Israel accepts Palestinian state in secret peace talks

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The Independent Online
A series of secret meetings between senior Israeli and Palestinian diplomats has produced a blueprint for a final resolution of the age-old conflict between the two peoples.

Israeli participants acquiesced in the establishment of a Palestinian state, it was disclosed yesterday. The Palestinians, for their part, were prepared to leave most West Bank Jewish settlements in place, some under Israeli rule, some under Palestinian.

Israel would grant the Palestinians an extra-territorial corridor linking their West Bank and Gaza Strip enclaves, but would not allow Palestinian refugees to return to their pre-1948 homes inside Israel. The Israelis rejected a Palestinian demand to divide Jerusalem into twin capitals of the two states.

The teams were led by Yossi Beilin, Prime Minister Shimon Peres' chief international troubleshooter; and Mahmoud Abbas, one of the founders of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. The same duo orchestrated the equally secret "back-channel" negotiations that produced the Oslo breakthrough in September 1993.

Mr Beilin now serves as a minister without portfolio with an office in the same building as the Prime Minister. Mr Abbas, better known by his nickname Abu Mazen, chaired the Palestinian election commission last month and is expected to receive a senior post in Yasser Arafat's new administration. He signed the 1993 Declaration of Principles on behalf of the PLO on the White House lawn.

Mr Peres was reported yesterday to have rejected the Beilin-Abbas deal. According to the influential daily, Ha'aretz, which broke the story, the Prime Minister wanted future relations between Palestine and Jordan spelled out. He dismissed the tentative ideas on Jerusalem - a refinement of the old Greater Jerusalem formula, with an umbrella municipal authority under Israeli sovereignty and separate Arab and Jewish boroughs - as inadequate. And he insisted on retaining the Jordan Valley as Israel's strategic border.

On the Palestinian side, Mr Arafat has not approved the proposals either.

Mr Beilin said yesterday that he had acted on his own initiative and that nothing had been endorsed by the government. But the proposals emerging from the 20 meetings, spread over 12 months, would, the Israeli minister hoped, enable them "to embark on the permanent-status negotiations with much more information, understanding and security".

Aviv Shir-On, a spokesman for Mr Beilin, told the Independent: "There were meetings. They were informal exchanges of views. But there were no negotiations, no agreement and no document. A certain consensus was reached, but not between the Palestinian Authority and the government of Israel."

He said Mr Beilin had not briefed Mr Peres, or the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, on the discussions, which took place in Britain, Sweden, Cyprus, Holland and Jerusalem.

"Beilin tried to convince the government to push forward the negotiating timetable," Mr Shir-On explained.

"He wanted the final status negotiations straight away. But the government turned him down. So, on his own private behalf, he conducted talks with some Palestinian individuals, trying to identify a common denominator."

With election fever already simmering in Israel, yesterday's leak was seized on by both left and right. Labour claimed it gave the lie to opposition charges that it had sold out on Jerusalem. The right-wing Likud projected it as proof that Mr Beilin was up to his old Oslo tricks.

The final status negotiations are due to begin on 4 May but Mr Peres and Mr Arafat are expected to agree to postpone them until after the Israeli elections, now set for 29 May.