Some in Israel weigh idea of provisional Palestine

The idea of Israel recognizing Palestinian independence in some occupied areas now and promising to negotiate over the rest later is getting new attention in Israel as a way of blunting international pressure and dealing with the impasse in peace talks.

The Palestinians dismiss it as a non-starter, fearing a temporary arrangement will quickly become permanent. They say it's time for a final and comprehensive deal after nearly 20 years of on-and-off negotiations.

Palestinian suspicions are also stoked by the man behind the latest version of provisional statehood — ultranationalist Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, an outspoken critic of U.S. efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian deal by September.

Under Lieberman's emerging proposal, Israel would turn over between 45 and 50 percent of the West Bank to the provisional state, an Israeli government official said Sunday, speaking on condition of anonymity because the plan has not been fully formed.

"That's a public relations stunt — to throw the ball in our (side)," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said of Lieberman's plan, which, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz, has been given to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The plan's proponents say the Palestinians would be hard-put to reject a smaller-than-wanted state if they are asked for little in return, and that even minor progress is better than the current deadlock.

The Obama administration briefly managed to get Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to talk face-to-face in September, but talks quickly foundered over continued Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, the territories Israel occupied in 1967 which — along with Gaza — Palestinians want for their state.

The U.S. seems to have given up on initial efforts to get Israel to halt settlement activity and it's not clear what the Obama administration plans to do next. The Quartet of Mideast mediators — the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations and Russia — meets in early February, but no new ideas have emerged.

Despite their rejection of the interim state idea, few Palestinian officials seem remotely optimistic about reaching a comprehensive deal with Israel — certainly under Netanyahu. While a border deal seems possible, agreement on partitioning Jerusalem and resettling Palestinian refugees appears remote.

As a reflection of that impasse, perhaps, the Palestinians are forging ahead with their campaign to seek recognition of Palestinian statehood along the pre-1967 borders — theoretically incorporating areas where a half million Israelis have settled — from as many countries as possible. Their tentative plan is to seek the world's recognition in the fall, a move that may not give them a state on the ground, but might isolate Israel.

One possible Israeli countermove is to recognize Palestinian statehood in parts of the West Bank, including those urban areas, or roughly 40 percent of the West Bank, where Abbas' Palestinian Authority already has some control.

"Netanyahu needs a countermeasure that will get Abbas off his back, depict Israel as an avid supporter of peace and, if possible, also paint the Palestinians as having yet again missed an opportunity to reach an agreement," wrote columnist Aluf Benn in Haaretz.

Another analyst, Yossi Alpher, said he believed the international community would not be willing to support another interim step and called it "pathetic wishful thinking" by Israeli hard-liners.

The provisional state idea is not entirely new. It was included in the Quartet's "road map" peace plan of 2003, which envisioned three stages leading up to a final Israeli-Palestinian deal; the state in temporary borders was to come in the second phase. The road map never got off the ground and Abbas didn't like provisional statehood from the start.

It's not clear what Netanyahu thinks of Lieberman's proposal, and Netanyahu's aides declined to comment. However, the plan would not involve dismantling any Israeli settlements at this stage, an element that should appeal to Netanyahu's pro-settler coalition.

Einat Wilf, a lawmaker from the Independence faction, a recent breakaway from the center-left Labor Party, said the idea of an interim deal has its merits, though she said the government remains focused on a full agreement.

A provisional state "could be an intermediate way that gives the Palestinians the sovereignty they desire, gives to them in a fairly short period of time, and allows both Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate the questions of borders for example, as two sovereign states," she said.

The Reut Institute, an Israeli think tank, argues that the U.S. administration's "package deal" approach to peacemaking has not worked. If talks get stuck on one issue, there's no agreement.

Calev Ben-Dor, a senior analyst at the institute, said a provisional state could work if it is contiguous — not a collection of isolated cantons separated by Israeli-controlled area. The international community would also have to guarantee that negotiations over the remaining issues would be held in the future with a clear vision for a final deal. This could address Palestinian fears about ending up with a mini-state.

A Washington think tank with close ties to Israel, meanwhile, unveiled three options for an Israeli-Palestinian border deal to show that partition is still doable.

The scenarios are based on Israel annexing between 3.7 percent and 4.7 percent of the West Bank in order to bring anywhere from 68 percent to 80 percent of Israeli settlers there under Israel rule. Palestinians would be compensated with an equal amount of Israeli land.

"Most settlers live near Israel's pre-1967 boundary, and the vast majority of them reside in areas that constitute a small percentage of the West Bank," wrote the study's author, David Makovksy, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Accordingly, a border agreement may be more plausible than it is generally believed to be."