Toughest Mideast issues discussed

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM -- Israeli and Palestinian negotiators began addressing the most difficult issues of their decades-old conflict yesterday, keeping a promise to President Bush but putting Israel's coalition government under strain.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia emerged from a two-hour session at a Jerusalem hotel with little to say about what they had discussed. Israeli officials said the two lead negotiators planned to meet at least once a week.

The two sides agreed Nov. 27 at a U.S.-sponsored international conference in Annapolis to resume full-scale peace talks after a seven-year hiatus with the aim of agreeing by the end of Bush's presidency on the terms for creation of an independent Palestinian state.

But a dispute over new Jewish housing construction on land claimed by the Palestinians stalled the talks, and it took Bush's visit to Israel and the West Bank last week to get them going.

"It was an exploratory session, and we exchanged our views on how to approach the core issues," Qureia told reporters after yesterday's meeting. "The talks were positive, but the path ahead is difficult."

Those issues, now on the table for the first time since a U.S.-led peace effort in the final months of the Clinton administration, include the borders of a new Palestinian state, the fate of Palestinian refugees who fled what is now Israel, and conflicting claims to Jerusalem.

Livni told parliament yesterday that she was prepared to make significant territorial concessions to achieve peace but emphasized that no land would change hands until the Palestinian Authority shows that it can quell militant activity and ensure Israel's security.

The talks would be conducted quietly, away from the "glare of the cameras," she said, to avoid the grandstanding and raised expectations that "led to disappointment and violence" after the Clinton effort collapsed.

"Faced with a choice between headlines and daily drama as opposed to results, I choose results," she said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also wants to limit any grounds for dissension among his own supporters as the talks progress. Avigdor Lieberman is already threatening to pull his right-wing Israel Our Home party from the governing coalition as early as this week to protest the mere fact that the most sensitive issues are being discussed.

Lieberman's decision could sway the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, which opposes territorial concessions to the Palestinians. Without those two parties, Olmert's coalition, anchored by his centrist Kadima party and the left-leaning Labor Party, would lose its parliamentary majority and be forced to scramble for new partners to stay in power.

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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