"Either you give us the Jordan Valley, or we'll take it!"

Muhammad Shtayyah, member of the Palestinian Negotiations team, told journalists in the West Bank village of Dura al-Qarya’ today that in direct Israeli-Palestinian talks sponsored by Jordan in Amman earlier this year, the Israeli delegation told the Palestinians straight-out: “Either you give us the Jordan Valley, or we’ll take it”.

He scoffed, with a laugh, when asked if the Israeli position wasn’t more nuanced. “It was exactly like that” — and in those words, he said.

According to reports in the Israeli media, Israeli envoys expressed some perhaps-ironic regret for the usual Palestinian negotiator, Dr. Saeb Erekat, saying they missed him.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said last August that Israeli demands for the Jordan Valley were a main stumbling block in the negotiations, as we reported here.

Negotiations have restarted fitfully, and without any progress, two or three times after the point where some new proposals were made by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in September 2008 [who soon resigned when under investigation for corruption charges]. The Palestinian leadership then broke off negotiations at the end of December 2008, when Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, a massive three-week military operation in Gaza that was purportedly aimed at Hamas targets [which were seen everywhere]… Under the Obama Administration, two attempts to restart direct talks were grudgingly attended by an unsatisfied Palestinian delegation. Both attempts ended abruptly when new Israeli settlement building was announced — though the U.S. continues to say that it’s aim is to get the two sides to reengage.
A third set of meetings, which the Palestinians did not want to acknowledge as negotiations and which they said they attended only out of courtesy, was held in Amman earlier this year, and led to a formal exchange of letters between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.

Dr. Shtayyah [his name can be spelled a number of different ways in English, including Ishtayya] was elected to the Fatah Central Committee in its last General Conference in Bethlehem in August 2009, after which he was obliged to relinquish his post of Minister of Planning. He is still the head [apparently at ministerial-level] of the Palestinian Economic Commission for Reconstruction and Development, PECDAR, set up at the start of the Oslo process in 1993, and is also an advisor to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

He was the Palestinian negotiator in direct contacts with Israeli envoys in Amman over a period of weeks, earlier this year. These talks were held at the invitation of Jordan’s King Abdullah II, with active American encouragement. Jordanian officials acted as facilitators, and American and Quartet envoys were also present.

In 2003-4, the U.S. reportedly objected strongly, in private meetings, to Israel’s plans to extend The Wall down the length of the Jordan Valley.

But, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has recently openly stated Israel’s position that it would be necessary, for Israel’s security, to maintain a security presence along the Jordan River which is the boundary between the West Bank and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has publicly complained about the Netanyahu position on the need for Israel to maintain a long-term security presence in the Jordan Valley.

Shtayyah said, “We asked the Israelis, ‘What are you afraid of?'” And, he said, “Israel told us they don’t trust Jordan”.
[note: ironic joke…]

Israel has consistently expressed — in public at least — great confidence in the peace treaties it has concluded with Jordan [in 1994] as well as earlier with Egypt [in 1979].

Shtayyah told this reporter that the Palestinian leadership believes there should only be Palestinian and Jordanian forces on the border between the West Bank and Jordan. He also said that Jordanian officials told Palestinian negotiators that they fully agree with this position.

“But”, he added, “we don’t know exactly what the Jordanians say [in phrivate] to others”.

Israel was a full UN member state within a year of independence (but Jordan was made to wait)

Israel was admitted to the UN in May 1949, one year and a couple of days after its declaration of independence as the last British troops pulled out of what had been, for over 25 years, the Palestine Mandate.

Jordan was not admitted to the UN until late in 1955. The Soviet Union opposed its admission because the Western Powers refused to admit each of the Soviet republics separately (which would have given the Soviet Union a big bloc of votes in the UN).
The U.S.S.R. also said that it did not regard the Hashemite Kingdom as being sufficiently independent from Britain.

However, Israeli and Jordanian troops were nose-to-nose all along the UN-brokered armistices lines.

Imagine how it did not improve communications to have Israel a full UN member state, and Jordan refused membership…

It was not until 1955 that a deal was made, whereby just two Soviet Republics (in addition to the USSR) would get a seat and full membership in the world body, the major international organization — and in exchange a group of other states (including Jordan…and Ireland) were also given full membership at the same time.

