US envoy fails to return Abbas to talks
RAMALLAH, West Bank - President Obama’s Mideast envoy failed yesterday to lure Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas back to peace talks with Israel, as Abbas stuck to his insistence that an Israeli settlement freeze come first.
The three-hour meeting between Abbas and Washington’s envoy, George Mitchell, came a day after Time magazine published an interview with Obama in which the president acknowledged he may have overestimated his ability to revive negotiations.
Mitchell, who also held talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, is to leave the region over the weekend. The envoy has said Obama remains committed to trying to broker a Mideast deal, but it’s unclear what he could try next.
Abbas has said repeatedly he will not resume negotiations without a complete Israeli settlement freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem - areas claimed by the Palestinians for a future state. The Obama administration initially demanded such a freeze as well, but relented when Netanyahu resisted.
Netanyahu instead agreed to a 10-month slowdown in West Bank construction. But Netanyahu insists he will not relinquish any part of Jerusalem. The Palestinians seek the city’s eastern sector as their future capital.
Netanyahu says he is willing to resume talks immediately and contends the Palestinians have set unreasonable preconditions. Talks broke down between Abbas and Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, in December 2008.
However, Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said the onus is on Israel, not the Palestinians.
“When we say a settlement freeze that includes Jerusalem, that is not a Palestinian condition,’’ he said. “That is rather an Israeli obligation, and the same thing is applicable to our demand to have negotiations resume where we left them in December 2008.’’
Abbas and Olmert held talks for more than a year. The content of those talks was kept secret and no agreement was made public. Abbas aides have said resuming talks is pointless as long as Netanyahu refuses to pick up where Abbas and Olmert left off.
Erekat said Mitchell appealed to Abbas to resume negotiations immediately but the Palestinians disagreed and asked Washington “to have the Netanyahu government drop its conditions.’’
A statement released later from the prime minister’s office said Netanyahu “stresses again that Israel does not place any preconditions on entering negotiations.
The prime minister calls on the leaders of the Palestinian Authority to stop wasting time on talking about how to enter negotiations and sit down for negotiations instead.’’
The Palestinians fear that Washington’s failure to get Israel to halt settlement construction bodes ill for its ability as a broker once far tougher issues such as a partition of Jerusalem are on the table.