Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Hard Line On Palestininian Refugees

Israel sees danger in PA negotiations unit stance
By Barak Ravid, Ha'aretz

The negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians are powered by a great many people behind the scenes. However, while the Israeli team is relatively new and just beginning to coalesce, the Palestinians have a well-oiled organization that has been at this task for nearly 10 years: the Negotiations Support Unit (NSU).

The NSU was founded in 1998 following a Palestinian request to the U.K. for assistance in the final-status talks with the Israelis. Britain, Sweden, Norway, Demark and Holland agreed to contribute to the new body, appointing the London-based Adam Smith Institute to head the project. Since 1998, the NSU has received tens of millions of euros from European countries.

THe offices of the NSU are located not far from the Palestinian Authority's government center, the Muqata, in Ramallah. Some 20 legal experts are at work there on the issues of the final-status agreement - Jerusalem, the settlements, water, the refugees, borders and security.

The NSU also deals with other issues involving Israel in the realms of economics, agriculture, transportation, communications and archaeology. A good many of the NSU staff are not Palestinians born and raised in the West Bank or Gaza, but rather in the U.S. or Europe, and others are Israeli Arabs. The head of the NSU is a British citizen.

The Israeli diplomatic and security establishment is said to have a high regard for the NSU staff as experts in international law who wield no small influence on PA policy, both as expressed to the media and in the talks.

However, senior Israeli officials say the NSU is increasingly becoming an obstacle with regard to progress after the Annapolis conference.

Sources in Israel say the NSU has taken an extreme position over the years about the right of return for the Palestinians, saying the Palestine Liberation Organization and the PA do not have a mandate to make concessions on this issue. "We talk about compromise and they speak of justice," a senior official said. [The Hebrew version of this paragraph also calls NSU members "one-staters in a two-state environment" - see here].

"We can see how the papers they write are leading to more extreme positions. Their problem is that they hold the opinions of Palestinians from outside the territories, and they care much more about ideology and justice than finding a solution that will meet the needs of the Palestinian population," he said.

The NSU attitude completely ignores the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip and the weakness of the PA in the West Bank and has raised more than a few eyebrows in Israel. "They talk about establishment of a Palestinian state within six months as if there is no reality on the ground," a diplomatic official said, refering to the NSU document published in Haaretz last Thursday. "Instead of trying to reach a common denominator and agreements, they turn the talks all along the way into a debating society, waving their rights around, and that doesn't lead anywhere."

The NSU has a representative on the negotiating team, but an Israeli official says, "despite all their talent, it's not certain they will be able to make an impact."

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