Talks with PA snagged on Ariel, not refugees, former official says

Talks with PA snagged on Ariel, not refugees, former official says

Refusal to concede settlement and Olmert’s ‘lame duck’ status were main stumbling blocks blocking peace breakthrough with Abbas in 2008, claims Yossi Beilin

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Yossi Beilin meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, August 2008. (photo credit: Omar Rashidi/Flash90)
Yossi Beilin meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, August 2008. (photo credit: Omar Rashidi/Flash90)

A former Israeli official involved in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 2008 said that talks between the sides faltered over a contentious settlement and because Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert lacked legitimacy to sign an agreement — not over the repatriation of Palestinian refugees and their descendants in Israel.

Yossi Beilin, a key negotiator in the Oslo peace process — who served as deputy foreign minister under Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, and justice minister under Ehud Barak — told The Times of Israel on Monday that although Olmert and Abbas may have been close to signing a peace agreement, the issue of Ariel, a northern West Bank city of 20,000 residents, represented a major stumbling block.

“[Abbas] and Olmert came closer to signing an agreement than ever before, but that doesn’t mean it was possible to solve the issue of Ariel,” Beilin said.

A New Republic article published on Monday claimed that in 2008 Abbas was close to signing an agreement with Olmert, after the two managed to close the gap on how many Palestinian refugees to allow into Israel.

According to the story, Olmert agreed to 5,000 and Abbas wanted 60,000, but a high-ranking US official said the issue was seen as solvable.

Beilin explained that the number of refugees discussed ranged between 5,000 and 100,000 — a gap he admits was large, but insists was “not unbridgeable.”

The territorial issue remained the main point of contention, however.

At the Annapolis conference in November 2007, Olmert proposed the annexation of 5.8 percent of the West Bank, a significant compromise compared to the 9 percent Ehud Barak reportedly offered Yasser Arafat at Camp David in 2000. Abbas insisted on a reduced Israeli annexation of just 1.9 percent, Beilin confirmed.

In August 2008, Olmert sent Beilin to meet Abbas in Ramallah and gauge the Palestinian leader’s “flexibility.” According to Beilin, Olmert was hoping to reach an agreement of principles with the Palestinians to be signed publicly at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly the following month.

But the talks snagged over the settlement of Ariel, a large Israeli enclave jutted deep into the West Bank.

“Olmert insisted on [Israeli sovereignty at] Ariel, and they [the Palestinians] couldn’t accept that. It may have taken another two months to solve and it may have taken another 100 years,” Beilin added.

Given Ariel’s location in the heart of Samaria in the northern West Bank, Beilin said he personally believed it would be unrealistic to maintain it in a final-status agreement with the Palestinians.

“I told Olmert: ‘If you don’t give up Ariel, this is a waste of time.’ ”

Even if Olmert had made the territorial concession, internal Israeli politics soon mooted the talks.

By late 2008, Olmert had been forced to announce he would step down and would have been unable to finalize any agreement, a fact the Palestinians were well aware of, continued Beilin.

“Olmert resigned and it was clear he would not run again… he was a complete lame duck. [Abbas] could have found himself in a situation where he is about to sign an agreement with someone who cannot finalize it,” Beilin said.

Following the Annapolis summit, two parallel negotiation tracks were formed with the goal of finalizing an agreement by the end of George W. Bush’s presidential term: a public track between foreign minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmad Qurei —  also known as Abu Ala — and a secret track between Olmert and Abbas, where even note-takers were not present.

Beilin harshly criticized this two-pronged negotiating effort, calling it “useless and silly.”

Four-and-a-half years later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will never come close to offering the Palestinians a deal similar to that offered by Olmert, or even by Barak at Camp David, Beilin claimed.

Therefore, a new peace drive should focus on a Palestinian state with provisional borders as outlined in the second stage of Bush’s 2002 road map for peace, which the Palestinians endorsed “wholeheartedly,” he urged.

Beilin said that discussions with the Palestinians should focus on borders, security provisions, and limitations on settlement building. Demanding a complete settlement freeze as stipulated by the road map, however, would be unrealistic, he added.

“I think we need to be pragmatic and admit that we can’t prevent ‘natural growth’ [in the settlements],” Beilin said. “Perhaps we should allow building on the perimeter of settlements that Israel deems legal and which will not be transferred to the Palestinian state within its provisional borders.”

Recent claims that Olmert and Abbas were on the verge of signing a peace agreement should be taken with a grain of salt, Beilin said.

“Our subjective impression, whereby we were about to sign, isn’t necessarily correct,” he added. “During talks in Taba [in January 2001], I also felt we could reach an agreement within two weeks, and I was wrong.”

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