AFP – President Barack Obama meets Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Monday, seeking to keep a US peace drive alive two weeks after also piling pressure on Israel to agree to extend talks.
Obama will meet Abbas after telling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that tough decisions are looming ahead of an end of April deadline to agree on a framework for future negotiations.
But so far, Washington seems keener to prolong the initiative than Israel or the Palestinians, as a blame game rages that appears more a preparation for a breakdown of talks than cultivating the political ground for future concessions.
Obama told Netanyahu when they met at the White House on 3 March that the peace framework cannot be simply a deal agreed by Israel and the United States and then presented to the Palestinians as a take-it-or-leave-it offer.
But officials also privately say that the Palestinians will be required to make concessions on issues like the return of refugees and borders if they are to secure a state at long last.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama’s message to Abbas will be consistent with the one he gave to the Israelis.
“He will commend president Abbas, as he did Prime Minister Netanyahu, on the tough decisions that each leader has made thus far in an effort to move the process forward,” Carney said.
“He will speak of the need to establish a framework for negotiations going forward and the need – as that takes place, for additional tough decisions to be taken.
“We hope that we will see progress.”
Abbas said last week that he could not yet assess the “framework” because he had not seen it – during the seven-month long peace drive that has reportedly yielded no agreements on key issues.
“When the framework is presented to us, we’ll give our opinion on it,” Abbas said on Thursday.
“We have never discussed prolonging the negotiations at all, nor was it offered to us.”
Abbas met Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday ahead of the talks with Obama, who spent the weekend being briefed by his top officials on a more pressing foreign policy crisis, the showdown with Russia over Crimea.
A senior State Department official said the Kerry-Abbas meeting was “frank and productive.”
“We are at a pivotal time in the negotiations and while these issues have decades of history behind them, neither party should let tough political decisions at this stage stand in the way of a lasting peace,” the official added.
The most nettlesome issues in the peace process include the contours of a future Palestinian state, the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlements, security and mutual recognition.
The Palestinians want borders based on the lines that preceded the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel captured the West Bank, including now-annexed Arab east Jerusalem.
They have also insisted there should be no Israeli troops in their future state.
But Israel wants to retain existing settlements it has built inside occupied Palestinian territory over the past decades. It also wants to maintain a military presence in the Jordan Valley, where the West Bank borders Jordan.
Ahead of Monday’s talks, several senior Israeli figures heavily criticised the Palestinians, and Kerry, as a row raged over whether Israel should be recognised as a “Jewish” state in return for Palestinian statehood.
Current Palestinian leaders have opposed such recognition, fearing it could threaten the rights of non-Jewish Arabs living in Israel, who make up 20 percent of the population, as well as other religious minorities.
Israeli Environment Minister Gilad Erdan said that Kerry was “wrong because he is putting pressure on the wrong side.”
“Kerry should be asking Abu Mazen (Abbas) why he is stubbornly refusing to recognise Israel as the Jewish state,” he told public radio.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said over the weekend that Abbas was “not a partner for a final peace deal.”
The United States has been making the case to both Israel and the Palestinians that if a deal is not agreed soon, the opportunity for a Palestinian state and a permanent peace could fade forever.
“If not now, when? And if not you, Mr Prime Minister, then who?” Obama said, paraphrasing his appeal to Netanyahu in an interview with Bloomberg View columnist Jeffrey Goldberg earlier this month.