Haaretz’s Barak Ravid reported today that “The [Israeli] Foreign Ministry has asked senior European Union officials to renew the process of upgrading Israel’s relations with the organization, in view of the renewal earlier this month of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority”. This is posted here.

OBAMA interview with NPR: Israel should take U.S. interests into account

The new U.S. President Barack H. Obama said during an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) show hosts Michele Norris (of NPR’s All Things Considered program) and Steve Inskeep (of NPR’s Morning Edition) that: “Part of being a good friend is being honest. And I think there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory, in the region is profoundly negative, not only for Israeli interests but also U.S. interests. And that’s part of a new dialogue that I’d like to see encouraged in the region”.

In other words, Obama would like to see Israel take into consideration U.S. interests, as well as vice versa which has been the normal state of affairs up till now…

The excerpt from the OBAMA interview in which he speaks on this matter can be listened to here.

Obama speaks with Mahmoud Abbas on his first day in White House - 21 Jan 09

In the White House photo, above, Obama is making his first phone call in office to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Speaking about Afghanistan (in advance of his widely-anticipated address to the Muslim world later this week from Egypt, but applicable world-wide) Obama said that “Every time you have civilian casualties, that always complicates things … whether [it’s in] a Muslim or non-Muslim country”.

Israel’s YNet news website reported today that “Speaking to NPR, Obama argued it is in Israel’s best interests to make peace. ‘I believe that strategically, the status quo is unsustainable when it comes to Israel’s security’, Obama said. Over time, in the absence of peace with Palestinians, Israel will continue to be threatened militarily and will have enormous problems on its borders’.” This YNet report can be viewed in full here.

Secretary of State Clinton: There's a great exhalation of breath going on around the world … on Israel-Palestinian situation, We'll be working on a series of short-term obectives, but we'll wait until Mitchell gets back

Here are excerpts from remarks with reporters today by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton: “There’s a great exhalation of breath going on around the world as people express their appreciation for the new direction that’s being set and the team that’s put together by the President to carry out our foreign policy goals. And as I said when I came here last week, you know, we view defense, diplomacy, and development as the three pillars of American foreign policy. That’s not rhetoric. That is our commitment. That’s how we are proceeding”…

President Obama “reserves the right to engage in whatever way he deems best, at whatever time he chooses to further American interests. And clearly, that is not limited to any one country. It is a broad statement of our approach. We are engaged ourselves in a vigorous policy analysis of a number of problems and challenges that we face around the world. And we will be, you know, rolling out ideas and plans as we go forward. The President and I thought it was important that we, as quickly as possible, set forth our policies in the Middle East and Afghanistan and Pakistan, because we knew we wanted to reengage vigorously from the very beginning in the Middle East. And, you know, we chose as an envoy someone who – we have great confidence in his ability to do that. And to carry the message from the President, from myself, from our government that, you know, we’re going to be working on a series of short-term objectives with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but that we remain committed to the long-term objective of a comprehensive peace that provides security in the context of a two-state solution for the Palestinians …

“QUESTION: both you and the President in the wake of the Israeli-Hamas conflict have talked a lot about the plight of Palestinians while recognizing Israel’s right to self-defense, but you’ve put a lot of emphasis on the Palestinian plight. And I was wondering if you think that the Israeli campaign, given the fact that Hamas is still in control of Gaza and still on the ground and not completely decapitated, do you think that that was a counterproductive mission?

