US: Talk of Palestinian unilateralism unhelpful

State Department says only direct talks will bring peace; Netanyahu heads to US for GA, hopes to find way to restart negotiations.

Peace talks Sharm el-Sheikh (photo credit: Associated Press)
Peace talks Sharm el-Sheikh
(photo credit: Associated Press)
On the eve of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's arrival in New Orleans on Sunday, the US State Department took a firm stand in favor of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks as it labeled a possible unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood as “not helpful” and discouraged the Palestinian leadership from taking such a step.
“We remain convinced that ultimately the only way that we’re going to get a comprehensive peace is through direct negotiations, and anything that might affect those direct negotiations we feel is not helpful and not constructive,” US State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington on Friday.
PM to meet with Ban Ki-moon in New York
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Toner had been asked about press reports that the Palestinian leadership might go to the UN to seek recognition of a state, including one report in which Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said the US had agreed to support the Palestinians in that effort if direct talks didn’t bear fruit.
Netanyahu is expected to meet on Sunday with US Vice President Joseph Biden in New Orleans, on Monday with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and on Thursday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. US President Barack Obama will be in Asia during the visit.
Governmental sources told The Jerusalem Post that while in the US, Netanyahu hoped to find a way to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
Fledgling talks between both sides broke down when the moratorium on new settlement construction expired on September 26.
The Palestinians have insisted that Israel must stop settlement construction or at the very least renew themoratorium. Netanyahu has said that he would consider a second freeze only if the Palestinians recognized Israel as a Jewish state.
But Netanyahu has not made that demand a condition for direct talks and has called on the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table without any conditions attached.
Government sources said Netanyahu had made his position very clear and that concessions were a “two-way street.”
The Palestinians have to show “flexibility and creativity,” a source said. “If the expectation is that only one side is going to make concessions, it [the process] is not going to work.”
The Palestinians have rejected calls to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Last week in Washington, top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said, “They [Israel] want me to join the Zionist movement. I will not.”
In talking with reporters, he stressed that the Palestinians were also focused on getting direct talks back on track.
On Thursday, Erekat said that the Arab League had ceded to a US request and extended by a number of weeks its November 9 deadline for turning away from direct negotiations. Erekat said the League would now give the US more time to restart negotiations before Arab states considered alternatives to direct talks. One of those alternatives has been the idea of seeking recognition of unilateral statehood at the UN.
Erekat told reporters that a unilateral declaration of statehood was a possibility Palestinians were considering for the future.
“We’re weighing our options,” he told reporters.
“I’m not specifying timelines.”
He added that during his visit to Washington, the option of turning to the UN to seek unilateral statehood had not been raised in his conversations with senior US officials, including US Middle East envoy George Mitchell and senior White House Middle East adviser Dennis Ross.
In New York in Monday, Netanyahu is expected to urge Ban not to support any unilateral bid for statehood that the Palestinians might seek to solicit from the United Nations.
In Washington on Friday, Toner said the US firmly supported direct talks as the best option for peace.
“Our goal remains getting both sides back into direct negotiations,” Toner said.
“Anything that might affect getting both parties back into direct negotiations we would discourage.”
Toner also said on Friday that the US remained committed to the peace process regardless of the recent losses suffered by the Democratic Party, which will turn over the House of Representatives to the Republicans, many of whom are expected to push back against any efforts by the Obama administration to pressure Israel on the issue of settlements.
“It is a priority for this administration,” Toner said of Middle East peace-making.
“It's going to remain a priority for this administration, and obviously we're going to work hand in glove with Congress to advance direct negotiations and to ultimately reach a settlement.”
Not everyone in the government was hopeful that the peace process could be fully resumed.
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said over the weekend, “I do not think it is possible to come to an agreement on the core issues. I call on the Palestinians to consider moving to talks toward a longterm interim agreement that will serve the interests of both peoples.”
He added that the Palestinian “approach of agreement or incitement is a destructive approach that could destabilize the region.”
During his visit, Netanyahu is also expected to discuss regional issues with US officials, such Iran and global terrorism.
He arrives first in New Orleans on Sunday, where he will meet with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Biden.
On Monday, he will address the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America before heading to New York to meet with Ban.

On Wednesday he is expected to meet with Jewish leaders.
On Thursday, he is scheduled to meet with Clinton and possibly with New York Governor- elect Andrew Cuomo.
Netanyahu will not carry a letter passed to him by faction heads of all but the Arab parties, representing 109 out of 120 parliamentarians, which called on the US to release Jonathan Pollard.
Pollard, a dual American- Israeli citizen, is serving his 25th year of a life sentence in a North Carolina prison for passing classified US documents to Israel.
Netanyahu rejected the request to bring the letter to Washington. A statement put out by his office said he had raised the issue numerous times with the US and did not need a letter from parliamentarians to continue to press the issue.
The Prime Minister’s Office suggested that if the MKs wanted to pass a letter to the US, it should be done through the American Embassy in Tel Aviv.
Rebecca Anna Stoil contributed to this report.