Peretz Pressing for Palestinian Talks

Published May 19, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his main coalition partner, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, had their first major flap since the formation of the new Israeli government.

At issue was Peretz’s position on negotiations with the Palestinians.

In closed sessions with top Defense Ministry officials, Peretz, head of the Labor Party, called for an early resumption of contacts with the Palestinian Authority and said that talks with its president, Mahmoud Abbas, should be given every chance of success. In the event of a breakthrough, he argued that Abbas would be able to bypass Hamas by putting any agreement with Israel to a Palestinian referendum.

On substance, the two do not seem so far apart. Peretz also favors a negotiated settlement. Like Olmert, Kadima’s leader, he believes that Israel ultimately may have to make unilateral moves; but unlike the prime minister, he thinks a channel to Abbas could be productive.

The bigger issue in the Olmert-Peretz spat appears to be timing.

Olmert was reportedly angry that Peretz was pushing his view as he prepared for his first meeting as premier with President Bush. Olmert asked, in a tense meeting with Peretz last week, how he would be able to make the case for unilateralism in the United States when his own defense minister was prioritizing talks with the Palestinians.

“Only I have the authority to make policy,” Olmert reportedly said.

On the Palestinian side, there appeared to be movement toward re-engagement with Israel. A document negotiated between two jailed but influential leaders, Marwan Barghouti of Fatah and Sheik Abdel Halek Natshe of Hamas, has been hailed by both Hamas and Fatah officials as a basis for “national dialogue” that could lead to a compromise on policy toward Israel.

In contrast to the official Hamas position, the document appears to accept the principle of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. It endorses all previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements — though recognition of Israel is only implied, not explicit.

It also calls for the formation of a national unity government and for the inclusion of Hamas in the Palestine Liberation Organization. Such moves could give more credibility to a negotiation between Israel and Abbas, who is not only P.A. president but also PLO chairman.

In a speech Monday marking the anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba — “the catastrophe” that accompanied the creation of the State of Israel — Abbas underlined his determination to revive peace talks. He urged Palestinians to stop their “futile rocket attacks” on Israel, and called on Israel to drop its claim that there’s no Palestinian partner.

“The partner exists, and we extend our hand to you in peace,” he declared.

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