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In Israeli-palestinian Conflict, Peace Plans Abhor a Vacuum

November 21, 2006
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After rejecting a new European peace initiative, Israeli leaders are gearing up for more international efforts to restart the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process on terms unfavorable to Israel. Israel fears the initiatives might lead to the lifting of political and economic sanctions against the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority without it having to meet the international community’s three benchmarks for dialogue: recognition of Israel’s right to exist, acceptance of previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements and renunciation of terror.

The European initiative, led by Spain, France and Italy, is not the only one on the table. The Arabs have resuscitated the Saudi plan of 2002 and, perhaps most importantly, the United States is said to be working on a new plan of its own that includes an international conference based on the Saudi plan.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, worried about where the new international initiatives might lead, wants Israel to come up with a plan to pre-empt them.

The situation is reminiscent of summer 2003. Then, too, after a long deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian relations, international initiatives began to surface. It was partly to pre-empt outside plans he thought were detrimental to Israel that then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon produced his plan to unilaterally pull Israeli troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip.

Sharon’s gambit worked: The international community backed him and put its own ideas on hold. Indeed, in April 2004, President Bush promised that he would not back any other initiative while Sharon’s disengagement plan was on the table.

The recent Lebanon war changed that. After the fighting, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, elected on a platform calling for a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, announced that he was shelving the plan. That created the political vacuum the new plans are starting to fill.

The European plan has five components: An immediate Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire is implemented; the Palestinians form a national unity government acceptable to the international community; Israel and the Palestinians exchange prisoners; Olmert and P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas start a peace dialogue; an international force moves into Gaza to keep the peace.

Israel rejected the plan on the grounds that it contains nothing new, except the call for an international force in Gaza, which Israel opposes. The Israelis argue that such a force would only make it more difficult for Israel to monitor the huge influx of weapons into Gaza across the Egyptian border.

The European plan has yet to be adopted by the European Union, several of whose members regard it as a dilettantish piece of work. But the European Union wants to play a role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and may well come up with a more substantial proposal.

Here Britain could prove important. On the eve of a meeting this week with Livni, British Prime Minister Tony Blair reiterated his view that Israeli-Palestinian peace could greatly help the West in its battle against radical Islam. Blair, who is stepping down soon, also has said he intends to devote much of the rest of his time as prime minister to promoting Middle East peace.

The Arab plan, being pushed by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, has two stages: Acceptance of the Saudi initiative of 2002 as a basis for peace talks, followed by an international peace conference. The Saudi initiative calls for full Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territory and resolution of Palestinian refugee demands in return for peace with all 22 Arab countries and the Palestinians.

Israel has expressed reservations about the Saudi initiative, concerned that it could generate pressure for the return of millions of Palestinian refugees to Israel and impose a territorial solution without room for negotiation.

But the United States is showing growing interest in the Saudi plan. As part of the Bush administration’s exit strategy from Iraq, senior Israeli officials believe, the United States may buy into the idea of an international conference based on the Saudi initiative.

“For months the Americans have been trying to cultivate an axis of moderate Arab states, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, as a counterweight to the Iranian-led ‘axis of evil.’ Backing the Saudi initiative would give them added leverage,” a senior Israeli official told JTA.

For weeks there have been rumors that the United States is trying to set up an international conference in which Israel and moderate Arab states would be the main players. The idea would be to explore the Saudi initiative and strengthen Abbas by providing financial and military support for his Fatah movement in its internal struggle with Hamas, which is even more radical.

Israel, however, fears that all three plans, the European, Arab and American, may end up strengthening Hamas. The Israelis are concerned that the very fact that there is a process could lead to the lifting of the political and economic boycott of the Hamas-controlled P.A. Cabinet without it recognizing Israel. The European initiative, for example, says nothing about such recognition.

The Israelis add that a premature international conference could fail in spectacular fashion, and — like the failed Camp David summit of July 2000 — leave the parties even worse off.

Livni told the Cabinet on Sunday that Israel therefore should come up with a detailed plan of its own. She suggested a cease-fire followed by the Palestinian government’s acceptance of the three international benchmarks and, after prisoner exchanges, quick movement to a Palestinian mini-state and a framework for negotiations on a final peace deal.

The call is Olmert’s. He does not believe Bush or the new Democratic U.S. Congress will try to pressure Israel on the Palestinian or Syrian tracks. This despite the fact that former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s Iraq exit-strategy report, due to be submitted to Bush soon, is widely expected to include recommendations for negotiations on both tracks.

Olmert wants to see movement, at least with the Palestinians. And some pundits believe that behind the scenes he may be working secretly on the contours of a deal with Abbas.

On Sunday, Olmert gave a clue, berating Defense Minister Amir Peretz for discussing a cease-fire with Abbas.

“Don’t interfere,” he said. “You could be spoiling things.”

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