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Shira Herzog (Deborah Baic)
Shira Herzog (Deborah Baic)

MIDDLE EAST

In this Mideast dance, the key steps are 1948 and 1967 Add to ...

It's been a packed week with more to come for those who watch the Middle East: U.S. envoy George Mitchell resigned; anti-Israel demonstrations by Palestinians in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza turned deadly; Jordan's King Abdullah was at the White House; U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the Middle East on Thursday and meets Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday. Next week, both leaders address the public policy conference of AIPAC, the American Jewish lobby for Israel, and Mr. Netanyahu addresses Congress.

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But it's no portent of a major breakthrough in deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian talks. Anything said this week is a rehearsal for the main drama: Palestinian efforts to circumvent negotiations and attain recognition of a state with "1967 borders" at next September's United Nations General Assembly. So far, U.S. efforts to deter the Palestinians and resume talks have failed. Israel fears the resolution's political and economic ramifications and is trying to mitigate the impact of 130 promised Yes votes by getting 35 to 40 countries, whom it sees as a "moral majority," to vote against.

Mr. Netanyahu is resisting growing domestic and international pressure to declare support for what's become a key element of all discourse related to a "two-state" resolution of the conflict - a Palestinian state in "territories based on 1967 borders" with land swaps to compensate for Israeli settlement blocs along the West Bank frontier. Coming from him, this could derail the UN strategy. In a policy speech this week, the Israeli leader indirectly implied removal of some settlements, but later retreated into obfuscation.

In Washington, Mr. Netanyahu will justify this reluctance on two counts: First, the recent agreement between Palestinian factions, including Hamas, which refuses to abjure violence, recognize Israel or commit to earlier Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Second, last weekend's demonstrations marking the Nakba (catastrophe) Day and calling for the return of refugees displaced after Israel's founding. Mr. Netanyahu will argue that the issue is "1948" rather than "1967"- namely, Palestinians' refusal to accept Israel as a Jewish homeland.

He won't be completely wrong. Even moderate Palestinian leaders equivocate on refugees, especially to their own people. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas says he's committed to an "agreed-upon solution" - code language for the realization that refugees will be compensated or go to the Palestinian state. But on Nakba Day, he said "every Palestinian" has the right to "return to the homeland." And in a New York Times op-ed on the conflict's origins, he conveniently omitted Palestinian rejection of the UN's 1947 partition plan.

Clarity on refugees is essential. It is the fundamental assurance Israel needs from Palestinians - acceptance of the nation-state of the Jewish people.

Mr. Netanyahu probably won't feel much heat in Washington, despite the White House's frustration. On recognition of Israel and the refugee issue, he's got broad support internationally. But the tradeoff sought by Israel's friends is a clear statement of his own intentions. And that means addressing 1967 clearly, signalling his own commitment to two states for two peoples.

Maps based on the 1967 lines protecting the major settlement blocs were already drawn up by Mr. Netanyahu's predecessors, while the principle of land swaps would give him negotiating room. Mr. Netanyahu may be right in saying there's no one on the other side who can deliver right now. But accepting the framework would alleviate the constant questions, return Israel to the Western consensus and better enable it to fight for core strategic interests.

 

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