agreement in principle on the core issues. Olmert told Moratinos that some Palestinian officials had fallen in love with the negotiations and are trying to thwart an agreement. Olmert was apparently referring to Ahmed Qureia, who is in charge of the talks with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and is urging Abbas to continue the talks into 2009.
Moratinos is encouraging Abbas to accept Olmert’s proposal. He has also discussed the matter with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and will be in Damascus tomorrow for talks with President Bashar Assad”. The full Haaretz article can be found here.

Another article in Haaretz reports that “Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday said he was sorry for the plight of Palestinians and Jews who became refugees as a result of Israel’s establishment. ‘I join in expressing sorrow for what happened to the Palestinians and also for what happened to the Jews who were expelled from Arab states’, the prime minister said. Olmert made the comments before a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, apparently in his last such session as prime minister. He was speaking in reference to the key Palestinian demand for a ‘right of return’ in peace negotiations with Israel … ‘Under absolutely no circumstances will there be a right of return’, Olmert declared, ‘but we are prepared to be part of an international mechanism that will work to solve the problem’. Palestinians have demanded that Israel accept responsibility for the suffering of Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes in the War of Independence that followed Israel’s 1948 creation. Olmert’s remark Monday fell far short of meeting this demand. But it was unusual for an Israeli prime minister to say Israel will participate in expressing sorrow for what happened to them. The premier also said that a peace deal with the Palestinian Authority will involve proportionate land swaps between the two sides. ‘The territorial price of peace with the Palestinians will bring us very close to the land-for-land formula. This needs to be said forthrightly and with courage. There are different ways of reaching this formula through annexing or exchanging territories’, Olmert said.” This article can be read in full here.

And, yet another Haaretz article states that “According to Olmert, by the end of 2008, it should be possible to attain understandings with the Palestinians on three issues: borders, security and refugees. However Olmert stressed that the implementation of the understandings is conditioned on the application of the Bush road map and eradication of the Palestinian terrorist infrastructures, and so implementation will take place at a much later stage. ‘It is important to reach understandings, even if their implementation is delayed’, he said … Olmert also said: ‘We will be sorry for every day that goes by without an agreeement with the Palestinians, and the person saying this is one who once held different opinions and even fought for them.” Olmert said the price of not reaching an agreement quickly would be ‘intolerable’. Olmert said that even exchanging equal territory with the Palestinians would be ”less than what we will have to pay in the future’. According to Olmert’s proposal, the Palestinians would receive 93 percent of the West Bank and the equivalent of another approximately 5.5 percent of territory, in the Negev adjacent to the Gaza Strip, in exchange for the large settlement blocs, which would be annexed to Israel. Olmert has also proposed an international compensation mechanism for Palestinian refugees and the symbolic return of a few thousand such refugees without Israel recognizing the right of return or responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. Olmert reportedly wants to postpone discussion of Jerusalem, and to hold talks on that subject in a broad international framework. The prime minister told the committee that there is a concern over ‘the entrenchment of the narrative of a binational state, in which we will not be the majority. Ever-growing segments of the international community are adopting the idea of a binational state. I see a Jewish state as a condition for our existence’. Olmert said an agreement would lead to international recognition of Israel’s borders in the context of a two-state solution … In response to a question about his position on exchanges of territory and populations, he said: ‘I am not in favor of taking a million Arabs out of Israel’. Olmert said that an agreement with the Palestinians would make it much easier to solve problems involving Israel’s Arab citizens”… This story can be read in full in Haaretz here.

The Jerusalem Post is reporting that “Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is scheduled to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday. The two leaders are expected to formulate a document that will include the agreements reached during negotiations so far, ahead of Abbas’s upcoming visit to Washington. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Ahmed Qurei, who head the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams, will not attend the meeting.” This brief JPost report is posted here.

nd the JPost is also reporting that: “Ehud Olmert has discussed with the Palestinians transferring to them 98.1 percent of the West Bank, Channel 2 [television] reported on Sunday evening. The report on the ongoing negotiations was broadcast in advance of Tuesday’s planned meeting between Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on the news item and said only that many such media reports had been published in the last months regarding the talks. Earlier in the day, during what could be his last cabinet meeting before he becomes the head of a transitional government, Olmert addressed Israel’s relationship to the West Bank when he spoke of a voluntary evacuation bill to help relocate settlers living east of the security barrier. ‘The vision of a greater Israel no longer exists. Those who speak of it are delusional’, the prime minister said. No vote was taken on the measure. According to Channel 2, however, Olmert is considering concessions far beyond land east of the barrier and could transfer 98.1% of the West Bank to the PA. That is significantly more than the 94% to 96% that had been discussed in previous negotiations …

