Unofficial talks produce test treaty for Middle East

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

JERUSALEM -- Succeeding where their governments have failed, prominent Palestinians and Israelis have produced an unofficial peace settlement that gives the Palestinians a state and could divide part of Jerusalem with a bulletproof glass wall, but keeps most refugees out of Israel.

The still-unreleased 50-page document, which includes a map of a future Palestine, has no formal standing, but its authors, among them participants in the failed Camp David peace talks in 2000, hope it will be the basis of official negotiations in the future.

Israel's center-right government derided the understandings as a dangerous end run. Vice Premier Ehud Olmert denounced the Israeli negotiators, including dovish opposition figures and centrist generals, as an "irresponsible bunch."

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has made no comment on the plan, neither accepting nor rejecting it.

But he was aware of the contacts from the start, officials said, and was briefed on the deal, which would give the Palestinians a state in 98 percent of the West Bank, all of the Gaza Strip and the Arab-populated areas of Jerusalem, as well as control over the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam's third-holiest site.

Avoids red flag

According to negotiators on both sides, the document defuses the deadlock over refugees and their descendants by not referring to the so-called "right of return" -- a red flag for most Israelis -- but rather outlining a series of options for each individual case.

The issue remained murky, perhaps purposely so, but the options, as explained by a Palestinian negotiator, appeared to signal that the Palestinian side in these talks had in effect dropped the demand that refugees be allowed to return to Israel in large numbers.

Under the deal, refugees could settle in Palestine or third countries, or be compensated for remaining where they are. Some could go to Israel -- but only if Israel agreed to take them, said Hisham Abdel Razek, a Palestinian legislator who participated in the talks, which ended Sunday in Jordan.

The fate of refugees and the status of the Jerusalem holy sites had been the main sticking points in the Camp David talks and several months later in negotiations at the Egyptian resort of Taba. Under the new deal, Israel would retain sovereignty over parts of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, which runs alongside the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, said Menachem Klein, an Israeli negotiator.

In Egypt, the leaders of the two delegations, Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo, on Monday briefed Osama el-Baz, a top adviser to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, on the agreement, which is to be signed in Geneva next month.

"We consider this an important step to fill the existing void and confirm that the peace process is still on," said Abed Rabbo, a former Palestinian Cabinet minister close to Arafat.

The signed agreement is to be mailed to millions of homes to show people on both sides peace is possible despite three bitter years of fighting, its authors said.

Klein, a political science professor and adviser in the Camp David talks, said funding is coming from Switzerland, Japan, Britain, Norway and Sweden.

Beilin, a former Cabinet minister who led talks on interim agreements with the Palestinians in the 1990s, brushed aside Israeli government complaints that he is harming Israel's interest.

"The Israelis are sick and tired of the current situation," he said. "They don't want to be killed, they don't want to kill. Most of the Israelis want to live, and we are giving them the hope to live."

Some details still need to be worked out ahead of next month's signing, a tentative date for which is Nov. 4, the eighth anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an ultranationalist Jew opposed to land-for-peace deals.

The most complicated arrangements would have to be made in Jerusalem, a city of more 600,000 -- about two-thirds Jewish and one-third Palestinians -- that would be divided by an international border.

Participants said they wanted this to be a friendly, hassle-free border, but that they had to abandon the idea of an open city because of security concerns.

In the historical center, the barrier could be made of bulletproof glass, rather than brick or concrete, to avoid disrupting scenic views, said Klein and his Palestinian counterpart, Nazmi Juabeh, both experts on Jerusalem.

Each side would control several gates of the walled Old City. Inside the Old City, Israel would be sovereign in the Jewish Quarter and the Palestinians in the three other quarters. There would be no barriers, only markers, such as flags and sidewalk paint, to let pedestrians know under whose sovereignty they are at any time.

Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem would fall to Israel, and Arab neighborhoods would go to Palestine, in line with the parameters proposed in December 2000 by President Clinton in hopes of salvaging peace talks.

"We've divided Jerusalem along the principle that no Palestinian will fall under Israeli control ... and that no Israeli will fall under Palestinian control," Juabeh said.

Israel would annex 2 percent of the West Bank to bring tens of thousands of settlers in several large settlements near Jerusalem -- Maaleh Adumim, Beitar Illit and Givat Zeev -- under Israeli control.

As compensation, Israel would give the Palestinians parts of the southern Negev Desert to expand the Gaza Strip and add to the southern West Bank.

Olmert, the Israeli vice premier, was scathing in his criticism.

"It's incredible to see this irresponsible bunch signing up to cede the Old City, Jaffa Gate and the holy of Holies -- the Temple Mount -- in return for an obligation that may or not be met," he told Israel TV. "At the end of it all, there is absolutely no Palestinian obligation to give up the right of return."

Jews revere the Al Aqsa Mosque compound as the Temple Mount, site of their two biblical Temples destroyed by invading armies.

Even former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, whose offer to the Palestinians at Camp David was similar to the deal worked out now, said the Israeli negotiators were naive. "It clearly harms Israel's interests," he said.

Also among the participants were former Israeli labor party leader Amram Mitzna, former parliament speaker Avraham Burg, two reserve generals and a right-wing former lawmaker from Sharon's Likud Party. The Palestinian side included several former Cabinet ministers, legislators and rising young leaders in the ruling Fatah Party.

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