JERUSALEM — Israel and the United States are preparing a new joint peace initiative for possible release following Israel’s January 28 general election, the Forward has learned.
The initiative, details of which are still being ironed out in high-level, behind-the-scenes talks, would reportedly include a joint American-Israeli call for the establishment of a “demilitarized Palestinian state with temporary borders,” according to several sources familiar with the talks. A unilateral Israeli announcement of the establishment of such a Palestinian state is being considered. The new state reportedly would be led by an appointed prime minister, with Yasser Arafat barred from playing any role.
Senior officials have confirmed that such plans are under discussion. Several sources cautioned against expectations of an early breakthrough, however, insisting that such plans would not be activated until after the Iraq crisis has been resolved.
Any explicit declaration relating to the establishment of Palestinian statehood, one senior government source told the Forward, would be part of a “second phase,” following Palestinian economic and political reform and the cessation of terrorism.
Nonetheless, the American-Israeli plan appears to be in a fairly advanced stage of development. According to Israeli sources, a team has been formed at a New York public relations agency, Howard Rubenstein & Associates, to develop scenarios for the plan’s public presentation. Options said to be under study include a possible address by Prime Minister Sharon before a joint session of Congress.
Drafters are also said to be examining past examples of “provisional statehoods,” including the onetime South African protectorate of Namibia, which went through a provisional stage before achieving full independence.
Israel’s consul for media and public affairs in New York, Ido Aharoni, confirmed the Rubenstein involvement, but said it is unrelated to any request from the Prime Minister’s Office. “There have been no direct instructions from Jerusalem on this issue,” he said. “However, since [Palestinian statehood] is part of the public discourse in Israel, it has certainly been discussed, among other things, with Rubenstein, in order to better prepare us from a PR point of view.”
Broad hints that a concrete plan is underway have been dropped on several occasions in recent days by ranking Israeli and American officials, including at least two public statements by Sharon. In a Newsweek interview last week, Sharon attempted to downplay the diplomatic efforts of the so-called Madrid Quartet — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — by declaring: “Oh, the Quartet is nothing! Don’t take it seriously! There is [another] plan that will work.”
Outlining the alternate plan, Sharon said it would entail the removal of Arafat from his “influential position” and the appointment of a Palestinian prime minister.
Sharon’s dismissive comments about the Quartet ruffled diplomatic feathers in Europe and Washington, touching off hurried exchanges of statements. Secretary of State Colin Powell reaffirmed America’s commitment to the Quartet’s efforts, including its so-called “road map” for ending the intifada, a plan loosely based on President Bush’s June 24 Middle East speech. In reply, Sharon reaffirmed through aides that “within the forum known as the Quartet,” Washington and Jerusalem “see eye to eye.”
Another public affirmation of American commitment to Palestinian statehood was made by the usually hawkish deputy defense secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, in a Washington Post interview. Wolfowitz told the Post’s David Ignatius that in a post-Iraq war scenario, “our stake in pushing for a Palestinian state will grow.”
Ranking American and Israeli sources emphasized, however, that the flurry of public statements was in large measure a “smokescreen” meant to calm frayed nerves in Europe and the Arab world while the “significant discussions” were going on largely unnoticed.
Sources pointed to a January 15 speech by Sharon to the Science Club of the Israeli Friends of the Weizmann Institute of Science as a revealing guide to prime minister’s view of current talks.
Israel, Sharon said, has “arrived at an agreed-upon plan with the United States, and once we deviate from it, the United States will also deviate from it, despite the great efforts invested in a long and difficult negotiation process. My seven visits to Washington during the last 18 months have not been easy, and they have certainly not been in vain.”
Sharon said the “underlying principle of this plan — which is acceptable to Israel — is progress in phases, with the first phase being a complete cessation of Palestinian terrorism. The transition from one phase to a more advanced one is not defined according to a pre-determined timetable, but on the basis of performance. Each transition to the next phase is conditional on complete fulfillment of the commitments in the phase preceding it. Israel should obviously not be expected to make political concessions prior to a proven state of calm and Palestinian governmental reforms. The reform process is necessary in order to remove Arafat from the reins of power and decision-making and to establish a more proper government, which will lead the security, economic and democratic reforms.”
While the Forward’s sources did not provide details about the secret talks, they emphasized that discussions have reached the level of minutiae and deal with various scenarios, including one in which war with Iraq is avoided.
A Likud source familiar with the talks said that while Sharon may initially be obliged to establish a narrow, right-wing coalition unlikely to approve of such a plan, the ultimate goal remains to form a more amenable national unity government “after the Labor party finishes its post-electoral purges.”