- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 19, 2010

Palestinian leaders told the Obama administration they are ready to accept nearly any security arrangements for a Palestinian state demanded by Israel, according to a senior official of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

“We will accept any arrangement short of Israeli military presence on the soil of a future Palestinian state,” said Maen Rashid Areikat, the PLO’s chief U.S. representative, in an interview with The Washington Times.

Other than an Israeli troop presence, he said, “we are willing to discuss with the Israelis whatever arrangements that can achieve the same objectives that the Israelis desire in the area of security, but with the involvement of third parties in this area - Americans, a combination of forces, United Nations, NATO. Whatever is acceptable to the Israelis, we will not have a problem.”

The Palestinian position came in the form of “an official offer” to the Obama administration and was passed on to Israel, he said.

Israel’s security concerns have long complicated its efforts to reach a final agreement with the Palestinians. Successive Israeli governments have demanded, among other things, that the Jewish state retain a long-term military presence in the Jordan Valley, the strategic swath of land along the Jordanian border that Israelis fear could become a smuggling route for rockets and other armaments.

According to Israeli media reports, however, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Sunday that he had finalized an agreement on security matters in 2008 with then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert a deal, he said, that would involve an U.S.-led NATO presence in the Palestinian state.

Palestinians left recently launched direct talks after the expiration of Israel’s 10-month settlement moratorium and the subsequent failure of the U.S. to induce Israel to extend it.

Whether current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has said that he is not bound by Mr. Olmert’s concessions, would even accept an agreement reached by his predecessor on security particularly without provisions for an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley remains in doubt.

“We cannot rely on foreign forces,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, deputy director general of Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, who said that “an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley needs to be part of any agreement.”

Netanyahu doesn’t say how long the presence should last,” Mr. Kuperwasser added. “But this, of course, is a matter for discussions.”

Mr. Netanyahu also has conditioned his support for a Palestinian state on demilitarization, reiterating the long-standing Israeli demand that the Palestinians not be allowed to build an army.

The PLO’s Mr. Areikat objected to the word “demilitarization,” saying “there is no such thing in international law.” But he expressed support for the concept of a Palestinian state with “limited military capabilities,” citing the restrictions placed upon Germany and Japan after World War II.

“What we are saying is that we will not possess offensive capabilities,” Mr. Areikat said. “The armaments, the military structure that we will have will only be to protect our people, to provide security for our people and for our borders, and to be able to maintain law and order in our future state.

“We don’t want to have an air force, we don’t want to have ships, we don’t want to have submarines. We don’t want to spend our resources on an arms race. We’d rather spend that money on developing and building our future state.”

He said the planned Palestinian security service would be “a National Guard-style thing.”

Ghaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian negotiator who serves as the advocacy director for the American Task Force on Palestine, said that although a “finite Israeli presence” in the Jordan Valley had been “very much part of the conversation” during Israeli-Palestinian talks at Camp David and Taba in 2000 and 2001, the past decade of conflict had made it “much, much more difficult” for any Palestinian leader to accept an Israeli presence.

“Symbolically, it’s very important for the Palestinians to feel that the occupation has ended, that there are no Israeli troops on the ground,” he said.

Mr. al-Omari said he thinks the Obama administration would be wise to seek agreements on security and borders, where the gaps between the Israelis and Palestinians are narrower than on other sensitive issues, such as Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

Aaron David Miller, a senior adviser to six secretaries of state on the Arab-Israeli conflict, said that separating the core issues remains “a highly problematic exercise” since any comprehensive agreement will require “tradeoffs between issues and within issues.”

“If you are an Israeli and you control land, then you are not going to give up your leverage and reveal to the Palestinians a percentage until they reveal to you what their views are on the other issues,” he said.

Mr. Miller noted that even in the event of a deal between Mr. Netanyahu and the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, which he regards as unlikely under current circumstances, the challenge of Hamas would linger, not to mention the threats from Hezbollah and Iran.

“Is it even realistic to expect any Israeli government to make these kinds of concessions without assuring them, and how can you assure them that Hamas will be disarmed?” he said.

“In Israeli politics, the worst thing is to be perceived as a sucker. So when [Mr. Netanyahu] goes to his Cabinet or his own party and says, ‘Look, guys, I’ve got this great deal. All we have to do is give back 96 percent of the West Bank,’ the question then becomes, ‘Well, I don’t understand. What do you mean you’re going to give it back? What about Hamas’ rockets?’”

“And if you are a Palestinian whose leverage is security, or the capacity to deny Israel security arrangements, you’re not going to give that up until you see where the Israelis are on refugees and Jerusalem.”