“SECRETARY CLINTON: You know, I think we’ve said all we’re going to say about the Israeli-Palestinian situation as we send our envoy out. I think we want to give him the opportunity to listen and bring back his impressions and information. And we are at this moment focused only on the Israel-Palestinian track. And I think it’s important to put the emphasis where it rightly belongs. We have, as I said, some short-term objectives such as a durable ceasefire, which as you know has receded somewhat today because of the offensive action against the IDF along the border. But of course, we’re concerned about the humanitarian suffering. We’re concerned any time innocent civilians, Palestinian or Israeli, are attacked. That’s why we support Israel’s right to self-defense. The rocket barrages, which are getting closer and closer to populated areas, cannot go unanswered. And it’s, you know, regrettable that the Hamas leadership apparently believes that it is in their interest to provoke the right of self-defense instead of building a better future for the people of Gaza. We are supporting the efforts by the Palestinian Authority under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad to try to support the humanitarian efforts. We will participate with our own contributions. The United States is currently the single largest contributor to Palestinian aid, and we will be adding even more because we believe that it’s important to help those who have been damaged and suffering. But again, this is one of those situations that we’re going to await the report of our envoy. I mean, that’s why we chose Senator Mitchell. We have a lot of confidence in his knowledge of the area and his political ear, so you not only hear what people say but what the meaning behind the words might be. So we’re going to wait and let him report back to us about the way forward…”

Tzipi wins Kadima party primary, pushes Olmert to resign

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he would resign after the Kadima party primary, Tzipi Livni said after her win in that primary last week (18 September), so let him resign. And, Livni indicated, Olmert should not wait until 2 October, after the Jewish New Year, as Olmert aides indicated — he should resign ASAP, Livni said.

Olmert’s resignation is expected at or after the weekly Sunday Cabinet meeting today.

The primary exit polls had predicted a much wider margin for Tzipi’s victory (nearly ten points), but she turned out to win by only 1.1% over runner-up Shaul Mofaz. Both Tzipi and Mofaz got more than 40% of the primary vote, so a second round of balloting was not needed.

Mofaz then declined to challenge the results, despite his supporters claims of irregularities — and said he intended to withdraw from politics for a time.

The Associated Press reported that Tzipi said after her win that: ” ‘The national responsibility (bestowed) by the public brings me to approach this job with great reverence’ … Livni will have 42 days to form a new ruling coalition. If she succeeds, she will become Israel’s first female prime minister since Golda Meir. If she fails, the country will hold elections in early 2009, a year and a half ahead of schedule. Olmert will remain as a caretaker leader until a new coalition is approved by parliament. Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said the prime minister called Livni to congratulate her on her victory and would notify the Cabinet on Sunday that he would resign. ‘After that, he will resign’, Regev said … The primary was Kadima’s first since the party was founded by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2005. Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke in early 2006, and Olmert subsequently led the party to victory in elections”. here .

The McClatchy newspaper group’s Dion Nissenbaum wrote that “Livni will have to use her diplomatic acumen to persuade skeptical political adversaries to join her in forming a new coalition government that can lead the nation. If she fails to form a coalition by early November, she’d be forced to lead the Kadima Party in national elections. And polls find her facing a difficult task in topping Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud Party leader and former prime minister, who’s taken a harder line on peace talks with Israel’s adversaries. By choosing Livni over Mofaz, Kadima voters implicitly endorsed the foreign minister’s diplomacy-before-warfare approach to tackling Israel’s biggest concerns: making peace with the Palestinians and neutering Iran’s nuclear program. Should Livni succeed in becoming the next prime minister, she’s expected to press ahead with two of Olmert’s biggest diplomatic gambits: U.S.-backed peace talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and nascent, indirect negotiations with Syria that are being overseen by Turkey. Both tracks face significant hurdles, and there’s a growing sense among politicians and academics in the region that there’ll be no diplomatic breakthroughs until U.S. voters choose a new president”. Dion’s analysis can be read in full here.

An article in Haaretz by Amir Oren stated that “Livni’s first priorty will be to de-Omertize the Kadima party: If she were leading a rock group, we could call it Tzipi and the Expectations [a play on words in Hebrew — see Uri Avnery below]. She is expected to form a nimble yet stable government, broad enough to avert early Knesset elections yet efficient enough to work and to make policy. Her first priority will be to briskly de-Olmertize the party and to purge the rot and corruption at the top of the government. In practice, this should mean the swift exit of Olmert’s crony culture in the Prime Minister’s Office and in the cabinet, starting with Haim Ramon and Daniel Friedmann”. This analysis/comment can be read in Haaretz here.

