TEL AVIV // The chief Palestinian peace negotiator yesterday rejected a proposal by Israel's ultranationalist foreign minister for a provisional Palestinian state that would leave nearly all Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank intact.
Avigdor Lieberman has drafted a map of a Palestinian state with temporary borders that would essentially "freeze the existing situation in the territories, with minor changes", the Haaretz newspaper reported yesterday. The report, which cited an unidentified senior foreign ministry official, said the Palestinian state would include 45 to 50 per cent of West Bank land, far below Palestinian demands.
Such a plan would in effect allow Israel to avoid evacuating most of the more than 120 Jewish settlements, home to more than 300,000 Israelis, in the West Bank and transfer only part of the territory to Palestinian sovereignty. Palestinians want the entire West Bank along with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem to form their future state, with minor territorial swaps, and view the settlements in the West Bank as the greatest impediment to the creation of a viable state.
The Palestinians, who in past months have rejected anything short of a final peace pact, dismissed Mr Lieberman's plan. The reported scheme is "an unserious invention and a joke", said Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator to peace talks with Israel, in an interview with an Israeli radio station. Mr Erekat added that the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank is unavoidable "and there is nothing the Israelis could do to stop that".
Haaretz said Mr Lieberman's map aims to show that Israel does not reject peace talks with the Palestinians and wants to take the diplomatic initiative in finding a solution. The map includes a network of roads that would connect Palestinian towns while crossing Israeli-controlled areas.
The foreign minister also hopes the plan would hamper Palestinian efforts to win international recognition of a Palestinian state throughout the entire West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. A spokesman for the foreign ministry declined to confirm the Haaretz report and said that currently there were several moves being weighed as part of a bid to renew peace talks.
Palestinian officials have in recent months stepped up a campaign to garner the support of as many countries as possible for the creation of a state within the pre-1967 borders. They have already drawn backing from at least seven Latin American countries. The recognitions came shortly after US-mediated direct peace talks were suspended after Israel refused to extend a temporary freeze on West Bank settlement construction, a condition Palestinians demanded.
The Haaretz report quoted the foreign ministry official as saying: "After a Palestinian state has been established within provisional borders, it would be possible to resume diplomatic negotiations and maybe reach agreements on transferring additional territory to the Palestinian state."
Mr Lieberman has already informed the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, about the plan but has not yet shown him the map, the report added.
While it remains unclear whether Mr Netanyahu would support such a plan, the Israeli prime minister has indicated in recent months that he may not rule out an interim pact in case the two sides fail to agree on the conflict's most sensitive issues.
In December, Mr Lieberman said he was finalising a "Plan B" for a long-term deal because there was no possibility for Israel's mostly pro-settler, right-wing government to meet Palestinian demands for territorial concessions.
Mr Netanyahu has not publicly endorsed any of Mr Lieberman's statements on the peace process, but is also not likely to easily dismiss them since the foreign minister's far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party is the second-biggest in the governing coalition.