The deadline for the negotiations between Israelis and
Palestinians, aimed at ending their entrenched conflict, expires
next month and Washington is eager to persuade the two sides to
prolong their discussions within a new framework.
But expectations of imminent progress are minimal.
After eight months of initial talks, and at least 10 trips to the
region, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sounded unusually gloomy
during a Congressional hearing on March 12, indicating that little
progress had been made so far.
"The level of mistrust is as large as any level of mistrust I've
ever seen," said Kerry, a veteran of Middle East diplomacy. "Neither
(side) believes the other is really serious. Neither believes that
... the other is prepared to make some of the big choices that have
to be made here."
However, he said it was still possible to extend the talks.
Obama's direct involvement is aimed at providing much needed
additional impetus: he saw Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
earlier this month, and is now meeting Abbas.
Israelis and Palestinians have been holding on-off negotiations for
more than 20 years with the stated aim of sharing the Holy Land and
creating an independent Palestine.
Through all that time, the main, unresolved issues have remained
exactly the same — defining the borders and agreeing on security,
the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees
displaced during the 1948 creation of Israel.
Obama told Netanyahu he would seek "difficult decisions" from Abbas
in coming weeks and would push him behind closed doors as hard as he
did the Israeli premier to help narrow the gap for a framework
accord, a senior U.S. official said.
Obama will also tell Abbas that "we should not let this current
window for peace close" and will make the case for the benefits of
peace to the Palestinian people, the official said.
Although the terms of the mooted accord have not been published,
Palestinians say early indications suggest they will be offered less
than what former U.S. President Bill Clinton laid out in 2000 in the
so-called Clinton Parameters.
The president's aides have made clear that Obama wants the framework
document to be seen as even-handed, despite the sense among many
Palestinians that Washington is favoring Israel.
Besides the so-called core issues, other hurdles to a deal have also
emerged, particularly Netanyahu's demand that Abbas recognizes
Israel as a Jewish state.
Israel says this would show he was serious about ending the
conflict, but the Palestinians say it would merely destroy their own
narrative. Abbas says accepting it would effectively deny his own
people's centuries-old links to the land and would also mean
renouncing the right to return for some 5 million Palestinian
refugees and their descendants.
[to top of second column]
Washington has endorsed the Israeli position but, perhaps revealing
a frustration with Netanyahu, Kerry told the House Committee on
Foreign Affairs on Thursday that it was a "mistake" to raise the
issue repeatedly "as the critical decider."
Adamant not to give in on this point, Abbas also faces pressure at
home not to agree to any loosely worded accord that would simply
prolong negotiations, with no clear end in sight.
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which is chaired by
Abbas, issued a statement this week expressing its "absolute
rejection" of any prolongation.
PLO board member Hanan Ashrawi said that without obtaining a freeze
on Jewish settlement-building on occupied territories the
Palestinians want for their future state, any further discussions
would be futile.
"By extending talks even one more year, they will finish the Greater
Israel project given the alarming escalation of settlement
activity," she said. "If the document is what we have seen (up until
now) then it is not even a starting point."
However, one senior Palestinian official, who declined to be named
because of the sensitivity of the subject, said he thought there was
a good chance that Abbas would agree to continue talks given the
pressure building on him from Western governments.
Speaking to political allies in Ramallah earlier this week, Abbas
said he had come under huge duress over the past three years, but
vowed not to backtrack over the core points.
"I am 79 years old and am not ready to end my life with treason," he
Mindful of pressures Abbas faces, Obama may see to bolster him.
"President Abbas has made some difficult decisions over the past few
months — declining to go to the United Nations and staying in the
talks despite many ups and downs," the U.S. official said.
Should the peace efforts prove fruitless, Palestinians have
threatened to shift their statehood battle to United Nations
agencies and international courts, a move that the United States and
Israel staunchly oppose.
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington, Ali Sawafta
in Ramallah and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; editing by Mark Trevelyan
and Lisa Shumaker)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.