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Unraveling the Knottiest Issues in Stalled Peace Talks

A new study published by an institute led by former Republican official James Baker argues that the Obama administration needs to be more aggressive in pushing Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

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Inter Press Service

The United States needs to take on a more aggressive presence in peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, according to a major report published earlier this month by the James Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

Baker, who served as President George H. W. Bush’s secretary of state, generally maintains a low profile, especially on such controversial issues. However, he underscored the need for a more assertive U.S. approach to the Middle East peace process during an interview in this week’s National Journal in which he accused President Barack Obama of "caving in" to Israel’s continued settlement expansion.

"Both Democratic and Republican administrations have long endorsed the U.S. policy that settlements are an obstacle to peace… You can’t take a position that is consistent with U.S. policy going back many years, and the minute you get push-back you soften your position," elaborated Baker in the interview.

Baker’s strong remarks come amid continuing delays in convening negotiations regarding "final status" issues in the 60-year conflict, such as borders, refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

Israel continues to build settlements throughout the territory it has occupied since the Six-Day War of 1967, a practice that is in violation of international law. Early on in his attempts to restart the peace process, President Obama repeatedly called for a complete freeze all settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

But after facing months of resistance from Israeli leadership, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the administration relented when a partial freeze was implemented.

The 107-page report, "Getting to the Territorial Endgame of an Israeli-Palestinian Peace Settlement," makes a series of recommendations to the Israeli, U.S., and Palestinian leadership regarding key issues that have paralysed previous peace efforts.

The report is the culmination of 18 months of workshops and discussions between a wide array of Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. officials, academics, and business people convened by the Institute’s Conflict Resolution Forum, chaired by Edward P. Djerejian, Baker’s top Middle East aide in the early 1990s.

"No agreement will please every constituency on either side," said Djerejian, who also served as U.S. ambassador to Syria and to Israel. "But this report can provide the respective governments with a heads-up on significant problems and contentious issues that they most likely will encounter in actual negotiations."

Territory is the main focus of the report, and though the panels did not reach a consensus on what the borders of a future Palestinian state would look like, Djerejian called for the U.S. to implement a bridging proposal on territory, based upon the Green Line – the ceasefire line of Jun. 4, 1967.

The premise of the bridging proposal is to negotiate a territorial compromise within the range of 3.4 to 4.4 percent, with active United States participation. While Palestinian teams indicated that they could not accept giving up more than 1.9 percent of the West Bank, with borders based upon the Green line, the Israeli team said they would not accept anything less than seven percent.

Israel’s settlements in the West Bank have historically been an obstacle in past negotiations between the Jewish State and the Palestinians. The report underscores "space and time" as an important component in any future arrangement concerning the relocation of settlements over a period of time and presents several options including land swaps and territorial corridors in order to ensure a continuous and viable future Palestinian state.

The report also recognises the enormity of settlement negotiations, as "this would put an end to 41 years of settlement drive, based on Israeli ideological and security motives. Such a move necessitates a major political, organisational and financial effort on behalf of Israel."

The issue of Jerusalem as a hoped-for capital for both states remained problematic and was not directly addressed in the report as a final-status issue. However, the most contentious settlements in the vicinity of the city were considered, including Ma’ale Adumin, located east of Jerusalem and which, if annexed by Israel, would sever Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank.

The report comes on the heels of Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s unusually candid remarks at Israel’s annual national security conference in the port city of Herzliya earlier this month.

In his speech, Barak acknowledged an impending single state "apartheid" solution to the conflict, if a peace agreement with the Palestinians is not realised in the near future. Barak went on to warn that the only way to ensure the survival of a "Zionist, Jewish, democratic state" was to "to demarcate a border within the land of Israel," and "pay attention to international constraints."

Saeb Erekat, lead negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), also made a similar comment in November of last year, imploring his chief, President Mahmoud Abbas, to "tell his people the truth, that with the continuation of settlement activities, the two-state solution is no longer an option," alluding to a policy shift where the Palestinians would pursue full Israeli citizenship and voting rights.

The Baker Institute’s report is not the first to stress the urgency of a final status peace accord. Obama himself spoke about the pressing nature of an agreement when he declared, "the moment is now" to settle the decades-long conflict, while in Germany last year.

The Baker Institute’s report also bears resemblance to the Geneva Initiative, which was composed under similar circumstances in 2003. These accords brought Israeli and Palestinian academics and politicians together to strike an agreement over final status issues as well, using similar formulas on land swaps and settlements.

Another notable proposal for the two-state solution was 2009’s "A last Chance for a Two-State Israel-Palestine Agreement," by the U.S./Middle East Project. That report emphasised the fleeting nature of the two-state solution and urged the Obama team to engage immediately, as "political capital will erode; domestic obstacles will grow; other issues will dominate; and the warring parties will play for time and run the clock."

The report, subtitled "a Bipartisan Statement on U.S. Middle East Peacemaking," urges the Obama administration to seize the opportunity for a two-state solution by engaging Hamas and facilitating Palestinian reconciliation, in order to form another unity government.

Henry Siegman, former national director of the American Jewish Congress, and now the president of the U.S./Middle East Project, noted Wednesday in an op-ed for the Financial Times that a two-state solution would be reached only if "an American president would draw on the massive credit the U.S. has accumulated with Israel to insist it dismantle its illegal settlements, which successive U.S. administrations held to be the main obstacle to a peace accord."

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