February 5, 2008 / 11:45 AM / 11 years ago

Israel's peace negotiator hears fall-back options

By Adam Entous

JERUSALEM, Feb 5 (Reuters) - Sceptical a deal can be reached with Palestinians this year, experts advising Israel’s top peace negotiator are presenting her fall-back options that call for fixing interim borders and accepting international troops.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who leads the talks for Israel, has been non-committal about the options, which would fall short of a full final-status agreement U.S. President George W. Bush is seeking before he leaves office in January 2009, said advisers who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"We’re not telling her, ‘Don’t go for it’. But we’re saying, ‘If you go for it, you have to be fully aware of the risks, and they’re much bigger than what meets the eye’," according to one participant in the closed-door meetings.

Before talks began last month, Livni cautioned that unrealistic expectations could spark violence if negotiators fail to seal an accord.

A suicide bombing on Monday, the first in a year, highlighted the depth of the challenge facing a peace push that Israel says hinges on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas containing Hamas as well as rebels within his own Fatah faction.

Advisers inside and outside Israel’s government doubt the current talks can lead to much more than an interim deal setting rough statehood borders, leaving the most sensitive issues like the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees for later.

Abbas, whose authority has been limited to the occupied West Bank since Hamas Islamists took over the Gaza Strip in June, has already rejected the idea of a state with provisional borders.

"If they want peace, we need permanent borders," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. One of Livni’s advisers countered: "The question is, what realistically can be done?"


Participants said the following options were among those that have been presented to Livni by a team of outside experts who took part in earlier peace talks with the Palestinians:

— Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would set the less ambitious goal of seeking agreement with the Palestinians on provisional borders and unilaterally begin to transfer more administrative authority to Abbas’s government in the West Bank.

Gidi Grinstein, head of the Reut Institute think-tank and one of the outside advisers, sees the melding of unilateralism with negotiations as a way of keeping the process going.

"If you don’t sign an agreement, it doesn’t require Knesset or PNC (Palestinian National Council) approval. So in terms of decision-making, it’s much easier," said Grinstein, who declined to comment on his private discussions with Livni.

The idea may be amenable to Olmert. In the 2006 election campaign, Olmert proposed a "convergence" plan under which Israel would unilaterally withdraw some Jewish settlers from the occupied West Bank but keep the largest settlement blocs.

Some of Livni’s advisers have urged her to go back to the convergence plan, though the idea may be a tough sell. Since Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and Hamas’s violent takeover last June, militants have used the territory to launch cross-border rockets into southern Israel.

— After reaching a framework accord setting provisional borders, Israel would commit to continuing final-status talks with the goal of reaching a comprehensive agreement later.

In the interim period, Israel would withdraw its troops from Palestinian population centres and an international force would step in to ensure the Palestinians crack down on militants.

Using international forces is one option considered by U.S. officials. But an Israeli official doubted it would win Israeli backing, saying: "The security establishment will veto it." (Editing by Dominic Evans)

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