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Olmert Offers, PA Rejects Land Swap. (Will a West Bank-Gaza Highway Split Israel in Half?)

By Ha'aretz,, WorldNetDaily & VOA News

Israel offered the Palestinians land in the Negev in exchange for West Bank settlement blocs. But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday rejected the Israeli peace proposal, which included withdrawal from 93 percent of the West Bank, because it does not provide for a contiguous Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

The idea was part of a draft peace deal that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert presented to Abbas this week, Ha'aretz reported Tuesday.

Under the proposal, which was leaked to the newspaper, Israel would keep West Bank settlement blocs, turn the West Bank security fence into a border and evacuate settlers east of it. In exchange for what would be, effectively, an annexation of 7 percent of West Bank land, Israel would cede a parcel of the Negev to the Gaza Strip.

The Negev land would be equivalent to 5.5 percent of the West Bank; the shortfall would be made up for by a road connecting Gaza and the West Bank, allowing for free Palestinian passage between the territories.

According to Ha'aretz, the Gaza annexation would take place only after Abbas reestablishes his authority over the Gaza Strip, ending Hamas rule there.

Both sides want sovereignty in Jerusalem, which Israel has vowed to keep as its undivided capital. According to Ha'aretz, Olmert and Abbas agreed to defer the Jerusalem issue to future negotiations.

Israel also has demanded that the future Palestinian state be demilitarized, while the Palestinians want an armed force capable of defending against "outside threats," Ha'aretz reported.

According to the newspaper, Olmert's proposal includes a "detailed and complex formula" for solving the issue of Palestinian refugees. Israel wants the refugees resettled in a future Palestinian state while the Palestinians want them to be granted a "right" to land that is now in the Jewish state.

WND last week quoted a top Palestinian official stating Olmert told the PA he intends to accelerate negotiations the next few weeks to reach a deal on paper outlining a Palestinian state before he steps down from office next month.

Olmert earlier this month announced he will resign from office after his Kadima party holds internal elections next month to choose a new leader. He said he is stepping down due to a criminal investigation, described by police officials as "serious," in which he is accused of corruption and financial improprieties.

The plan grants the Palestinians passage between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip on territory that would be jointly patrolled by Israel and the PA. The passageway would give the Palestinians access to areas close to central Israeli population centers.

According to the plan Olmert sent to the PA, land to be annexed to Israel would include the large West Bank Jewish community blocs of Ma'aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion and the areas surrounding Jerusalem, and some land in the northern West Bank adjacent to Israel. The rest of the West Bank would be handed to the Palestinians.

An area from the Israeli Negev nearly equivalent in land mass to the territory Israel would retain in the West Bank would be transferred to the West Bank – marking the first official Israeli plan that calls for pre-1967 land to be given to the Palestinians. Pre-1967 refers to Israeli territory that was not reconquered in the 1967 Six Day War.

Israeli diplomatic sources said Olmert will now offer a new draft plan in the immediate future.

Olmert is considered a lame duck prime minister and according to polls has little standing with the Israeli population, but he has vowed to forge ahead with Israeli-Palestinian negotiations started at last November's U.S.-backed Annapolis summit, which seeks to create a Palestinian state by the end of the year.

Last week a top PA negotiator told WND Olmert has stated he plans to grant the Palestinians a state on paper before he steps down from office next month.

"Papers are very important. It puts limits on the new prime minister," said the PA negotiator, speaking to WND on condition of anonymity. "For example, the weak point of Israeli-Syrian negotiations are papers signed by former prime ministers that now must be abided during current negotiations.

"Olmert told us his goal is to reach an agreement on paper," the negotiator said. He said the agreement would likely encompass understandings regarding the transfer of much of the West Bank to the Palestinians. He said he "hopes" the issue of Jerusalem is broached but that it might not be mentioned on paper beyond a declaration of agreement to negotiate further.

The agreement would also include a solution to the issue of Palestinian refugee status, allowing some refugees from the 1948 war to return to Israel while settling most of the refugees and their descendants in the Palestinian state.

Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, including the eastern sector that it captured in the 1967 Mideast war. Palestinians want east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state. The area contains religious sites holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians.

"The Israeli proposal is not acceptable," Abbas' spokesman said. "The Palestinian side will only accept a Palestinian state with territorial continuity, with holy Jerusalem as its capital, without settlements, and on the June 4, 1967 boundaries." He called the Israeli proposal a "waste of time."

Olmert's proposal for a land swap introduces a new stage in the arrangement: Israel would immediately receive the settlement blocs, but the land to be transferred to the Palestinians and the free passage between Gaza and the West Bank would only be delivered after the PA retakes control of the Gaza Strip. In this way, Olmert could tell the Israeli public that Israel is receiving 7 percent of the West Bank and an agreed-upon border, while the Israeli concessions will be postponed until Hamas rule in Gaza has ended.

Abbas, for his part, could tell his people that he has succeeded in obtaining 98 percent of the West Bank from Israel, along with a promise to remove all settlers over the border.

Compared to previous Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the Olmert proposal falls between the one then Prime Minister Barak presented to Yasir Arafat at Camp David in July 2000 and the one he offered at Taba in January 2001. The Palestinian proposal is similar to the ones offered during the Arafat years, which would have allowed Israel to annex only a few settlements, along with their access roads - a proposal nicknamed "balloons and strings." All these Palestinian proposals ruled out allowing Israel to retain the settlement blocs.

Since then, however, the separation fence has been built in the West Bank, and a new physical reality has been created in the areas where the fence has been completed.

On the refugee issue, Olmert's proposal rejects a Palestinian "right of return" and states that the refugees may only return to the Palestinian state, other than exceptional cases in which refugees would be allowed into Israel for family reunification. Nevertheless, the proposal includes a detailed and complex formula for solving the refugee problem.

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