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Before Elections, Obama Interested in Mideast Deal More than Peace

Obama, whose approval rating has hit a new low, is interested in marking his first success in the Middle East, in light of the ongoing bloodshed in Iraq and Afghanistan. He plans to present Israel and the Palestinian Authority with a new outline aimed at ending the Middle East conflict.

Israeli daily The Yedioth Ahronoth has reported Friday that the Americans will pressure the parties to sign a framework agreement for a permanent settlement within one year, but that the agreement itself would be implemented within 10 years.

The American administration plans to invest every effort to guarantee that the direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians, which will be launched officially next Thursday, will end with an agreement rather than with a crisis, as in previous negotiations.

This time, Obama plans to get into the thick of things himself. Daniel Shapiro, the National Security Council’s top Middle East expert, told the leaders of the American Jewish organizations that the president planned to visit the Zionist entity and the Palestinian Authority in the coming year.

During his visit, Obama will try to convince the two sides to support painful concessions for the sake of peace.

Several days ago, leaders of the American Jewish organizations held a conference call with three of the top officials determining the Obama administration’s Middle East policy – Shapiro, Dennis Ross and David Hale, deputy of US special Middle East envoy George Mitchell.

Ross has been involved in all the talks between Israel and the Palestinians since the Oslo Accords. He is considered today Obama’s No. 1 expert on Middle Eastern affairs.

Yedioth Ahronoth has obtained the protocol summarizing the conference call, written by White House officials. The document provides a peek into the administration’s plans in the near future.

According to the American plan, the Israeli and Palestinian negotiation teams would hold hectic talks in a bid to reach a framework agreement within a year. The intensive talks would be held in isolated sites, so as to allow the teams to calmly discuss the core issues of the permanent agreement: Occupied Jerusalem’s future, the borders, the settlements and the refugees.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would be required to hold frequent meetings in order to solve concrete problems and advance the negotiations’ stages.

Netanyahu convened his advisors on Thursday evening for a preparation discussion ahead of the restart of direct peace talks next week in Washington.

Netanyahu suggested to the Americans that he would meet with Abbas every fortnight for the purpose of “quiet understandings.” He also told his advisors that he plans to lead the negotiations personally, with the help of a small and discreet team. When the need arises, the team would be reinforced with professionals in different areas.

If the talks reach a deadlock, American officials would intervene and attempt to bridge between the sides. In addition, the US would try to convince the Arab states to offer goodwill gestures to Israel and influence the Palestinians to compromise.

The framework agreement aimed at ending the conflict would be signed within a year. From that moment on, the agreement would be implemented gradually over a period of several years.

Ross estimated in the conference call that many elements would try to sabotage the talks. “Our challenge would be to guarantee their success,” he stated.

In other words, the administration would not regard favorably a situation in which Israeli and Palestinian officials “blast” each other outside the meeting room.

Senior diplomatic officials in Tel Aviv have revealed, however, that Netanyahu has yet to prepare a firm stand ahead of the direct talks. The government has yet to agree on the outline for the permanent agreement, not to mention the settlement construction freeze. “Bibi will barely escape Washington,” a senior state official estimated.

Israeli Minister Dan Meridor, backed by Netanyahu, is trying to convince Ross and Shapiro to agree to the outline he suggested ahead of the end of the settlement construction moratorium on September 26: The building freeze would only continue in isolated settlements, but construction would be resumed in the settlement blocs expected to remain under Israel’s control. Only one minister, Ehud Barak, has expressed his support for this idea so far.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman believes the Americans should be informed that the construction will continue without any restrictions in settlement blocs, and will be renewed in isolated settlements according to the residents’ natural growth.

The Palestinians, on their part, have already clarified their demands ahead of the direct talks, the first one being the establishment of a Palestinian state with occupied east Jerusalem as its capital.

They also emphasized that they won’t continue negotiations if construction is renewed.

Upon the start of the negotiations, the Palestinians will demand that Israel withdraw from the northern Dead Sea as part of a gesture before continuing the talks. The PA is expected to agree to a land exchange with Israel: In return for 3.9% of the West Bank area where the settlement blocs are located, the Palestinians expect to receive lands in the Negev.

Meanwhile, Yedioth Ahronoth has learned that Lieberman rejected the prime minister’s request to join him on his trip to Washington ahead of Thursday’s summit. According to reliable sources, the foreign minister told Netanyahu he would not attend celebrations he has no faith in.

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