- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2008

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Top Palestinian negotiators with Israel said Monday that they are prepared to establish a Palestinian state initially in the West Bank, which Gaza can join if the militant group Hamas gives up control of the strip.

The envoys from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) added that progress has been made in peace talks in the past year that goes beyond what was achieved before President Clinton left office.

The negotiators said they came to Washington to get a sense of the incoming Obama administration’s thinking about the peace process and to urge the new team to deepen U.S. involvement.

Maen Rashid Areikat, coordinator-general and deputy head of the PLO’s Negotiations Affairs Department, said an accord with Israel can be reached and a Palestinian state founded even before Hamas and the PLO resolve their current differences, and even if the state does not include Gaza at first.

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“Absolutely,” Mr. Areikat told editors and reporters at The Washington Times when asked about the prospect of starting with the West Bank, which is under the control of the PLO-led Palestinian Authority. “It will be difficult. We would prefer to see a situation where there is national unity. We are not trying to eliminate Hamas. It’s a force to be reckoned with … but if we don’t agree, the PLO is mandated to continue negotiations.”

Ziad Asali, president of the Washington-based American Task Force on Palestine, said he had not heard such a comment before. He added that the Palestinians most likely would declare a state “in all the territories but, as a practical matter, it could start with the West Bank.”

Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist movement, took over Gaza in June 2007 and has refused to join recent talks aimed at resolving its differences with the Fatah party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The Bush administration has sought to bolster Mr. Abbas and has refused to deal with Hamas so long as it does not recognize Israel.

Mr. Areikat said Mr. Abbas would remain Palestinian president until new elections, which will not happen before next summer at the earliest. Hamas’ success in 2006 parliamentary elections reflected Palestinian disillusionment with the lack of progress toward peace, he said.

Asked about the prospect that hard-line Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu might become Israel’s prime minister after elections in February, Mr. Areikat said “there are certain expectations” that any Israeli leader would have to meet.

“We cannot afford for political changes in Israel and the Palestinian side to delay this process any further,” he said.

Mr. Areikat said “there is general acceptance in Israel and the international community” that the borders that existed before Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in a 1967 war “should be the basis for a future Palestinian state, with minor modifications.”

Those modifications should be “reciprocal” and “equal in quality and quantity,” he said. Instead of agreeing on percentages of territory to be exchanged, as was discussed in 2000, the Palestinians are asking Israel to show them specific areas it considers vital for its security, he said.

“If the Israelis want to take area in Jerusalem, we need an area equal in size and quality to that - like a mirror reflection,” Mr. Areikat said. He added, however, “We don’t have a joint understanding of what is going to be exchanged.”

A source close to the delegation said that land from both northern Israel in the Galilee area and in the south is being considered for swaps. Transferring Arab villages from the Galilee to Palestinian control would help Israel deal with the demographic problem of an Arab birth rate within Israel that exceeds that of many Israeli Jews, said the source, who asked that his name not be used because few details of the talks have been publicized.

The Israelis, Palestinians and Americans have been reticent about the substance of the negotiations except to say that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

Mr. Areikat said, however, that the talks had gone beyond the so-called Clinton parameters.

“We have shown and have been shown maps,” he said. He said no documents have been officially exchanged because “we don’t want to rush into putting something into writing that is not comprehensive.”

Palestinians do not want an interim or temporary agreement, he added. “We want a long-lasting agreement that future generation will honor and respect.”

During the delegation’s Washington visit, Mr. Areikat said it will stress “the need for the new administration to build and capitalize on the efforts” made in the past year, which, though belated, were “sincere and genuine.”

“We don’t have to start from square one,” he said. “We need immediate, full-time and even-handed engagement by the United States.”

Mr. Asali said there have been three types of negotiations this year: between top leaders, between negotiating teams, and informal.

“This was a really useful year,” he said.”There have been meaningful explorations of all final status issues in some level of detail even though no agreement has been reached.”

Final-status issues include the borders of a Palestinian state, the fate of Palestinian refugees, security measures and the status of Jerusalem.

Mr. Areikat also praised retired Gen. James Jones, whom President-elect Barack Obama has nominated as his national security adviser.

Mr. Jones has worked with the Palestinians on improving their security forces and helped set up a security and economic plan for Jenin that has allowed Palestinians to assume responsibility for policing the West Bank city.

“He’s very well informed and will be an asset to the administration,” Mr. Areikat said.

With the nomination of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state, Mr. Asali said he expects that some former officials in her husband’s administration will return to senior positions. He said they include Dennis Ross, former chief negotiator, and Martin Indyk, former assistant secretary of state. Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel and Egypt, also is in the mix, Mr. Asali said.

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