JERUSALEM // Israeli negotiators have told their Palestinian counterparts they want to annex 7.3 per cent of the West Bank as part of a final peace deal, Palestinian officials said today. In exchange, Israel would cede Israeli territory near the Gaza Strip that is equivalent to 5.5 per cent of the West Bank, and would open a passage to allow Palestinians to travel between the West Bank and Gaza. The officials, who are close to the negotiations, spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are supposed to be secret. Nabil Abu Rdeneh, an aide to the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, would not comment on the Israeli offer, but said "the gap between the two positions on the issue of borders is still wide".
Palestinian officials have said they agree in principle to a land swap that would enable Israel to annex some large Jewish settlements in the West Bank. However, the officials said they're not willing to swap more than 1.8 per cent of the West Bank. The Israeli proposal resembled offers made by Israel in previous rounds of negotiations in 2000 and 2001 before the process broke down in violence. Today, the two Palestinian territories are controlled by bitter rivals: Hamas rules Gaza, while Mr Abbas' Western-backed government controls the West Bank and is negotiating with Israel.
According to the Israeli offer, the land swaps would only go ahead once Abbas had regained control of Gaza, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported today. That appears increasingly unlikely to happen, as Hamas has effectively eliminated internal opposition and is firmly in control of the coastal strip and its 1.4 million residents. Haaretz also claimed that Mr Abbas has agreed to put off negotiations on Jerusalem.
However, Mr Abbas has said repeatedly that all issues are on the table and that he's not ready to reach a partial deal. The final borders of the two states, Israel and Palestine, are only one of the three main issues facing the sides. They must also resolve the fate of the Palestinian refugees who lost their homes when Israel was established in 1948 and their descendants. The third issue, and the thorniest, involves Jerusalem, with its holy sites coveted by both sides. The Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the report of the Israeli offer was "baseless or half-truths", and charged that Israel was preparing to make it look as if the Palestinians were responsible for rejecting a generous deal.
"We hope the Israeli side will stick to the agreement to continue negotiations away from the media and not to begin engagement in the blame game," Mr Erekat said. Mark Regev, an Israeli government spokesman, declined to comment on the report, but said "important progress" had been made in recent months, "including on the issue of final borders". "More work still needs to be done, and we are committed to continuing the effort to try to reach a joint Israeli-Palestinian document," he said.
The current Israeli-Palestinian talks were launched at a US-sponsored peace conference late last year, with the goal of reaching an agreement by the end 2008. Both sides have increasingly indicated they doubt they can bridge the gaps between then by the deadline. Further complicating matters, Mr Olmert has been buffeted by corruption charges and is facing the end of his term in office. The Israeli leader announced that he will step down after his Kadima Party elects a new leader in September, though he might stay on as head of a caretaker government for months afterward if national elections are called.
If true, the report could indicate Mr Olmert is trying to sew up important parts of a peace deal before leaving office. *AP