Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, the head of Israel's negotiating team in the peace talks with the Palestinians, has recommended to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel not announce new construction projects in Judea and Samaria when the next wave of Palestinian prisoners are released at the end of the month. Livni told Netanyahu that any declaration of new construction across the Green Line could lead to a collapse of the peace talks.
The coming release of prisoners (scheduled for Dec. 29) will be the third Israel has conducted as part of the peace talks with the Palestinians that were renewed in July. In the agreement to resume negotiations, Israel agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners in four waves over the nine months that were allotted for the talks. The agreement did not include a halt on Israeli construction in Judea and Samaria.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is not expected to return to Israel until after the Christmas holiday. On his most recent visit last weekend, Kerry presented Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with the outlines of a framework agreement. Kerry is now waiting for their responses to the proposal, which included potential compromises on core issues by both sides.
Speaking at a Likud convention in Tel Aviv yesterday, Netanyahu said, "We aren't stopping for even one moment the building and development of our land, including the settlements. We're told repeatedly that the reason there isn't peace is the settlements and our presence in Judea and Samaria. This isn't true. The reason there isn't peace is the ongoing Palestinian opposition to a Jewish state in any borders."
Meanwhile, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said yesterday that the Palestinians would be willing to extend the nine-month window for negotiations with Israel if a detailed framework agreement were in place by the end of April.
This marked the first time that a Palestinian negotiator endorsed the American idea of seeking a preliminary rather than a final agreement by the end of a nine-month negotiating window that opened in July.
Erekat said it is possible to reach such a framework agreement by the end of April, despite wide gaps that remain between the sides. "We are not talking about a peace treaty on the 29th of April. We are talking about a framework agreement," Erekat said.
Erekat described a framework deal as more detailed than a declaration of principles and said it would have to be turned into a full peace treaty within six to 12 months.
Asked if the Palestinians would continue the talks, provided a framework deal were in place by April, Erekat said: "Absolutely, if we reach a framework agreement that specifies the borders, the percentage of swaps, the security arrangements, the Jerusalem status, refugees and then that is the skeleton."
Erekat said the Palestinians are willing to accept a gradual Israeli withdrawal from areas that are to become part of a Palestinian state, but not an extended Israeli presence. "When an agreement will be signed, Israel will not withdraw the next morning from the State of Palestine," he said, adding that once the withdrawal is completed, Palestine must be fully independent.