President Barack Obama told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday that it will require tough decisions and risks to achieve peace with Israel and said now is the time for leaders on both sides to “embrace this opportunity.”
However, there was nothing in Abbas’s remarks to indicate any such embrace.
Addressing the issue that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has in recent months made a condition for any final peace agreement — explicit Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state — Abbas continued his refusal to do so. He insisted that the Palestinians, in past international agreements, had already “recognized the state of Israel” in both 1988 and in 1993 — a subtle reference to former PLO chairman Yasser Arafat’s recognition of Israel’s Jewish character in 1988.
“I am 79 years old and am not
ready to end my life with treason,” he said last week.
“Time is not on our side,” Abbas said on Monday, and called on Netanyahu to go ahead with the scheduled release of a final group of Palestinian prisoners by the end of March.
“It’s very hard,” Obama said. “We’re going to have to take some tough political decisions and risks if we’re able to move it forward, and I hope that we can continue to see progress in the coming days and weeks.”
“He has been somebody who has consistently renounced violence,” Obama said, sitting next to the PLO head in the Oval Office, noting that Abbas has the confidence of his administration as a leader in pursuit of lasting peace.
Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinians took to the streets on Monday to show their support for Abbas, who complained last week that he had come under heavy pressure during U.S.-brokered peace talks with the Israelis.
Adding to his diplomatic concerns, Abbas has also got entangled in a fierce slinging match with an exiled rival, Mohammed Dahlan, who lambasted his ally-turned-foe in a two-hour interview with Egyptian media on Sunday.
The interview sent shockwaves through the Palestinian territories, which is not used to seeing such political acrimony played out so publicly, and Abbas’s supporters rallied in a number of towns across Yehudah and Shomron.
“We support you, we are with you,” demonstrators chanted. “Our choice is our leadership, the protector of our national project.”
Some burnt pictures of Dahlan, a former senior official in Abbas’s Fatah movement, who was forced into exile in 2011 following accusations of corruption that he has denied.
Witnesses said supporters of Dahlan and Abbas came to blows during a protest in the Gaza Strip, prompting the intervention of security forces in the small coastal enclave controlled by the Islamist group Hamas.
On the eve of the White House meeting, the London-based Arabic daily newspaper Al-Hayat reported that Abbas was coming with his own agenda: asking for a halt to Israeli construction in Yehudah and Shomron, as well as the release of notorious terrorists such as Tanzim chief Marwan Barghouti and Ahmed Sa’adat, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, all as a condition for Ramallah’s agreement to continue peace talks.
Barghouti is serving five life terms in prison for his role in attacks that killed and wounded several Israelis during the second intifada. Sa’adat has been jailed since 2008 for planning the murder of former tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi.
According to the newspaper, if Abbas’s terms are accepted by the Israeli government, the Palestinians would agree to extend the talks to the end of 2014.
However, there was no mention of either demand in public remarks at the White House on Monday.
An Israeli government official said on Sunday that the peace talks will only yield results if the Palestinians realize “it is a two-way street” and do not just wait for Israel to make concessions, The Jerusalem Post reported.
That comment came a day after Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said in an interview that he doubted there would be an agreement in his generation, and that Abbas is a partner who “takes but doesn’t give.”
Israel’s chief negotiator Justice Minister Tzipi Livni retorted in an online posting that those who say there will not be an accord in our generation are the ones who are giving up.
“True, this is complicated and difficult, but to complain and give up is easy. We decision-makers are not observers or commentators,” she wrote.