Mideast Negotiations: More Gestures Than Concessions

Article Summary
Israelis and Palestinians are motivated to resume negotiations, but at this stage both sides are entrenched in their positions. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to make a good-will gesture on Monday [May 14], including concessions to stop the hunger strike of security prisoners, he remains firm in his positions on core issues.

The prime minister agreed on Monday [May 14, 2012] to compromise in order to end the hunger strike of the Palestinian prisoners. However, in a letter he sent to the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, his positions on all core issues remain unchanged: he opposes stopping construction in the territories and returning to 1967 ceasefire lines.

Last Saturday night [May 12, 2012], Netanyahu's emissary, attorney Yitzhak Molcho, met with Abu Mazen in Ramallah and gave the chairman a letter in which the prime minister detailed Israel's positions. Abu Mazen emphasized three major requests: Israeli responsiveness to demands of the striking prisoners (in order to bring an end to the strike), the return of about 100 bodies of terrorists and the release of all Fatah prisoners held in Israeli prisons from before the Oslo Agreements at the beginning of the 1990s.

Netanyahu understood the gravity of the hunger-strike issue to the Palestinian public, and so he instructed Yoram Cohen, General Security Services Chief (Shin Bet),  to find a way to end the strike. On Tuesday [May 15] the Palestinians commemorate Nakba Day (Arabic for catastrophy, a reference to Israel's Independence Day) and security officials were concerned that the death of a hunger-striking prisoner could incite bloody riots throughout the territories. Yoram Cohen visited Egypt where he discussed the strike issue with authorities there, leading to Egypt's involvement in brokering a deal to solve the problem and end the strike. The end of the strike was celebrated in the Gaza Strip on Monday [May 14], and they viewed the results as a victory. Israel re-instated the rights of the prisoners to receive family visits and other benefits, while the prisoners committed themselves to forswear involvement in terror activities from inside prison walls. Netanyahu even agreed to return around 100 bodies of terrorists to the Palestinian Authority, but he refused to release Fatah prisoners, with the exception of around 30 of them. A political source in Jerusalem noted that Netanyahu decided to fulfill some of Abu Mazen's requests in order to generate a climate of trust between the sides, and to send a signal that he intends to promote the peace process after establishing a unity government and enlarging his coalition.

However, later on in the letter Netanyahu states that the settlement blocs will remain in Israel's hands in any future agreement, that he expects the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the national home of the Jewish people when signing the final comprehensive agreement and that the Palestinian state must be demilitarized. Netanyahu cited his commitment to the principal of "two states for two nations" and demanded an end to incitement against Israel and the cessation of unilateral steps in the United Nations. These positions were raised in the past, but this is the first time that they were brought in writing to the Palestinians.

The White House was involved in Israeli preparations for the meeting with Abu Mazen. Molcho went to Washington last week where he met with high-placed White House officials including Tom Donilon, the US National Security advisor. The Americans pressured Israel to accept Obama's outline — 1967 borders with an exchange of territories — but encountered Netanyahu's refusal.

Found in: prisoners, peace, occupied territories, netanyahu, israel, hunger strike, hunger, borders 67, borders, benjamin netanyahu, abbas

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