By JOSEF FEDERMAN
JERUSALEM — The same negotiators, the same issues, a familiar venue: The sense of deja vu is overwhelming as Israelis and Palestinians start Wednesday on their third attempt in 13 years to draw a border between them.
But they face even longer odds than in the last round, which ended in 2008.
Since then, at least 40,000 more Israelis have settled in areas the Palestinians want for a state, making it even harder to partition the land. The chaos of the Arab Spring has bolstered Israeli demands for ironclad security guarantees, such as troop deployments along Palestine’s future border, widening a dispute that seemed near resolution five years ago.
The talks come after months of prodding by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who made six visits to the region since taking office in his bid to bring together Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. together
Despite U.S. cheerleading, expectations have been low on both sides. Ahead of Wednesday’s talks at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, the atmosphere soured further after Israel said in a series of announcements in the past week that it is advancing plans for more than 3,000 new homes for Jews in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem.
“It’s not just deliberate sabotage of the talks, but really the destruction of the outcome,” said senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi. “Israel has transformed the negotiations into a cover and a license to steal land.”
Israel argued that it’s mainly building in areas it wants to keep in any border deal. “This construction that has been authorized in no way changes the final map of peace,” said government spokesman Mark Regev.
In Israel, attention focused on anguish over the expected release Tuesday of 26 long-held Palestinian prisoners, part of a U.S.-brokered deal that persuaded the Palestinians to resume negotiations. In all, 104 veteran prisoners are to be freed in four stages, depending on progress in the border talks, for which the U.S. has allotted nine months.
Most of the prisoners have already served more than 20 years, many for deadly attacks on Israelis. Angry relatives of some of the victims spoke on TV and radio news programs, protesting the release of convicted killers in what they considered a pointless gesture. Israel’s Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected their appeal, clearing the way for the release.
The negotiators meeting Wednesday — Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu aide Yitzhak Molcho for Israel, and Abbas advisers Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Shtayyeh for the Palestinians — have spent countless hours with each other in previous talks and are familiar with the issues down to the tiniest detail.
That’s not a recipe for success, though.
The sides made progress in previous rounds, starting in 2000, and the outlines of a deal have emerged — a Palestinian state in the vast majority of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands captured by Israel in 1967, with border adjustments to enable Israel to annex land where most of the more than 500,000 settlers live.
However, talks broke down each time before the two sides reached the truly explosive issues: dividing Jerusalem and finding new homes for millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Even on the land swaps, gaps remained. Abbas offered Israel 1.9 percent of the West Bank, while Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert proposed keeping 6.5 percent.
Since Abbas and Olmert last met in 2008, the situation has become even more complex. Netanyahu has rejected Israel’s pre-1967 frontier as a starting point for border talks and says east Jerusalem is not up for discussion.
There are also more settlers: The number of Israelis living in the West Bank and east Jerusalem has increased from 489,000 five years ago to around 530,000 in 2011, according to government figures. Settler officials recently put the current total at 568,000.
The Netanyahu government says it is largely building in east Jerusalem and West Bank “settlement blocs” it intends to keep — although is doubtful the Palestinians would sign off on such a map. And the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now says that under Netanyahu, more than one-third of settlement housing starts were deep inside the West Bank.
In a swap deal that falls somewhere between Abbas’ and Olmert’s proposals, well over 100,000 Israeli settlers would have to leave their homes.
Some in Israel warned that at the current rate of building, partition will soon be physically impossible.
Jerusalem expert Daniel Seidemann pointed to unilateral Israeli changes in the eastern sector of the city, sought by the Palestinians as a capital, in the past five years. Israel has significantly expanded its settlement there, effectively dictating the eventual borders — if the city is to be divided along ethnic lines, as the U.S. has proposed.
The foothold of Jewish settlers in east Jerusalem’s so-called holy basin, the area around major shrines of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, has “increased exponentially over the past five years,” Seidemann warned.
Meanwhile, the upheaval in Arab countries next door — civil war in Syria and Egypt’s revolution and military coup — is bound to harden Israel’s security demands of a future Palestine. Israel’s main concern is that the West Bank, which is currently relatively stable, could follow the path of the Gaza Strip and become a launching ground for rocket attacks. Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, and Hamas militants seized power there two years later.
Israel’s former national security adviser, Uzi Dayan, argued that Israel must retain a strong military presence, including troops, in the West Bank’s Jordan Valley on the border with Jordan for years to come. He said Israel must be able to control who enters the West Bank to keep out weapons and militants.
“There is huge uncertainty,” he said, referring to the dramatic changes in the region. “You don’t know what will happen in Jordan in two years. I can’t risk my future and my security on just hopes.”
Netanyahu’s office has said Israel will insist on an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley and border controls that prevent an infiltration of militants. “The volatility, violence and instability we have seen over the last two years only strengthened the determination” to obtain solid security arrangements, Regev said.
For Palestinians, that’s a nonstarter. In previous rounds, they agreed to a demilitarized state and Israeli air force overflights and proposed that U.S.-led NATO troops patrol the border, but rejected continued Israeli control in the Jordan Valley.
Shaul Arieli, a former Israeli negotiator, said Abbas and Olmert had narrowed their gaps on a security deal, adding that of all the disputes on the table, “it was the easiest issue to agree on.”
Netanyahu adopted a difference stance, said Abbas aide Yasser Abed Rabbo. He said that Molcho, the Netanyahu envoy, told him two years ago that Israel wants to lease the Jordan Valley for 40 years and set up military bases there.
“And as we know, they would ask for secured roads to these military bases, and secured areas around these roads which make most of the area under their control,” Abed Rabbo said.
Laub reported from Jericho, West Bank. Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed reporting.