Former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Israel should let Palestinians establish a state and hand over most of the West Bank as soon as possible, leaving the fate of the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem to be decided later.
Mofaz, who plans to challenge Tzipi Livni for control of Kadima, Israel’s biggest opposition party, said U.S.-backed indirect peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians are going nowhere. He spoke as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepared for a July 6 White House meeting with President Barack Obama.
“My advice to Prime Minister Netanyahu is to bring a plan that will implement the vision of a two-state solution,” Mofaz, 61, said in an interview in Tel Aviv yesterday. “We are very close to agreeing about borders and security arrangements” and the prospect of Palestinian statehood “would change the atmosphere.”
Obama’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, is back in the region this week mediating “proximity talks” between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Mofaz, Israel’s former military chief of staff, said seizing the initiative by proposing a workable peace plan would prevent the U.S. and other world powers from trying to impose a solution unfavorable to Israel.
Mofaz said he envisions an interim agreement that would give Palestinians a state in 60 percent of the West Bank, covering areas that contain 99.2 percent of the Arab population. That would take about 18 months and lead to further negotiations on Gaza, Jerusalem and other issues that have proved insoluble over the past 17 years of talks, he said.
In the end, the Palestinians would have territory equal to that captured by Israel in 1967, with adjustments to the borders through land swaps that would put most West Bank Jewish settlers inside Israel, he said.
Failure to produce an Israeli plan this year will probably lead the U.S. to make its own proposal for resolving the conflict, which would “not fit Israeli security goals,’‘ Mofaz said.
Mofaz narrowly lost a Kadima party leadership contest to Livni in 2008 and said he will challenge her again. The former defense minister said if he won the party leadership he would try to form a new coalition with Netanyahu’s Likud party and negotiate his peace plan with the Palestinians.
While Kadima won more parliamentary seats than Likud in the 2009 general election, Livni was unable to form a ruling coalition. Netanyahu then cobbled together allied parties to form a government and win his second term as prime minister.
Mark Regev, a Netanyahu spokesman, declined to comment on Mofaz’s proposal.
Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, said Mofaz’s proposal on land swaps mirrored Palestinian ideas. He rejected Mofaz’s two-stage structure, saying Palestinians have been living under a temporary arrangement since the 1993 Oslo Accords, which granted limited sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza.
‘‘We’ve already gone through an interim period and now it’s time for a final agreement that solves all the outstanding issues and creates a Palestinian state,” Khatib said in a phone interview from the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Trying to solve all the disputed issues at once -- including Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, Gaza borders and security arrangements -- means “we will wait another 20 years,” according to Mofaz.
Born in Tehran
Mofaz was born in Tehran in 1948, the year Israel was established, and migrated with his family to the Jewish state when he was nine years old. As an army paratrooper, he fought in the 1967 war -- when Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem -- and participated in the 1976 hostage rescue operation in Entebbe, Uganda.
He was named commander of Israeli forces in the West Bank in 1993 and appointed chief of staff five years later, directing Israel’s response in 2000 to the Palestinian uprising known as the second intifada. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon named him defense minister in 2002 and he later split from the Likud and joined Sharon’s new Kadima party.
Mofaz, who speaks Persian, was Israel’s representative in an annual strategic dialogue with the U.S. administration until Kadima went into opposition last year. He said discussions largely focused on Iran and how to stop it from developing nuclear weapons.
“A nuclear Iran is a global threat,” Mofaz said. “Besides pushing and trying to stop the nuclear plan by sanctions, the U.S. and European countries should prepare for all options.”