The report states that Abbas has asked that Israel cede the Jerusalem area settlements of Ma’aleh Adumim and Givat Ze’ev, but is willing to negotiate the status of the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Gilo and French Hill, which are over the Green Line. In the past the Palestinians have demanded that Israel fully withdraw to the pre-1967 borders, including from eastern Jerusalem. Israel has insisted it plans to keep the larger settlements blocs including Ma’aleh Adumim and Givat Ze’ev as well as the Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem. The future of Jerusalem, according to Channel 2, was being negotiated between Olmert and Abbas, and not by the team led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. [n.b. – remember the -U.S. State Department information note, after the flap over the interview by U.S. Consul in Jerusalem Jacob Walles, which stated cryptically that Livni has not been negotiating on Jerusalem … see our earlier post here].

The article continues: “Olmert has also agreed that 5,000 Palestinian refugees would return to Israel – a thousand refugees every year for five years, according to the report. Abbas allegedly rejected the proposal and was demanding the return of many more refugees. According to the report, the Palestinians were also interested in access not only to the Dead Sea but also to the Kinneret, as they claimed they deserved some rights over the water flowing into the lake because the Jordan River runs through Palestinian territory … Speaking in defense of the voluntary evacuation bill at the cabinet meeting, Olmert said that for the 40 years since it acquired the West Bank during the Six Day War, Israel had been making excuses as to why it could not do anything. This, he said, did not help Israel. It was important Israel showed it had taken initiative in the peace process. ‘We have to advance the voluntary evacuation compensation bill and to bring it to the cabinet [for a vote]’, the prime minister said. Olmert said he had not always supported territorial concessions and that he had initially felt that then-prime minister Ehud Barak had offered the Palestinians too much at Camp David in 2000. ‘I thought that the land between the Jordan River and the sea was ours’, he said. In the end, he said he came to the conclusion that we had to reach an agreement with the Palestinians if we did not want to see Israel become a binational state. There was no time to waste, Olmert said. adding: ‘We can argue about every small detail and find that when we are ready for an agreement there is no partner and no international support’. In the not too distant future, there would come a day when ‘we will want those same solutions that we are rejecting today’, he said”. This JPost article can be read in full here.

Also from JPost article, we learn that “Vice Premier Haim Ramon in briefing reporters on Sunday, expressed skepticism as to the success of the negotiations. Ramon said he was not optimistic that a final-status agreement would be reached, ‘not at the end of this year and not at the end of next year’.
But what was clear, he said, was that in the future, ‘settlements east of the barrier won’t be under Israeli sovereignty’. There was no reason why those settlers who understood that the barrier represented a future border should have to wait five or 10 years to be evacuated, Ramon said. At Sunday’s cabinet meeting, he proposed a voluntary evacuation bill that would offer property owners in the 72 settlements outside of the barrier an average of $300,000 or NIS 1.1 million for their homes. Those homes would then be sealed or destroyed so they could not be reused by other settlers, Ramon said … According to Ramon, there are an estimated 61,808 settlers living outside of the barrier, out of whom 11,000, or 18%, would accept such an offer. Such a measure, Ramon said, would help those settlers who did not enjoy the same security offered Israelis living inside the barrier and would also be seen by the Palestinians as a sign of good faith toward the negotiations. Ramon’s proposal was immediately objected to by the four candidates competing in Wednesday’s primary for the Kadima leadership. If the government wanted to make a gesture toward the Palestinians that involved territory, it should evacuate the unauthorized outposts, said Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit. That was particularly true, he said, given that it had already promised the international community that it would do so. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni warned that the Palestinians would view the measure as a unilateral step. She added that Israel should not take steps to determine a border while it was in the midst of negotiating one with the Palestinians. Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz said that such a law would embolden the Palestinians to increase their demands. Public Security Minister Avi Dichter said the proposal would be impossible to implement. More to the point, it would make any future evacuations harder to carry out because the net effect of the bill would be to replace less ideological settlers with more determined ones. In defense of his proposal, Ramon told reporters that the borders under negotiations with the Palestinians were already well known. Livni, he said, could only wish that the barrier would in fact be the final border” … This article is posted here.

What did Mahmoud Abbas really say?

