Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
July 14, 2010 - 12:00am

In the upbeat atmosphere after their recent meeting in Washington, the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, and President Obama expressed hopes of an imminent resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and of achieving a peace deal — within a year, according to Mr. Netanyahu, or in Mr. Obama’s case, before the end of his term.

There has been vague talk in Washington about a narrowing of gaps in the weeks since the indirect, American-brokered negotiations started in May.

But back on home turf, with no evidence of political progress, the mood seems less sanguine, even contradictory, as Palestinian officials and analysts suggest that the so-called proximity talks have merely accentuated the deep and abiding differences between the sides.

“It is clear that Mr. Netanyahu is playing for time,” said Khalil Shikaki, a prominent Palestinian political analyst in the West Bank. “He knows that anything he has to say has already been long, long passed by.”

Little has been revealed about the content of the indirect discussions, mediated by Mr. Obama’s Middle East envoy, George J. Mitchell. But the impression gained from a series of public statements and private conversations with officials and analysts over the past few weeks is that they have largely been taking place on parallel tracks.

The Palestinians said they wanted to focus on borders and security in the four months that were budgeted for the talks. Israel said it had focused on the water issue in one of the early rounds.

This month, as the proximity talks approached their halfway mark, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said that the Palestinians had submitted their positions to Mr. Mitchell in full. “We have yet to hear any response on any issue, including borders,” he said.

Israeli officials said they were not willing to define a border until they received clear answers from the Palestinians about the nature of the state they intend to establish on the other side.

“Will it be demilitarized?” asked one Israeli official who was not authorized to discuss details of the proximity talks publicly. “Will it accept Israel as a Jewish state? These are the questions we will be raising.”

The Palestinians have skirted the issue of demilitarization and consistently rejected demands to recognize the Jewish character of Israel.

A senior Israeli minister, Dan Meridor, recently told reporters that it would be “very risky” for Israel to fix borders and leave other major issues unresolved. Specifically, he said, Israel cannot agree on borders before ensuring that the solution to the Palestinian refugee issue lies not in Israel, but on the other side of the lines.

Adding to the discord, Mr. Erekat recently raised a new bar for the start of direct talks. Alongside the longstanding demand for a complete freeze in settlement building, including in East Jerusalem, which the Israelis have refused, Mr. Erekat said talks should start from the point at which the last direct negotiations, between the Palestinians and the previous, centrist Israeli government, left off in December 2008.

He also said that Mr. Netanyahu should state his readiness to recognize a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines.

Both these positions are deemed unacceptable by Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative-dominated governing coalition. Yet the Palestinians seem open to entering direct talks, and have been careful not to set firm preconditions.

The basis for direct talks is likely to be Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s carefully shaped formula of last November. She said she believed that the two sides, through negotiations, could reconcile “the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.”

Mrs. Clinton’s statement came soon after Mr. Netanyahu announced a partial, 10-month moratorium in new Israeli residential building in the West Bank. Mr. Netanyahu has been generally cagey about whether he will ask his government to extend the moratorium beyond its Sept. 26 deadline. Officials said that Mr. Netanyahu discussed other confidence-building measures with Mr. Obama, to be carried out either in the prelude to, or during, direct talks.

Mr. Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, made a far-reaching proposal in late 2008 to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. It included an Israeli withdrawal from 93.5 percent of the West Bank, with land swaps and a safe route for Palestinian travel between Gaza and the West Bank making up the other 6.5 percent of the land area that Israel won in 1967.

Those talks ended with Israel’s military campaign against Gaza, which is run by the militant group Hamas. Mr. Olmert says he never heard back from Mr. Abbas.

Mr. Erekat disputes that version, insisting that Mr. Abbas made a counteroffer. Addressing an Israeli audience at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University in May, Mr. Erekat produced a map that he said Mr. Olmert received, allowing for Israeli annexation of 1.9 percent of the West Bank in return for an equitable land exchange. After 16 years of an intermittent peace process, the sides do not yet agree on which settlement blocs Israel would retain.

In the next round of direct talks, the sides are likely to confront a more fundamental divide.

Mr. Netanyahu has put a premium on a security-based process in which Israeli security needs are a prerequisite for any agreement. As the Israeli official put it, “The two are intertwined.”

The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs , a conservative-leaning research institute, recently published a study seeking to identify Israel’s minimum security requirements, especially in light of the thousands of rockets that landed in its territory after its withdrawals from Gaza and Lebanon.

Moshe Yaalon, a former army chief of staff and now a vice prime minister, wrote the introduction. He described the study as a “corrective” to the widely held notion that peace requires Israel to withdraw to the “perilous” 1967 lines, denying Israel strategic depth against rocket and other attacks.

Mr. Yaalon and other authors invoked the principles of the Allon Plan, an Israeli proposal from the late 1960s that envisioned Israel’s maintaining control of the Jordan Valley, on the eastern border with Jordan, and other strategically significant chunks of the West Bank.

Dore Gold, the president of the center for public affairs and a former foreign policy adviser to Mr. Netanyahu, said the new approach was not about percentage points of land swaps.

“Let’s start with security and then put in diplomacy,” Mr. Gold said.

It is not clear to what extent the study reflects Mr. Netanyahu’s thinking. The prime minister has been careful not to stake out his own territorial goals.

But he has stated that Israel must retain a presence in the Jordan Valley, on the eastern side of any Palestinian state, to serve as a vital strategic buffer and to prevent the smuggling of weapons into the West Bank.


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