Dion Nissenbaum
McClatchy News
November 27, 2007 - 1:35pm

The clock is winding down on yet another U.S. president who's trying to broker an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has outlasted 10 of his predecessors and will be 60 years old on May 14, Israel's 60th birthday.

The Bush administration has left the issue on the back burner for six years to concentrate on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has now invited Arab, Israeli and world leaders for a day of Middle East peace talks in Annapolis, Md., on Tuesday.

Rice and President Bush hope at least to build a launching pad for negotiations to end the conflict that's central to many of the region's problems, including international terrorism.

Past peace conferences have sketched the outlines of a deal, but it's unclear whether Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas can muster enough political muscle and courage to reach a permanent agreement that would anger many of their constituents and inflame their enemies.

In this case, however, the devil isn't in the details of an agreement to establish an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, with the capitals of both in Jerusalem. It's in the four big issues that remain unresolved despite years of grudging compromises by both sides on lesser issues. The biggest issues are:


The starting point for defining the border between Israel and a Palestinian state are the June 4, 1967, armistice lines that were set after Israel won control of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai and the Golan Heights in the Six-Day War.

The first focal point will be the so-called Green Line, which divides Israel and the West Bank, but the future boundaries are more likely to be determined by what former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called "facts on the ground."

The most compelling fact on the ground is a 430-mile network of concrete walls and electronic fencing that the Israelis are building in the West Bank. Rather than following the Green Line, the so-called "separation barrier" carves deep into Palestinian territory to envelop sprawling Jewish settlements such as Ariel and Maale Adumim.

When it's finished, the barrier is expected to take in about 10 percent of the West Bank land. There's an implicit understanding that Israel will offer the Palestinians a comparable amount of land in exchange.

A border agreement, however, would require the Israelis to make a painful and divisive decision to evict thousands of hard-line Jewish settlers from deep inside the West Bank. Israel did that in the Gaza Strip two years ago, but Gaza has little or no historical, theological or emotional significance to Israelis, while the West Bank is rich in all three.

In exchange for keeping some of the largest Jewish settlements, Israel is likely to agree to let the Palestinians control a narrow, 20-mile strip of land through southern Israel between the West Bank and Gaza. Israel also would likely be willing to cede some land in the Negev desert.

An agreement on the boundaries of a future Palestinian state, however, would still leave Israel's border with Syria unresolved. In exchange for signing a peace treaty with Israel, Syria is demanding the return of the Golan Heights, the lush, hilly region above the Sea of Galilee. Israel, however, annexed the area in 1981 and has shown no interest in surrendering it: A current ad for Israeli tourism features an Israeli rancher on the Golan.


It may be easier to draw hundreds of miles of Israeli-Palestinian border than it would be to decide the future of a single city.

It's assumed that a Palestinian state would claim Jerusalem as its capital. Israel claims that now, but the United States and other nations don't recognize it and keep their embassies in Tel Aviv.

The basic formula would place Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian control and Jewish neighborhoods under Israeli control. But because many Jewish and Arab neighborhoods are intertwined, carving up the city could make Jerusalem look like a poorly gerrymandered political district.

But the issues get tougher and the compromises more difficult the closer you get to the heart of Jerusalem, the walled Old City, which houses some of the most sacred ground in Christianity, Islam and Judaism and which was Arab territory until the 1967 war.

Israeli leaders had been poised to accept a deal that would have given Palestinians oversight, but not full control, of the Old City's Muslim Quarter and parts of its Armenian Quarter, leaving the Christian and Jewish Quarters under Israeli control.

The two sides, however, have never been able to agree on what to do about the 35 acres at the heart of the Old City known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif (Holy Sanctuary) and to Jews as the Temple Mount.

Past negotiations have suggested that the Palestinians have at least temporary oversight of the site that holds the golden Dome of the Rock and al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in the world for Muslims.

But Israel has been reluctant to agree to a deal because the site is considered the most holy spot for Jews because it held the first two Jewish Temples, which were destroyed by the city's Babylonian and Roman rulers. It's also supposed to be the future site of the Third Jewish Temple, the construction of which is supposed to signal the arrival of the Messiah.

Another point of contention is Israeli control of the Western Wall, the towering retaining wall below the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary, and the plaza in front of it where Jews come to pray. It's generally accepted that Israel will retain control over the Western Wall, but the two sides have never agreed on how wide the area should be.

One possible compromise would be the creation of an independent force to oversee the entire Old City and adjacent holy sites, including portions of the Mount of Olives that overlook the old city.


More than 4.4 million Palestinian refugees are living in political limbo — often still in refugee camps — around the world. Many are descendents of Palestinians who fled their homes in what's now Israel, and their fate is one of the most important and challenging issues for Arab leaders.

Israel is opposed to allowing Palestinians to return to Israel, a migration that would threaten the country's status as a majority Jewish nation, and it's generally accepted that few, if any, Palestinians will be allowed a "right of return" to what's now Israel. At best, Israel seems prepared to allow only a token number of returnees.

Instead, a peace deal probably would allow Palestinian refugees to settle in the new Palestinian state or continue their lives in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Persian Gulf and elsewhere. International donors most likely would be called upon to compensate refugees who couldn't return to their family homes.


Israel, only about the size of New Jersey, has lived its entire life in a state of hot or cold war with its much larger Arab neighbors, and Israelis are reluctant to accept a well-armed Palestinian nation next door.

A deal likely would support the creation of a limited Palestinian military with a restricted supply of defensive weapons. Israel also has pushed for continued military posts in the Jordan Valley that could alert its leaders to any possible attack from the east. The posts eventually would be withdrawn, though the two sides have never agreed on how quickly.

It's also possible, perhaps likely, that an international force would be established to oversee the security deal, although Israelis have been unimpressed by such a United Nations force in Lebanon.

Check out the latest from the Middle East in Nissenbaum's blog, "Checkpoint Jerusalem":


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