Friday, November 09, 2007

Israel Diary - III

Israel moves towards durable peace
Kanchan Gupta

Forty years after the 1967 war which gave Israel absolute control over West Bank and Gaza Strip, uniting Jerusalem but dividing the world between contesting groups aligned with or against Arabs, peace may descend in the land of prophets before 2007 draws to a close.
Across Israel, political differences have been set aside, at least for the moment, and there is a sense of quiet confidence in the Left and the Right that the moment to strike a deal with the Palestinian leadership has arrived. A similar upbeat mood prevails in the West Bank, more so in Ramallah.
With Hamas rapidly losing support -- Palestinians shocked by its reign of terror in Gaza are rallying behind President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fateh -- it finds itself squeezed out of the latest attempt to forge a durable peace in the theatre of the world's longest conflict. Mr Abbas is not complaining, neither are his interlocutors in Jerusalem.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Jerusalem last week, discussing the finer details of the Annapolis conference scheduled for November 26. Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is believed to have shown her his cards, as has Mr Abbas. The sets don't clash violently, and that's a huge movement forward.
The key issues have been narrowed down to final demarcation of Palestinian territories, the status of East Jerusalem and the right of return of refugees. Senior officials in the Israeli Government, including those involved with the latest peace initiative, feel a deal can be struck on all three points of contention.
For instance, Israel has 'more or less' agreed to the 1967 border as the territorial demarcation for a future state of Palestine. There are some areas which it is reluctant to give up, including those of strategic importance. But it is willing to do a land-for-land swap to retain these areas, some of which have big settler communities.
A senior Palestinian official in Ramallah told The Pioneer that Mr Abbas and Fateh are not averse to the idea. This is a big leap forward from the time when Yasser Arafat walked out of the Camp David, Oslo and Tabah talks, refusing to settle for anything less than 100 per cent - he was being offered 97 per cent. For the first time, both sides agree there are no absolutes, that compromises have to be made if a deal is to be signed.
On East Jerusalem, there is an emerging consensus of sorts. Israel is willing to give up its control over this part of the city, which is dominated by Arabs, so that Palestine can have its desired capital. The sticking point is the walled city with its Jewish, Arab and Christian quarters and symbols of all three Judaic faiths.
For Palestinians, East Jerusalem makes sense only if it includes Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. But this is something that no Israeli Government will ever agree to, not least because the Temple Mount and the Western Wall have been non-negotiable ever since Jordanian troops were forced to retreat in 1967 and Jerusalem was 'unified'.
The right of return of Palestinian refugees was non-negotiable, too. But there has been a subtle shift in the Israeli position, as also in that of the Palestinians. Today, Israelis are willing to discuss the possibilities of arriving at a 'settlement', which includes compensation for those Palestinians claiming refugee status.
On their part, Mr Abbas and his aides accept that it is absurd to expect Israel to pave the way for a demographic shift that would rob the Jewish state of its raison d'ĂȘtre by granting the right of return to four-and-a-half million Palestinians who claim 'refugee status'; not all of them are in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
Two ideas are being bandied about: First, Israel will agree to a certain number of 'refugees', possibly 10,000, exercising the right of return; and, second, it will offer monetary compensation to any 'refugee' who wishes to exercise this right. In Ramallah, both options are being considered with an open mind.
Does this mean Annapolis will see Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas signing on the dotted line? More important, will it be a deal or just a joint declaration of principles? Even the most optimist officials and politicians on both sides of the divide are not looking forward to a final settlement. But everybody is hopeful of a joint declaration of principles around which a final settlement could be crafted.
This would be a big breakthrough, provided Annapolis happens. Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, with a stake in Israel and Palestine arriving at some sort of an accord, are working behind the scenes, pushing both Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas.
With Shia Iran steadily grabbing space in the region and making its ambition of gaining control clear to all, Sunni Arabia has been quick to align with Israel. The Riyadh declaration of the Arab Leagur, calling for an end to hostilities between Arabs and Israel, is beginning to take tangible shape and form.
Which doesn't mean Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is worried. For him, the Annapolis conference is a "Zionist conspiracy" and a move by the "enemy to deceive Muslims". But his shrill cry does not resonate in the olive groves of Mount Scopus and Mount of Olives which overlook this city that has rarely known peace since the days of the First Temple, yet looks bewitchingly at peace with itself and the world.

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