WASHINGTON – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas acknowledged that time is running out for peace talks with Israel during a meeting with US President Barack Obama at the White House on Monday.
“We don’t have any time to waste,” Abbas said to the American president, in front of gathered press. “Time is not on our side, especially given the very difficult situation that the Middle East is experiencing and the entire region is facing.”
The meeting comes at a delicate time in fragile peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Both sides have expressed pessimism in recent days that they would be able to find common ground on the “big ticket issues,” as Secretary of State John Kerry said last week while noting that trust between the two sides had reached a nadir.
In the Oval Office, Abbas said that he and his predecessors had extended their hands to Israel, recognizing the state according to “international legitimacy resolutions” since 1988.
By invoking that political marker for his organization, Abbas was referencing former Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat’s recognition of Israel’s Jewish character – mentioned over 30 times in United Nations Resolution 181, a document respected by the PLO.
“This was a very courageous step on the part of the Palestinian leadership,” Abbas stated. “And in 1993, we recognized the State of Israel.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has called on Abbas to publicly declare Israel the Jewish homeland, a condition he considers a “minimal requirement for peace” and fundamental to the conflict.
Former minister Dan Meridor (Likud) said on Monday that “the demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state is a comedy of errors,” and that it was a pity something unimportant had taken center stage.
“The argument should be over why we are building neighborhoods in territories we know we will not keep,” Meridor said.
Abbas, meanwhile, has said there is “no way” he will acquiesce to the demand for a public declaration that Israel is a Jewish state.
In the Oval Office, Abbas also called for a “fair and lasting solution to the refugee problem.”
Kerry and US special envoy to the Middle East peace process Martin Indyk stood in the historic room, prepared to engage Obama and Abbas in a discussion over ongoing peace talks, now nearing the end of a nine-month timetable that the secretary of state fixed himself.
When those talks began last summer, Israel agreed to release prisoners in batches as a peace offering to the Palestinian Authority. The last batch of those prisoners is scheduled for release by March 29, Abbas reminded the president in the Monday morning meeting.
Some Israeli government officials have suggested scrapping the release as negotiations flounder with the Palestinians.
Transportation Minister Israel Katz said on Monday evening, in response to Abbas’s reminder, that “Israel must respond with one word: No!” Katz said he would work to prevent the release of terrorists, especially Fatah politician Marwan Barghouti, who has been convicted in Israel on five counts of murder and sentenced to five life sentences.
“It was a mistake to release the murderers from before the Oslo process in return for starting the talks, and it would be moral bankruptcy to release Barghouti and his friends to continue the talks,” Katz said.
Deputy Education Minister Avraham Wortzman (Bayit Yehudi) called on Netanyahu to hold another cabinet vote before March 28.
“Such gestures did not lead to any progress with the Palestinians until now, but did increase acts of terror,” he said. “Another round of prisoner releases would be much more dangerous than its predecessors, because prisoners who live in Israel are set to be included. It would only encourage more Israeli Arabs to follow the example of these terrorists, who would be considered heroes.”
Despite these tensions, Obama said on Monday “we remain convinced there is an opportunity” for the peace process to succeed. “It’s very hard. It’s very challenging. We’re going to have to take some tough political decisions and risks if we’re able to move it forward.”
Obama said that peace remained an “elusive goal,” though the details of such a peace accord are known to all: “a territorial compromise on both sides,” the president said, “based on ’67 lines with mutually agreed upon swaps that would ensure that Israel was secure but would also ensure that the Palestinians have a sovereign state.”
Unlike in his State of the Union address, Obama made no mention of Israel’s Jewish character in his remarks with the Palestinian premier on Monday.
Just two weeks prior, Obama hosted Netanyahu in his office for a briefing on the talks. At that time, the Israeli leader publicly declared that Abbas had not done his part in preparing the Palestinian people for a peace accord that recognized two states for two peoples.
Obama pushed back against that notion during Abbas’s visit on Monday.
“He has been somebody who has consistently renounced violence,” Obama said, sitting next to him in front of a pool of cameras, and noted that Abbas had the confidence of his administration as a leader in pursuit of lasting peace.
Meeting privately on Sunday, Kerry told Abbas he had just weeks to make “tough political decisions” in talks with Israel.
Kerry encouraged Abbas “to make the tough decisions that will be necessary in the weeks ahead,” a senior State Department official said after the meeting.
“He also reiterated that we are at a pivotal time in the negotiations, and while these issues have decades of history behind them, neither party should let tough political decisions at this stage stand in the way of a lasting peace,” the official added.
Kerry and Abbas met again on Monday at the State Department after a working lunch with the president at the White House.
Gil Hoffman contributed to this article.