Mitchell due in Israel today – Netanyahu announces big speech coming this week

Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has announced he will make a big speech this week [UPDATE: at the beginning of next week, Netanyahu’s office confirmed this evening.  FURTHER UPDATE: It will be delivered on Sunday at Bar-Ilan University, as Obama’s speech was delivered at Cairo University. And, by the way, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal will also deliver a speech from Damascus in the coming days, which will reportedly come after Netanyahu’s big speech, but which is also supposed to be a response to Obama].  Netanyahu has said he will present Israel’s idea for “peace”.

Maybe it will even be an “initiative”.

Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar has said, as reported earlier here, that the main Israeli objection to the Arab Peace Initiative is its name. 

Yes, really.

Now, after provoking most of the world into a tizzy by [rather recently] refusing to endorse a two-state solution, analysis and multiple leaks to the media suggest that Netanyahu believes he has gotten the American administration to agree to some kind of less-than-state for the Palestinians.  The model mentioned today is Andorra (no longer Hong Kong or Singapore, or even Switzerland).

Netanyahu may want an “initiative” to supersede the 2003 Road Map.

Members of Netanyahu’s new government have spoken against the Road Map, but voices are now being heard extolling the advantages of this document to which former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon affixed some 13 or 14 reservations.

Even though Phase I has not been fulfilled in the six years since the Road Map was launched in 2003, the supposed benefits of Phase II, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian “State” with provisional — not final — borders, are now coming under renewed examination.

(In addition, Phase II also calls for the Palestinian “State” to take its full place in the United Nations, where it is at presented only represented by an “Observer” mission.)

Over the weekend, interesting reports in the Israeli media suggested that Mitchell might push for an immediate designation of “provisional” borders. which would be in accordance with the Road Map’s Phase II (and should therefore accordingly accompany the creation of a Palestinian state), in order to know where settlement activity would be legal or not.

The notion that agreement on borders would clarify settlement activities originated in the Bush administration during the 2008 Annapolis process of negotiations, and was publicly articulated by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezzaa Rice. However, she did not mention “provisional” borders — which is something that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has firmly opposed.

Ma’an News Agency reported that “According to Israeli news reports, the move comes following Israel’s refusal to freeze expansion in illegal West Bank settlements, forcing the US envoy to propose that both sides determine immediately which settlements will remain and which will go.  The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the American proposal was raised in recent weeks following the government of Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to stop construction in the settlements expected to remain inside Israel after an agreement is signed. The settlement blocs Israel is reportedly refusing to stop growth in include Gush Etzion, Alfei Menashe, Ariel, Ma’aleh Adumim and others in and near Jerusalem, according to Haaretz”.  This report can be read in full here.

In January 2001, I was shown, in a ministerial office in Ramallah, a map with three “fingers” of Israeli settlement-building intruding over the green line and into the West Bank. The man who showed me this map suggested that it was these three “fingers” that were key to continuing negotiations. The three “fingers” were at Ariel (near Nablus), and at Ma’ale Adumum (nearly half-way between Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley), and at Gush Etzion.

When I mentioned this to another man working closely with Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah at that time, he shrieked: “No, no, we did not agree to negotiate about Ma’ale Adumim!”   That would be impossible, he said.

Jeremy Pressman (now Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut) wrote in the Boston Review about Dennis Ross’s book, “Lost Opportunities – The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace“, arguing that “In 2002, Barak conceded that he had not envisioned a contiguous Palestinian state at Camp David: ‘The Palestinians were promised a continuous piece of sovereign territory except for a razor-thin Israeli wedge running from Jerusalem through from Maale Adumim to the Jordan River’. This wedge would have cut the West Bank in two. Pressman’s article was published in the December 2004/January 2005 edition of the Boston Review, here.

In December 2003, the “Geneva Initiative” — prepared by some of the Israelis who had advised Ehud Barak as well as those working with Yossi Beilin, on the one hand, and by some of Palestinians and others who had advised Mahmoud Abbas, on the other hand, proposed, for the first time, a one-to-one basis for the swap of any lands between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators. The Geneva Initiative was not explicitly endorsed by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died of a mysterious illness in November 2004, but the Geneva Initiative clearly had Arafat’s “support”.

