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'Israel-PA to backchannel talks'

By Joshua Brilliant (29/12/2006)

TEL AVIV, Israel (UPI) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has agreed to back channel talks with representatives of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on 'The principles for a permanent settlement between Israel and the Palestinians,' Yediot Aharonot reported Friday.

Olmert`s spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, had no comment on the newspaper`s report.

Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, proposed such talks when he met Olmert in Jerusalem, Saturday night. The Palestinian president publicized the proposal following his subsequent meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo.

'We have proposed the idea of back channel talks ... with the participation of members of the Quartet,' Abbas said referring to the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. The talks would aim at 'discussing the final phase,' of an agreement with Israel, he added.

Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erakat told United Press International that at Saturday`s night`s meeting Olmert had said he would consider the proposal. So far the Palestinians haven not heard his reaction. 'He did not respond. No response yet,' Erakat stressed.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been stuck for years. In 2003 the Quartet proposed a roadmap to a permanent solution of the conflict. It outlined phases, timelines, target dates for steps that would culminate with a 'Final and comprehensive settlement...by 2005.'

U.S. President George W. Bush flew to Aqaba, Jordan, met Israel`s then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Abbas who was then Palestinian prime minister, Jordan`s King Hussein, and launched the project.

It did not go far. Israel insisted it would not begin to implement Phase 1 of the roadmap before Palestinian violence ends. Abbas, whose hands were tied by the then Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, resigned.

Violence continued, the Islamic Hamas won the elections and formed a government that refuses to commit itself to the roadmap, let alone accept Israel or cease violence. Abbas, who is now president, is committed to the roadmap.

Israel is also committed to that plan. In briefing Israel`s ambassadors to the EU member states, this week, Olmert noted s broad international agreement that the Roadmap and Quartet principles provide the only way to moving forward. 'The countries that support the peace process all understand that disavowing terrorism and fighting it are basic conditions for moving forward and we must stand on these principles,' he said.

Back channel talks would be a way to advance despite the hurdles. 'The most important question to be answered by such talks (is)...how do we go from here, how do we go about it and how do we implement the roadmap,' Erakat maintained.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said in an interview with the Haaretz newspaper that both sides are sitting on a powder keg and time is not helping the moderates.

Livni said that in talks with Abu Mazen she would aim for an 'alternative' that would provide Israel with security, demilitarization, a resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue and, 'Create a genuine alternative for the Palestinians that includes a solution to their national problem.'

She criticized Israel`s long-standing policy that it does not negotiate under fire.

'We shouldn`t say that we won`t talk under fire, but that we won`t make concessions under fire,' Livni stressed.

Public opinion polls show her to be very popular while Olmert`s marks are poor. She told Haaretz she entered politics to 'further the diplomatic issue.' If Olmert will let her do 'What I believe I must, I won`t look for the next slot. If not, I`ll run for prime minister,' she said.

Former minister Yossi Beilin, who masterminded the 1993 Oslo accords, noted they began as an Israeli-Palestinian back channel. The advantage in such a process is that external events do not affect it. One does not have to stop them when there is terror in Israel or when Israeli troops enter Palestinian areas and kill Palestinians, he told UPI.

The participants have more time and space to talk, examine options, toss ideas, engage in 'what if...' exercises and do all that without the media`s pressure for daily results, nor a need to exhibit steadfastness.

No commitments are made there, in contrast with formal negotiations that are 'very difficult,' he said.

The Oslo channel was supposed to resolve problems encountered in formal negotiations held in Washington, and present the results to the negotiators. Eventually Oslo turned into the channel where the first Israeli-Palestinian agreement was concluded.

Beilin now heads the dovish Meretz Party. He reached unsigned understandings with Abu Mazen years ago. Then Israeli and Palestinian doves drafted a proposed agreement to show what kind of a solution is possible. It became known as the Geneva initiative and Beilin said Livni`s new ideas are extremely close to it.

Livni told Haaretz that if her talks would produce a workable alternative, 'The moderate Palestinians will have to receive a mandate to implement it. At a certain point, it will also be necessary to bring in moderate Arab countries to support the plan.'

Because of the growing threat of extremism and zealotry in the area, 'Moderate countries and factors in the region understand today that their problem is not Israel....

'This opportunity must not be missed. At least we must examine it,' she advocated.

'It may ... be possible to formulate some of the basic principles of the final status agreement, even if it is impossible to reach such an agreement now,' she added.