Even before Israeli-Palestinian peace talks began in Washington Tuesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas laid down some red lines regarding the West Bank and Jerusalem and insisted he had “already made all the necessary concessions” — an assertion that rankled American Jewish leaders.
“The basis for any positive results [in the talks] is going to be trust and confidence,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “If you prejudge the outcome or make demands that make resolution impossible, there will not be progress.”
Speaking in Cairo Monday, Abbas reportedly told reporters: “In a final resolution, we would not see the presence of a single Israeli — civilian or soldier — on our lands.”
Israel wants its own police along the border with Jordan to prevent the smuggling of weapons into the West Bank. But Abbas said the Palestinians would not object to “international, multinational” forces. He was quoted as saying that he had already discussed this with Ehud Olmert when Olmert was prime minister, and that it was agreed that NATO forces could be stationed there “as a security guarantee to us and them.”
David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at The Washington Institute, noted, though, that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “doesn’t want to pick up where Olmert left off — to have the ceiling [in the last talks] became the new floor.”
Abbas told reporters that the Palestinians regard as illegal all Jewish settlements in land occupied after 1967. And he said they insist that east Jerusalem be the capital of a Palestinian state.
“If there were and must be some kind of small exchange [of land] equal in size and value, we are ready to discuss this — no more, no less,” he said, according to The Jerusalem Post.
Hoenlein said Abbas’ comments only served to “undermine confidence and trust.” He said that although the talks should lead to an “end to conflict” and a resolution of all claims, Abbas is behaving as though they are “just another stage in the process.”
Former New York Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Queens and Long Island) was one of 140 prominent American Jews who signed a letter from the Israel Policy Forum to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to express support for his decision to renew peace talks. Ackerman said he was not too concerned by Abbas’ comments, attributing it to nothing but “locker room talk” because he was simply “shoring up his base to show he was tough. … It was his opening position.
“Everybody thinks they have made all the concessions they are going to … but then someone puts something on the table, and you see an opportunity to solve a problem that before was not solvable,” Ackerman continued. “I’m happy they are having talks. I’m not a wide-eyed idealist who thinks something great will come out of it.”
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said it is not clear whether Abbas was simply “posturing or not — we’ll soon see. But at first glance, it most certainly does not help.”
He said the real question is whether there is a “political will in Ramallah to make a deal. It won’t be easy. If what Abbas said is his final position, it is a sad day for all who aspire to peace.”
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, questioned how Abbas could make peace for the Palestinians when he represents only those in the West Bank; Hamas represents those in the Gaza Strip.
“Who’s going to run the new Palestinian state?” he asked. “Hamas is very close to Iran. This is an extremely dangerous time. Egypt, Syria, Libya and Iran are terrorist states; why would we want to establish another Arab terrorist state? It’s absurd. … He has turned down every offer of statehood in the last 60 years. Why should we think he will accept an offer now?”
Harris argued that the issue of the Palestinians in Gaza should be discussed at another time.
“The logic is you focus for now on the West Bank and see what can be done,” he said. “The people in Gaza have the same aspirations, which ultimately means removing Hamas from the scene.”
Aaron David Miller, who served as an adviser to six secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations, gave Secretary of State John Kerry all the credit for his “relentless” efforts over six months to bring the two parties to the negotiating table.
They came, he said, because “neither side wanted to be blamed” and both sides “want a credible process and fear the uncertainty of violence.”
But the gaps separating the two sides are large, Miller stressed, and the “mistrust is deep.” As a result, “the Americans are going to have to own this process” and Kerry will have to be “extremely active” by leaning on the two sides, offering bridging proposals and even getting President Barak Obama “involved to take the parties further than they wanted to go.”
Kerry’s selection of Martin Indyk, who twice served as a U.S. ambassador to Israel, as the new peace envoy is also important because “you need someone with Martin’s experience who understands both sides of the issue to carry the ball,” according to Sam Lewis, who himself was a U.S. ambassador to Israel.
“I assume Martin will be involved nearby or in the room [during the talks] the whole time,” he said. “My guess is that they will pick out a couple of items and move on those first while keeping the others on the agenda.”
Both sides agreed to Kerry’s proposal to remain engaged in peace talks for the next nine months, thereby precluding Abbas from turning to the United Nations for increased levels of recognition when the General Assembly reconvenes next month. The talks also forestall another Palestinian intifada or uprising at a time when Israeli intelligence has reportedly detected a sharp rise in the number of incidents of rock throwing and fire bombings in the West Bank. Israeli security forces can thus concentrate on the Iranian nuclear threat.
Miller said that because of the talks, if Israel has to launch a military assault on Iran, “it is better to have the U.S. in a better mood.”
Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and another Jewish leader signing the IPF letter, said Netanyahu “needs the U.S. support on Iran, and that is a key factor in Bibi’s decision” to agree to the peace talks.
“He probably is more serious now than in the past; otherwise he would not risk the ire of his own party and his cabinet regarding the release of Palestinian prisoners,” he said. “It’s now a question of just how far he will he go.”
Danny Danon, the new chairman of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, said he and his party opposed the release of the 104 Palestinian prisoners who have been in Israeli prisons since before 1993 for crimes that include terrorist attacks that killed Israeli civilians. The release of the prisoners was a Palestinian demand in return for their participation in the talks.
“We are willing to negotiate, but without preconditions,” he said of Likud. “This demand just shows whom we are dealing with — they wanted terrorists released first, and now Abbas speaks of [a Palestinian state] free of Jews. It shows we cannot be optimistic. The clear message to the prime minister of Israel is that he has to be very cautious in these negotiations.”
Judith Kipper, director of Middle East programs at the Institute of World Affairs in Washington, said peace is critical at this time for both Israelis and Palestinians.
“It is extremely important for Israel not to occupy the other’s territory, to be at peace, have secure borders and have relations with all Arab countries,” she said. “The incentive for the Palestinians is that they have been under occupation for 50 years, they are a people struggling for a state and desperate for a solution.”