Today, it is reported that “United States President Barack Obama wants ‘immediate’ talks between the Palestinians and Israel to forge a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement, U.S. envoy George Mitchell said on Monday.  ‘The President has told me to exert all efforts to create the circumstance when the parties can begin immediate discussions’ … Mitchell, who is en route to the Middle East, said the aim of such talks was ‘a comprehensive peace and normalization of relations’ between Israel and its neighbors, which would also serve ‘the security interests of the United States’.”  According to these reports, Mitchell will meet Netanyahu in Israel on Tuesday.

It will be much harder to persuade the Palestinian negotiators to return to the talks — which they formally left during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza — especially as long as the Israeli side is being defiant about settlement activities and coy about a two-state solution [Palestinians are now saying, sarcastically, that the Israelis really want only a state-and-a-half].

Complicating the confusing negotiating positions, some Israeli former officials apparently believe that adherence to the Road Map will ensure Israel’s ability to continue normal expansion of West Bank settlements.

In a recent Op-Ed published on 2 June in the largest Israeli newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, the former Chief of Staff when Ariel Sharon was Prime Mînister, Dov Weisglass, wrote that Israel’s clear acceptance of the Road Map paved the way for unopposed Israeli settlement activities (with only a few conditions…): “The Israeli government has, for some reason, raised doubts about its intentions to implement the Road Map. Consequently, one can understand the American position that, once Israel has abrogated its commitments under the Road Map, Israel can no longer demand ‘rights’ under the Road Map to build within the construction line. The sooner Israel reiterates its commitment to the Road Map the sooner the disagreement with the administration will be resolved. Israel can proceed to delineate the settlements, as formerly agreed, and can justifiably realize its right to build within their perimeters. Reaffirming Israel’s commitments to the Road Map is important not only for the settlement issue but also for preventing the emergence of other peace plans that undermine the Road Map’s logic, namely, that security must first be established before peace. If, God forbid, the new administration would champion such a plan, Israel could remind the current president that his predecessor recently committed to prevent it. President would be pitched against president, and the world will have to decide which had the greater credibility”. This translation of the Weisglass OpEd can be read in full here.

It is not at all clear, however, that Netanyahu would win any such credibility contest.

Further on in his Op-Ed piece, Weisglass gave this interesting historical account: “At the beginning of 2003, Israel submitted its reservations on the Road Map. On Thursday, April 24, 2003, I headed an Israeli delegation to Secretary of State Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, and other senior administration officials. The issue of the settlements, it was decided, would be ‘discussed in a separate forum’. This ‘separate forum’ convened on May 1, 2003 in Jerusalem. Senior administration officials Steven Hadley and Elliott Abrams met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and me, and, over the next two days succeeded in working out an exact definition of the term ‘settlement freeze’ in the Road Map. According to this definition, (1) no new settlements would be built, (2) no Palestinian land would be expropriated or otherwise seized for the purpose of settlement, (3) construction within the settlements would be confined to ‘the existing construction line’, and (4) public funds would not be earmarked for encouraging settlements. On a further meeting held with Ms. Rice on May 14, 2003, the agreement on the definition of the term ‘freeze’ was confirmed, thus concluding the discussions on Israel’s reservations on the Road Map. Since the meeting also affirmed that the draft of the Road Map would constitute the final document (in part in order to prevent ‘reopenings’ by other parties), the Israeli reservations were not included in the body of the text but rather were publicly recognized by the administration…”

Here Weisglass makes some assertions that Condoleezza Rice agreed that the Israeli reservations “require substantive attention”. Weisglass further asserts that “The administration further asserted that it ‘shares Israel’s view’ that the reservations are ‘noteworthy’, and would give them ‘full and serious consideration’ in applying the Road Map”. The source that Weisglass lists, however, a White House communiqué dated 23 May 23, 2003″, which can be viewed in full here is a statement by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, which says exactly this, in the original English: “The roadmap was presented to the Government of Israel with a request from the President that it respond with contributions to this document to advance true peace. The United States Government received a response from the Government of Israel, explaining its significant concerns about the roadmap. The United States shares the view of the Government of Israel that these are real concerns, and will address them fully and seriously in the implementation of the roadmap to fulfill the President’s vision of June 24, 2002″.

