"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 private] 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.

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”.

PA Minister says there are Jordanian-Palestinian discussions about cooperation in Jerusalem

Palestinian Authority Minister of Information Riyad al-Maliki, who holds also the portfolios of Justice and Foreign Affairs, told members of the Foreign Press Association in Israel on Thursday that he had bilateral talks recently with the Jordanian Foreign Minister, Dr. Salaheddin Bachir (SP?) over two days – “our first official bilateral talks since we each took office, though we’ve met in other different fora, as a result of the positive relationship that exists at all levels in the Jordanian-Palestinian relationship”.

Al-Maliki said: “We want to cooperate bilaterally at all levels – particularly concerning the situation in Jerusalem”. Al-Maliki also mentioned the Israeli excavations around the Western Wall, which are nearby and under Al-Aqsa Mosque.

On the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, al-Maliki said: “We haven’t seen any change in any Israeli attitude. Instead, the number of incursions have increased, and the number of people detained has increased. If there is any change, it is one of considerable regression…We are totally disappointed. So far, we did not conclude any issue or sub-issue. So, here we have a serious problem.

“We are under tremendous pressure by two factors:
(1) from our own people, who are asking why we still believe in the approach of peaceful negotiations. We told them there will be peace dividends, but so far there is not a single one. Our people ask why? We, as the Palestinian leadership, must retain the backing of or own people, and to retain this, we have to deliver something to them.
(2) from the external Arab world. Since 2002, an Arab peace initiative has been on the table, and it was reiterated again in the Riyadh summit last year. Now, the Arab governments are asking how long should this be left on the table. At the last meeting of Arab Foreign Ministers they put tremendous pressure on us. They said our negotiations should be connected to Israel’s beginning to implement its obligations under the Road Map. Our President, Mahmoud Abbas, himself attended the Foreign Ministers’ meeting to convince them to go to the Annapolis Conference, and they agreed on condition that the settlement activities cease. Sixteen Arab countries attended – and settlement activity has only increased. Now, the Arabs are asking to reconsider, re-open, and re-discuss the entire Arab strategy, and our commitment to the Arab strategy for peace.

“On 24 April, our President will meet President Bush and explain to him this bleak picture, and will ask him clearly for American intervention. Then, in the next meeting (in May) in Sharm ash-Sheikh, we will hear a strong demand for real American intervention to salvage what was agreed in Annapolis”.

Al-Maliki said that he expects that U.S. Lt. General William Fraser’s recently completed report (on the actions of each side to comply with Phase I obligations of the Road Map) will soon be submitted by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to the members of the Quartet (U.S., E.U., Russia, and the UN), at a meeting in London on 2 May.

The Palestinian Authority Minister added: “If there was any direct positive outcome of Annapolis, it was the agreement on a trilateral security arrangement, which took the job of evaluating progress away from the Israelis, and gave it to the Americans. The Israeli attitude is totally biased toward us in terms of security.”

Now, Al-Maliki said, the Palestinians would like to see a similar third-party monitoring mechanism for the post-Annapolis negotiations: “We want to see a real (American) commitment in terms of time, effort, and high-level intervention, so that Israel will move forward with the negotiations and change its attitude. We need a monitoring mechanism to assess progress in the negotiations by a third party, who will judge whether there is progress or lack of it”.

As Palestinian President Abbas visited Moscow, al-Maliki said in Jerusalem that “the main aim of the (proposed) Moscow conference (in mid-June) is to evaluate what has happened since Annapolis”.

But, Israel is not inclined to support the Moscow conference, and it still insists – as Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said recently in Doha – that “The talks are bilateral only”.

Al-Maliki insisted that all Israel-Gaza crossings should be opened under the management of the Palestinian Authority (and not of Hamas). Regarding the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, al-Maliki said that “We have entrusted Egypt to use its good offices to open Rafah according to the formula that has existed since November 2005.” This is the agreement on movement and access negotiated by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice who stayed up all night — and on her birthday — to achieve, after the then-President of the World Bank, James Wolfenson, failed.

Al-Maliki gave the impression that the main reason the PA was insisting on retaining an unchanged version of this November 2005 agreement on movement and access was that it stipulated that Palestinian Presidential Guards (again, read: not Hamas) would be in charge on the Gazan side of the crossing.

However, the November 2005 agreement on movement and access also has other benefits: it also calls for a transportation link between Gaza and the West Bank; it says that construction of a seaport at Gaza “can commence”; and it notes that the parties agree on “the importance of the airport” in Gaza – which is at the south-eastern corner of the Gaza Strip, very near the Kerem Shalom crossing that Israel has wanted to favor.

At least at Erez crossing there is already a somewhat mysterious Palestinian coordination outpost, in a sort of a trailer with a porch, whose staff say they report to the Palestinian Authority Civil Affairs Ministry in Ramallah, and who clearly enjoy reasonable cooperation with the IDF coordination at the Erez Terminal.  Hamas police were noticed observing a fixed distance, as marked by large bolders painted with the word “Police”, and they did not proceed past that point.