By Munir K. Nasser
Preparations for the trilateral summit at Camp David next Tuesday continue amid reports that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is prepared to offer the Palestinians concessions on the issues of Jerusalem and refugees.
Press reports quoting well-placed Israeli officials said Barak is coming to the summit with an offer to expand Palestinian presence in east Jerusalem and to allow the admission of thousands of refugees whose families already live in Israel. The officials confirmed that the Israeli and Palestinian sides have made considerable progress on the question of how much land Israel will turn over to the Palestinians for a state. The reports said Barak may not insist on retaining the strategic Jordan Valley, provided Israel can maintain a security presence there at least for some time.
On Jerusalem, the Israeli officials said Barak is prepared to consider expanding areas of the city already under day-to-day Arab control in exchange for incorporating nearby Jewish settlements into the predominantly Jewish area of the city. The officials said the future of Jerusalem was the toughest issue on the table and may be excluded from a settlement between the two sides.
On refugees, it is reported that Barak is willing to consider permitting tens of thousands of Palestinians to settle in Israel if they have family members there, but he will not accept the idea they have a legal right to return, the Israeli officials said. Tens of thousands of today's refugees would be absorbed in the Palestinian state, while others would receive assistance under a worldwide funding campaign.
Some analysts see in this unusual disclosure of Barak's likely position on core issues at the summit as part of an effort to project him as a reasonable Israeli leader and to coax matching concessions from Arafat.
Shibley Telhami, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace at the University of Maryland, said that Barak has floated these ideas already. Telhami told Albawaba.com that Yossi Katz, a member of the Labor Party is the one who floated balloons on this a number of times. He was the first to suggest that Israel will be ready to absorb up to 100,000 refugees. Two weeks ago Katz said at the UN conference on Palestine in Cairo that Israel should agree to Palestinian sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. “That is a very dramatically different view from the one that has been the official Israeli position,” Telhami said.
Telhami believes that there is more room for Israeli compromise on Jerusalem than most people believe. He thinks the Israeli position has softened enough to accept the conception of a Palestinian sovereignty on Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem.
The only issue of contention that is not going to be resolved in this round, Telhami said, is over who is going to be sovereign over the walled city of Jerusalem where the religious cites are located. He thinks on this issue they will be able to find a functional solution that would specify what religious site comes under whose control? “They will probably leave the sovereignty issue until later because it is going to be more controversial,” he argued. “I don’t think either side is ready to accept the sovereignty of the other side on it.”
Telhami believes the Camp David summit is a gamble, and that success is not assured by any stretch of the imagination. He thinks, however, the gap is not as wide as most people think it is. “While the official gap is wide, there has been a shift in the unofficial position,” he said. “The gap is bridgeable on many of the issues that are separating them.”
He said the possibility of failure is not very high in his judgment. “I think the choice is between a full-fledged agreement and a major framework agreement. Those are the real choices. None of the parties can afford a total failure.”
Meanwhile in Washington, the Clinton Administration is saying that it will play an active role in the Camp David summit. “We are going to be very actively involved in this entire process,” said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
A small group of senior Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will arrive on Saturday for discussions in advance of the Camp David talks, which will begin between the three leaders on Tuesday. According to State department sources, the Israeli delegation will include Foreign Minister David Levy, Internal Security Minister Shlomo Ben Ami, and Attorney General Elyakim Rubenstein and his Barak’s security advisers. The Palestinian delegation will include Abu Ala, Mohammad Rachid, the senior negotiators Abu Mazen and Saeb Erekat, and Mohammed Dahlan, a security chief.
On the American side, Boucher said senior US negotiators will participate in the summit, including Secretary of State Albright, Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross, and his deputy Aaron Miller and their team. He also said that he would also expect Albright to meet with these negotiators before the summit.
Boucher said the summit format would follow different configurations at Camp David. He explained that there would be different meetings between leaders, between negotiators, Israelis and Palestinians together, Israelis, Palestinians and Americans.
Boucher said the American side hopes to reach agreement as soon as possible. He said that “if the parties really bear down and work on the issues, it can be done in a matter of days. He added that President Clinton is going to be there and is going to devote the time necessary to working on this as soon as he can – Albawaba.com
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