Abbas douses expectations for resumption of talks

PA leader reiterates his demand for a full settlement freeze and the release of Palestinian prisoners.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and PA President Abbas 390 (R) (photo credit: Jason Reed / Reuters)
Prime Minister Netanyahu and PA President Abbas 390 (R)
(photo credit: Jason Reed / Reuters)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas poured cold water on rising expectations that restarting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations was just around the corner, reiterating on Tuesday his demand for a full settlement construction freeze and the release of Palestinian prisoners.
Abbas, during a meeting with Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Torgeir Larsen in Ramallah, said peace talks with Israel should be based on the two-state solution and the establishment of a Palestinian state “on the [pre- ]1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital.” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has consistently rejected calls for a complete settlement freeze and for stating that the pre- 1967 lines would be the baseline for the talks.
Abbas’s remarks were his first since media reports Monday claiming he had agreed to return to the negotiating table with Israel unconditionally. PA officials in Ramallah described the reports as “test balloons” by Israel to cause “confusion” among Palestinians ahead of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s arrival in the region.
Kerry is scheduled to arrive on Thursday for his fifth visit in four months, in an effort to push the sides back into talks. Kerry is scheduled to arrive on Thursday for his fifth visit in four months, in an effort to push the sides back into talks.
Despite Abbas’s comments Tuesday, one Western diplomatic official said avoiding international blame for not being willing to negotiate is driving Palestinians and Israelis closer to the negotiating table.
“Both sides are very much aware that it will hurt them if they are blamed for the failure,” he said.
Amid the swirl of recent reports that Abbas would drop some of his preconditions for entering negotiations, and that Netanyahu was willing to release some Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture and perhaps freeze settlement construction beyond the West Bank security barrier, one Israeli official said it was too early to say whether this Kerry visit would result in a “breakthrough.”
“Israel is ready to take concrete steps to bolster the process,” the official said. “We want to see mutual confidencebuilding measures, and it is not clear at this time whether the Palestinians want to reengage, and that if they do, if they are committed to it seriously.”
Netanyahu, according to the official, is in regular, direct contact with Kerry.
The official said Israel was concerned that Abbas might enter negotiations for a couple of weeks, primarily to deflect international pressure, but then walk away from them and blame Israel for “intransigence.”
The official said this was what happened in September 2010, when Abbas negotiated with Netanyahu for less than a month at the tail end of Israel’s 10-month settlement freeze, and again in 2012 when the Palestinians walked away from low-level talks in Jordan.
The concern is that after leaving the talks, Abbas would again initiate unilateral steps in an international forum, including at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Netanyahu echoed these concerns in comments he made at the outset of a meeting on Tuesday with visiting Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
On Tuesday in Jerusalem, however, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said, “Those who worry about the court must stop committing crimes.” He spoke at a Jerusalem event for young Israeli and Palestinian adults, hosted by the Palestine-Israel Journal and the Netherlands Representative Office in Ramallah.
Netanyahu, he added, “wants a cost-free occupation. I have a message on behalf of [Abbas]. The status quo is not sustainable.”
The Palestinians, he said, were ready to return to the negotiating table “yesterday,” but before they sit down to talk, they must know what the agenda is.
“What is it that I will be discussing with my Israeli counterparts. I do not want anyone to lecture me, I do not want anyone to stand up and say I cannot negotiate ’67, I cannot negotiate Jerusalem, I cannot negotiate refugees, I cannot negotiate anything, and then after 30 minutes of conditioning the negotiations, come here, boy, we know what is best for you.”
Israel, Erekat said, wants to dictate terms, such as there must be settlement blocs, but it does not want to negotiate.
If Israel thwarts Kerry’s efforts, Erekat warned, than the Palestinians would continue to pursue statehood recognition efforts at the United Nations, by asking to be parties to major UN conventions and treaties.
“We will be joining all organizations in the United Nations,” he said.
Erekat said Kerry was doing a “fantastic job” and that he supported his efforts.
“His failure is a non-option for us. His success means our freedom,” he said.
“No one benefits more from Kerry’s success than Palestinians and no one loses more,” Erekat said.
But instead of taking steps to support the process in advance of Kerry’s arrival, Netanyahu travels to the Barkan settlement to dedicate a new school, Erekat said.
The ministers in Netanyahu’s government are eulogizing the two-state solution, Erekat added.
“No one should doubt that Palestine will be back on the geographic maps,” he said.
Netanyahu, in talks with Ivanishvili, said: “Our fervent hope is for peace, a genuine peace that can be achieved only through direct negotiations without preconditions.”
“We’re ready to enter such negotiations. I hope the Palestinians are, too. And I have to say that our goal is not just to enter and put a ‘V’ (check the box) to show that we’ve begun negotiations,” the prime minister said.
“Our goal is to persist in the negotiations, to engage in them consistently over a serious period of time in order to try to grapple with all the issues, and come to an agreement that resolves the fundamental issues in the conflict,” he said, adding that these types of negotiations will require time, determination and a systematic approach.
“I hope that this is what the Palestinians will have,” he said. “That’s our approach. I hope it’s theirs, too.”
On the eve of Kerry’s visit, The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that the short-term US goal is peace talks without “preconditions,” and that the larger goal is “a fast agreement – ideally, within a year or so – that draws permanent borders on the West Bank.”
Ministers on the Right and Left expressed opposition on Tuesday to Netanyahu making gestures aimed at bringing the Palestinians to the negotiating table, such as releasing terrorists from prison or freezing construction in Judea, Samaria or Jerusalem.
Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi) said that in his successful business career, he never had to pay anyone to negotiate with him.
Science, Technology and Space Minister Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid), who is considered the cabinet’s most dovish minister, said he also opposed such gestures on principle.
“Freezing construction in the past was a mistake that caused great harm to the residents of Judea and Samaria, and did not help advance the diplomatic process at all,” Transportation Minister Israel Katz (Likud) said.
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.