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Olmert's peace efforts put Livni in tight spot

Netanyahu, her rival for prime minister, has used an interim accord reportedly offered to Palestinians to portray Livni, the foreign minister, as 'weak on security.'

February 04, 2009|Richard Boudreaux

JERUSALEM — Less than a week before Israeli voters pick a new leader, the candidate most involved in negotiations with the Palestinians is on the defensive over newly reported details of an interim peace accord offered months ago by outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the standard-bearer of Olmert's centrist Kadima party, was already trailing in the polls before the disclosures last week prompted the hawkish front-runner to accuse her of agreeing to "surrender" parts of Jerusalem for an independent Palestinian state.

Talks between Israel and Palestinian leaders in the West Bank have been suspended since late December, when Israel began an assault on the more militant Hamas faction, which rules the Gaza Strip. They are unlikely to resume before Olmert's successor takes office.

Livni has said that if she succeeds Olmert, she would work with the Obama administration to revive the talks and push for a two-state agreement. But her backers say her election bid has been complicated by an Israeli newspaper's report on Olmert's peace offer, even though Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas spurned it.

"Peace is not a popular word in Israel right now," said Nachman Shai, a retired army officer running for parliament with Kadima. "Parties running on an all-out peace platform are bound to lose."

Polls show Kadima trailing former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing opposition Likud Party by three to 12 seats in next Tuesday's election of a 120-seat parliament. If Likud wins the most seats, Netanyahu, who is cool to a peace accord, would form the next government.

Netanyahu has capitalized on the conflict in Gaza by appealing to voters who believe Israel should have prolonged its 22-day offensive, which was aimed at stopping Palestinian rocket fire. Militants have defied a Jan. 18 cease-fire with scattered attacks from Gaza, including a Grad missile strike Tuesday on the Israeli city of Ashkelon. Israeli warplanes struck back later in the day, bombing tunnels Hamas has used to smuggle in weapons from Egypt.

Olmert made his peace offer last fall to Abbas and reported details of it last week to George J. Mitchell, President Obama's special envoy to the Middle East.

An official in the prime minister's office said the outlines of the proposal reported Thursday by the newspaper Yediot Aharonot were accurate. But he denied the newspaper's assertion that Olmert was seeking to bind his successor to it.

Under the proposal, Israel would relinquish any claim to the Gaza Strip, all but a small part of the West Bank and Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods, a hand-over that would uproot more than 60,000 Jewish settlers from the West Bank.

The Jewish part of Jerusalem and large suburban-style West Bank settlements near the city would remain in Israel's hands. In return for annexed West Bank land, the Palestinians would get a strip of the Negev desert adjacent to Gaza and a tunnel or overpass connecting Gaza and the West Bank. The shortest route linking the territories would run about 30 miles across southern Israel.

An international body representing Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Israel and the U.S. would administer religious sites in Jerusalem's Old City and holy basin to ensure access for Christian, Muslim and Jewish worshipers. Israel would retain formal sovereignty over those sites.

Palestinians who fled or were forced from Israel around the time of the Jewish state's founding in 1948 would forfeit their right to return, although Olmert offered to accept a limited number -- up to 50,000, according to Israel's Channel 10 television -- under a family reunification program.

Netanyahu seized on Israel's proffered concessions to portray Livni as "weak on security." His party has plastered that slogan on buses and billboards in recent days.

"We did not return to Jerusalem after praying for it to be rebuilt for 2,000 years in order to give it up," Netanyahu said Monday during a campaign stop in the City of David, a Jewish-run archaeological site just outside the Old City's walls. "A sane country does not give up its capital to its enemies."

If elected, "I won't evacuate settlements," he said. "Those understandings are invalid and unimportant."

Olmert's proposal grew from negotiations kicked off with great fanfare by President Bush at a summit in Annapolis, Md., in November 2007, and aided by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who traveled here nearly every month last year.

Forced by corruption scandals to call early elections and step down, Olmert tried to seal his legacy with an interim peace accord. The offer, similar to a more detailed proposal the Palestinians rejected in 2001, defined in broad strokes the trade-offs Israel was willing to make to bring about Palestinian statehood.

But Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator, said the proposal was never written down and left too many details unsettled.

"Abbas told Olmert that we will not be part of an interim agreement," Erekat said. "Either we agree on all issues, or no agreement at all."

The airing of the proposal put Livni in an awkward position. She was pledged to secrecy about the talks but, aides said, opposed several of Olmert's concessions, such as letting some refugees return to Israel. She has been vague on the issue of dividing Jerusalem.

Headlines about Olmert's offer "do not represent me and my work," she told students at the Tel Aviv Academic Institute on Thursday.

Since then, her campaign has blended a harsh line against Hamas with her call for peace talks with Abbas' more moderate faction. Netanyahu is using the conflict with Hamas, she says, to deflect international pressure to pursue a peace accord.

--

boudreaux@latimes.com

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