In White House talks overshadowed by the Ukraine crisis, Abbas
acknowledged that time was running out for Middle East negotiations
and called on Israel to go ahead with the release of a final group
of Palestinian prisoners by the end of March to show it is serious
about peace efforts.
Obama, who met Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu two weeks ago, made
clear he was not giving up on the faltering U.S.-led peace process
despite widespread pessimism about reaching a "framework" deal to
extend talks beyond an April 29 deadline.
"It's very hard," Obama said with Abbas sitting beside him in the
Oval Office. "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."
One of the main stumbling blocks is Netanyahu's demand that Abbas
explicitly recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The Palestinians have
refused, saying such a concession would destroy their own narrative
Without acknowledging Israel as a nation-state of the Jewish people,
Abbas reminded Obama that Palestinians have accepted the
"legitimacy" of Israel since 1988 and in 1993, "we recognized the
state of Israel."
Washington has endorsed the Israeli position but says the issue
should not be a roadblock to diplomatic progress at this stage and
should be dealt with future negotiations.
Making a foray into Middle East diplomacy after a failed first-term
peace effort, Obama insisted that, after decades of on-off
negotiations, the likely contours of any elusive final peace
agreement are well known.
"Everybody understands what the outlines of a peace deal would look
like, involving a territorial compromise on both sides based on '67
lines with mutually agreed upon swaps that would ensure that Israel
was secure but would also ensure that the Palestinians have a
sovereign state," Obama said.
Abbas agreed that a solution should entail a Palestinian state built
on borders that existed before the 1967 Middle East war and with
East Jerusalem as its capital. Netanyahu has declared that Israel
would never return to earlier lines it considered indefensible and
regards Jerusalem as indivisible.
ABBAS: NO TIME TO WASTE
Facing pressure from his own people to hold the line on concessions,
Abbas told reporters at the start of the talks, "We don't have any
time to waste. Time is not on our side."
Afterward, Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah described the meeting
as "long, intensive and difficult." He said a number of ideas were
considered but "we did not receive anything in writing."
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Abbas met later with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. They
"exchanged ideas and presented thoughts on possibilities for moving
the negotiations forward," a senior State Department official said.
Looming over the peace effort is the question of whether Israel this
month will carry out the release of a final batch of Palestinian
prisoners, to which it agreed in order restart negotiations last
year. U.S. officials fear that if Israel scraps the release, peace
talks could break down.
"We are hopeful that the fourth batch will be released by the 29th
of March because this will give a very solid impression about the
seriousness of these efforts to achieve peace."
Kerry brought Israel and the Palestinians back into negotiations on
July 29 after a three-year gap. At the time, he said the target was
to achieve a "final status agreement" within nine months.
U.S. officials have scaled back their ambitions, saying they are now
trying to forge a non-binding "framework for negotiations" by then.
But the two sides do not appear to have made much visible progress
on narrowing their differences.
"I believe that now is the time for not just the leaders of both
sides but also the people of both sides to embrace this
opportunity," Obama said.
Obama seemed to take pains to bolster Abbas, commending him for his
commitment to peace. The U.S. president appeared to be pushing back
against Netanyahu's assertion during his visit that Abbas had not
done his part.
The Palestinians point to Israeli settlement-building in the
occupied West Bank as the main obstacle to peace.
Abbas faces pressure at home not to agree to any loosely worded
accord that would simply prolong negotiations, with no clear end in
Although the terms under discussion for the framework 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.
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Susan Heavey,
Steve Holland and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; editing by Tom
Brown, David Gregorio and Peter Cooney)
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