Abbas could stay in talks even if settlement freeze ends

PA president speaks at meeting with American Jewish leaders in New York; appeared to soften previous ultimatum on the settlement issue.

311_Abbas stares down Netanyahu (photo credit: Associated Press)
311_Abbas stares down Netanyahu
(photo credit: Associated Press)
WASHINGTON – Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas indicated Tuesday night that an end to settlement freeze wouldn’t necessarily scuttle his participation in talks.
Though Abbas has threatened to pull out of the nascent negotiations with Israel should the construction moratorium not be extended, on Tuesday night he told Jewish leaders, “I cannot say I will leave the negotiations, but it’s very difficult for me to resume talks if Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declares that he will continue his activity in the West Bank and Jerusalem.”
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Netanyahu has so far ruled out extending the freeze, which is set to expire on Sunday. American officials have been scrambling to find a compromise that will allow talks to continue.
Abbas comments were distributed by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, which hosted him at a closed-door dinner with more than 50 American Jewish leaders in New York.
According to the transcript put out by the organization, Abbas expressed understanding for Israeli security concerns, and stated that “we accept the state of a demilitarized Palestine.”
Demilitarization has been an essential issue for Netanyahu, who has indicated he wants to keep an Israeli presence along the eastern border to prevent the smuggling of rockets into the West Bank. Abbas said at the dinner that would allow Jewish soldiers to participate in a “third-party” security force within Palestinian territory.
Another contentious issue, the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees, was one that would have to be “discussed,” according to Abbas. He added, “Let us say that we want to solve this problem. What’s so important about this issue is that nobody can impose on the other while they are negotiating any issue.”
Netanyahu has demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. When asked about this, Abbas responded, “If the Israeli people want to name themselves whatever they want, they are free to do so” and said he would accept Israel’s characterization as a Jewish state if the Israeli Knesset voted to designate the state as such.
His response didn’t sooth everyone in the crowd, which included heads of major Jewish organization, different Jewish denominations and prominent activists across the political spectrum.
Orthodox Union President Stephen Savitsky expressed dissatisfaction with Abbas’s response to his request that he recognize the special special historical ties that Jews have with Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, which he described as “dismiss[ive].”
"President Abbas missed an opportunity this evening to make a key statement that would have created goodwill in the Jewish community," Savitsky said.
In his comments, Abbas also addressed the tragedy of the Holocaust, noting that he sent his ambassador in Poland to Auschwitz. “It was a crime against humanity. And we want these crimes not to be repeated,” he said, according to the transcript.
He continued by condemning anti-Semitism and statements by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for the destruction of Israel, though he took a more calibrated line on Palestinian incitement. 
“I didn’t deny it. But I can say there is some incitement on the other side. It doesn’t mean we have to exchange blame and accusations here and there,” he said. “We want to put an end to this incitement.”
Abbas described Prime Minister Netanyahu as “my partner in our quest for peace,” a formulation Netanyahu has used for the Palestinian leader, and described the PM’s recent statements about the Palestinian sovereignty as “encouraging.”
At a separate dinner with Jewish leaders in New York Tuesday night, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad also spoke about the importance of security.
Violence “has to be dealt out of the equation permanently regardless of what happens in the peace process,” he told some 65 business, community and religious leaders at a dinner arranged by The Israel Project.
He also talked about the need to end incitement against Israel, according to remarks distributed by the group.
He described his government was committed to an “incitement-free environment.”
He noted that,“incitement is a problem and we see it as such,” and said,“I don’t think one can ever say that we have done everything that could possibly be done … but we are trying,” Fayyad said.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, head of The Israel Project, welcomed Fayyad’s participation and defended their invitation to him.
“Prime Minister Fayyad’s spirit of hope was extremely welcome. We know that some people will criticize us for falling for a Palestinian ‘charm offensive.’ However, there is nothing offensive about charm,” Mizrahi said in a statement distributed after the event. “More Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, should sit together over dinner and exchange ideas -- especially when it can help lead to security and peace.”