Reporting from Italy today, where there is a big conference taking place attended by (among others) Israel’s President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Reuters says that Peres’ office issued a statement revealing that Abbas has remarked: “It appears as if we will not be able to reach full agreement on the issues of Jerusalem, borders, refugees and water by the end of the year … But we are determined to continue accelerated diplomatic negotiations concurrently with the change of administration in the United States”. The full Reuters report can be read here .

Haaretz, picking up material from the Associated Press, puts a somewhat different cast on the same story, reporting that “Israeli President Shimon Peres appeared side by side to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday at the Ambrosetti Forum, an annual gathering of global political and business leaders in an Italian lakeside resort. The two leaders … said that Israel and the Palestinian Authority are closer than ever to a peace deal. Abbas pledged to try to reach a final status peace agreement with Israel by the end of the year – but he admitted the goal, set by U.S. President George W. Bush, might not be achieved. Abbas also rejected the notion that he and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert might put forth a partial document outlining the areas in which they do agree and leaving open other issues – most notably, and most sensitive, the sharing of Jerusalem as a joint capital. ‘It is necessary for the agreement to address all … issues’, said Abbas. ‘It is all or nothing, really … We might not be able to reach a final status agreement by the end of the year [but] We will make all possible efforts’. Abbas said if no agreement was reached while Bush remained in office, ‘the new administration should not wait seven years for us to start negotiations … It should begin immediately as soon as a new president is in the White House’. Israeli President Shimon Peres, who has used his largely ceremonial role and his stature as an elder statesman to push peace efforts in the past, addressed the forum after the Palestinian President. ‘We have to try to reach an agreement’, Peres told the crowd. ‘We have to act on the supposition that it is possible’.” This report can be read in full in Haaretz here.

Amendments required to revised plan for Jerusalem Old City's religious flashpoint

The Israeli government’s Regional Planning Committee on Jerusalem has just issued a split ruling on objections brought by the Israeli NGO Ir Amim to a revised design plan for reconstruction of the damaged ramp that leads from the Western Wall Plaza up to the Mughrabi Gate (Bab al-Maghariba) entrance to the Haram as-Sharif esplanade where Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock are located.

The Western Wall Plaza below - the Haram as-Sharif above

The Committee has set down some general principles, and has asked for the submission of an amended design.

The damaged ramp was built on the remains of the Mughrabi Quarter that was razed after Israeli forces conquered the Old City of Jerusalem in the June 1967 war.

Part of the ramp collapsed after winter rains and snow in February 2004, and the Israeli authorities initially decided it was a good opportunity to reconstruct areas of the Western Wall Plaza – including the ramp access to the Mughrabi Gate – to suit its own estimates of its present needs, including greater security access to the mosque esplanade, and an expanded prayer area for Jewish women.

Ir Amim’s legal adviser, attorney Daniel Seideman reported that objections he presented to several earlier versions of the reconstruction plan were accepted in large part – but not in their totality – by the Regional Planning Committee in the first week of July.

Ir Amim is an NGO working for the equitable sharing of Jerusalem, which it calls a city “of two peoples and three religions”.

“Where we were successful is that the Committee ordered the preservation of artifacts including from the Ottoman and Mandate periods, which includes the remains of the Mughrabi Quarter”, Seidemann said, whereas last November the government indicated that it wanted to raze all artifacts dating later than 1700 A.D.

But the wording of the Committee’s decision – directing without greater precision only that the design for reconstruction would have to “take into account” the artifacts that have been found there – leaves a lot to discretion, Seidemann noted.

A proposal which would have transformed some of the vaults of the Islamic-era structures that have been unearthed under the ramp in recent Israeli excavations into Jewish prayer halls has been rejected, Seideman reported.

Israeli excavation activity now appears to have stopped.

The biggest remaining problem, according to Seidemann, is the Committee’s ruling that the Western Wall Plaza could be expanded – though he said it would be less than in the earlier proposal.

So, he warned, “this is not over”, and the situation will require continued close attention.

The Israeli government in 2006-2007 signed off on a ramp redesign plan at every level up to and including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, after which excavations were carried out under the ramp, in accordance with requirements of Israel’s antiquities law.

But, the original redesign plan was severely criticized by 18 leading Israeli archeologists who said they were appalled by the potential damage to one of the most important archeological sites in Israel-Palestine, and a main focus of all the various civilizations that have coexisted in Jerusalem from ancient biblical times through the present day. The original plan was described as “megalomaniac” and “phatasmagorical”.

Following strong international protests, the Israeli government agreed to begin a consultation process under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The Jordanian government and the Waqf (Islamic Trust Foundation) in Jerusalem participated in these consultations, which were apparently indirect – meaning that the delegations were not all in the same room.

