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Peres backs provisional state idea

©Associated Press
June 14, 2002

JERUSALEM -- Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres came out in favor Thursday of a provisional Palestinian state, an idea floated by Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Palestinians did not rule it out.

Critics among Israelis and Palestinians warned the concept only postpones explosive issues, such as final borders and the fate of Palestinian refugees, that have torpedoed negotiations in the past.

Peres said the provisional state idea is "more or less" like a concept he worked out with Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia last year. Under that plan, Israel would recognize a Palestinian state beginning with the territories now under Palestinian control, about 40 percent of the West Bank and two-thirds of Gaza.

The two sides would later negotiate solutions to the touchiest issues: final borders, Jerusalem, Jewish settlements and Palestinian refugees.

Powell raised the "provisional state" idea in an interview with the London-based Arabic-language Al Hayat newspaper. He did not define what he meant, but later he said it was a well-known concept that has been under discussion for some time.

"It is an idea that has always been out there. The president has it under consideration," Powell said after a foreign ministers meeting in Whistler, British Columbia.

At the White House, Bush met with Prince Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, and cautioned reporters afterward against guessing about his intentions for promoting an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.

"I think it's probably wise for people not to spend a lot of time speculating. I'm going to lay out my vision at some point in time. It's going to be a vision that will help lead toward two states living side by side," Bush said.

The only prior mention of the "provisional state" concept, according to officials and analysts, was when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told the New York Times last week "to declare a state just theoretically like this and then to sit and negotiate what would be the borders ... I think it may work."

Though Peres presented the plan favorably to the Israeli Cabinet, it was never formally adopted by either the Israeli government or the Palestinian Authority.

Peres said the plan does not dovetail exactly with Powell's concept. "I didn't say the word "provisional,"' Peres said. "I don't see the need for this added description."

The official Palestinian position is that Israel must withdraw from all the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, back to a 1949 cease-fire line that held until the 1967 Middle East war, when Israel captured the territories. Also, the Palestinians officially reject any further interim accords, insisting the next pact must be a full peace treaty.

Supporters of an interim state say it would put Israel and the Palestinians on equal terms as they tackle the most difficult questions.

Critics counter that whatever the maneuvering and terminology, it leaves the key issues unresolved, issues that have blocked countless efforts to end the decades-long Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Negotiations aimed at working out a permanent peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in January 2001 amid Palestinian violence.

At a summit meeting at Camp David in July 2000, followed up by written proposals from then-President Bill Clinton, the Palestinians did not accept an offer of a state in more than 90 percent of the West Bank, all of the Gaza Strip and a foothold in Jerusalem, holding out for the right for all Palestinian refugees from the 1948-49 war and their descendants -- about 4-million people -- to return to their original homes in Israel, a concept Israel rejects.

Since then, Israel and the United States have said the offers are off the table, but the Palestinians insist on resuming negotiations where they ended. Also, more than 20 months of violence has dampened enthusiasm for peace negotiations on both sides.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon returned Thursday from talks in Washington and London. Though Sharon and President Bush joined forces in heaping criticism on Arafat, there were also differences. The Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot reported that in their talks, Bush expressed support for an interim Palestinian state, and Sharon strongly opposed it.

"We don't always agree about everything, but they certainly understand our positions clearly," Sharon said Thursday.

Sharon favors a long-term interim agreement with the Palestinians administering the areas now under their control without declaring a state. Sharon has said a Palestinian state is "inevitable," but negotiations cannot begin until all violence ceases.

Arafat convenes Cabinet

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat convened his new slimmed-down Cabinet, which was appointed in response to demands that he reform the unwieldy and corruption-ridden Palestinian administration.

The Cabinet, trimmed from 31 ministers to 21, had its first meeting Thursday in Arafat's headquarters complex, a day after Israeli troops withdrew from the perimeter walls, ending a two-day blockade. The Cabinet, appointed Sunday, was to meet Monday, but the Israeli incursion caused a postponement.

The main difference in the new Cabinet is the appointment of an interior minister, Maj. Gen. Abdel Razak Yihiyeh, who is to oversee Palestinian security forces. Up to now, Arafat has held the position himself.

Points of previous plan

Here are the main points of last year's understanding between Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia, whose centerpiece was a provisional Palestinian state. The plan was never adopted by Israel or the Palestinian Authority.

Over a period of six weeks, Israel and the Palestinians implement a cease-fire plan negotiated by CIA chief George Tenet, followed by confidence-building measures, including a freeze of Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Within eight weeks, Israel will recognize a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In the document, the size of the state is not spelled out, but both sides have said that at first, it would consist of the areas now under full or partial Palestinian control, or roughly 40 percent of the West Bank and two-thirds of Gaza.

In the eighth week, talks on a final peace agreement will begin. Issues will be final borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements as well as the status of Jerusalem.

The Palestinians say the negotiations must be completed within nine months, while Israel sets a deadline of one year.

The Palestinians demanded a side letter from the United States and Europe guaranteeing that the final borders of the state would include all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but Israel objected.

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