US framework draft is too vague, says top PLO official

Former PM Ahmed Qurei warns that Palestinian negotiators won’t accept ambiguous wording on borders, Jerusalem and settlements

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

PLO official Ahmed Qurei speaks to journalists at his office in Abu Dis, east of Jerusalem, February 19, 2014 (photo credit: courtesy/Steffen Jensen)
PLO official Ahmed Qurei speaks to journalists at his office in Abu Dis, east of Jerusalem, February 19, 2014 (photo credit: courtesy/Steffen Jensen)

Ambiguous language in the text of an American framework agreement to be presented to Israel and the Palestinians may lead to the collapse of peace talks, a senior Palestinian official warned on Wednesday.

Ahmed Qurei, a member of the PLO’s Executive Committee and a former prime minister, said that current American positions on a number of core negotiating issues including borders, Jerusalem and the settlements do not satisfy the Palestinian need for clarity.

“Trying to put ambiguity in the text will not help the parties. I don’t want to continue discussing what this or that [phrase] means … this would be a waste of time, and the Israelis on the other side will continue their projects on the ground to change the status of the West Bank and maintain the separation of Gaza from the West Bank,” Qurei, known more commonly by the nom de guerre Abu Alaa, told journalists at his office in Abu Dis, east of Jerusalem.

An American document outlining the Obama administration’s outlook on all core issues is expected within two weeks. PA President Mahmoud Abbas met US Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris on Wednesday to discuss peace talks amid a suspension of direct Israeli-Palestinian contact since November 5.

PLO official Ahmad Qurei at his office in Abu-Dis, February 19, 2014 (photo credit: courtesy/Steffen Jensen)
PLO official Ahmed Qurei at his office in Abu Dis, February 19, 2014 (photo credit: courtesy/Steffen Jensen)

Qurei, who headed the Palestinian negotiating team to the Annapolis negotiations with Israel in 2008, said that in his talks with the sides, John Kerry has preferred to propose formulas that are palatable to the Israeli side rather than refer to previous international resolutions.

The American formula voiced by Kerry speaks of “a Palestinian right to a capital in Jerusalem.”

“This we cannot accept,” Qurei said. “We want [explicit mention of] East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.” He said that reference to Jerusalem with no distinction between east and west tacitly acknowledges Israel’s annexation of the eastern part of the city occupied in 1967.

While Qurei reiterated the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state voiced by Mahmoud Abbas in his speech to Israeli students on Sunday, PLO Executive Committee member Nabil Amro told the Palestinian Watan news channel Tuesday that Abbas would be willing to “positively deal” with the issue of the Jewish state, perhaps by using the formula adopted by the 2003 Road Map which speaks of “Israel’s right to exist in peace and security.” Amr added that Mahmoud Abbas is counting on an American “creative solution” to the issue.

With regards to the borders, Kerry proposed a Palestinian state “on the basis of the 1967 borders,” with modifications based on “changes on the ground,” a reference to Israeli settlements, Qurei said.

The phrase “changes on the ground” is also too vague for Palestinians, Qurei said. “What changes? This is occupied territory. All changes should be unacceptable, but the parties can discuss [land] swaps. They should be minimal and not affect Palestinians’ lives and territorial contiguity.”

With regards to settlements, the US should insert a clause specifically acknowledging their illegality under international law. The United States itself, Qurei noted, has voted in the UN against settlement construction.

“If this is not recognized, I think it will be difficult to reach any kind of agreement,” Qurei said.

Another discrepancy between the American and Palestinian positions concerns the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees and their descendants. The Americans reject the notion of a Palestinian right of return, while the Palestinians insist on the Arab Peace Initiative’s formula of a “just and agreed upon” solution, based on UN Resolution 194.

On the issue of security, Qurei said the Israelis were “exaggerating” their security needs to exact more territorial concessions from the Palestinians. The Israeli demand to maintain a military presence in the Jordan Valley, he added, is unreasonable given previous Israeli concessions on the issue.

During back-channel talks he held in Stockholm in the year 2000 with Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami, Israeli negotiators agreed in principle to recognize the Jordan Valley as the eastern border of “Palestine.” That unwritten agreement was praised by US envoy to the talks Dennis Ross, Qurei said.

“We are willing to compromise for the sake of security, but not at the expense of Palestinian sovereignty,” he added.

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