Abbas declines return to peace talks

Palestinians, Israelis at odds on agenda items

By Karin Laub
Associated Press / September 25, 2009

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NEW YORK - The Palestinians cannot return to peace talks at this time because of “fundamental disagreements’’ with Israel on what should be on the agenda, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in an interview published yesterday.

Abbas rebuffed an appeal by President Obama that both sides get back to the table promptly.

The Palestinian leader said he wants to avoid a crisis with the Obama administration at any cost and emphasized that dialogue was the only way to close the gaps and resume negotiations. But he said that for now “there is no common ground’’ with Israel’s hard-line leader, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has said that on two key issues - a partition of Jerusalem and a repatriation of Palestinian refugees - he is not open to any compromise. The Israeli prime minister retreated from assurances given by his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, who held talks with Abbas last year.

The Palestinian leader has insisted that negotiations pick up where they left off with Olmert, adding that progress was made during those talks on drawing a border between Israel and a future Palestinian state.

Abbas, who is in New York for the UN General Assembly, said that even at the risk of alienating Obama, he cannot return to talks on a final peace deal without a clear agenda.

“In all honesty, we want to protect our relations with President Obama under any conditions,’’ he told the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper. “We don’t want to come out with a crisis with the Americans or create a crisis. But in the meantime, we can’t go on unless there is a clear path. The road must be defined so we can know where we are going.’’

Abbas said, however, that he is willing to try to close the gaps, saying “we don’t have any other options except to talk, so long as our position is clear.’’

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are to meet separately with Obama’s Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, to try to break the deadlock. Obama has said he wants a progress report by mid-October.

On Tuesday, Obama summoned Netanyahu and a reluctant Abbas to a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the General Assembly. Obama told the two leaders that too much time had already been wasted and that it’s time to resume negotiations.

Netanyahu yesterday welcomed Obama’s appeal.

“I’m pleased that President Obama accepted my request that there should be no preconditions,’’ Netanyahu told Israel Radio in a telephone interview.

Obama’s demand has put Abbas in a difficult position.

He has been adamant about not resuming talks unless Israel freezes settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas the Palestinians claim for their state. A freeze is mandated by a US-backed peace plan, and the Obama administration was initially strident in calling for a halt to construction.

Netanyahu has refused to budge, however, offering at best to slow construction for a few months, and the United States appears to have relented. In his speech to the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, Obama said the United States “does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,’’ but stopped short of calling for a freeze.

If Abbas returns to talks now, without a freeze in place, he is likely to lose more credibility at home, where he has been locked in a power struggle with his Islamic militant Hamas rivals. Hamas, which threw Abbas’s forces out of the Gaza Strip two years ago, has derided negotiations as a waste of time and portrayed Abbas as a Western lackey.

In Damascus, Hamas accused the United States of displaying a pro-Israel bias and said Netanyahu has emerged as the “triumphant and major beneficiary’’ of the trilateral meeting.