A revised plan was filed, but objections persisted. As required by the Israeli approval process, the government’s Regional Planning Committee – which is administratively part of Israel’s Ministry of the Interior but which is composed of members of a number of other ministries, as well as of the Jerusalem Municipality, as well as two members of the public – has been considering these objections.

Now, the Regional Planning Committee has just ruled that the revised reconstruction plan must be further amended, and still has to sign off on the revised plan that it now awaited from local Jerusalem architect Eli Ilan, before a building permit is issued.

More hearings could be required if the design revisions are extensive, Seidemann indicated.

Tourists visiting the Haram as-Sharif

This project could become a model for working in such an immensely significant and sensitive site, according to Seidemann, but he noted that there is also still the potential to revert back to fighting that could cause “an interreligous conflagration”.

Adnan Husseini said this week that he was concerned that Israel was not paying attention to the negotiations conducted last February by UNESCO, and was just using the fact that these meetings were held “as an umbrella to get to their target”. The whole story, he said, is about Israel’s intention to enlarge the prayer area in the Western Wall Plaza. To so, he said, Israel could destroy 1400 years of history. “We ask UNESCO to take a serious role”, Husseini said. “This is an entrance to our Mosques, and it [the ramp as well as the archeological remains] is Awqaf property”. He urged UNESCO to take a position, and be firm and clear – and not just allow Israel “to show a picture of having discussed the issue with others, while in the end imposing everything on the ground”.

According to a report in Haaretz, the Israeli government is planning to spend 17 million shekels (over $5 million, at the current rate of exchange) on this project.

Israel considers the site to be an area of Israeli sovereignty. Israel extended its law and administration over East Jerusalem in the wake of the 1967 war, and Israel later proclaimed Jerusalem as its capital in 1980 – a move that was declared null and void by United Nations member states, and which is recognized by fewer than a handful of countries.

A “de facto” arrangement put in place in 1967 by then-Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan left authority over the Haram as-Sharif mosque esplanade to Jerusalem’s Islamic Waqf (trust foundation) – while Israel proclaimed itself in full charge of the site´s Western Wall and the plaza created where the Mughrabi Quarter previously stood, but the Israeli Foreign Ministry website states now that “the Temple Mount lies within the sovereign jurisdiction of the State of Israel”.

The two concepts – of delegating authority to the Waqf while retaining sovereign jurisdiction – could be interpreted in various ways that could be more or less accommodating to the two sides. However, Israel has appeared in recent years to be moving to a more and more restrictive interpretation.

The Waqf continues to claim the entire area of the Mughrabi Quarter, including the ramp, as its property.

And the Palestine Liberation Organization’s National Council, in 1988, approved the declaration of independence of the State of Palestine, to be established on the territory captured by Israel in the June 1967 war, with East Jerusalem to be its capital.

Israeli Border Police at gate to Muslim mosques in East Jerusalem

Seidemann said that Israel’s Regional Planning Committee appears to have at least taken into consideration the views of the other parties, and he believes “there were clear instructions from the political echelons to handle the situation responsibly”.

But, the situation could go either way, Seidemann said: the revised plan could be “upgraded to something close to what is acceptable to the Waqf, the Jordanians, and UNESCO, or it could degenerate into something close to the original plan”.

Israel, in its 1994 Peace Treaty with Jordan, stated that it “respects” Jordan´s “special role” in the “Muslim Holy shrines in Jerusalem” (but not, however, in management of the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, for which Jordan also reportedly wanted a special status during the peace treaty negotiations). The 1994 Peace Treaty also says that Jordan´s “historic role” in the Jerusalem shrines will be given “high priority” when “negotiations on the permanent status” [i.e., between Israel and the Palestinians] “will take place”

Seidemann cautioned: “To fall asleep at the watch now would be exactly the wrong thing to do”.

Mughrabi Gate ramp redesign plan approval expected imminently

Tensions may be heating up again about Israeli reconstruction plans for a damaged ramp leading from the Western Wall Plaza in the Old City of Jerusalem, where Jewish worshippers pray at Judaism’s most sacred and revered site, up to the Mughrabi Gate entrance to the Haram as-Sharif mosque esplanade, the third holiest site of Islam.

A revised Israeli design to rebuild the ramp is expected to receive Israeli government approval imminently.

