How Barak, Sharon plans differ


JERUSALEM, Jan. 23 (JTA) – With less than two weeks left until elections for prime minister, Israelis may have a general idea of what the two candidates would offer the Palestinians in peace talks, but they are short on specifics.

Through leaks from the candidates’ campaigns and comments from some of their closest aides, a fairly detailed picture emerges of the negotiating stances of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and opposition leader Ariel Sharon.

Settlements. In campaign speeches, Sharon promises not to dismantle any settlements.

However, Likud Knesset Member Reuven Rivlin, a close associate of Sharon’s, told JTA this week that Sharon’s position may in fact be more nuanced.

In future negotiations, “Sharon will not provoke the Palestinians on the settlements,” Rivlin said.

“Sharon will not freeze the settlements, but he will not allow ‘provocative settlements,’ ” Rivlin said. “It is not clear whether he will allow expansion of existing settlements.”

Rivlin didn’t explain how he defines “provocative” settlements.

Barak has agreed to consider American proposals that call for the dismantling of far-flung settlements, but wants to annex large settlement blocs in the West Bank close to Israel’s 1967 borders that include some 80 percent of the settler population.

According to his deputy minister of defense, Ephraim Sneh, Barak will not dismantle any settlements if the negotiations become deadlocked, despite calls to this effect from supporters.

Jerusalem. Barak said Tuesday that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators must find a way to share administration of Jerusalem’s Old City and its holy sites, “so there won’t be a split and divided city, and there will be free access to all.”

At the same time, Barak promised that Jerusalem sites holy to Jews “will be under our sovereignty.”

So far, Barak’s suggestions have proved unacceptable to the Palestinians. Like the Palestinians, Sharon refuses to make any concessions on Jerusalem and its holy sites.

How would Sharon bridge this gap with the Palestinians?

“We will have to leave the entire issue on hold,” Rivlin said. “Quite simply, we will not negotiate over Jerusalem.”

Borders. Both Barak and Sharon have accepted the notion of a Palestinian state, but they differ on its size.

According to reports from the peace talks, Barak has offered the Palestinians some 95 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with an exchange of integral Israeli territory for the rest. Sharon says he is willing to offer 42 percent.

Instead of a final peace agreement, Sharon “will offer the Palestinians a long-range interim agreement,” Rivlin said. “The bait will be an offer of territorial continuum. Until now, the Palestinians have no territorial continuum.”

Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank currently are divided by Israeli corridors.

In addition, before the current unrest Palestinians could travel on Israeli highways along a “safe-passage route” between the West Bank and Gaza. At times, the Palestinians have demanded that this route across Israel be transferred to Palestinian sovereignty.

Sharon spoke recently of creating a train route from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank city of Ramallah, providing Palestinians with a new way to travel across Israel.

Will the Palestinians accept a train in place of land?

“We can only move forward on the basis of mutual interests,” Rivlin said. “If they don’t accept our offers, we will have to wait for a settlement.”

Palestinian refugees. Sharon refuses to grant the refugees – estimates say there could be as many as 5 million, including their descendants – the right to return to homes they abandoned in Israel during the 1948 War of Independence.

Barak reportedly is ready to accept a limited number of refugees on the basis of family reunions, leaving to Israel the final decision of who would be permitted to return. The figure of 100,000 refugees is sometimes mentioned in this context.

Population interaction. If Palestinian violence persists and there is no peace agreement, Barak and Sharon share similar ideas on the relations between the two peoples.

Barak has spoken of “unilateral separation,” meaning that Israel would treat the Palestinians as it would any hostile neighbors, erecting border fences and blocking Palestinian workers from entering Israel.

In addition, many Israelis have called on Barak to dismantle isolated settlements even without an agreement and move Israeli troops closer to the 1967 borders, unilaterally determining Israel’s borders.

Sneh presented JTA with a different definition of unilateral separation, however.

“What it essentially means is keeping the present settlements, isolating them from the Palestinian environment by more effective protection methods, and hoping for better days,” he said.

Economic separation, he insisted, is impossible.

“For better or worse, both parties are stuck with each other,” he said.

In case of a total deadlock in the negotiations, the solutions envisaged by both Barak and Sharon are similar: Try to preserve the status quo, but prepare for the worst.

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