CAIRO – The United States is pressing for the deployment of NATO troops in the West Bank to facilitate an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territory, as a senior Palestinian negotiator threatened unilateral independence over stalled peace talks.
"The deployment of such a force has come up in talks, and Jones is known to be working on it," a senior Israeli defense official told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, February 20, referring to US special envoy Gen. James Jones.
"At the moment, it’s just an idea and has yet to be accepted or adopted by Israel."
The plan calls for deploying third-party troops in the West Bank to secure the area when Israeli troops withdraw until the Palestinian Authority is able to take over full security control.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has been briefed on the US plan and has not yet finalized his position.
Israel has traditionally been hostile to any suggestions of deploying foreign troops in the occupied Palestinian territories.
US Ambassador to Israel Richard Jones on Tuesday, February 19, hinted at the possibility of deploying an international force in the occupied West Bank.
The plan is being discussed with European countries which could contribute troops to the force, said the Post.
In another development, a top aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas threatened to declare unilateral independence if no progress was made in peace talks with Israel.
"If things are not going in the direction of actually halting settlement activities, if things are not going in the direction of continuous and serious negotiations, then we should take the step and announce our independence unilaterally," Yasser Abed Rabbo told Reuters.
"This is what the Israelis are driving us to," he later told the Voice of Palestine radio.
Abed Rabbo said the Palestinians have the same right to declare independence as Muslim-majority Kosovo which declared independence from Serbia on Sunday.
"We deserve independence even before Kosovo, and we ask for the backing of the United States and the European Union for our independence."
But senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat immediately ruled out such a possibility.
"Now we need real independence, not a declaration. We need real independence by ending the occupation. We are not Kosovo."
It was not yet clear where Abbas, who met Israeli Premier Ehud Olmert on Tuesday, February 19, for a new round of talks, stands.
Peace negotiations have been stalled by disputes over Israeli plans to build new settlements near occupied East Jerusalem and insistence on putting off talks on the fate of the holy city for now.
Israel occupied East Jerusalem after the 1967 Mideast war before annexing it in a move not recognized by the international community.
The fate of the holy city, home to Islam’s third holiest shrine, remains the thorniest issue of the entire Arab-Israeli conflict.
(IslamOnline.net and agencies)