WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Donald Trump’s top negotiators welcomed a U.N. speech by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that recognized Jerusalem’s holiness to Jews, a sign that the sides are edging back toward restarting peace talks.
Trump administration officials nonetheless made clear that there was no retreat from the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital made by the American president in December.
In another sign that peace efforts could soon be back on track, Abbas called for a multilateral peace conference this summer that would include the United States in a leading role.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and the top administration official in charge of restarting the peace talks, and Jason Greenblatt, the top U.S. Middle East negotiator, were seated directly behind Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, for the Abbas address.
“We appreciated the opportunity to listen to his speech,” White House spokesman Josh Raffel said in a statement emailed to JTA.
“We were hoping to hear some new and constructive ideas, and the recognition that Jerusalem is holy to Jews in addition to Muslims and Christians is a step in the right direction, but as Ambassador Haley warned, setting forth old talking points and undeveloped concepts for each of the core issues will not achieve peace,” the statement said.
“We are trying to do the opposite and will continue working on our plan which is designed to benefit both the Israeli and Palestinian people. We will present it when it is done and the time is right.”
Eastern Jerusalem, Abbas said during his speech, “is our capital which we wish to be a city open to all the faithful of the three monotheistic religions.”
The Palestinian Authority leader in recent years has angered Israelis and Americans by noting only Muslim and Christian roots in the Holy Land.
Abbas had angrily rejected a leading U.S. role in brokering peace talks after Trump’s Dec. 6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but in his U.N. speech he called for convening a peace conference in mid-2018 with “broad international participation” but one in which the “foremost” conveners were the five permanent members of the Security Council and the members of the Quartet, the four entities guiding Middle Eastern peacemaking.
The United States is a leading member of the Quartet and the Security Council, signaling Abbas was again ready to defer to U.S. leadership on the peace process.
But gaps to bridge remained seemingly before peace talks could reconvene, as Haley had alluded to in her speech dismissing “old talking points and undeveloped concepts.”
“We have already heard them again and again,” she said.
Abbas in his speech said that an outcome of the peace conference should include a freeze on the United States moving its embassy to Jerusalem — although he did not set such a freeze as a precondition for convening the peace conference. U.S. officials have said that the embassy could move as soon as next year.
Haley said about the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital: “You don’t have to like that decision, you don’t have to praise it, you don’t even have to accept it, but know this — that decision will not change.
“You can choose to put aside your anger about our embassy and move forward with us,” she said. “Our negotiators are sitting right behind me ready to talk, but we will not chase after you,” she said, referring to Kushner and Greenblatt.
Another area where Abbas appeared to retreat from his hard line was in describing calls in December by the Palestine Liberation Organization council to rupture ties with Israel. Instead, he said, it is “reviewing” its relationship with Israel.
One thorny issue besetting the peace talks is what happens in the Gaza Strip, where the terrorist group Hamas is in control. Abbas proposed a referendum on any peace plan to be approved by the Palestinian people. Polling in the past has shown there would be popular support for a final peace deal that settles all issues, although it is not clear that Hamas would allow a referendum or respect its outcome.
In his response to Abbas speech, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, described a history of peace talks that often ended abruptly when Palestinians withdrew once Israel had made an offer. Danon said Abbas is always welcome to directly negotiate with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but chooses not to.
“Rather than driving just 12 minutes between Ramallah and Jerusalem,” Danon said, “he has chosen to fly just 12 hours to New York to avoid the possibility of peace.”
Netanyahu in his own statement said Abbas “offered nothing new.” “He continues to flee from police and continues to pay terrorists and their families $347 million,” he said in a statement sent from his office to reporters. Netanyahu referred to PLO payments to the families of Palestinians killed or captured while attacking Israelis.
Such Israeli statements notwithstanding, Netanyahu has said repeatedly he is committed to the Trump administration’s peace efforts, and Israel would likely follow the U.S. lead should talks restart.