Palestinians more skeptical about Mideast talks

Published 8:21 pm Saturday, May 21, 2011

Palestinian officials said Saturday that Israel’s dismissive response to President Barack Obama’s new Mideast peace proposal proves there’s not enough common ground for meaningful negotiations.

Despite such skepticism, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas seemed in no hurry to announce his next move. He instructed his advisers to avoid public comment, presumably to keep attention focused on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who appears to be set on a collision course with Obama.

The U.S. president said this week that Israeli-Palestinian border talks should be based on Israel’s pre-1967 war lines, with mutually agreed land swaps, adopting a formula long sought by the Palestinians, but rejected by Netanyahu.

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In finally presenting his own vision of the rough outlines of a peace deal, Obama stepped deeper into the Mideast fray after more than two years on the sidelines. However, he did not present a plan of action with his ideas, and the responses from both sides indicated that chances for renewing talks, largely on hold since 2008, are increasingly remote.

Obama and Netanyahu are to address the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC on Sunday and Monday, respectively. The Israeli leader also plans to address Congress on Tuesday. A White House spokesman has said Obama will speak of the strong bond between Israel and the U.S., but not deliver a policy speech.

The strain in the relationship became apparent on Friday, after a two-hour White House meeting between Obama and Netanyahu. In front of TV cameras, Netanyahu at times seemed to lecture Obama, and suggested the president’s ideas are unrealistic, saying that “peace based on illusions” will quickly fail.

Among Abbas’ senior aides, meanwhile, there seemed to be some disagreement over tactics.

Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said it’s best for the Palestinians to keep quiet and let Netanyahu do the talking.

“We accept two states based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps … and we want Mr. Netanyahu to say this sentence,” Erekat said. “We hope to hear it in front of Congress, at AIPAC, in Hebrew, in Arabic, in Chinese, in any language.”

Erekat said it’s premature to talk about what to do should Obama fail to renew peace talks. Abbas’ aides have been preparing to bypass negotiations, with a bid in September to win U.N. recognition of a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War.

Another senior aide, Nabil Shaath, said he expects Abbas to renew his support for the U.N. option in coming days — unless Obama somehow persuades Netanyahu to change course and accept the 1967 borders as a baseline.

“It’s very clear that Obama’s attempt (to restart talks) was shot down by Mr. Netanyahu,” Shaath said Saturday, adding that unless there’s an Israeli reversal, “we will continue our work for September and will continue to seek countries that recognize Palestine.”

It’s unlikely Netanyahu will change course, since he answers to a right-wing coalition at home and told Obama on Friday that the 1967 borders would be “indefensible.” Netanyahu did not address the idea of swaps, which would presumably enable Israel to annex parts of the West Bank with large Jewish settlements, provided it compensates the Palestinians with the same amount of Israeli land.

Netanyahu has repeatedly said he is willing to resume negotiations, but Abbas has said he won’t do so as long as Israel keeps building homes for Jews in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Since Obama’s speech on Thursday, Abbas has been consulting with Arab foreign ministers on the phone and headed to Jordan on Saturday for talks with King Abdullah II. He also is to meet with leaders of the PLO and his Fatah movement and has asked for a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers later this month, Erekat said.

Obama has warned the Palestinians that a U.N. bid would not get them a state.

However, Abbas might not be able to abort the move because of mounting expectations at home, said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO Executive Committee. “I personally predict public opinion is bent on going to the U.N.,” Ashrawi said. “Netanyahu managed to undermine every single attempt at launching serious negotiations.”

There seems to be some confusion over what the U.N. General Assembly could offer the Palestinians if a recognition bid is vetoed by the U.S. in the Security Council. An internal Palestinian document said the Palestinians should then ask the General Assembly to establish a U.N. trusteeship in the Israeli-occupied territories, while Shaath suggested the Palestinians could at best win an upgraded observer status.

In Israel, senior officials played down the potential damage to Israeli-U.S. relations following the clash over Obama’s peace vision.

“I think that when we hear all the details, it will be clear that the meeting was less dramatic than it was made out to be,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a centrist, told Israel TV’s Channel 2. “I don’t think the president said you have to go back to the ’67 lines. He said you need to talk about borders based on the ’67 lines with the appropriate swaps.”

Still, Netanyahu’s blunt rejection of much of Obama’s vision seemed to further isolate Israel.

The Quartet of Mideast negotiators comprising the U.S., the United Nations, the European Union and Russia said it supports the president’s parameters and is in “full agreement about the urgent need” to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.