Mughrabi Gate entrance to the Haram as-Sharif - 12 June 2008

Depending on what is finally approved – by the Israeli Ministry of the Interior’s Regional Planning Commission – there still may be one or two problems, but the revised plan as viewed a few weeks ago by Israeli attorney Danny Seidemann, appears to be a big improvement over an earlier Israeli plan which, he said, reflected “ulterior motives”.

Continue reading Mughrabi Gate ramp redesign plan approval expected imminently

Akiva Eldar on Olmert and the current Situation

Akiva Ekdar has just written this reflection in Haaretz on the pickle that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is presently in and the options:
“Kadima [Olmert’s party, founded by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon] has not managed to create its own political culture. In effect, to this day, it has not succeeded in leaving a mark on any sphere in which a ruling party is involved. Olmert’s most important contribution, and what distinguishes him from Netanyahu (and also from Ehud Barak), is the replacement of the unilateral solution with the principle of consent. Sharon translated Barak’s “no-partner” doctrine into a strategy of crushing the Palestinian Authority, eliminating the political option and the unilateral approach. Olmert brought the term “permanent arrangement” back into public discourse, and transformed Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) into a regular sight on Israelis’ televisions. Too bad the peace with Syria appeared again on the agenda in the shadow of Talansky’s harsh testimony. Thanks to these processes, Olmert deserves a place in the history books, not only as the person responsible for the debacle in Lebanon and as a cigar-loving political hack.

“It seems that Olmert will have to drop the plan to go to elections with a ‘shelf’ agreement that would present the principles of a permanent arrangement, and with a draft of a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. Even the Palestinians have learned that when the Israelis start talking about elections, they are not willing to hear about the division of Jerusalem and the refugee problem. But if he really does believe that in the absence of a two-state solution, ‘the Jewish state is finished’, Olmert must see to it that the next government, whatever its composition, finds Palestinian partners for that very solution.

“The fate of these partners is now in Olmert’s hands. If he continues toying with the Egyptian outline for a cease-fire (tahadiyeh) in Gaza, one more missile striking an apartment building in Ashkelon will be enough for the government to drag the Israel Defense Forces into a blood-soaked campaign deep inside the Gaza Strip. On the other hand, a siege of 1.5 million citizens cannot last forever, and eventually will explode. In both cases, the Fatah leadership led by Abu Mazen, which is perceived as a collaborator with Israel, will emerge by the skin of its teeth. This is why Hamas’ sworn enemies are supporting, if not almost begging, for Olmert to sign the tahadiyeh agreement, and to open the border crossings between the Gaza Strip and Israel. The Egyptians are hinting that they are saving the opening of the Rafah crossing for the next stage of the deal, which will include the return of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit.

“In addition to keeping the situation in the Gaza Strip quiet, Olmert has an additional series of means at his disposal that can enhance the status of the Palestinian partners, until the political situation in Israel is clarified. All he has to do is pull out of the drawer the list of promises he made to Abu Mazen (and to the Americans) and instruct the defense establishment to uphold them in spirit and in practice. The prime minister, after all, claims that he is continuing to carry out his duties in the best possible way even during the very difficult times he is experiencing”.

The full Akiva Eldar article can be read here .

Olmert's support crumbles in wake of cash payments revelations to Court

Master politician Ehud Olmert has just now had the rug pulled out from him with the public announcement at a press conference in Jerusalem by Defense Minister (and former Prime Minister) Ehud Barak, who called for Olmert’s resignation a day after dramatic testimony from an American-Jewish businessman who said he gave Olmert a total of some $150,000 in cash over a fifteen-year period.

There has so far been no “quid pro quo” indicating that Olmert actually promised or was asked to do something specific for the businessman, Morris Talansky, in exchange for this money — something that would be necessary to make it a criminal act. Further testimony is not expected until July. Olmert’s lawyers have said they were confident that they could rebut the businessman’s testimony at that time. But the firm revelation of this conduct, and its unsavory appearance, are enough to have undone Olmert’s position.

While earlier solicitations appear to have been for political campaigns, starting with Olmert’s campaign (Olmert was then a member of the Likud Party) to become mayor of Jerusalem in 1991-92, replacing Teddy Kolleck, the businessman said that Olmert increasingly requested money for his own personal expenses – a $25,000 vacation in Italy, or upgrading of his airlines reservations from business to first class, or his hotel rooms to suites, and so forth – rather than for campaign purposes.
Olmert liked luxury, and to live well, the businessman told the Court on Monday: “I only know that he loved expensive cigars. I know he loved pens, watches. I found it strange,” then shrugged.
Olmert also asked for the money as loans, the businessman testified Monday – but, these “loans” were never repaid, the businessman said.

