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EXCLUSIVE: Abbas to offer large land swap with Israel in Trump talks

Palestinian Authority ready to exchange three times as much territory as previously, official tells MEE ahead of Trump visit to West Bank
Donald Trump meeting Mahmoud Abbas in the White House in early May 2017 (AFP)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will present a plan that would see the Palestinians giving up 6.5 percent of their lands to Israel, three times as much as previously offered, during US President Donald Trump's visit to the West Bank on Tuesday, Middle East Eye can reveal.

The proposal excludes Jerusalem and appears to cement the vision of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert for a Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement, a Palestinian official close to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) told Middle East Eye.

"The Palestinian side will be presenting [during the meeting with Trump] a new vision which is quite detached from that of the majority of the Palestinian people," the source told MEE. "This vision is based on exchanging a lot of Palestinian lands.

"Previous discussions about a Palestinian-Israeli settlement revolved around the exchange of only 1.9 percent of the lands, but now we are talking about more than triple that amount," said the source.

Palestinian worshippers pray near the Dome of Rock shrine at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound before the Friday prayer in Jerusalem's Old City (AFP)
Abbas had reportedly rejected an offer from Israel's Olmert during the failed 2008 peace talks for a near-total withdrawal from the West Bank, proposing that Israel retain 6.3 percent of the territory in order to keep control of major Jewish settlements, reported the Times of Israel in 2015.

Previous discussions revolved around the exchange of only 1.9 percent of the lands. Now we are talking about more than triple that amount

- Palestinian official close to PLO

Abbas met Trump in Washington in early May for their first face-to-face talks. According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Abbas urged Trump at the time to restart peace talks under the 2008 offer made by then-prime minister Olmert.

The news comes ahead of Trump's first foreign visit which includes stops in Israel, Palestine and Saudi Arabia. He is due to convene Arab leaders from across the region alongside Saudi royal family members in Riyadh and is expected to offer details for the first time on his vision for peace between Israelis and Palestinians in a press conference in Jerusalem.

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According to a source in the Palestinian ministry of foreign affairs, the peace talks failed in 2008 because the Palestinian delegation agreed only to exchange a much smaller percentage of its lands.

"We've been discussing this issue of land exchange since the negotiations with Olmert," said the foreign ministry source. "But at the time of the 2008 peace talks, Palestinians only agreed to exchange between 1-2 percent of Palestinian lands while Olmert was pushing for approximately 6.5 percent instead."

According to the Times of Israel report, Olmert had offered to compensate the Palestinians with Israeli land equivalent to 5.8 percent of the West Bank, along with a link to the Gaza Strip, another territory meant to be part of a Palestinian state. The rejected offer also included placing Jerusalem's Old City under international control.

A handicapped Palestinian protester waves the national flag during clashes with Israeli soldiers following a protest against the blockade on Gaza on 19 May (AFP)

This time around however, Jerusalem, the most controversial aspect of previous discussions, is not mentioned in the proposal that Abbas is allegedly meant to discuss with Trump during his visit, the Palestinian official close to the PLO told MEE.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem, which Israel occupied along with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967, as the capital of any future Palestinian state. Israel, which later annexed East Jerusalem, has unilaterally declared "reunited" Jerusalem as its capital since 1980. Neither move has ever been recognised by the international community.

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More recently, Trump's promise during his presidential campaign to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has further complicated discussions around Jerusalem in the case of a Palestinian-Israeli resolution. Following Trump's inauguration, Abbas warned him that moving the embassy would have a "disastrous impact on the peace process, on the two-state solution and on the stability and security of the entire region".

The peace process

Palestinians have vied for a negotiated settlement that would meet the terms laid out in the Arab Peace Initiative, a 2002 proposal endorsed by the Arab League, which called for the withdrawal of Israel from the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

But members of the Palestinian leadership believe Trump's visit will do little to achieve that.

The issue is not about Trump or Obama or Abu Mazen, the issue is that Israel does not want to withdraw from the West Bank or from Gaza 

- Awni al-Mashni, member of Fatah

"The issue is not about Trump or Obama or [Palestinian Authority President] Abu Mazen, the issue is that Israel does not want to withdraw from the West Bank or from Gaza nor does it want to end the occupation," Awni al-Mashni, a member of the Fatah movement, the dominant element of the PA, told MEE.

