The Jerusalem Post
Talks won't start where they left off
By HERB KEINON - 05/03/2010 06:14
On eve of Biden visit, J'lem says Iran may use Hizbullah to distract from nukes.
The indirect "proximity talks" between Israel and the Palestinians likely to begin next week will not pick up where the discussions between then-prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas broke off in late 2008, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
This issue has been a key sticking point for months, with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu rejecting the Palestinian demand that the talks begin from the point where they ended with Olmert.
Olmert offered the Palestinians nearly 94 percent of the West Bank, a land swap to compensate for most of the rest, an arrangement on Jerusalem, and the return of a small number of refugees into Israel as a "humanitarian gesture."
Abbas rejected the offer, telling The Washington Post in May that the gaps were "too wide."
The Post has also learned that the proximity talks will not immediately focus primarily on borders, another Palestinian demand, with Israel saying there can be no credible discussion of borders without first knowing what security arrangements will be in place.
US Middle East envoy George Mitchell is expected to arrive in the region on Saturday evening, kicking off an extremely busy diplomatic period. US Vice President Joe Biden is expected two days later.
The PA – which received the go-ahead from the Arab League on Wednesday to enter into proximity talks – is expected to give a final okay over the weekend after holding internal deliberations.
Once that green light is received, the talks are expected to begin next week, with Mitchell shuttling between Netanyahu's envoy on the Palestinian issue Yitzhak Molcho in Jerusalem, and the PA's chief negotiator Sa'eb Erekat in Ramallah.
Netanyahu, at the start of a cabinet meeting on Thursday, said he "welcomed the developments" that he said he hoped would lead to the start of talks next week.
Praising Mitchell, Netanyahu said he was "doing very important work, which we appreciate. We welcome the start of talks, even if they are proximity talks.
"In the end, our goal is to try and reach a peace agreement with our Palestinian neighbors via direct talks, but we have always said that we do not necessarily insist on this format," the prime minister said. "If this is what is necessary to start the process – Israel is ready. I think that there is international recognition that this government wants to start a peace process, and I tell you that we also want to complete it."
Netanyahu also welcomed the upcoming visit of Biden, saying he has "been a friend of Israel for many years," and a personal friend for almost three decades.
"I am convinced that this important visit to our region will contribute to advancing the diplomatic process, and there are indications to this effect."
Biden is expected to spend about two days in Israel, and a half day in Ramallah, with the focus of his talks in Jerusalem expected to be both on the Palestinian issue and on Iran.
One of the Iranian-related issues to be discussed is the growing sense in Jerusalem that Syria is increasingly being coopted by Iran, and, in turn, is once again turning Lebanon into a client state.
According to assessments in Jerusalem, Iran – which in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War in 2006 was not interested in another confrontation between its proxy Hizbullah and Israel – is now increasingly interested in just such a conflict, to divert attention from its nuclear march and take the pressure off regarding sanctions.
As a result, and despite calming messages that Jerusalem has sent to Syria and Lebanon, the situation in the north is "heating up," with Syria hosting Hizbullah training camps and sending weapons across the border that it never sent before.
Israel is expected to press Biden for crippling sanctions now against Iran's energy sector, something the US administration – because it wants to get as many countries as possible behind UN Security Council sanctions – has not as yet advocated.
China said on Thursday it would continue to push for a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear standoff, rebuffing efforts by the US to introduce a new set of sanctions.
"We've been making diplomatic efforts and we believe they have not been exhausted, and we will continue to work with other parties to push for a settlement to this issue," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.
The proposed sanctions would target Iran's Revolutionary Guard and toughen existing measures against its shipping, banking and insurance sectors, well-informed UN diplomats said on Wednesday.
The US, Britain and France support such new sanctions, and Russia – which is normally opposed – appears to be moving closer to that view. That leaves China – which depends on Iran for much of its energy needs – the only permanent member of the Security Council with a veto opposed to new sanctions at this time.
At the same time, the widespread assessment in Jerusalem is that China would not veto a resolution, but might very well abstain in a vote.
The non-permanent members of the Security Council who are either wavering or opposed are Lebanon, Turkey and Brazil. A new sanctions resolution needs 9 of 15 votes on the Security Council to pass.