Despite Washington’s announcement that it is looking for other ways besides a settlement construction moratorium to move the diplomatic process forward, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas stressed on Thursday that peace talks will not resume unless Israel halts building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is set to deliver a major address on Friday setting out the US’s new thinking, after she met and spoken by telephone with a series of Israeli and Palestinian leaders and officials this week.
Abbas, who was speaking to reporters in Cairo after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, said Mubarak agreed with him on the settlement freeze condition. He also emphasized that the Palestinians would not hold secret negotiations with Israel.
One of the ideas that have been raised in recent days was that after both Israeli and Palestinian officials hold a series of separate talks with the US on the core issues, the leaders would hold discrete talks to hammer out matters and move the process forward.
Abbas added that Arab League foreign ministers were expected to meet in the coming days to discuss the repercussions of Washington’s announcement.
“No matter what decisions the Arab League takes, my position and that of President Mubarak is that we won’t accept negotiations while settlement construction continues,” Abbas said. “We have made this position clear to the American administration.”
The Palestinians still don’t know exactly what kind of understandings the US had reached with Israel concerning the settlements, he said.
The PA president said that chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat has headed to Washington for “consultations” with US officials on the future of the peace process.
Erekat was dispatched to Washington following a phone conversation late on Wednesday between Clinton and Abbas.
Abbas said that he did not hear anything new from Clinton and that’s why he sent Erekat to Washington to find out exactly what happened between the US and Israel.
“Erekat will consult only with Clinton and [special envoy George] Mitchell and there will be no behind-the-scenes talks with Israel,” Abbas said. “And after he returns home, Mitchell will come.”
Asked what options he would consider if the peace process failed, Abbas said that he continues to insist on the establishment of a Palestinian state on the June 4, 1967, borders. However, he did not rule out a “slight” land swap.
“After the establishment of the Palestinian state, we categorically reject any Israeli presence in the Palestinian territories,” he said.
“There are also other options including going to the UN [to seek recognition of a Palestinian state].”
Regarding the possibility of the PA going to the UN, one Israeli official said, “the international community shouldn’t be helping the Palestinians find excuses not to negotiate. People who want to see the peace process continue and succeed should be urging the Palestinians to return to the talks, not helping provide excuses for their not doing so.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, said before a meeting in his Jerusalem office with Quartet envoy Tony Blair that Israel would be working with him and the Palestinians in the coming week to “have concrete developments in the field.”
Israeli officials have said in recent days that with the talks at a stalemate, Israel would redouble efforts to improve the economic situation in the West Bank.
At the same time, Netanyahu said, “I think we need to work with the US and the international community to find a route that will give us a horizon to a historic peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, two states for two peoples.”
Support for de-emphasizing the settlements in the whole diplomatic process came from an unusual quarter on Thursday, with Syrian President Bashar Assad saying after a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris that “We are against putting settlements at the center of peace talks.
“If we want to talk about peace, we have to talk about legal rights, about territorial restitution, and not talk about the settlements,” Assad said. The Syrian president added that Israel was not “a partner for peace.”
In Washington, meanwhile, Clinton hosted Israeli envoy Yitzhak Molcho on Thursday as the US continued to look for ways to chart a new course.
Molcho is one of many Israeli officials holding contacts with the US this week, as Defense Minister Ehud Barak, National Security Adviser Uzi Arad, Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor and opposition leader Tzipi Livni are scheduled to come to Washington this weekend for the Saban Forum between American and Israeli leaders. PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad will also attend the Saban Forum.
An Israeli Embassy spokesman said Thursday’s meeting with Clinton capped several days of conversations Molcho has had with senior American officials.
Clinton is slated to give a major address at the Saban Forum on Friday night, but coming in the midst of contacts between the sides and the lack of clear signals from the administration in recent days, expectations are low for any groundbreaking statement.
Despite the recent stalemate in talks, a poll by Shibley Telhami unveiled at the opening of the Saban Forum on Thursday found that 41 percent of Americans surveyed say that the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts are at the “right level,” while 30% say the administration is not trying hard enough and 21% say it is trying too hard.
The poll of Americans also found that two-thirds want the administration to “lean toward neither side” in mediating Israeli- Palestinian peace, while a quarter want it to lean toward Israel and 2% want it to lean toward the Palestinians.
A second part of the survey, which included Jewish and Arab Israelis, found that 72% of those surveyed support the American effort to mediate Palestinian- Israeli peace.
US President Barack Obama’s standing continues to be poor among Jewish Israelis, however, and is also dropping among Arab Israelis.
In an open-ended question, in which respondents were asked to name
the world leader they most disliked, 41% of Israeli Jews picked Iranian
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and 10% named Obama. However, Obama was
also was cited as the third-most admired leader in another open-ended
And in response to yet a third, 41% of Israeli Jews said they held positive views of Obama and 51% negative views.
In comparison, 45% of Arab citizens of Israel have a favorable view of Obama; that number was 70% in 2009.
Secretary-General Ban Kimoon’s office released a statement on Wednesday
that said he took note “with regret” of Israel’s decision not to extend
the freeze.Jordana Horn contributed to this report.