White House set for Obama-Netanyahu-Abbas summit. Israel downbeat
The White House is going full steam ahead with preparations for an early summit between US President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas for restartng the peace process, debkafile's Washington sources report exclusively. Sources in Jerusalem and Ramallah confirm that they too are getting set for the occasion. A high-ranking US official told debkafile: "Till now, we have had the curtain-raiser and opening positions: Now we are going for the real show – negotiations."
He was referring to the Middle East six-speech marathon launched by the US president May 19, countered by the Israeli prime minster and swinging back and forth up until Thursday, May 26 when Obama reiterated his concept of the Middle East peace track in London.
While many circles have accused the Israeli prime minister of taking a hard line on peace in Washington, Obama is reportedly congratulating himself on what was generally perceived as a debate between the two leaders but which he feels extracted from Israel three major concessions:
1. Netanyahu is the first Israeli prime minister to offer to leave settlements outside borders in a prospective accord establishing a Palestinian state. A high US official credited successful diplomatic cooperation between Obama and Netanyahu with obtaining this concession.
He noted that the Netanyahu government is now off the hook of having to evacuate settlements, which would have been politically impossible after the traumas still lingering from Israel's 2005 pullout from the Gaza Strip and destruction of settlements there.
In the view of the US official, the prime minister is now able to give roughly 120,000 settlers outside certain pre-determined areas the option of relocating across the lines in pre-1967 Israel or remaining on the West Bank under sovereign Palestinian rule.
The US official elaborated on the president's conception of the "mutual swaps of land": These swaps need not entail the evacuation of large populations or numerous settlements but rather create Israeli and Palestinian pockets that would remain in situ in each other's territories under the "sovereign symbols" of the opposite party, Israeli or Palestinian.
More crises obviously lie ahead for Washington and Israel as they hammer out the exact nature and scope of these arrangements. But the moment the Israeli leader accepted the principle of settlements outside borders, the door swung open for restarting peace talks.
The US official noted that the Palestinian leader had positively ruled out any Israeli settlements remaining under Palestinian rule. The White House was treating his position as negotiable.
2. If the Obama administration can bring the Israelis and Palestinians to agree on the nature of the "symbols of sovereignty" in the swapped pockets, it will have come up with the formula of joint sovereignty for solving the core issue of Jerusalem, said the official. Neither side would have to give up its sovereign rights in the city, and it would also be possible to introduce an international presence in defined areas.
3. After examining the ways in which the concept of 1967 borders was interpreted, the US official found no major differences between Obama and Netanyahu.
While the Israeli prime minister insists those lines are indefensible, Obama says they are the basis for negotiating changes that meet Israel's security requirements. Both Israel and the Palestinians will be free to demand changes in the 1967 boundaries.
The official pointed out that although the Israeli and Palestinian leaders assert that the differences between them are too wide to bridge, both are busy preparing for the triple summit at the White House.
State Department sources told debkafile that, considering the Palestinian refusal for almost two years to sit down and talk to Israel, some members of the White House National Security Council and State Department as closely watching the Arab League foreign ministers' meeting in Qatar Saturday, May 28,as the key to unlocking Mahmoud Abbas' resistance to the peace track.
The White House has been working behind the scenes to ensure that the ministers give him the green light for the three-way summit to go ahead.
Those officials stress that the start of negotiations is the best way to stop Abbas turning to the UN in September for recognition of a Palestinian state within 1967 borders.
Sources in Jerusalem confirmed the preparations for the triple summit, but were absolutely sure that the US official was overdoing the optimism in order to squeeze Israel for more concessions.
They said the US president had loaded his Middle East speech of May 19 with pro-Palestinian arguments and laid down two propositions that Israel can on no account accept.
— No Israeli military presence would remain across the new agreed borders between Israel and the Palestinians, i.e. Israel would be denied security provisions;
— As part of the land swap, Israel would have to give up territory – or, in other words, withdraw not just to the 1967 lines but further west and give up chunks of pre-1967 sovereign land.
If Obama sticks to this position, Israeli sources stressed, the negotiations will end very soon after they begin and the distrust between Israel and Washington will only deepen.