x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Prominent Israelis propose Palestinian state in new peace plan

Organisers including former heads of military, Mossad and Shin Bet say they are trying to reduce Israel's growing isolation and establish a role for it in determining Middle East¿s future

From left, Yehuda Ben Meir, Israel's former deputy foreign minister; Yuval Rabin, son of the former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and one of the writers of the initiative; Yaakov Peri, the former head of Shin Bet, and Aliza Shenhar, Israel's former ambassador to Russia, at a news conference in Tel Aviv yesterday.
From left, Yehuda Ben Meir, Israel's former deputy foreign minister; Yuval Rabin, son of the former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and one of the writers of the initiative; Yaakov Peri, the former head of Shin Bet, and Aliza Shenhar, Israel's former ambassador to Russia, at a news conference in Tel Aviv yesterday.

TEL AVIV // Prominent Israeli security figures yesterday announced a plan for the creation of a Palestinian state in a move aimed at pressuring Israel's right-wing government to advance peace talks.

The plan's organisers, including former heads of the military, the Mossad spy agency and the Shin Bet internal security service, said they wanted it to serve as the basis for a possible future Israeli counteroffer to the Arab peace initiative from 2002. Israel has refused to respond because of its call to pull out of all occupied land and allow Palestinian refugees to resettle within its borders.

They also said that the timing of their announcement aimed at reducing Israel's growing isolation in the face of escalating international condemnation of its settlement enterprise.

Furthermore, they want to establish an active role for Israel in determining the future of the Middle East at a time of regional upheaval, as popular uprisings against autocratic leaders spread throughout the Arab world.

Danny Yatom, a former head of the Mossad and a leading member of the group, wrote in a column on the popular Israeli news website Walla yesterday: "It's clear that with the absence of a peace process, the threat is growing that the place of the dictators will be taken by regimes that are hostile to Israel, and a diplomatic initiative could influence the populations in those countries to vote for moderate candidates that view peace with Israel as an advantage."

The plan, whose initiators include former centrist political leaders, businessmen and academics, calls for a Palestinian state to be established in the Gaza Strip and in most of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, which also includes East Jerusalem. It would also allow Israel to keep the majority of its major Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank and all of its predominantly Jewish neighbourhoods in disputed East Jerusalem.

While most of the initiative's ideas are not new, and several have been rejected by Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the past, the plan is drawing attention at a time when the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is at a standstill.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, and Shimon Peres, the president, have both been given copies of the initiative but have not yet officially responded to it. The Palestinians have also declined to comment on the document.

Direct negotiations between the two sides broke down in September after Israel refused to extend a temporary construction freeze in West Bank settlements, and have failed to be reignited since then.

The deadlock has prompted Palestinians to focus their attention on garnering international support for a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood, an announcement being slated for September.

The new peace initiative may be welcomed by the administration of Barack Obama, which has intensively pressed Israel and the Palestinians to conduct direct or indirect talks, although its efforts have so far produced few tangible results. On Tuesday, Mr Obama met Mr Peres in Washington and said: "With the winds of change blowing through the Arab world, it's more urgent than ever that we try to seize the opportunity to create a peaceful solution between Palestinians and Israelis."

The plan calls for a Palestinian state to be created in the Palestinian territories that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War - the Gaza Strip and West Bank, with East Jerusalem as the capital. It also makes clear that Israel would retain its status as a Jewish state while granting its Palestinian citizens - who make up a fifth of the population - equal rights.

It also states that Israel would be permitted to keep up to seven per cent of the West Bank and in return give up land of equal size within its current borders.

Touching the sensitive issue of Jerusalem, the document calls for Israel to keep all the Jewish neighbourhoods while Palestinians would retain the predominantly Arab areas. While the Jewish quarter and the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City would remain in Israeli hands, the complex known as Temple Mount by Jews and as al Haram al Sharif by Muslims because it houses Islam's third-holiest mosque would be controlled by neither side.

In an approach likely to alienate many Palestinians, the initiative suggests that aside from several individual cases, all Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war that created Israel and their descendents will not be allowed to return to their former homes. According to the plan, they will receive a financial compensation from Israel and be permitted to move to the new Palestinian state.

The document's signatories also include Yaakov Peri, who headed Israel's Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency from 1988 to 1994, Ami Ayalon, a former legislator who presided over the Mossad spy agency from 1996 to 1998, and the former army chief Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.

Their initiative also calls for a withdrawal from the Golan Heights, territory captured from Syria during the 1967 war, over a five-year period, in exchange for security guarantees and economic cooperation projects.

vbekker@thenational.ae