Palestine Television aired a rather poorly-staged interview with a stiff and ill-at-ease Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) this evening, with a shiny Palestinian flag partly draped across the background.
The angles and the lighting was not good, and at one point the camera cut away to a shot of the Palestinian flag by itself, while Abu Mazen was talking.
Abu Mazen sent his holiday (Eid al-Fitr) greetings to the Palestinian people, and then explained that he had only accepted the trilateral meeting held yesterday at the periphery of the high-level event of the annual UN General Assembly at the call of U.S. President Obama, and out of respect for him.
Abu Mazen said that he repeated the same thing before, during and after the meeting. He said that Israel should return all Palestinian land occupied on or after 4 June 1967, including East Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, and East Jerusalem’s Old City’s mosque esplanade known as the Haram as-Sharif.
Palestinians were not sympathetic to Abu Mazen’s having caved in and changed his position to accept “Obama’s call”.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) said in a report carried by The Forward that “The meetings ran overtime, and Mahmoud Abbas wouldn’t stop arguing even after he stepped into a room full of cameras. Reporters could not make out exactly what was exercising the Palestinian Authority president in his exchange with President Obama, but fist pounding isn’t usually a sign of things going well”. This report can be read in full here.
However, U.S. President Obama said that “Success depends on all sides acting with a sense of urgency.” He apparently got both sides to agree to hold talks “without preconditions”.
But, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu noted that Obama’s words calling for Israeli “restraint” in settlement activities was not the same thing as a freeze.
Aluf Benn reported for Haaretz that “The president is planning to lead active American mediation efforts, spearheaded by his Middle East envoy George Mitchell … In his statement, Obama explained that the Americans are not interested in suggestions raised by Israel – interim agreements which mainly benefit Netanyahu. [n.b. – it is hard to find what justifies that sentence...] He also made clear that Washington does not accept Abbas’ refusal to enter into talks until Israel completely halts settlement construction. The President is satisfied with Netanyahu’s (so far privately made) promises to limit construction, and places the resumption of peace talks at the top of his priority list”. This account can be read on the Haaretz website here.
The New York Times reported that “Obama administration officials insist that they are not giving up on efforts to get a complete freeze on construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Nor, they said, do they plan to stop exhorting Arab governments to make diplomatic gestures toward Israel as a way to jump-start peace talks. ‘Our objective all along has been to relaunch meaningful final status negotiations in a context that offered the prospect for success’, Mr. Obama’s special envoy to the region, George J. Mitchell, later told reporters. ‘We have never identified the steps requested as ends in themselves’. But the administration, for four months, has explicitly demanded a settlement freeze from Israel, saying that it was necessary to help get Arab leaders to buy into the peace process. In May, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who attended Mr. Obama’s meetings Tuesday with Mr. Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu, said of Mr. Obama, ‘He wants to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions’. Such exceptions refer to waivers that children of settlers receive from the Israeli government to build houses near their parents, something the Israeli government has adamantly refused to stop. Since then, administration officials have focused their efforts on achieving a freeze, at considerable expense to Mr. Obama’s standing in Israel. His approval ratings there dropped into the single digits as he increased pressure on the Israeli government. Mr. Mitchell has carried Mr. Obama’s message to Mr. Netanyahu over months of meetings, prodding the Israeli government to agree to a slowdown in construction of settlements. But Mr. Netanyahu, seeking to mollify his right-wing governing coalition, refused to stop ‘natural growth’ or settlement construction in East Jerusalem, which Israel views as part of its capital. During the meetings on Tuesday morning, Mr. Obama told Mr. Abbas and other Palestinian officials that he would not be able to deliver right away on a settlement freeze, but that he would push Israel to move forward quickly on final status negotiations, according to Arab officials with knowledge of the meetings. Mr. Obama told the Palestinians that he would push the Israelis to have ‘clear terms of references for the negotiations’, one Arab official said, referring to the fear among many Palestinian officials that Mr. Netanyahu might try to enter negotiations without agreeing to specifically address entrenched issues like the fate of Jerusalem and the status of Palestinian refugees … The White House is also trying to box in Mr. Netanyahu, administration officials said, by using his own unwillingness to agree to resolve the interim issue — in this case, a settlement freeze — to force him to a place he has indicated he really does not want to go yet: the final status talks. ‘They are blocking off his escape hatches’, said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator. ‘They’re saying, if you can’t do the interim, then we’ll do the final status’.” This article can be read in full here.
Then, Obama told the UN General Assembly today that: “Yesterday, I had a constructive meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas. We have made some progress. Palestinians have strengthened their efforts on security. Israelis have facilitated greater freedom of movement for the Palestinians. As a result of these efforts on both sides, the economy in the West Bank has begun to grow. But more progress is needed. We continue to call on Palestinians to end incitement against Israel, and we continue to emphasize that America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. (Applause.) The time has come — the time has come to re-launch negotiations without preconditions that address the permanent status issues: security for Israelis and Palestinians, borders, refugees, and Jerusalem. And the goal is clear: Two states living side by side in peace and security — a Jewish state of Israel, with true security for all Israelis; and a viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967, and realizes the potential of the Palestinian people. (Applause.) As we pursue this goal, we will also pursue peace between Israel and Lebanon, Israel and Syria, and a broader peace between Israel and its many neighbors. In pursuit of that goal, we will develop regional initiatives with multilateral participation, alongside bilateral negotiations.
Now, I am not naïve. I know this will be difficult. But all of us — not just the Israelis and the Palestinians, but all of us — must decide whether we are serious about peace, or whether we will only lend it lip service. To break the old patterns, to break the cycle of insecurity and despair, all of us must say publicly what we would acknowledge in private. The United States does Israel no favors when we fail to couple an unwavering commitment to its security with an insistence that Israel respect the legitimate claims and rights of the Palestinians. (Applause.) And — and nations within this body do the Palestinians no favors when they choose vitriolic attacks against Israel over constructive willingness to recognize Israel’s legitimacy and its right to exist in peace and security. (Applause.) We must remember that the greatest price of this conflict is not paid by us. It’s not paid by politicians. It’s paid by the Israeli girl in Sderot who closes her eyes in fear that a rocket will take her life in the middle of the night. It’s paid for by the Palestinian boy in Gaza who has no clean water and no country to call his own. These are all God’s children. And after all the politics and all the posturing, this is about the right of every human being to live with dignity and security. That is a lesson embedded in the three great faiths that call one small slice of Earth the Holy Land. And that is why, even though there will be setbacks and false starts and tough days, I will not waver in my pursuit of peace”. The full text of Obama’s speech is posted here. It was Obama’s first speech to the UN.
In an interview with Haaretz after the Obama speech, Netanyahu noted that the U.S. President “spoke very clearly and sharply about the right of Israel [to exist] as a state of the Jewish people. And I believe that the refusal to accept this is the root of the conflict [with the Arabs]”. This interview can be read in full here.
Despite Netanyahu’s improved phrasing (refering to Israel as “a state of the Jewish people”, rather than “a Jewish state”), Israelis have not yet done a convincing job of explaining to Palestinians what, exactly, that means. Nor have Israelis made any effort to address or allay Palestinian fears that this phrase is just code for prohibiting the return of Palestinian refugees, and also the possible expulsion of Israel’s Palestinian-Arab citizens.