Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Time is running out for Israel and the Palestinians to decide on the option of a two-state solution for ending the conflict between them, the PLO official in charge of Jerusalem affairs said.
Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, president of a prominent Palestinian university in the West Bank, was appointed by Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat as the PLO's political commissioner for Jerusalem last month, following the death of the former commissioner Faisal Husseini in May.
Since then, Nusseibeh has shocked Israelis and Palestinians with maverick ideas about what an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would take to conclude.
Speaking to reporters from the Foreign Press Association this week, he said that both Israel and the Palestinians will have to come to grips with compromises in their fundamental positions if they hope to conclude an agreement.
According to Nusseibeh, Israel and the Palestinians will need to abandon the piece-by-piece peace process method they have engaged in during the last seven years, in which the most sensitive issues were put off for discussion until the final stages.
Those issues, which he named as Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the right of return for Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem, must be faced squarely, he said.
Because Israel will never accept the return of some four million Palestinian refugees to within the 1967 border of the state, the Palestinians must deal with the problem among themselves if they want to reach an agreement.
"The Palestinians have to realize, to recognize that this is a deal breaker if the Palestinians insist on implementing the right of return to within Israel's territories in totality," Nusseibeh said. "Israel clearly will not accept, in a negotiation over a two-state solution, the return of over four million refugees to within its borders."
He admitted that making this suggestion about an idea sacrosanct to Palestinians since 1948 has caused the Palestinians to be angry with Nusseibeh. Some have even called on Arafat to fire him from his newly appointed post.
For the Israelis, they will have to deal with the issue of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip because the Palestinians will never accept a state, which is in part still controlled by Israel, Nusseibeh said.
"If the Israeli side over the past [few years] assumed for some reason or another that it is possible to conclude a settlement with the Palestinians in which it would be possible for Israel to retain its settlements in the West Bank and Gaza...surely the lesson of the spate of violence of the recent intifadah over the past year has proven that the people will not accept such a position," he said.
Some 200,000 Israelis live in established cities and communities in those areas. The number is doubled if Israelis living in Jerusalem neighborhoods across the so-called green line are included.
As for Jerusalem, it would need to be divided along the same 1967 borderlines leaving the newly established Palestinian state in charge of the ancient Old City, including all of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites, Nusseibeh said.
Israel has managed the entire city since it was united under its sovereignty as a result of its victory in the 1967 Six-day war, with the exception of the Temple Mount, where de facto rule through religious leaders has continued in Arab hands. From 1948 to 1967, the Old City and its shrines were in Jordanian hands, as was the eastern section of the city.
Nusseibeh warned that if Israel and the Palestinians want to try to reach an agreement, then time is of the essence.
"More and more people on the Palestinian side are thinking, perhaps we should go back to the demand for a secular state for a state in Mandatory Palestine, a state in which Jews, Moslems, Christians can all be equal citizens," he said.
Such a state, Israel could argue would, if not immediately, then very soon after have a Muslim majority and effectively put an end to the Jewish state.
But professor Gerald Steinberg, head of the program for Conflict Management and Negotiations at Bar-Ilan University, said that while Nusseibeh's ideas may sound reasonable, they could lead to more trouble.
"Sari Nusseibeh is a much more sophisticated spokesman than Yasser Arafat," Steinberg said by telephone on Wednesday.
"He knows that Israel is not going to return to the 1967 border, so he's making conditions that sound more reasonable. If it's a negotiating position then it can be discussed. If it's a public relations ploy then Sari Nusseibeh is only increasing the conflict," he said.
The 1948-ceasefire lines were artificial lines that have no status in international law, Steinberg said. Jordan occupied the West Bank from 1948 to 1967, and before that it was occupied by the British, preceded by the Ottoman Turkish Empire, the Romans and Israel.
Nevertheless, Steinberg said, none of these are issues are up for negotiations at this point.
"Right now there needs to be an end to violence, an implementation of the Mitchell report, and an end to the terrorist infrastructure before any other issues can be discussed," he said.
President Bush and visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a joint statement on Tuesday in which they called on both sides to "take practical actions to ease tensions so that peace talks can resume.
"We urge the parties to move without delay to implement the Tenet work plan and the Mitchell Report recommendations," Bush said.
Both sides agreed in June to a ceasefire understanding brokered by CIA Director George Tenet, but it never took hold on the ground. It was to have been the first step in implementing the broader recommendations made the Mitchell committee, designed to lead to an eventual resumption of negotiations.