The Middle East has been abuzz in anticipation of the peace plan US President Barack Obama is expected to unveil in Cairo next month. Some who can't wait to hear official details have extracted what they claim is a preview of it, reported today in Israeli newspapers and the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi.
The so-called "Obama Plan" outlined by these reports is not radically different from those proposed by other Middle East interlocutors. But it boldly tackles some of the thorniest issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that other plans, such as the 1993 Oslo Accords, never resolved.
The solutions, which include a Palestinian state adjacent to Israel, would require both Israelis and Palestinians to cross some of their self-declared red lines.
Palestinians would have to give up the demand for their refugees' "right of return" to areas that are now part of Israel proper, and would instead have to settle for compensation or the option of moving to the West Bank or Gaza Strip.
The capital of the Palestinian state would be in East Jerusalem, which is currently under Israeli control. Most controversially, the plan includes a proposal that the Old City – with sites holy to the three major monotheistic religions – would become an international zone under the flag of the United Nations. Such an arrangement was proposed in the 1947 UN partition plan but was never implemented.
Mayor: Splitting Jerusalem is 'wishful thinking'
The status of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugee issue have in the past been major deal-breakers.
Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, says that on the issue of refugees, many Palestinians are prepared for realistic solutions.
"Most people know that they will not see the return of millions of Palestinians into Israel, or what's known as historic Palestine," he says. "Deep in our hearts we know it isn't possible, but people would like to see an acknowledgement of Israel's moral and historic responsbility."
But the idea of putting the holy sites of Jerusalem under international control is something Hamas, he says, as well as many other Muslims, will not accept.
"Palestinians would more likely accept this formula on the refugee than it would the internationalization of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is full of Islamic holy places over which Palestinains are not ready to make concessions," Dr. Abusada says.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, speaking Wednesday on a popular Israel Radio program, also indicated that any plan to split the holy city was a non-starter because Israel would not agree to divide its capital. On Thursday Israel celebrates Jerusalem Day, marking 42 years of what it considers to be reunification of Jerusalem – achieved during the 1967 Six-Day War – and Palestinians consider to be an occupation.
"Everyone who knows this city knows that it's not practical, it's not possible ... and it won't happen," Mr. Barkat said. "It's what's called in English, 'wishful thinking.'
"Jerusalem needs to stay united and whole – there's no other way."
Palestinians preoccupied with internal divides
Palestinians have declined to comment officially on the reported details of the plan. The Palestinian political scene remained enmeshed in internal complications Wednesday after Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, inaugurated a new government cabinet headed by Salam Fayyad as prime minister. Hamas, as well as a mass of Fatah members, were unhappy with the decision. The Fatah parliamentary faction was meeting late Wednesday to discuss whether it might boycott the new government.
Mr. Obama is due to meet with Palestinian President Abbas, as well as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak next week – a prelude to his trip to the Middle East, during which he is scheduled to address the Muslim world from Cairo on June 4.
Leading up to the trip, moderate Arab states including Egypt and Jordan have been pushing the Saudi-led 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, under which Arab countries would normalize relations with Israel if Israel recognized a Palestinian state.
Obama, whose plan is reportedly similar to the Arab initiative, has repeatedly endoresed a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – most recently in his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office on Monday. Mr. Netanyahu, who returned to Israel on Wednesday, has so far been unwilling to support such a formula, saying instead that he wanted Palestinians to govern themselves.
But upon landing at the Tel Aviv airport, he told reporters, "I said I was ready to immediately open peace talks with the Palestinians, by the way, with the Syrians as well, of course, without preconditions."