YNet reported that: “Shas Chairman Eli Yishai, a key potential coalition partner … said he was ‘sure that Livni knows that the public doesn’t care about her victory today, but rather, about her actions tomorrow. The elections are a means, not an end’. Shas’ chairman added that ‘If Livni addresses the issue of a million hungry children and doesn’t give away the country’s assets – with an emphasis on Jerusalem – we’ll be in her government. If not, we won’t be’ … However, Yishai added that certain Kadima members preferred to go to general election. ‘I feel that within Kadima there are those who desire elections. A government cannot be established now. We will be part of the government only if our demands are fulfilled. I don’t believe in the option of a government with 61 MKs. Either there will be a stable government with Shas, or elections’, he said”…

There was some shock when it was announced that Livni had approached Meretz to join the Government. Israeli analyists said that if Meretz would agree, then the government would have to be “balanced” by at least one of the religious parties to make it less “left-wing”. It’s too bad that the Arab parties who are represented in the Knesset have traditionally refused to serve in the government — it would be very interesting to see the country’s lead negotiator in the Annapolis-process peace talks with the Palestinian Authority leading a government in which pro-peace forces dominate, and in which Israel’s “Arab” [i.e. Palestinian] elected parliamentarians would responsibly participate … and help make a negotiated peace possible.

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:

(I.)
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.

(II.)
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.

(III.)
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.

(IV.)
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.

(V.)
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.

US Consul in Jerusalem gives rare interview – causes uproar

The US Consul in Jerusalem Jacob Walles said in an interview with the Palestinian daily paper Al-Ayyam that there has been little observable progress in implementation of Road Map obligations — such as the end to Israeli settlement-building.

But what really caused an uproar was his statement that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice believed that the post-Annapolis direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority was — and should be — conducted on the basis of 1967 borders.

This confirms what Israeli sources who follow their government’s settlement activities closely have said in interviews this past week — that there is strong American pressure on Israel concerning certain areas in and around Jerusalem, and to have a solution fast…

UPDATE: The Jerusalem Post has reported that “Israel conveyed its displeasure to Washington on Thursday over remarks reportedly made by US Consul General Jacob Walles that it had agreed to start negotiations with the Palestinians over Jerusalem. The comments prompted a bitter row among Kadima’s would-be leaders. According to government sources, Walles’s comments, which appeared in the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam, were ‘highly inappropriate’, since there is a US-Palestinian-Israeli agreement not to go public with what is being discussed by the negotiators … Walles said changes to those lines were possible should both sides agree”.

The JPost report added that “Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a Kadima Party meeting at Kfar Hamaccabiah in Ramat Gan on Thursday night that his government was sticking by its position that Jerusalem should be left until the end of the talks. ‘We have achieved significant progress, but we haven’t started the negotiations on Jerusalem yet’, Olmert told a crowd of several hundred party activists and supporters. ‘We said this issue would be handled last, and that is what we’ll do’ … Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, in an interview on Channel 1, said in reference to the Walles comments that ‘what was said was not correct’. [But] She refused to answer when asked whether she thought Israel should control the Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem. After the problematic nature of Walles comments became clear – they contradict what Olmert has been saying for months, and also put Livni, the head of Israel’s negotiating team, in an uncomfortable position facing next week’s Kadima primary – State Department spokesman Sean McCormack issued a clarification. ‘The US government has not taken a position on borders’, the McCormack statement read. ‘While the discussions between the parties are confidential, we can state that the parties have not in any way prejudiced long-held views on borders. A senior US official who participated in the discussions denies that the Israeli side, led by chief negotiator Foreign Minister Livni, has been willing to negotiate concerning Jerusalem. The secretary participated in the negotiations in a way that respected the Israeli position’. During his interview, Walles said that although the goal of the Bush administration was to have a working agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis by the time US President George W. Bush leaves office in January, should that deadline fail to be achieved, all progress made up until that point would pass over to the next administration … Walles also said that Israel had made little progress in removing settlement outposts, and had increased settlement construction since the Annapolis conference last November”

This JPost article can be read in full here .

What did Mahmoud Abbas really say?

IS REUTERS WRONG ON THIS?
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