Israel to open peace talks with security, water demands

Israel to open peace talks with security, water demands

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intends to open the indirect talks with the Palestinian Authority this week with a discussion of the security arrangements in the West Bank and of water resources. A senior official told Haaretz that Netanyahu had recently asked the defense establishment and the National Security Council to elaborate on the so-called eight-points brief, which lists Israel's security demands in terms of a permanent status agreement, as framed by Ehud Olmert's government.

The PLO executive committee is expected Monday to officially decide to renew negotiations.

Israeli diplomats believe the Palestinians will prefer to open the negotiations with discussion of the borders - an issue on which the Palestinians think they have an advantage over the Israelis, since the United States position on this matter is close to their own.

Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed to the American demand to talk about the core issues of a permanent status agreement: borders, Jerusalem, security, water, settlements and refugees. However, each side has its own priorities which it will choose to focus on, and with which it will prefer to begin negotiations.

Netanyahu is due to leave for Sharm el-Sheikh this morning to confer with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on the upcoming negotiations. He will be accompanied by Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

Meanwhile, U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, is expected to arrive to launch the negotiations today; he will meet with Netanyahu on Wednesday. Mitchell is expected to hold his first meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) later this week.

The envoy will spend the first phase of the proximity talks shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah. In Jerusalem, he will meet primarily with attorney Yitzhak Molcho, who was involved in negotiating with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during Netanyahu's first term as prime minister.

"The negotiations will be conducted in channels that are as discreet as possible and within a limited framework," a senior government official said.

As part of his demand to expand the Olmert brief, Netanyhu has asked that it include detailed information concerning the demilitarization of any future Palestinian state and the deployment of Israeli forces on its eastern border to prevent weapons smuggling.

The original document was authored by then chief of planning department at the General Staff and today commander of the Israel Air Force, Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehoshtan. Its conditions already include Israeli monitoring of Palestinian border terminals, freedom of Israeli aviation in Palestinian airspace, Israeli control of the electromagnetic spectrum and early warning stations in the West Bank. Both the Bush administration and the PA voiced reservations on the brief at the time.

While Netanyahu, unlike his predecessors Ehud Barak and Olmert, did not set up a negotiating team to run the talks per se, the PA is well prepared: Top-ranking Palestinian officials including Yasser Abed Rabbo, Saeb Erekat and Mahmoud Abbas himself have years of experience in negotiating with Israel. The Palestinians also have what they call a "negotiation support unit," which has been operating continuously for over a decade.

On the Israeli side, by contrast, Molcho is the only close Netanyhu adviser with any experience in negotiating with the Palestinians.

Observers explain that Netanyahu's reluctance to set up a large negotiating team stems from a fear of leaks. A source in the Prime Minister's Office told Haaretz, however, that there has been a tremendous amount of background work done ahead of the renewal of the talks.

It remains unclear which Israeli or other commitments have convinced the Palestinians to resume even indirect negotiations.

PA secretary Taib Abdel Rahim said yesterday that on his last visit to Ramallah, Mitchell brought a letter from U.S. President Barack Obama guaranteeing an American commitment to the two-state solution and an end to the occupation that began in 1967, and a binding statement declaring that the future Palestinian state will be independent and territorially contiguous.

Abdel Rahim noted Mitchell said the U.S. will take steps against any provocation and act against any side that brings down the talks - including altering American policy toward that party.

Abbas has informed the U.S. of his new proposals concerning construction and house demolition in Jerusalem, which the Palestinians see as a provocation. The Palestinian president is set to meet with Obama in Washington later this month.

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