Charles Levinson
The Wall Street Journal
May 21, 2010 - 12:00am

Palestinian negotiators have surprised Washington with a bold opening offer to White House peace envoy George Mitchell that includes concessions on territory beyond those offered in past Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, according to officials briefed on the current negotiations.

The Palestinians' unexpected offer has been greeted warily in Israel and by some members of the Obama administration, according to these officials. Palestinians believe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has no intention of reaching a peace deal and thus may have calculated they can make generous offers without having to worry about following through, these officials said.

Mr. Netanyahu, who met with Mr. Mitchell for three hours on Thursday morning, hasn't yet offered proposals that address the most sensitive core issues of the conflict, such as borders, refugees, and the status of Jerusalem, according to senior Israeli officials.

Instead, Israeli negotiators have focused the first two rounds of talks on more peripheral issues, such as water rights, which Israeli officials said is a more practical starting point because there is a higher likelihood of reaching agreement with the Palestinians.

Water, while technically considered one of the conflict's four core issues, doesn't evoke the same heated passions among Israelis and Palestinians.

"In the framework of these talks, we are ready for the discussion of core issues, but from our point of view water is a win-win topic that can make a real difference in people's lives," said a senior Israeli official close to the negotiations.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, while declining to comment on what was discussed privately with Mr. Mitchell, said the Palestinians were pursuing a peace deal in good faith and looking to conclude an agreement as rapidly as possible.

"We are not going to waste Mitchell's time," Mr. Erekat said. "We want Mr. Mitchell to succeed because his success is our freedom."

Israel told Mr. Mitchell it may consider offering some confidence-building measures to the Palestinians, Mr. Netanyahu's office said in a statement. The statement said Palestinians must make reciprocal gestures, including stopping calls for the international community to isolate and boycott Israel.

The statement singled out Palestinian lobbying against Israel's acceptance earlier this month into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the world economic body.

"Israel expects the Palestinian leadership to work toward creating a positive atmosphere in the talks and not to conduct international activities against Israel," the statement said.

Palestinians told Mr. Mitchell they are prepared to match offers that they made to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during peace negotiations in 2008, and may be willing to double the amount of West Bank land to be included in a land swap, according to the officials briefed on the negotiations.

According to Israeli and Palestinian accounts of the 2008 one-on-one talks, Mr. Abbas offered Mr. Olmert an exchange of 1.9% of West Bank land for an equal amount of Israeli territory. Mr. Olmert countered with a proposed swap of a much larger amount of land. The new Palestinian offer would still fall short of matching the amount of land offered by Mr. Olmert.

In talks with Mr. Mitchell on Wednesday, the officials briefed on the negotiations said, Mr. Abbas also raised the idea of deploying an international force in the West Bank to help enforce any final agreement. Mr. Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator, denied that. Israel has historically opposed such a force, fearing that it would limit Israel's room to maneuver in response to perceived threats.


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