Israel's Precondition for New Talks: No Palestinian Preconditions

One senior Israeli official came to Washington and called for new talks with Palestinian leaders.

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An Israeli soldier prevents a Palestinian farmer from cultivating his field in the West Bank village of Tuqua, near the Jewish settlement of Tekoa.

The Middle East's most bitter rivals should "break the ice" and open new talks aimed at the creation of a Palestinian state beside Israel--but only if the Palestinians drop certain demands, says a senior Israeli official.

In calling Tuesday for the restoration of the Middle East peace process, Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz said "two nations [living] in one state" much longer would constitute a larger threat than a nuclear-armed Iran.

Israeli and Palestinian officials should open talks aimed at producing an agreement on the issues about which both sides agree, such as borders and certain security arrangements, Mofaz said at a forum in Washington. For instance, Mofaz, the Kadima Party leader, said he believes a future Palestine should be allowed to have security forces to secure its borders.

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A limited pact focused on those issues, he said, is needed because to move from the current situation to a comprehensive agreement that creates a Palestinian state and meets all of Israel's demands "is very hard."

But for a process that has started and collapsed many times in recent decades, even a limited agreement would be big progress. And, importantly, it would get both sides back to the negotiating table.

From there, Mofaz said, Israeli and Palestinian leaders could begin work on an interim agreement, which would "change the atmosphere" and also "improve the economic situation in our region."

But, as is typical in the elusive pursuit of Middle East peace, Israel has a "red line" it simply will not cross before starting a new round of talks.

"We cannot and we should not accept preconditions," Mofaz said forcefully, emitting a silence so stark in a downtown Washington conference that the hum of the fluorescent lights was audible.

Palestinian officials continue to say Israel must halt the construction of settlements in the West Bank region before they will sit down for negotiations. Israel continues to push for Palestinian officials to stop rocket attacks from the West Bank.

Senior U.S. officials have called for an end to both the settlements and the rocket attacks.

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On the issue of the Gaza Strip, Mofaz made clear Israeli officials believe it "could be part of a Palestinian state."

"It is at the hand of the Palestinians," Mofaz said. "Gaza is not at the hand of Israel."

Nathan Brown of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace notes that "in the five years since it took sole control in Gaza, Hamas has built a governing apparatus that is now in firm control of the small strip."

Some have called for free elections in Gaza, but Brown sees Hamas, an enemy of Israel and the U.S., holding its grip on power there.

"The fact remains that elections are not in Hamas's interest right now--the movement would have to be cajoled, outmaneuvered, or enticed somehow," Brown writes in a Carnegie report. "Hamas appears to be in little hurry, leaving Gaza's inhabitants not only without a voice but also without much hope for change."

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.

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