Barak will sign final-status deal, professor says in S.F.

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Praising Prime Minister Ehud Barak for picking up where Yitzhak Rabin left off, Mideast affairs expert Joseph Kostiner predicts the Israeli premier can resolve the toughest final-status issues, including the status of Jerusalem.

Still, the Tel Aviv University professor warns against getting too optimistic about what Israeli-Palestinian talks can achieve.

"The peace process is not leading toward a panacea," he said Thursday of last week after giving a series of talks co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council. "It won't ever be like a situation you have between the neighbors of U.S. and Canada.

"But hopefully you can have a reduction in the amount of violence, and an understanding between the Israelis and Palestinians. Maybe a hot war will turn into a cold war."

Kostiner, an associate professor of political science, said he wasn't discouraged by recent snags: the stalled release of Palestinian prisoners and the delayed opening of the "safe passage" route for Palestinians between the West Bank and Gaza.

"It's in the nature of things that there will be stumbling blocks," he said. "One would suspect that this will happen for a while. It's a negotiation process among enemies — and that takes time."

Jerusalem of course is a major question, Kostiner said. "How can you redivide it and keep it whole, with both [Israel and the Palestinians] claiming to keep it as its capital? There's never been a city in history that has served as a capital to two nations."

What Kostiner thinks will work is expanding the "city limits" of Jerusalem to include more of the territories and then giving the Palestinians much of that land, including parts of eastern Jerusalem.

"It's a way of doing it administratively, without [Israel] having to withdraw or shrink how much of Jerusalem it holds," he said.

But will that really appease the Palestinians?

"If the Palestinians can call some of the villages around Jerusalem as actually being part of Jerusalem, then yes, I think they are ready to do it. It's not just a possible but a definite course of action."

Then again, he added, just because the Palestinians will be able to put their government in a place that will be called "Jerusalem" doesn't mean it will measure up to Palestinian expectations.

"I'm not saying this will satisfy anyone totally…but maybe they understand that they get this, or they get nothing," Kostiner said. "It's better to get this than to get nothing at all."

What has impressed Kostiner the most is not only that Barak is trying to move in the same direction as Rabin, but that he's also trying to avoid mistakes made by previous negotiators.

For example, Barak is insisting that the final-status issues be addressed now, rather than at some unspecified point down the road.

"The Oslo agreement focused only on interim questions," he said. "At the time, that might have been a stroke of genius because it salvaged the peace process. If they would have tried to tackle Jerusalem, for example, it might have been a deal-breaker.

"But not a day ever went by in which the final-status issues weren't banging on the door. It's just that nobody stopped to address it. They left it out in the cold."

Now, however, those issues are red hot.

After repeated stalemates under the previous government, Israel and the Palestinians agreed last month to implement an interim peace deal. They also decided to launch accelerated negotiations aimed at producing a framework for a final peace settlement by February — and a final accord within one year.

Kostiner asserts it can all be done as scheduled.

"As a limited venture, it is doable," Kostiner said. "As a cold war, it can work.

"But this is not turning peace into love. These will hopefully lead to peaceful arrangements. For the moment, this is the best we can hope for."

He also praised Barak for trying very hard "not to leave Syria out of the orbit."

Citing in part Syria's political importance in the region, mainly its clout in staving off a possible Iraqi invasion, Kostiner said he supports an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

He does criticize Barak for allowing more housing to be built in the West Bank. Barak's government has authorized bids for about 2,600 housing units in the past three months, surprising many who expected a drop-off from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's years, when the settlements were allowed to grow by about 3,000 units per year.

"His position is to maintain as many settlements as possible because he doesn't want to turn the settlers into an enemy," he said, noting that offending the settlers probably cost Rabin his life.

"Barak would like to see the peace process move ahead based on a consensus. He's not interested in alienating anyone. But he intends a certain number of settlements to be returned, and the settlers know. He has made no secret of it.

"It's just part of the painstaking decisions that have to be made.

"The future holds many problems. This is not the only one. Barak is trying to learn from past mistakes and walk in the footsteps of Rabin. But that doesn't mean there are not going to be problems."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.