How to tell if there's progress in Israeli- Palestinian talks?

08:23, May 18, 2010      

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Indirect talks between Palestinians and Israelis are to kick off on Tuesday with the visit to Ramallah of United States special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell. Later in the week he is slated to hold talks with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem.

These initial indirect or proximity talks will first tackle border issues and security. For some regional analysts, this is the best way to begin the process, while others see this approach as doomed to fail.

While the media and public will not be party to the talks and will only be able to depend on leaks and guesstimates, the analysts say there are key signs to look out for that will give a good indication as to the progress of the negotiations.


From what can be gleaned from the parties themselves, it appears as though the first issues to be tackled could well be borders and security.

While the Israelis would like their security fears regarding any future Palestinian state to be first and foremost in the talks, the Palestinians, naturally, want to see an Israeli commitment to a Palestinian state within defined borders.

The basic model being demanded by the international community and particularly the Arab world is that Israel cede to the 1967 borders. That would allow for the creation of a state of Palestine in all of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

However, the argument led by the Israelis and the Americans is that given the presence of some 250,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, such borders would be impractical. The language put forward by the White House refers to borders based on 1967 but with alterations agreed by the parties.

Both sides have come to the realization there will have to be a land swap, with parts of pre-1967 Israel being handed to the Palestinians in exchange for Israel's retention of major settlement blocs.

Media consultant and former Palestinian prisoners' minister Ashraf Ajrami told Xinhua he thinks discussing this issue first is the best way forwards.

Tackling the borders at the outset means three problem areas are addressed on day one: the sides are talking about the key issue of where the Palestinian state would be located, the future status of East Jerusalem and the fate of the settlements.

"If we can reach an agreement on the borders, I think the conflict may reach an end," said Ajrami.

However, by the same reckoning that these key topics will be considered before any long-lasting trust has been built up and many Israeli pundits believe this approach is a recipe for disaster. While there is a widespread acceptance in Israel that the finalization of borders will mean many settlers will lose their homes, the subject of Jerusalem remains highly controversial.

"Borders you only draw after an agreement. If you draw them at the start and then you aren't happy, what do you do?" said Freddy Eytan, a retired Israeli ambassador, writer and journalist.

In his opinion, in peace talks one should initially consider less serious problems, only increasing the gravity of the issues on the table with time.


What is said behind closed doors on these issues will quite possibly not be made public, particularly while the parley is ongoing. The longer this remains the case, the more likely the chances of success, according to Eytan.

Yet that ability to keep things private is also frustrating to the Palestinian and Israeli people and others who care about the outcome of the talks. The public wants to know whether progress is being made.

If people are looking for signs, then it is facts on the ground in the first few weeks they should be watching, said Ajrami. The parties call these goodwill gestures.

There were reports in the Israeli media on Monday that Israel is planning such a gesture as early as next week. Leading Palestinian businessman Bashar Masri along with Qatari investors is building a new city, Rawabi, just north of Ramallah.

Israeli journalists say Israel is about to allow Masri permission to construct a 2.8 km, 10-meter wide road through Israeli-controlled territory in the West Bank to hook up Rawabi with Ramallah.

Other suggested moves at this stage include a large release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. Thousands of Palestinians are currently serving jail terms in Israel, and a release of older men and female inmates would send a positive signal to the Palestinian people.

Most of the goodwill gestures are likely to come from the Israeli side, because, as the Arab world points out, most of the cards are currently held by Israel. Israeli troops could well pull back from some of their positions throughout the West Bank, allowing for greater ease of travel for Palestinians.

At the same time, analysts say it is worth watching whether the Palestinian security forces would be allowed to increase their area of coverage to include more towns and villages.



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