Arab League poised to back Abbas decision to leave talks

Meetings may go on several days; PM begins shifting blame for looming collapse; Oren confirms US giving ‘incentives’ for extended freeze.

Abbas Arab League (photo credit: Associated Press)
Abbas Arab League
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas arrived in Libya on Thursday to seek Arab League backing for his decision to quit direct talks with Israel until the settlement construction moratorium is renewed, amid no signs that the US and Israel have a formula in hand to break the impasse.
Although Ambassador to the US Michael Oren on Thursday was the first Israeli or American official to acknowledge that Washington had offered Jerusalem inducements to extend the freeze, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – in public statements he made later in the day – sounded more like someone trying to shift the blame for failure onto the other side, rather than someone on the verge of announcing a breakthrough.
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“We honored the government decision and took upon ourselves a commitment to the international community and the US to start the peace talks,” Netanyahu said of the 10- month moratorium that ended nearly two weeks ago.
“The Palestinians waited over nine months and, immediately at the onset of the talks, set a precondition even though they had promised that there would be no preconditions.”
The prime minister said that just as his government honored its commitment regarding the settlement moratorium, “we very much hope that the Palestinians will stay in the peace talks.”
But, said Netanyahu during a visit to Lod, “Today, the questions need to be directed to the Palestinians: Why are you abandoning the talks? Don’t turn your backs on peace; stay in the talks. This is what needs to be asked today, and not of the Israeli government.”
Oren, in a video interview on The Washington Post’s website, said Netanyahu feared that since he said the moratorium would only last for 10 months, if it was extended his credibility would be “grievously damaged.”
If at the beginning of the negotiating process Netanyahu’s credibility was dented, then no one would believe him at the end of the process when he would have to give his word to the country that “the two-state solution would be to their benefit,” Oren said.
The US administration, Oren acknowledged, “came to Israel with a number of suggestions, incentives if you would, that would enable the government to maybe pass a limited extension of two or three months.”
Oren said the Obama administration was also continuing to talk with the Palestinians and the Arab League.
In Jerusalem, meanwhile, the widespread assessment was that the Arab League would back Abbas’s decision to leave the talks if Israel did not declare another settlement freeze, or did not declare that it would accept the principle of a Palestinian state based on the June 4, 1967, borders.
The Prime Minister’s Office, meanwhile, continued to stay completely mum about the content of the negotiations, or whether it thought the ongoing contacts with the Americans would bear fruit.
However, in what was perhaps a sign of low expectations in Jerusalem of any dramatic breakthrough, no meeting of the security cabinet or Netanyahu’s senior decision-making forum, the septet, had been scheduled for Friday.
The Prime Minister’s Office refused to relate to media reports that as a condition for extending the moratorium by two or three months, Netanyahu was asking US President Barack Obama to sign off on a letter president George W. Bush gave prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2004, a year before the withdrawal from Gaza.
In that letter, seen as instrumental in enabling Sharon to get his disengagement plan through the cabinet, Bush indicated that the US would not back the Palestinian claim for a right of refugee return to within the pre-1967 borders; would not call for a full return to those 1967 borders, something Israel took to mean that Washington would accept Israel’s holding on to the major settlement blocs; and that the US would back Jerusalem when international pressure came to bear on Israel regarding its nuclear program.
The Obama administration has never reaffirmed that letter, a sore point to some inside the government who feel Sharon withdrew from Gaza on the basis of that document.
The Arab foreign ministers will be meeting in the Libyan city of Serte on Friday.
The Jerusalem Post revealed this week that the Palestinians were considering a US proposal to remain in the talks if Israel extended the freeze by two or three months, while waiting to see if Israel would accept the offer.
A senior PA official said the proposal was not a bad idea.
The official said that the PA leadership would accept the American offer only if the US administration gave the Palestinians assurances that an agreement on the borders of a future Palestinian state would be reached within the two- or three-month time period of the new moratorium.
Another top PA official told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that he expected “some kind of a compromise” that would allow the Palestinians to continue with the talks.
“We believe that in the end the Americans will put heavy pressure on the Israeli government to extend the freeze,” the official said, adding that the PA and the Arab League were not seeking to destroy the peace process.
The official said that Abbas did not want to bear sole responsibility for whatever happens with the peace talks.
“We want an Arab decision,” he added. “We don’t want the decision to be taken only by the Palestinian leadership.”
Despite the tone of optimism voiced by the official, Yasser Abed Rabbo, a PLO leader and close adviser to Abbas, was quoted by Agence France-Press as saying that there can be no peace as long as Netanyahu is in power.
Abed Rabbo also denied that Abbas and Netanyahu were planning to meet in Paris at the end of the month.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced last month that he had invited both men, and Netanyahu has publicly said he would accept the invitation.
Abbas, meanwhile, has returned to his old habit of threatening to resign if Israel does not comply with his demands, making his latest threat during a meeting in Jordan on Wednesday night with members of the Palestine National Council, the PLO’s parliament- in-exile.
Khaled Musmar, a PLO official, said that Abbas hinted during the meeting that he would resign from his post if the peace talks with Israel failed.
Abbas described the talks with Israel as “hard and complicated because of Israeli intransigence and refusal to freeze settlement construction.”
Abbas told the delegates that he would soon take “important decisions” but did not elaborate, sparking renewed speculation that he might step down or dissolve the PA.