Palestinians doubtful on talks after Israel rejects US proposal

By Karin Laub
Associated Press / May 22, 2011

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RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian officials said yesterday that Israel’s dismissive response to President Obama’s new Mideast peace proposal proves there is not enough common ground for meaningful negotiations.

Despite such skepticism, the 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 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who appears to be set on a collision course with Obama.

Obama 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.

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 today and tomorrow. 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 United States 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’s senior aides, meanwhile, there seemed to be some disagreement over tactics.

Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said it is 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 is premature to talk about what to do if Obama cannot renew peace talks. Abbas’s aides have been preparing to bypass negotiations, with a bid in September to win UN 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 UN 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 yesterday, 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 is unlikely Netanyahu will change course, since he answers to a right-wing coalition at home. He 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 will not 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 by phone and headed to Jordan yesterday for talks with King Abdullah II. He is also 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 UN 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 UN,’’ Ashrawi said. “Netanyahu managed to undermine every single attempt at launching serious negotiations.’’

There seems to be some confusion over what the UN General Assembly could offer the Palestinians if a recognition bid is vetoed by the United States in the Security Council. An internal Palestinian document said the Palestinians should then ask the General Assembly to establish a UN 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-US 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. top stories on Twitter

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