Intensive Israeli-PA Negotiations Underway

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Having failed to achieve a peace pact before the change of administrations in Washington, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have launched a new round of intensive negotiations to try to wrap up a deal before another key date - the Israeli general election on February 6.

Talks got underway for the second day Monday in Taba, an Egyptian Red Sea resort, shortly after an Israeli soldier was wounded in a roadside bombing in the Gaza Strip.

The road leading to an isolated Jewish community surrounded by PA-controlled area has been a major flashpoint during the violent campaign of the past four months.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak came under fire here over the weekend for agreeing to send an Israeli delegation to the talks so close to prime ministerial elections.

Barak is still trailing opposition Likud leader Ariel Sharon by as much as 20 percentage points in opinion polls. A peace agreement is widely seen as his only chance of pulling off a surprise victory.

Sharon opposed Barak's decision to send a negotiating team to Taba so close to the elections, saying he was trying to organize a "coup." Even three of Barak's own cabinet ministers questioned the move, saying that starting talks at this time was "inappropriate and unethical."

Nevertheless, negotiations began Sunday evening. The sides decided to establish two committees to discuss the major outstanding issues - the one is dealing with borders, Jerusalem and security, while a second is handling the problem of Palestinian refugees.

Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said these issues remained "major problems."

Israel reiterated its position Monday that Palestinians who left Israel and their descendants not be given the "right of return."

"The talks aimed at resolving the problems of the Palestinian refugees are being conducted on the basis of Israel's position that there will be no right of return to inside the State of Israel," Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, who heads the Israeli negotiating team, said in a statement.

According to figures from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency there are nearly 3.7 million Palestinian refugees and their descendents living in camps in the PA-ruled West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Both Syria and Lebanon have stated emphatically that the refugees are not welcome to stay in their countries as part of a permanent settlement.

According to Sajdi Salaneh, general director of the Refugees Department of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the "only approach' for solving the issue is for Israel to take responsibility for their plight.

"First off all Israelis should say: 'We took your homes ... It is your homes that we dwelt in or [your] land we kicked you out of,' " Salaneh said in a telephone interview. Only after that, he said, can practical considerations be discussed.

But one Israeli government source, who spoke on condition of anonymity said there was "not any way" Israel would make such a statement. It would be "unbearable from our side," she said, and would result in all Palestinians wanting to flock to Israel.

Israel has long argued that absorbing millions of Palestinians would change the Jewish character of the state and inevitably lead to its destruction.

Ben-Ami said Israeli negotiators in Taba had made it clear that "ruling out the Palestinians' right of return to the State of Israel does not prevent their return to other countries, including the future Palestinian state."

Salaneh argued that the Palestinians had been forced from their lands and homes and should have a right to go back to them. If some of them wanted to settle somewhere else - say in a Palestinian state - then that is their decision alone to make, he said.

Historical records suggest that many, perhaps most Palestinian refugees were not forced out when Israel declared independence in 1948 but fled at the urging of Arab leaders, who called for them to leave so that the invading Arab armies could destroy the fledgling state of Israel.

Historian and journalist Joan Peters, in her book From Time Immemorial, quotes an Arab research report as saying that "the majority" of Arab refugees were not actually expelled and that 68 per cent fled without ever seeing an Israeli soldier.

Some Arab leaders called for the refugees to return at once, Peters said, while others, like Emile Ghoury, Secretary of the Arab Higher Command, demanded they be prevented from returning.

"It is inconceivable that the refugees should be sent back to their homes while they are occupied by the Jews ... It would serve as a first step toward Arab recognition of the state of Israel and Partition," Ghoury was quoted as saying at the time in the Beirut Telegraph.

The partition he referred to was U.N. resolution 181, which called for British Mandatory Palestine to be divided into a Jewish and an Arab state. The Jews accepted the deal, while the Arab world rejected it and attacked the nascent Jewish state.