Obama to PM: Extend freeze as negotiations progress

Two days before Sharm talks, Israel and PA at odds over what to discuss; Sha’ath: PA will never recognize Israel as the Jewish state.

Obama hand in air, flag in background 311 (photo credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Obama hand in air, flag in background 311
(photo credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Israeli and Palestinian teams have still not agreed on an agenda for the second round of direct talks scheduled for Sharm e-Sheikh on Tuesday, diplomatic sources said on Saturday night.
The Palestinians want to discuss borders and extending the 10-month settlement construction moratorium, and Israel wants to discuss security and Palestinian recognition of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people.RELATED:In New Year plea, Obama urges Israel, PA to push aheadObama, Clinton call on US Jews, Muslims to back talksNetanyahu: There is no guarantee talks will succeed
Israel’s position is that the question of borders depends very much on what security arrangements are put into place, so the security issue must precede that of boundaries.
Likewise, it was made clear during the talks in Washington earlier this month that Israel believes Palestinian recognition will be an indication of whether the Palestinians do indeed want to get an agreement that will put an end to the conflict and future demands.
At a press conference in Washington on Friday, US President Barack said he had told Netanyahu that since the talks were, so far, moving forward, “it makes sense to extend that moratorium so long as the talks are moving in a constructive way.
“Because, ultimately, the way to solve these problems is for the two sides to agree what’s going to be Israel, what’s going to be the state of Palestine. And if you can get that agreement, then you can start constructing anything that the people of Israel see fit in undisputed areas.”
Israeli officials declined to respond to Obama’s comments.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas are scheduled to meet in Sharm on Tuesday, in the presence of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mideast envoy George Mitchell.
The talks are taking place in Egypt as a gesture to Mubarak who, according to Israeli officials, was instrumental in getting the direct talks off the ground. The next day the talks are scheduled to continue in Jerusalem, again with the participation of Clinton and Mitchell.
The major issue at the outset, a matter that was not resolved during last week’s meeting between the two sides’ top negotiators, will be what issue to tackle first. Palestinian demands that Israel extend the construction moratorium, due to end at midnight on September 26, is expected to be met by an Israeli demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
While Netanyahu has said that the cabinet decision on the moratorium will expire as planned, he has not unequivocally said in recent weeks that building will be renewed as it was before the freeze went into effect.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, have said unequivocally that they will never recognize Israel as the national home of the Jewish people.
Nabil Sha’ath, who is serving as a spokesman for the Palestinian negotiating team, said in Ramallah on Wednesday that the “Palestinian Authority will never recognize Israel as the Jewish state because such a declaration will negate the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their home.”
Sha’ath said, “The PA is not opposed to the fact that there will be a Jewish majority in Israel,” but that the PA rejected Netanyahu’s request to discuss the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state at the Sharm talks.
Abbas himself, within days of returning from the relaunch of direct talks in Washington, said the Palestinians would never recognize Israel as the Jewish national home.
Sha’ath also repeated the PA position that if Israel permitted the continuation of building in the settlements after the expiration of the government’s building freeze, the Palestinians would bolt the talks.
“If Israel goes back to settlements, we will not stay in the negotiations,” Sha’ath said.
At his Friday press conference, Obama called on Abbas to give the Israeli public some confidence-building measures.
Citing Netanyahu’s political difficulties in extending the freeze, Obama said he told Abbas “to show the Israeli public” that he is “serious and constructive in these talks so that the politics for Prime Minister Netanyahu – if he were to extend the settlements moratorium – would be a little bit easier.”
Obama said one of his goals was to have both Abbas and Netanyahu “start thinking about how they can help the other succeed, as opposed to how they figure out a way for the other to fail. Because if they’re going to be successful in bringing about what they now agree is the best course of action for their people, the only way they’re going to succeed is if they are seeing the world through the other person’s eyes. And that requires a personal relationship and building trust. Hopefully, these meetings will help do that.”
Obama reiterated that although the US will be actively involved in the process, as evidenced by Clinton and Mitchell’s participation in the talks this week, “Ultimately it’s going to be up to them.
"We can facilitate; we can encourage; we can tell them that we will stand behind them in their efforts and are willing to contribute as part of the broader international community in making this work. But ultimately the parties have to make these decisions for themselves.”
The US president also said that if these talks break down, “we’re going to keep on trying."
An agreement, Obama said, has the ability to “change the strategic landscape in the Middle East in a way that would be very helpful. It would help us deal with an Iran that has not been willing to give up its nuclear program. It would help us deal with terrorist organizations in the region. So this is something in our interest.
We’re not just doing this to feel good. We’re doing it because it will help secure America as well.”
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.