Palestinian officials: Abbas may agree to continue talks if prisoners released

Kerry, who now speaks almost daily with Netanyahu, met Abbas in Amman; leverage the US could use to keep Abbas at table includes threats to close embassy in DC, slow flow of funds.

John Kerry and Mahmoud Abbas. (photo credit: Reuters)
John Kerry and Mahmoud Abbas.
(photo credit: Reuters)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas might agree to continue negotiations after the April 29 deadline if Israel goes through with the fourth prisoner release at the end of the month, Palestinian officials in Ramallah said Wednesday.
The comments came just prior to a Wednesday night meeting in Amman between Abbas and US Secretary of State John Kerry, who interrupted a European trip to meet with Abbas and try to salvage the floundering peace talks.
Kerry was expected to brief Netanyahu by phone after the meeting, but is not expected to travel to Jerusalem to talk with the prime minister. Israeli officials said that the two men have been speaking by phone recently “almost every day.”
Palestinian officials said that Kerry has been exerting pressure on Abbas to agree to extend the talks. The US is not without tools it can use to pressure the Palestinians, including threatening to cut off funds to the PA and shutting down the Palestinian Embassy in Washington, something that would deny them much of their sought-after legitimacy.
One Palestinian official said Abbas has no choice but to agree to the US request to extend the peace talks beyond the April deadline.
“The Americans are trying to avoid a situation where the parties would declare the failure to the peace talks,” the official told The Jerusalem Post.
“The peace talks have thus far failed to achieve anything positive, mainly due to Israeli intransigence.”
Hassan Khraisheh, deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said that Abbas is facing American and Israeli pressure to soften his position, especially regarding recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
Accusing the US administration of practicing “political and financial blackmail” against the Palestinians, Khraisheh said that Abbas is adamant in his refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
He said that Abbas is also determined to seek unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state by international organizations when and if the negotiations fail.
Khraisheh did not rule out the possibility that the US and Israel would seek a replacement for Abbas if he continues to insist on his position.
“I believe that President Abbas will meet the same fate as that of Yasser Arafat,” he said. “They will get rid of him the same way they got rid of Arafat.”
Kerry’s meeting with Abbas comes hours after the twenty-fifth Arab summit in Kuwait announced its backing for the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Abbas’s ruling Fatah faction welcomed the Arab summit declaration, saying it sent a message to the entire world that the Arab countries stand behind the Palestinian people’s rights.
Fatah spokesman Ahmed Assaf, who accompanied Abbas to the summit, said that the declaration also shows that the Palestinians are not alone in their refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
He described the Israeli demand on this issue as “unjustified and unacceptable.”
Israeli government officials blamed Abbas for the Arab League statement rejecting the call to consider Israel a Jewish state, saying that he led the Arab League on this issue and was keen on getting its support in order to better be able to withstand US pressure to be flexible on the matter. Had Abbas wanted to be more flexible, the official said, the Arab League would have gone along and given him the necessary cover.
On Tuesday, Abbas told the Arab League he refused to even discuss recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.
One senior Israeli official said this position could very well “torpedo the peace process,” and blasted Abbas for boasting of this position, “once again parading rejectionism as virtue.”
According to the official, Abbas’s “stubborn refusal to discuss mutual recognition between two nation states” stands in contrast to Netanyahu’s willingness to recognize a Palestinian state, and his agreement that all core issues can be raised during negotiations.
“President Barack Obama has repeatedly declared his vision of peace: the Jewish state of Israel and a state of Palestine living side by side in peace and security,” he said. “By reiterating his adversarial maximalist position, Abbas is undermining President Obama’s vision of peace and torpedoing Secretary Kerry’s efforts to move the process forward.”
Meanwhile, both the White House and the State Department on Wednesday denied an Army Radio report that the US agreed to release Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard as part of a negotiated compromise to extend the talks past their nine-month deadline.
According to the report, Israel would go ahead with the scheduled release of the final batch of 26 Palestinian security prisoners on Saturday night, including 14 Israeli Arabs, in exchange for the US gesture.
Pollard has for years been seen as a possible “card” the US could play when the time is right to push a diplomatic process forward.
One reason why reports about this issue being raised now are viewed in Jerusalem with a bit more seriousness than in the past is because Pollard, serving a life sentence, is up for parole next year and could be released by the end of 2015. As such, time is running out if the US does indeed want to use Pollard’s release as a sweetener to induce Israel to make certain moves.
But State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, accompanying Kerry from Rome to Amman on Wednesday for his meeting with Abbas, denied the reports.
“Jonathan Pollard was convicted of espionage against the United States, a very serious crime, was sentenced to life in prison and is serving his sentence,” she said in a statement. “There are currently no plans to release Jonathan Pollard.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has remained silent about whether he plans to go through with the release of the fourth batch of convicted Palestinian terrorists, must bring the release back to the cabinet for its approval only if Israeli Arabs are among those to be released.
While Netanyahu would have a very difficult time getting this passed by the cabinet, Pollard’s inclusion would make the chances much better.
Six Israeli Arabs were released in 2011 in the prisoner release for kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit, and the argument will likely be used that, if this was done to free Schalit, it should be done as well to win Pollard’s release.
The Prime Minister’s Office was not willing to comment about the possibility of a Pollard release.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett expressed skepticism, however, that the US would release Pollard as part of a package, telling Army Radio that he had not received any confirmation from Netanyahu about this.
“I’m very skeptical. I didn’t see the United States reach its hand into its pocket on the Pollard issue, and I haven’t heard [about this] from the prime minister,” he said. “I don’t assume that it will really happen.”
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.