Israeli-Palestinian talks hit a new low
By Hisham Abdallah
Eilat, Israel - Troubled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks hit their lowest point in days on Thursday after angry Palestinians rejected a map outlining Israel's vision of the final shape of the occupied territories.
"Since the conflict over the map, there have not been any real negotiations," said a Palestinian source in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, where talks were to have continued on Thursday.
He said Palestinians were insisting that Israel commit to withdrawing to its borders before the 1967 Middle East war which saw Israel capture the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
A Palestinian negotiator said Wednesday's meeting broke off for an hour after the Palestinian team refused to discuss the map, which they found unacceptable.
"It was a very difficult session when the Palestinians refused to negotiate (over) a map presented to them on the final status," said the negotiator, who declined to be named.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have been meeting since Sunday to forge a framework peace accord with a mid-May deadline looming ahead of a final settlement in September, after two rounds of inconclusive talks in the United States.
But tensions have mounted over several issues that must be resolved before peace can be forged.
These include the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements, and the final borders of a Palestinian state.
The official said the map outlined a Palestinian entity covering two-thirds of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in unconnected areas and did not include Jerusalem, the holy city that both Israel and the Palestinians claim as their capital.
"This map is even worse than the Palestinians have been hearing. It said that all the major roads in the West Bank would be under Israeli control and involved Israel annexing the major settlements," he added.
"This shows that what Israel is trying to give in the final status is nothing more than enhancing the interim period (of land transfers outlined in the 1993 Oslo peace accords)."
In recent months, several Israeli officials have suggested in the media that Israel would accept a Palestinian state on 65 to 80 percent of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, the remainder being annexed to the Jewish state or left undefined for several years.
Palestinians say that under the Oslo accords of September 1993 they should have 90 percent of the territory, compared with about 40 percent at present under their full or partial control.
The official said visiting United States Middle East troubleshooter Dennis Ross, who is mediating the Eilat round, managed to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table, but that the Palestinians continued to refuse to discuss the map.
The talks nevertheless continued in Eilat on Thursday between chief Israeli negotiator Oded Eran and his Palestinian counterpart, Yasser Abed Rabbo, in the presence of Ross's deputy, Aaron Miller.
But the Palestinians said they were waiting for the outcome of separate meetings Ross was due to hold with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, said the official.
Ross voiced doubt on Wednesday that negotiators would be able to meet the mid-May deadline, suggesting up to two months were needed to resolve the outstanding issues.
"There is a potential and a need to make big decisions to reach a framework agreement. When it will be I cannot say precisely but I think the next six to eight weeks will be critical," Ross said.
Palestinian newspaper al-Hayat al-Jidida quoted Abed Rabbo as saying that an Arafat-Barak summit was the only way to achieve progress.
Meanwhile, Jerusalem's rightwing mayor, Ehud Olmert, said on Thursday he backed plans to build about 50 new homes for Jews in Abu Dis, an Arab village near Jerusalem that Barak had proposed handing over to the Palestinians.
Barak put off the transfer after several members of his fractious coalition warned they would quit the government, protesting that the plans would divide Jerusalem. - Sapa-AFP