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Mideast expert: US letter on freeze deal was completed

The Jerusalem Post (Link) - Hilary Leila Krieger & Herb Keinon (November 24, 2010)

The parties have finalized the text for the US letter to Israel concerning the terms of a renewed settlement freeze, according to Middle East expert David Makovsky.

Makovsky highlighted, however, complicating factors in the effort to get from a deal on paper to actually having it approved by the Israeli cabinet and signed by the United States.

Makovsky, who spoke at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Tuesday, recently returned to the US after extensive conversations with Israeli and Arab leaders.

The crux of the deal centers on the US providing Israel with advanced fighter jets in return for a three-month West Bank settlement freeze that both the US administration and the government in Jerusalem hope will get Palestinians back to the negotiating table, he said.

Makovsky pointed out that while the Obama administration is making the offer, it�s Congress that must eventually sign off on sending fighter jets to Israel. Although Congress is typically supportive of Israeli aid and military acquisitions, incoming Republicans who will be taking over the US House have been talking about the need to save money and perhaps cut foreign aid.

In this climate, Makovsky said that Netanyahu is looking for some sort of �fallback understanding� so that he can present the security cabinet with an iron-clad arrangement for the planes in order to get the ministers� backing for the freeze.

He also referred to a �verbal affirmation� from Netanyahu to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the there would be �meaningful progress� on border issues during the 90-day freeze. He said that Israeli officials have concerns about a solitary focus on territory, or even on territory and security, over those 90 days, since Israel sees its best �chips� as being land. Officials are worried that if they give ground on this issue it will leave them in a weaker position when it comes to dealing with the even more sensitive issues of Jerusalem and refugees, so they are looking to find a formula they feel comfortable with.

Makovsky said that while the text didn�t contain any references to a long-term Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley � a key point Palestinians objected to � Israel would raise it in the future.

In addition, Shas ministers are trying to �ramp up� East Jerusalem building, Makovsky noted. While the agreement between the US and Israel would keep the same terms of the previous moratorium � which exempted East Jerusalem � Shas is looking for explicit permission for building which the US has long opposed and is unlikely to look on favorably.

Meanwhile, the wide gaps inside the government were on full display on Tuesday, with Defense Minister Ehud Barak saying Israel must work toward a two-state solution or face losing its Jewish or democratic character, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman saying that a final agreement with the Palestinians is unrealistic, and that the diplomatic focus should instead be on reaching a long-term interim agreement.

These widely varying visions of the future came as Jerusalem continued to wait for the just finalized letter of commitment from the US.

But while Barak indicated that direct talks with the Palestinians were absolutely vital for Israel, Lieberman said they were as important for the Palestinians as they were for Israel.

�There is no choice but to separate from the Palestinians,� the defense minister said at a conference of regional authority heads in the Negev. �Two states for two peoples is not a formula or slogan and is not a favor that we are doing for the Palestinians. That is the only way to ensure the future of the Jewish people.�

Barak said two states were necessary because if a boundary could not be drawn through the Land of Israel and there were only one political entity, that entity would have to be either Jewish or democratic, but it could not be both.

Barak said it was critical for Israel to come to an agreement with the US over the understandings regarding settlement construction.

�Either we will reach an understanding with the Americans, and the Palestinians and the Arab world will have to suit themselves to it, or the opposite will occur � the Arab world and the Palestinians will reach an understanding with the Americans, and we will have to suit ourselves to the conclusions,� he said.

Barak said a way had to be found to end the disagreement with the US over the construction issues, �because this is our greatest vulnerability in the world; there is not a government in the world that recognizes our right to build in Judea and Samaria.�

Lieberman, meanwhile, displayed the government�s other approach, saying at a press conference with visiting Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini that it would be wise to move from the current track of trying to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians � reaching a final agreement � to a different track where the goal would be a long-term interim agreement.

�I think we have a deep political, diplomatic disagreement, which is very emotional,� Lieberman said of the conflict with the Palestinians. �So it is preferable now to focus on the two issues where there is joint interest and cooperation that has proven itself in the past: in the spheres of security and economics.�

Regarding negotiations with the Americans over the document concerning a settlement freeze, Lieberman said that if the Palestinians were truly interested in talks, then the �guarantees [from the US] and the document are much less important than starting the direct talks.�

Lieberman said that while he didn�t know the status of the talks with the US, �I am not willing to pay another additional price for the joy of conducting negotiations [with the Palestinians]. This is in their interests just as it is in ours.�

Frattini, meanwhile, related to recent Palestinian threats to get the world to recognize a Palestinians state inside the June 4, 1967, lines, thereby imposing a solution on the parties, by saying that �so far� there is an understanding among the EU states that �we should support negotiations and negotiators, not replace the negotiations and negotiators.

�What is very important is to let the negotiators sit around the table and get an agreement including on the borders, not to decide from Brussels or elsewhere what should the Palestinian state be,� Frattini said. �We do want a Palestinian state as soon as possible, but there is no consensus and there are no proposals in Europe to have a decision on behalf of the two negotiators.�

As Frattini was meeting with top Israeli officials, in Brussels foreign ministers and other senior representatives of EU countries were discussing the Middle East at the monthly Foreign Affairs Council.

Following the meeting, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton issued a statement saying that the ministers exchanged views and �voiced their concern at the current lack of progress and the ongoing settlement activities, particularly in east Jerusalem. The High Representative [Ashton] pointed to the Council�s December 2009 conclusions and recalled that settlements are illegal under international law, are an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible.�

According to the statement, the �ministers also expressed their ongoing concern at the situation in Gaza, calling for the Gaza crossings to be opened and, in particular, for exports to be allowed out of Gaza.�

One Israeli diplomatic official said that what was so striking was that the statement was completely out of sync with the message that Frattini brought to Israel, one reason why the EU�s influence here is so limited.

Regarding the EU statement, the official said that �as long as this is their world view, they will continue to remain locked in their own fantasy work, without any possibility of influencing the real one.�

It is also mind boggling, the official said, that the statements routinely issued from the EU �make no acknowledgment of Israeli positions. They hold on to their slogans for dear life, and no reality makes them change it.� �

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