Israel is proposing to essentially turn its West Bank separation barrier into the border with a future state of Palestine, two Palestinian officials say, based on their interpretation of principles Israel presented in talks this week.
The officials said Israeli envoy Yitzak Molcho told his Palestinian counterpart that Israel wants to keep east Jerusalem and consolidate Jewish settlements behind the separation barrier, which slices close to 10 percent off the West Bank. They spoke on Friday on condition of anonymity, citing strict no-leaks rules by Jordanian mediators.
The proposal would fall short of what the Palestinians seem likely to accept, especially because it would leave Jerusalem on the “Israeli” side of the border.
But it would also mark a significant step for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has spent most of his career as a staunch opponent of Palestinian independence.
And if talks advance in such a direction, it could also spell the end for his nationalist coalition, where key members would consider the abandonment of most of the West Bank - a strategic highland and biblical heartland - an unforgivable betrayal.
Israel has confirmed that it presented principles this week for drawing a border with a Palestinian state. But the politically charged nature of the talks - even though they were held at a relatively low level, below that of Cabinet ministers - was reflected in the guarded refusal by any top official to discuss details.
An Israeli government official said that as far as he knew, the information was incorrect, but declined to elaborate or go on the record, citing Jordan’s demand for discretion.
Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, one of the closest Cabinet ministers to Netanyahu, said he has been supporting such an offer for months, and that Israel should concentrate on preserving the large West Bank settlement blocs, close to the pre-1967 border. But he could not confirm whether the offer was in fact made.
“I do not know if (Molcho) said these words exactly, but it would be great,” Meridor told The Associated Press.
The Palestinian officials - one a senior member of the leadership - said Molcho told the Palestinians that Israel wants to live peacefully beside a Palestinian state.
It would be the most detailed offer yet from Netanyahu on how much he wants to keep of the lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War - the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem.
The Palestinians want to establish their state in virtually all of these lands - although they do seem ready to accept minor adjustments, through land swaps in which Israel keeps some of the largest settlements.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is certainly unlikely to consider a proposal that keeps east Jerusalem under Israeli control. The eastern sector of the city is home to key Jewish, Muslim and Christian sites.
And Israel’s position, as described by the Palestinians, is less than what was offered by Netanyahu’s predecessors, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, who were willing to discuss a partition of Jerusalem as well.
Half a million Israelis
About half a million Israelis settled in east Jerusalem and the West Bank after 1967, including tens of thousands east of the barrier.
Israel started building the barrier in 2002, in the midst of a Palestinian uprising that included scores of deadly attacks by Palestinian militants who crossed from the West Bank into Israel and blew themselves up among civilians.
Israelis have generally credited the barrier - along with other punitive measures - with stopping the spate of incursions several years ago.
However, it was routed in a way that raised questions about Israel’s claim that it was a temporary security measure - weaving through the West Bank, looping wide around some settlements to leave room for expansion, and looking very much like a border a future Israeli government might argue for. The Palestinians condemned it from the start as a land grab.
The Palestinian officials also said that Molcho portrayed the Jordan Valley, which makes up about one-fourth of the West Bank and borders Jordan, as a strategic Israeli security asset. However, that wording suggests less than a demand for firm territorial control.
Netanyahu has said he wants a continued Israeli presence on the eastern border of a future Palestinian state as part of any peace deal.
Netanyahu has long argued Israel needs the area as a security buffer - protection against possible attack from the east.
The 1994 peace treaty with Jordan eased this concern - but the Arab Spring has given it new life: although it is almost never discussed by officials, mindful of riling Jordan, many in Israel ponder a nightmare scenario in which the Jordanian monarchy falls to Israel’s enemies, who then pour weapons and militants into the West Bank, reaching within miles (kilometers) from its major cities.
A senior Israeli military official said last week the Israeli army had to consider in its planning the possibility of heightened threats from east of the West Bank.
Israeli officials have said any presence in the Jordan Valley could be reviewed over time.
Abbas, meanwhile, is under growing pressure from the Quartet of Mideast mediators - the U.S., the U.N., the EU and Russia - to continue the talks with Israel, which began earlier this month. The Quartet had asked the sides to present detailed proposals on borders and security arrangements.
The Palestinians argue that the period set aside for the contacts ended Thursday, or three months after the Quartet issued its marching orders. Israel says the intention was to have three months of talks, and so wants meetings to continue.
Abbas will consult Monday with senior officials from the Palestine Liberation Organization and his Fatah movement. Later next week, he will also seek advice from the Arab League.