Khody Akhavi
Inter Press Service (IPS)
April 29, 2008 - 5:12pm

As President George W. Bush races to ink a deal before his term expires in January of next year, disagreements remain over the final-status issues and the territorial integrity of a future Palestinian state. Following the latest round of talks last week in the U.S. capital between President Mahmoud Abbas and Bush, the Palestinian negotiating team appeared pessimistic about any durable prospect for peace, despite assurances from Bush himself to the contrary.

Unable to hide his frustration last Friday, chief Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erakat gave an ominous warning to an audience of journalists: "If we don't have an agreement by 2008, we stand a chance of disappearing," he said.

"The issues are very clear cut and you can't beg peace from anybody. I did not wake up one morning and feel my conscience for the Israeli people suffering to seek negotiations with them, and I don't think they woke up one morning and felt their conscience aching for my suffering," said Erakat.

"[Israelis] know that if they want to continue with the pattern of behaviour of creating facts on the ground, and dictating and negotiating among themselves, and then whisper to me, 'boy, we know what's best for you,' that's not going to work."

He described the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in West Bank, the heart of a future Palestinian state, as one of the main obstacles to achieving a deal.

"On the major issues, we don't need to reinvent the wheel. Throughout the history of man, negotiations, communications, are a reflection of needs, that's it," he said. "If the Israelis have an interest and a need to have peace, they know what it takes. It's a Palestinian state under 1967 borders."

While he supported Bush's vision for a future state, Erakat urged all sides to translate the principles into a realistic political track. "We hope Bush will get used to saying the numbers, 1-9-6-7, because that's how you define Palestine," he said.

Israel has long held the position that it will never return to the borders held before the 1967 war in which it captured the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Arab East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as the capital of a future state.

Abbas' talks in Washington last week underscored more problems: "We heard from the Americans that Israel would not accept the return of Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem would be divided, Israel wants to annex settlement blocs, and so in short, what we are being offered is much less than the 1967 borders," a senior Abbas aide told the Reuters news agency.

After their Thursday meeting, Bush reiterated that a Palestinian state was "a high priority, for me and my administration -- a viable state, a state that doesn't look like Swiss cheese, a state that provides hope."

Still, Erakat said that Bush did not respond directly when Abbas brought up the issue of Palestinian objections to the continuation of Israeli settlement expansion when the two leaders met Thursday.

Erakat said that, even if negotiations between the two sides prove successful, any deal would have to be put to a national public referendum. While the residents of Gaza and the West Bank would vote in this arrangement, the inclusion of other Palestinian refugees in the bordering states of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, in addition to other countries, is unclear. He added that any vote outside the territories would be "pragmatic," and would depend on the "consent of the host countries".

Against the backdrop of regular violence and an escalating humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Erakat described the source of the current Palestinian impasse -- the split between Fatah and the Islamist group Hamas -- as "our worst nightmare since 1967".

The Western-backed government of Abbas' Palestinian Authority rules the West Bank, while Hamas, which seized control of Gaza and rivals Abbas, has not been directly involved in peace negotiations with Israel, whose existence it rejects. In spite of its exclusion, any possible hope for successful peace talks rests on three distinct sets of negotiations: the U.S.-backed Annapolis initiative, negotiations mediated by Egypt to stop Gaza rocket attacks, and an effort to reconcile Fatah with Hamas.

Erakat reiterated that in spite of the internal political conflict, Hamas does not question the Palestine Liberation Organisation's jurisdiction over international negotiations. On the issue of Egypt's role in mediating the crisis in Gaza, Erakat said that Abbas had personally asked Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to intercede with Hamas and other factions in Gaza to stop the rocket attacks, which regularly resulted in Israeli reprisal raids.

"Egyptians are not mediators," said Erakat, emphasising that Cairo's role is limited to the immediate goal of ameliorating the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, not to be expanded to a direct role in negotiations. "The deal: cessation of violence, no shooting by both sides, and lifting the siege," he said.


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