"Direct" talks on life support as Israeli settlement "moratorium" nears end

Just hours before the Israeli unilaterally-declared settlement “moratorium” expires on 26 September, the U.S. and the parties involved are looking for a way to keep the talks going.

U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State [Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs] Jeffrey Feltman told reporters in New York on Friday, where world leaders are still hanging around the margins of the UN General Assembly, that “Yes, we are urging Israel to extend the moratorium. Yes. And we also are making clear to the Palestinians that we do not believe that it is in their interest to walk out of the talks. We do not believe that it helps them achieve their national goals if they would walk out of the talks. But we – but at this point, we are urging both sides to create the atmosphere that is most conducive to reaching a successful conclusion for negotiation and for both sides to take the negotiation process seriously … [W]e we want to see a two-state solution that’s an anchor for comprehensive peace. The best way to get to a two-state solution is through negotiations. The Palestinians and the Israelis have started a serious process. It is a process that is not going to be without difficulties. The gaps on some issues are quite wide. But it’s nevertheless the – a promising way for the Palestinians to achieve their goal of statehood, for the Palestinians to have a state that they can call their own”.

Asked by a journalist if “it’s counterproductive for every time Abbas sees something that he doesn’t like to walk out of the talks”, Feltman replied: “We don’t think either side should be using the threat to walk out to interrupt a process that has the promise of bringing Israel security and bringing the Palestinians a state”.

Feltman indicated that the U.S. is looking forward to a special meeting of the Arab League on 9 October. He noted that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is meeting the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem on Monday, shortly after a visit from U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell to Damascus. Feltman said in the briefing that “Our view is that these tracks can reinforce each other. If we can get momentum going on all the tracks, it becomes mutually reinforcing. And the Palestinians have told us that they would be very supportive of having a Syria track as well. This idea that you had back in the ‘90s of one track competing with the other no longer seems to prevail. Everyone recognizes the fact that going forward together is actually – has positive benefits on – for the various tracks”.

However, the U.S. is also looking for Arab financial support for the Palestinian Authority [PA], which has already soaked up billions of dollars and euros of donor money — all PA salaries, in each and every department of every ministry, and down to the last policeman, is paid through donor funding. All the new restaurants and bars in Ramallah – and all the dry cleaners who take care of the employees business suits purchased in new boutiques in Ramallah — being financed by external financial support.

Feltman said that “we would hope that the Arab summit on October 9th would show that the Arabs remain committed to the Arab Peace Initiative and show that the Arabs continue to support President Abbas and the PLO in the negotiating track. It was essential, in our view, that Arab support of President Abbas was essential to starting the direct talks that we have now. We would hope that that would continue. We also hope that the Arabs would continue and expand what’s essential support for the Palestinian Authority, because the institution-building pillar of Middle East Peace is absolutely essential. You need to have institutions that are credible, that function, that the Palestinian state will have upon its creation. So part of what we hope the Arabs will do is continue and expand their financial support for the Palestinian Authority“.

Feltman did observe that “What I sense is that the Israeli and Palestinian delegations are looking for ways to make sure the talks continue beyond Sunday. That’s how I feel (inaudible) based on the meetings we’ve had here. And I also get the sense from the meetings that I have had bilaterally with various Arab as well as international officials that the region and the international community are also looking to find ways to make sure that the talks continue”…

Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak — who is the effective ruler of the West Bank, under the present Israeli system of government — has reportedly delayed his departure from New York in order to facilitate contacts.

Meanwhile, Israel’s former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is apparently lobbying for ideas he presented to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas two years ago to be considered in a continuation of the talks.

(Olmert has apparently just gone public with insults to Barak [who also served as his Defense Minister]. The JPost quotes an article about Olmert’s new memoirs, published in another newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, as saying “Olmert called Barak ‘a disappointing defense minister’, ‘an obsessive talker’, ‘insulting, blunt, and rude’, and ‘lacking decision- making capability’.” This is reported here.)

Coinciding with the publication of the memoirs, the Jerusalem Post has published an opinion piece written by Olmert, in which he said: “In my opinion, the issue of the building freeze at the settlements is marginal. The US administration made it a central issue, and the Palestinian leadership had to follow suit. As a result, the entire region and the US – as a central player in shaping the political arena of the Middle East – have been preoccupied with an issue whose success or failure will not really influence the diplomatic process in our region”.

Olmert also wrote that “the government of Israel can and must re-focus discussion on the core issues of dispute between us and the Palestinians. The issues that will determine the fate of the negotiations are not those of continued building or a freeze in the territories. There is no point wasting energy and creative thought on how to somehow both cancel the freeze and maintain it, as it seems to me is being attempted”.

Olmert called on the current Israeli government to take a “clear stance” on the “five central issues that will ultimately determine the results of the talks”, which he lists as:
“1) The question of borders – or what will be the scope of the Israeli withdrawal from the territories, and will that withdrawal include parts of Jerusalem?
2) What will be the status of the non-Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem, and will those neighborhoods – including Sheikh Jarrah, for example – ultimately be the Palestinian capital?
3) The status of the Holy Basin. Will the sides be prepared to decide that the Holy Basin will be overseen by an international trusteeship and will not be a sovereign part of either the State of Israel or the state of Palestine?
4) A solution to the refugee problem. Will the Palestinian leadership and that of the government of Israel agree that the framework for discussion of this sensitive issue is the Arab peace initiative, which is in any case part of the road map that is accepted by both sides?
5) Will the Palestinians be prepared to respect Israel’s security needs according to the eight points that were drafted in the past by the Israeli government with the agreement of the American administration – all this based on the assumption that there will be agreement on borders based on the 1967 lines?” This Op-Ed piece signed by Olmert can be read in full here.

Apparently, the current Israeli formulation, mentioned here by Olmert, of solving the Palestinian refugee issue in the framework of the “Arab Peace Initiative” involved a large-scale settlement of those refugees currently living in Arab countries…

Another Jerusalem Post story reported a “source close to Olmert told the Jerusalem Post that ‘Olmert’s reference to an international trusteeship in the Holy Basin, which “will not be a sovereign part of either the State of Israel or the state of Palestine”, would involve Israel relinquishing sovereignty at the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. “There would be complete and unlimited access for all believers – of course, for Jews – to these sites. Basically”, the source said, “this would represent a maintenance of the status quo, but under international trusteeship … This was part of his proposal for a permanent accord with the Palestinians”, the source said [n.b. – this apparently refers to the unpublished Olmert proposal in September 2008 during the Annapolis process of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations]. The trusteeship proposed to Abbas constituted Israel, the Palestinian state, the US, Saudi Arabia and Jordan’.” This is reported here .

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