Mideast peace talks would face huge obstacles

By Dan Perry

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, May 22 2011 6:30 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this Friday, May 20, 2011 file photo, President Barack Obama, right, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, of Israel in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington. President Barack Obama wants Israelis and Palestinians to return to the bargaining table. It seems unlikely this will happen, but even if it did, the sides would find a formidable array of obstacles to agreement.

Charles Dharapak, File, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

JERUSALEM — President Barack Obama wants Israelis and Palestinians to return to the bargaining table. It seems unlikely this will happen anytime soon, but even if it did, the sides would find a formidable array of obstacles to agreement.

There are huge gaps on important issues between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a right-winger for whom acquiescence to the very idea of Palestinian independence — popular around the world and now widely accepted in Israel, too — was a major ideological leap.

But even if a more compliant Israeli leadership should return to power, a survey of the issues on the table appear to present overwhelming challenges. Here are some of the key obstacles:

BORDERS

Obama made waves with his declaration Thursday that a peace treaty should be "based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps." It differed only in nuance from previous U.S. positions, but hearing it from Obama was a major Palestinian objective and it touched a deep nerve in Israel, too.

Netanyahu swiftly declared the 44-year-old lines "indefensible" from a military point of view. And a look at the map shows why: Israel would be about 12 miles (19 kilometers) wide at its narrowest point; the West Bank surrounds the Israeli part of Jerusalem on three sides; and, on a clear day, the West Bank's strategic highlands are clearly visible from Tel Aviv, where about a quarter of Israelis live. If there is any chance that a future Palestine could turn hostile, these borders are a challenge.

Are they sacrosanct — or somehow enshrined in international law?

American officials are generally careful to use the word "lines" and not "borders" when referring to the demarcation that lasted from the end of the 1948-49 war after Israel declared independence until the 1967 war when it expanded its territory. That is no coincidence: these are temporary armistice lines between Israel and Jordan in the case of the West Bank, and Israel and Egypt in the case of Gaza.

Might Israel keep some of its 1967 booty?

That largely depends on how hard the Palestinians press, and how much leverage they can summon up. UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967 seemed to leave the door open — calling for "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict." It avoided use of "the territories" and left everyone to debate whether this meant Israel could keep some areas.

Borders were supposed to be the simplest issue in peace talks, yet in a numbing two decades of talking the sides could never quite agree.

Gaza is simple enough, because Israel does not challenge the pre-1967 line and removed its relatively few settlers from the territory in 2005.

But more than a quarter million Israelis live throughout the West Bank now — in addition to a similar number living in the occupied sector of Jerusalem. Most of the settlers live close to the pre-1967 border. That makes it seemingly practical to include them in a redrawn Israel. Obama accepts this idea, but calls for land Israel receives to be swapped for unpopulated parts of Israel adjacent to the West Bank.

But must the swaps be equal in size? And how much land can they involve?

That second question is critical because there are at least two major settlements — Ariel and Maale Adumim — that have tens of thousands of residents and are deep enough inside to disrupt things badly for the Palestinians. Israelis tend to assume creative cartography will finesse the issue. Palestinians know that going around Maaleh Adumim would turn a 15-mile (25-kilometer) drive from Ramallah to Bethlehem, major West Bank centers, into a circuitous ordeal.

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