In advance of the 2003 primaries, the businessman said, Olmert asked him for $72,500 – a sum that the businessman said he paid. It was the last payment he was willing to make, he testified.

Perhaps most damning, the businessman told the Court that Olmert asked for the money to be given in cash – a way of avoiding banking and reporting controls. On at least one occasion, the businessman paid with his own credit card a $4,700 hotel bill run up by Olmert – which would also not show up on any monitoring of such transactions.

And, Olmert apparently did wrote letters and otherwise intervened on behalf of Talansky’s various business interests, though Talansky testified that he had not specifically asked Olmert specifically to do so.

It is revealing, however, to see the amount of time Olmert was willing to devote to whether or not a hotel would conclude a contract for his patron’s mini-bars, rather than to other more pressing affairs of state.

Olmert has, for example, exhibited a curious, if perhaps overtly political, lack of leadership in significant matters affecting the country – including his non-intervention in emotional calls for revenge and retaliation that threatened an East Jerusalem family, and the country’s ethnic relations, after the attack on a nationalist yeshiva in which 8 students and the apparent assailant were killed.

Talansky said he was only invited to one reception given by the Prime Minister – but never to his home. But, he said he did receive a very nice 70th birthday card, and was also invited, at the last minute, to attend Olmert’s address to the U.S. Congress — and to attend Olmert’s son’s wedding.

In addition, Talansky said, he would visit Olmert during his trips:”Whenever [Olmert’s assistant] Shula told him I was here, no matter what, he would always come out and greet me. A hug, a big hug. He hugged me”.

According to pool reports by members of the Foreign Press Association who were assigned to cover the Court testimony, Talansky said he looked at Olmert as a man who “could accomplish a great deal…as a man who hopefully would build the city (as Mayor of Jerusalem)”, and heal the divisions.
The FPA pool report said that “Talansky talked about how Israel not priority for American Jewry, [about] giving money to hospitals and to concerts and [about] you have to pay people to come like Birthright and they don’t care so much…He appreciated Olmert’s ‘ability to articulate, his ability to reach out to the American people, the largest and richest community of Jews in the world and we are losing them at the fastest rate you can imagine. And that’s why I supported him. That’s why I gave it to him. That’s why I supported the man, that’s why I overlooked frankly and honestly, a lot of things. I overlooked them, maybe I shouldn’t have, but I overlooked them’.”

If Olmert resigns, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is positioned to replace him both as Kadima Party leader and as Prime Minister. Livni has been Israel’s most popular politician in polls over the past year,and has been Deputy Prime Minister for as least as long. Her call on Olmert to resign last year, after initial findings of the Winograd Commission about poor leadership during Israel’s “Second Lebanon War”, was brushed aside at the time with some irritation by Olmert. Her opponents — and some of her supporters — called on her to resign. To keep her busy, Olmert named her to head the Israeli negotiations team after the launch of the Annapolis Process whose aim is to make substantial progress towards the creation of a Palestinian State by the end of U.S. President George Bush’s term of office in January 2009.

If Olmert resigns and Livni takes over, there may not necessarily be early elections, at least not in the immediate future.

However, if he resists this call, defections from the current government will make early elections inevitable, even if Olmert could conceivably patch together a new coalition from various groups including the left wing Meretz party, who just may be persuaded to cooperate if it would otherwise mean a collapse of the current peace negotiations which Meretz supports and wishes would progress even faster.

Likud opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu — who opposes the whole Annapolis Process because it is supposedly stacked against Israel but who is credited with significant modernization of Israel’s economy — will be one of the principal beneficiaries of any call for early elections as a result of the current turmoil in Israeli politics.

It will be interesting to see What Barak himself will do now. It is not clear that he would throw his hat into the ring, at least immediately, if early elections are called. He may well position himself above the coming fray. As is, as Defense Minister, he exercises nearly complete control over all decisions affecting Israel’s security — a position that has been reinforced during Olmert’s term in office as a concession to keep Barak in line. Olmert recently has stated publicly that the Defense Minister effectively rules the occupied West Bank, and this has also given Barak a veto over whether or not Israel implements any part of the Roadmap is implemented — something which is said to be essential for successsful conclusion of the current peace process. Barak may be happy to remain, as he is at the moment, the major power broker in Israeli politics.

Meantime, both Syria and the Palestinian Authority have suggested that they fear Olmert’s troubles will affect the peace processes…