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Date posted: November 29, 2009
By MIFTAH

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on November 25th that Israel would impose a 10-month freeze on construction in West Bank settlements in an effort to restart stalled peace talks with the Palestinians. In a press conference following the security cabinet approval of the moratorium he said, ďwe have been told by many of our friends that once Israel takes the first meaningful steps toward peace, the Palestinians and Arab states would respond.Ē He went on to say that ďIsrael's government has made an important step toward peace today, let us make peace together."

Despite the grand gesture, the freeze will apply only to new construction, meaning that construction already underway will continue. Additionally, the freeze will allow the construction of schools, synagogues and public facilities, things Netanyahu called ďessential for normal life in the settlementsĒ in the West Bank to continue unabated. More importantly, the freeze will not include east Jerusalem. In response to the exclusion of east Jerusalem in the freeze, Netanyahu said ďwe do not put any restrictions on building in our sovereign capital.Ē Israel considers east Jerusalem to be a separate issue to be discussed in a final status agreement with the Palestinians.

On November 26th PLO head negotiator Saeb Erekat rejected what he called Israelís ďdangerousĒ proposal saying that the freeze is merely a slow down, and that Israelís plan is a diversion. He called on Washington to compel Israel to bring settlement construction to a complete halt in order for peace talks to resume. He reiterated that east Jerusalemís exclusion from the plan was unacceptable to Palestinians, and called on Israel to maintain its commitment to the Road Map, which requires a complete halt to settlement activity.

On a visit to Argentina, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas echoed Erekatís sentiments saying the Obama Administration is not taking any concrete action to re-start talks. In an interview with the Argentine Daily Clarin he said, "For now he is doing nothing, but he has invited us to revive the peace process. I hope that in the future he can play a more important role." He added ďthe Palestinians expect the US to exert pressure on Israel to get it to show respect for international law and implement the Road Map plan.Ē This includes pressuring Israel to put a complete stop to settlement activity and withdraw from territory occupied in 1967. He added that the Palestinians have already made enough concessions to Israel by accepting only 22% of historic Palestine.

Also this week there were numerous reports of a breakthrough in negotiations between Israel and the de facto Hamas leadership concerning a prisoner swap. The Israeli cabinet said it would approve a prisoner swap deal of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti is rumored to be among the prisoners Israel will release in any deal thatís made, sparking allegations that his release could have far-reaching strategic implications on the internal Palestinian balance of power, and attempts to strike a peace deal with Israel. Fatah officials said that Barghouti's release could expedite the resignation of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, paving the way for Fatah leader to assume the post. Abbas said this week he will stay on until Palestinian elections are held, laying to rest rumors that he might quit before elections are held.

In an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera on Wednesday, Barghouti said he hopes to be freed as part of the Shalit deal. He also said if he is released he intends to run for president in Palestinian elections. However, negotiations are said to have hit a snag over some prisoners the Palestinians want released, including Barghouti. Some de facto Hamas officials also said that Israel objects to the release of some Palestinian-Israeli prisoners. The purported negotiations are on hold until after the Muslim holiday Eid Al-Ahda, and will apparently resume again next Tuesday.

On November 24th secretary for the commission Iyad As-Seraj announced that a delegation of members of the National Reconciliation Committee would travel to Cairo, prompted by an Egyptian invitation to discuss further possibilities for Palestinian reconciliation. As-Seraj also said Egypt would meet with de facto Hamas officials to discuss the movementís notes and recommendations on the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation document, asserting that after the meeting Hamas would sign the agreement following the Eid Al-Ahda holiday.

Yet on November 27th de facto Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told a visiting Swiss delegation there would be no resumption of Hamas-Fatah reconciliation talks after the Eid Al-Adha holiday. He made the announcement following long on the heels of reports last month that Fatah and Hamas would be invited back to Cairo to continue unity talks. Haniyeh told the delegation that rumors about "going back to dialogue after the Eid are only media reports; until now and we have not received any official invitation.Ē

Finally, on November 28th the Beirut-based Elaph reported that Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon might receive Palestinian Authority passports. The recently formed Lebanese Government has made finding a solution for the 250,000 Ė 350,000 Palestinian refugees part of their agenda. Palestinians in Lebanon undergo severe difficulties and are confined largely to refugee camps. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have never received residency or citizenship; the only papers they have are from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

The issuing of Palestinian Authority passports would not allow Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon to relocate to the West Bank, but it would alleviate the burdens of international travel, since they currently lack proper travel documents. However, many of the refugees might refuse to accept a Palestinian Authority passport, viewing the move as a renouncement of the right of return, particularly for those who fled homes in what is now Israel.

The Lebanese government is apparently also worried about the naturalization of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. The Christian population of Lebanon is apparently pushing for the plan to move forward, fearful that if the Palestinians are granted Lebanese papers in any final status agreement that such a move would upset the religious balance, undermining the power of the fragile government.

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