The Palestinians insisted on Monday that their right to an independent state was not negotiable, as a new round of intensive peace talks aimed at forging a final peace with Israel entered a second day.
"I would like to stress that the Palestinian state is not an issue on the table," chief Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo told reporters. "This is a purely internal Palestinian issue and it is for the Palestinian institution to decide on it."
Negotiators face a mid-May deadline for a framework accord on the final status of the Palestinian territories covering the thorniest issues dividing them, including Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees and the shape of a future Palestinian entity.
The latest round of talks kicked off between Abed Rabbo and his Israeli counterpart Oded Eran on Sunday after two inconclusive rounds in Washington, with US Middle East envoy Dennis Ross due to join the negotiations on Tuesday.
But they were soured by Israeli plans to expand a Jewish settlement near Jerusalem, while Prime Minister Ehud Barak was grappling with a coalition crisis over the proposed transfer of three villages near the disputed city to full control of Yasser Arafat's self-rule authority.
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat has vowed to declare an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital in September, even if the negotiations fail to result in an accord by then.
Speaking after a meeting in Gaza with visiting Australian Prime Minister John Howard, Arafat said a Palestinian state was a "natural right."
But Barak's office said in a statement: "If a Palestinian state is created it will be the result of negotiations."
Arafat also protested at the issue by Israel's housing ministry of a tender for 174 homes at Maale Adumim, the largest Jewish settlement in occupied West Bank with a population of some 20,000.
"The settlement activity of the Israeli government is destructive to the peace process and will affect the negotiations to reach a framework accord," he said.
RAMON: ABU DIS, AZZARIYE AND SUWAHARA ARE NOT JERUSALEM
Speaking at the Knesset Monday, Minister without Portfolio Haim Ramon declared that Azzariye, Abu Dis and Suwahara are not part of Jerusalem. He was quoted by Jerusalem Post as saying a transfer of full authority for these villages to the Palestinian authority would not create any essential change.
Ramon declared that "Israel today controls more territory in Jerusalem than what has ever before been in its possession, since Solomon's Kingdom." He added: "This is a huge land mass, all of it under our sovereignty, all of it our responsibility ... our control in sovereign, united Jerusalem has never before been so strong, and so supported by the world."
Ramon's statements about Jerusalem came in response to motions forwarded by National Union-Yisrael Beitenu MKs Benny Elon and Rehavam Ze'evi, which criticize an impending Israel-PA framework accord, and refer to a possible breakdown of law and order in Jerusalem. Ramon countered by claiming that Jerusalem today is more full of life and safer than it has been in years, since the outbreak of the intifada.
Ramon explained that the three Arab villages are currently under B status, Palestinian civilian authority with Israeli security control. The Barak government intends to change their status to A, full Palestinian control. Ramon differentiated between Suwahara a-Sharqia, currently a B area, and Western Suwahara, which will remain under Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.
LEVY AGAINST 'DOWN PAYMENT' PLAN UNTIL PA SHOWS 'FLEXIBILITY'
However, Barak is not expected to submit his "territorial down payment" plan - in which Abu Dis and the two other villages next to Jerusalem would be transferred to full Palestinian control ahead of the Israeli army’s third redeployment - to the Cabinet for its approval tomorrow, a political source was quoted by Haaretz Monday.
The source said Barak has not yet completed all the coordination and preparation needed for the move, though he intends to seek Cabinet approval "soon."
In the meantime, Foreign Minister David Levy apparently objects to the "down payment" concept at this time, claiming that the Palestinian Authority is not displaying any flexibility or readiness for compromise. Levy maintains that there is no point in making goodwill gestures without getting anything in return – (Several Sources).
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