Mashni explained that regardless of the details of this new proposal, any initiative to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza would ultimately fail since the Israeli leadership had refused to take this step.

US President Donald Trump and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the White House on 15 February 2017 in Washington
"The current political climate won't allow for a solution. The Israeli government is more radical than ever before and will not be responsive to any initiative," said Mashni.

During a major policy speech in December 2016, the then US secretary of state, John Kerry, criticised the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, describing his coalition government as the "most right-wing in Israeli history".

While Netanyahu has said he is committed to a two-state solution, international observers including Kerry said the Israeli government's agenda appeared geared towards a one-state solution aimed at creating a "greater Israel".

Kerry's remarks came as a batch of Israeli settlements were being built in the occupied West Bank in defiance of a UN Security Council resolution that was passed in December 2016.

Jerusalem-based journalist and political analyst Rasim Abedat told MEE that he had little expectation of Trump pushing for a satisfactory settlement for the Palestinians, saying that US and Israeli interests in the region overlap now more than ever.

"Looking at the meeting between Trump and Netanyahu earlier this year, there was no discussion of a two-state solution, and that is exactly Netanyahu's goal – to end any talk of the matter," said Abedat.

The goal of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank was thrown into confusion when Trump said during Netanyahu’s visit to the White House on 15 February that while he was committed to a "really great" peace deal he was neither committed to a Palestinian state nor against a "one-state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

At the same time, several Palestinian leaders believe that Abbas's adoption of a one-man approach has increasingly distanced him from the Palestinian people, making him no longer representative of the Palestinian people.

"The PA is battling an internal crisis and is suffering low levels of trust among the Palestinian people. The only thing that has kept it going is that it pays the salaries of tens of thousands of employees," Abedat told MEE.

Even if Abu Mazen agrees to a settlement, the Palestinian people will not give up Jerusalem 

- Palestinian journalist Rasim Abedat

According to Fatah member Mashni, this lack of representation will make any move Abbas makes unimportant.

"I doubt Abu Mazen will agree to a settlement, and even if he does the Palestinian people will not give up Jerusalem or agree to the continuity of the occupation," he told MEE.

An Arab coalition

Instead of reaching a settlement regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, many observers believe that at the top of the agenda on Trump's regional visit is the establishment of an Arab coalition that would help normalise relations between Israel and its neighbours.

"Trump is coming with a plan for the whole region which aims to normalise relations between the Palestinians and Israelis on the one hand and the Israelis and the rest of the Arabs on the other hand," said the Palestinian official.

A Palestinian protester hurls stones towards Israeli soldiers during clashes in Bethlehem on 17 March (AFP)
"The main aim [of this visit] is to establish an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia to fight Iran, Syria and Hezbollah."

Numerous Gulf states have offered a deal to normalise relations with Israel if it takes steps to restart peace talks with the Palestinians, according to reports last week.

The Wall Street Journal said numerous Gulf states were prepared to set up telecommunication lines between the countries, open trade negotiations and allow planes to fly over their airspace.

In exchange, Israel would have to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank and relax trade restrictions with the Gaza Strip.

Even if Abbas has agreed to give up Jerusalem, no one can impose anything on the Palestinian people

- Fatah member Awni al-Mashni

The proposals to normalise relations with Israel were outlined in an unreleased discussion paper shared among several Arab states and obtained by the WSJ.

The paper, according to WSJ, was intended to demonstrate the Gulf states' commitment to align themselves to Trump's foreign policy, which has stressed a desire to work with Arab states to forge a Middle East peace agreement.

MEE approached the minister for the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction (PECDAR) and member the Fatah central committee, Muhammed Shtayye, but he refused to comment. 

Journalist and political analyst Abedat said that Israel and Trump might also use this coalition to "pressure the Palestinian leadership into accepting a settlement that is not inclusive of a two-state solution".

Mashni agreed: "Many Arab governments believe that the Palestinian cause has been an obstacle in the way of forming this coalition and so they [the Arab countries] will try to find a way to get around it."

In the voice of the majority of Palestinians, however, Mashni insisted that "even if Abbas has agreed to give up Jerusalem, no one can impose anything on the Palestinian people, and the Palestinian people won't allow that to happen".

"Abbas is pursuing a losing battle. I hope he doesn't commit to anything in front of Trump," said the official.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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