Weisglass continues, in his Op-Ed: “The result, as such, was that the Israeli commitment to a settlement freeze in the Road Map reached during these discussions provided for construction and development in settlements within the ‘construction line’. Accordingly, two days later (May 25, 2003), the Israeli government approved the version of the Road Map that included Israel’s reservations. The drawing of the existing construction line – the area in which construction is permitted – encountered technical difficulties. It was therefore decided to establish a joint American-Israeli team that would examine, mark, and delineate the construction line around each of the existing settlements. The team, however, was never created, though not because of any fundamental disagreement. On April 13, 2004, on the eve of President Bush’s letter to Prime Minister Sharon, representatives of the Israeli and American governments reviewed all of Israel’s ‘obligations under the Road Map’ that had yet to be fulfilled, either partially or completely. All of these were included in a letter that I wrote with the full consent and in the name of Prime Minister Sharon, and sent to National Security Advisor Rice. Among other things the letter said ‘in the framework of the agreed principles on settlement activity, we will shortly make an effort to better delineate the settlement construction line in Judea and Samaria…’ There was no doubt, therefore, that on April 14, 2004 – the day that President Bush sent his letter to Prime Minister Sharon – the administration recognized Israel’s right under the Road Map to development from within the existing construction line in the Israeli settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. This right, of course, was conditional on the fulfillment of the other principles governing the above mentioned freeze”.

There, apparently, is the explanation of the Israeli government’s position.  The translation of the Weisglass Op-Ed can be read in full here.

Since then, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton stated, last Friday, that “There is no memorialization of any informal and oral agreements. If they did occur, which, of course, people say they did, they did not become part of the official position of the United States government”. She added that “There are contrary documents that suggest that they were not to be viewed as in any way contradicting the obligations that Israel undertook pursuant to the road map. And those obligations are very clear.”

But, Israel’s YNet subsequently reported that “A senior [Israeli] official said on Saturday night that despite the decidedly unambiguous terms states by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Israel will continue to build in the larger settlement blocs, in communities adjacent to the security fence and in the neighborhoods on Jerusalem’s outskirts. Another official sought to stress however that Israel was working to ‘get the message across that we’re willing to work towards a solution, one that culminates in the creation of Palestinian state with limited authorities’. The official added that the restrictions would mostly pertain to security issues. ‘There can’t be another army between the sea and Jordan’.” This report can be read in full here.

There are suggestions elsewhere that the Israeli government has informed the U.S., during the Annapolis talks, that “dividing” Jerusalem would be a very major threat to Israel’s security.

Even “sharing” Jerusalem is seen in Israel as “division”. And, there is very strong opposition: according to these views, Israel cannot lose control of East Jerusalem without risking that kassam rockets could then be launched from the Mount of Olives or from the Old City onto the Jerusalem Municipality building or the King David Hotel.

But, East Jerusalem was not part of Israel when it was created in 1948. Instead, it fell under Jordanian administration, and was effectively the capital of the Palestinian West Bank, which was then seized by Israeli forces in the June 1967 war. East Jerusalem and its walled Old City which contains sensitive sites sacred to the three major monotheistic religions – was effectively annexed in 1967, becoming part of the Israeli-delineated expanded “Greater Jerusalem” area. Its legal status, according to Israeli claims, is different from the West Bank. Then, in 1980, Israel declared that united Jerusalem would be its eternal and undivided capital.

During the Annapolis process of negotiations in 2008, surprising Israeli arguments surfaced publicly that made a distinction between settlement building in the West Bank (which has not been annexed) and in “Jerusalem” (now part of Israel, in the Israeli view, so construction there was not building “settlements” but normal neighborhood growth.

The YNet article also mentioned that “Israel has offered the Americans to form a joint body that would be tasked with overseeing construction in the settlements to ensure that the building does not go beyond the existing limits of any given community, and that no new settlements are being built”.

However, from Weisglass’s Op-Ed, we see that an earlier proposal to form “a joint American-Israeli team that would examine, mark, and delineate the construction line around each of the existing settlements” was never created … and the same thing may well happen again, while Israeli officials vow they will not stop settlement activities.

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