The Terms for a Middle-East Accord
By Ehud Olmert
The direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are now getting under way. It is widely agreed that these talks are critical. A delay or a collapse in the talks is likely to cause grave difficulties that will impact the stability of the entire Middle East. I share the high expectations for the talks, and the concerns over a possible failure.
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.
Theoretically, in the current situation, neither of the sides can give in. If the prime minister of Israel announces the extension of the building freeze, he might jeopardise his government’s stability when negotiations have still not reached a substantial level. If the Palestinian president capitulates, and agrees to negotiate even if the freeze is cancelled, he will be vulnerable to insufferable pressure from extreme factors in the Palestinian community.
Furthermore, many in the international community support the demand for a building freeze.
How then to prevent the collapse of the talks before they have barely begun? In my opinion, 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.
There are five central issues that will ultimately determine the results of the talks.
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 neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, and will those neighbourhoods – 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?
Israel can and must re-focus discussion on the core issues of dispute with the Palestinians.
In my opinion, Israel, in the blink of an eye, can transform the atmosphere surrounding the talks if it takes a clear stance on these issues and presents them as its position for the negotiations. If it does so, it will be able to avoid confrontation on the issue of the building freeze, which is marginal when compared to the critical questions that will shape the fate of the negotiations.
The writer is the former prime minister of Israel.Filed under: Opinion