Seeking Iraq Exit Strategy, U.S. Pushes Israel Toward Peace Talks

Ahead of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s upcoming visit to Washington, Israel and the United States are discussing ways to strengthen Palestinian moderates and jump-start a new peace process. In a bid to bolster Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ more moderate Fatah party, the Americans would like to see Israel release the popular jailed Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouti, and Israel is signaling readiness to make far-reaching moves toward a two-state solution. The tough ongoing Israeli military action in northern Gaza also is concentrating Palestinian minds.

Talk of concessions to the Palestinians and moves to bolster Palestinian moderates precede nearly every visit by an Israeli prime minister to Washington. But there are signs that this time, the carrot-and-stick policy may be working.

After a prolonged boycott of the P.A.’s radical Hamas-led government by Israel and most of the international community, the Palestinians are close to forming a new administration that could pave the way for peace talks.

The new American initiative coincides with talk about pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq. As they develop an exit strategy, the Americans seem to be showing greater urgency on other regional issues, like the Israeli-Palestinian question.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently approached Olmert on the possibility of including Barghouti in a prisoner-exchange deal involving abducted Israeli soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

Olmert rejected the idea, but Israeli officials believe the Barghouti issue could come up again in Olmert’s meeting with President Bush, scheduled for Nov. 14.

A second American proposal is that Israel allow the Palestinian paramilitary Badr Brigade, which is loyal to Abbas, to relocate from Jordan to Gaza. On this, the officials say, Olmert is likely to be forthcoming.

The officials believe the more the Americans develop their exit strategy from Iraq, the more they’ll want to see movement on the Israeli-Palestinian track, which would enable them to claim a significant measure of success in their overall regional policy.

In this context, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, who has been working on the exit strategy, is expected to make proposals soon for a renewal of talks on both the Syrian and Palestinian tracks.

The Israelis also are taking a more proactive approach. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, anxious not to have new outside initiatives foisted on Israel, has sent messages to Palestinian moderates to the effect that Israel is ready to make rapid progress toward a two-state solution — but on condition that any new P.A. government accepts the international community’s three conditions: recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and acceptance of previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

“If a new Palestinian government accepts the international benchmarks and stops the Kassam rocket fire, Israel will be prepared to go a long way. But the Palestinian side will have to budge first,” a senior official told JTA.

Israel, he said, would then be prepared to release prisoners, stop military operations, fast-track to an interim Palestinian mini-state and discuss the contours of a final peace deal.

“Until now Israel’s foreign policy problem has been that, with the radical Hamas in power, the Palestinian moderates do not control the levers of power,” the official explained. “Until recently, the main thrust of Israeli policy was to solve the conundrum through unilateral moves. Now the approach is to find ways of circumventing Hamas.”

The Palestinians also are moving to create conditions for dialogue. Abbas, from Fatah, and P.A. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, of Hamas, met Monday in Gaza to finalize arrangements on the establishment of a new government.

Two proposals are on the table: a Hamas-Fatah national unity government or an apolitical government of experts. In both cases, the idea is to break out of international isolation by establishing a Palestinian administration acceptable to Israel and the international community.

More than its composition though, the question is whether the new government accepts the three benchmarks. If it does, the way for negotiations with Israel will be open. But it’s not easy to see how Hamas, which won an overwhelming victory in last January’s general election, will allow this to happen.

Hamas’ policy until now has been to offer a long-term cease-fire, or hudna, without having to recognize the Jewish state. Israel suspects that without a wider agreement, the Palestinians would simply use the cease-fire to build up their military power in order to attack more effectively at a later date.

Abbas, on the other hand, dismisses the hudna idea and says he wants a full-fledged peace treaty with Israel. In an early November meeting with rabbis and Muslim clerics, Abbas said a cease-fire would not hold, and that what he wanted was a lasting peace on the Israeli-Egyptian model.

Time was running out, he warned, noting that he had just two years left in his term.

The moves to jump-start peace talks will be high on the agenda when Olmert and Bush meet in Washington next week. Israeli officials say Olmert will want to discuss the implications for the region and for Israel of an American pullout from Iraq. But the main priority is likely to be the threat posed to Israel and the West by Iran’s nuclear weapons drive.

In advance of the Bush-Olmert meeting, U.S. National Intelligence Director John Negroponte came to Israel in early November to discuss ways of weakening Iran’s fundamentalist regime. Negroponte reportedly was particularly interested in Israeli assessments of the degree to which disaffected minorities in Iran could destabilize the mullahs’ rule.

Israel and the United States see Iran as the major threat to their security in coming years, and Olmert will use his meeting with Bush to exchange assessments and coordinate future moves. Israeli officials note that although both sides prefer a diplomatic solution, neither is ruling out a military option.

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