Israel Is Weighing New Peace Initiative With Palestinians, Official Says

Israel may start a new peace initiative with the Palestinians as concern rises that Middle East turmoil will lead to renewed pressure on each side to resume talks.

The plan envisions a phased approach to a final peace agreement, an Israeli official said yesterday on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media on the matter. He declined to elaborate. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that peace talks should address all outstanding issues and aim for a comprehensive agreement.

Nabil Shaath, a top official in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party, said the idea of a staged approach is “even worse than what we have been discussing already.”

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks stalled in September, after Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month partial construction freeze in West Bank settlements. Abbas has said he won’t negotiate while the building continues.

In floating a new initiative, Netanyahu may be trying to show that he is willing to be flexible as Western governments back popular uprisings across the Middle East, said Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University.

Israel is considering new steps to “keep Europe and the Americans satisfied,” Steinberg said. “The myth is there has to be progress in the peace process to promote stability and democracy and prevent radicalism.”

Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Close

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Merkel Call

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Netanyahu last week to discuss the current standstill in talks, spokesman Steffen Seibert said in Berlin on Feb. 25.

A State Department official said the agency is awaiting details of the Israeli proposal and would offer no comment until the plan was examined. The official spoke on condition of anonymity yesterday because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.

Oil prices have risen to a 2-1/2 year high on concern that the regional unrest that has led to the ouster of the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents will spread. Libyan rebels yesterday braced for possible renewed clashes with forces loyal to leader Muammar Qaddafi, who is attempting to regain control of major cities. Protests have also been staged in Yemen, Bahrain, Iran and Djibouti.

Yossi Beilin, a former deputy Israeli foreign minister who helped negotiate the 1993 Oslo Accords, said the new situation in the Arab world would mean “public opinion will count more.”

‘Feeling of Pressure’

“As a result of that, the Israeli-Palestinian issue will become much more salient in the near future, and this is why there is a feeling of pressure to do something,” said Beilin, who now heads the business consulting company Beilink.

The Israeli official said the new initiative was an attempt to circumvent a Palestinian refusal to resume the peace talks.

Shaath said no plan was serious unless it involved a freeze on settlement-building. “They can’t just find new bottles to put old wine in,” he said.

Al-Jazeera television in January said it had been given access to thousands of pages of memos and e-mails of private meetings showing Palestinian negotiators as prepared to give up claims to parts of east Jerusalem and swap some Jewish settlements in the West Bank for territory within Israel in 2008 talks. Al-Jazeera didn’t say how it obtained the documents, which cover the period from 1999 to 2010.

Palestinian officials at the time said the reports had been taken out of context.

Negotiator Quits

According to al-Jazeera, the Palestinians in 2009 discussed handing over Haram al-Sharif, Islam’s third-holiest site, to international control. The compound is known to Jews as the Temple Mount, the site of the ancient temple destroyed by the Romans and the holiest site in Judaism.

The area lies in east Jerusalem, sought by Palestinians as the capital of a state. Israel captured the area in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in a move never internationally recognized.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat resigned last month, saying he was taking responsibility for the leak of confidential documents from his office.

The Islamic militant group Hamas seized full control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, ending a partnership government with the Palestinian Authority after winning parliamentary elections a year earlier. Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Israel, refuses to recognize Israel or any agreements signed with it.

To contact the reporters on this story: Gwen Ackerman in Jerusalem at gackerman@bloomberg.net; Tanya Habjouqa through the Jerusalem bureau at thabjouqa@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

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