St. Patrick's Day in Ramallah

A day before the Quartet (USA, EU, Russia + UN ) meets in Moscow, European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton was (1.) in Jordan meeting King Abdallah II [“Jerusalem is a red line”] and (2.) in Ramallah to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas [Abu Mazen] on St Patrick’s Day — was she “wearing the green” for the occasion?

Catherine Ashton in the Muqataa - 17 March 2010

[Brazil’s President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva was also in Ramallah on Wednesday — but he wasn’t wearing anything especially green.  At one point, when he was in Abu Mazen’s office, he had a black-and-white checked kuffiyah draped around his shoulders… It has been predicted that President Lula was bringing a new peace proposal, but there was no word of anything like that – although Abu Mazen dropped a broad enough hint, saying he is “keen to reach peace through talks”.]

YNet reported that “According to chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, Abbas ‘gave Ashton a letter asking her to pressure Israel to completely halt construction in the occupied Palestinian territories’. He added that the letter included maps and documents presenting the volume of building in the settlements since September 2009”.    This YNet story can be read in full here.

Earlier, the Chief Palestinian Negotiator Sa’eb Erekat told Ma’an News Agency that “he has been mandated by President Mahmud Abbas to travel to Moscow, carrying with him written messages, documents, and maps for Quartet members, which shed light on the inflammatory Israeli practices in Jerusalem. He further argued that the Israeli policies are playing with fire and adding fuel to it. Therefore, the written messages urge the international community to intervene immediately in order to curb the Israeli occupation and force it to halt its practices and unavailing policies”.

Then, it was later announced that there would be no Palestinian representative attending the Quartet meeting in Moscow…

Catherine Ashton knows the Palestinian position in detail now … as does U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell, who also received a “letter” when he visited the Muqata’a just over a week ago…

Ashton was also in Israel meeting Israeli officials.

In Cairo on Saturday, Ashton said that “The region does not need more conflict. It needs peace. Peace based upon international law … Our aim is a viable State of Palestine in the West Bank including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, based on the 1967 lines. If there is to be a genuine peace, a way must be found to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of Israel and Palestine. And we need a just resolution of the refugee issue … The EU position on settlements is clear. Settlements are illegal, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible … The decision to list cultural and religious sites based in the occupied Palestinian territory as Israeli is counterproductive … But Palestinians must get their house in order … Palestinian reconciliation is more crucial that ever. The PLO must take its responsibilities in this regard, and face the challenge of renewal and reform … Our position was set out clearly in our statement of principles last December. This could serve as the terms of reference for negotiations — for example, a Palestinians state on the 1967 lines with agreed changes, including with regard to Jerusalem”.

In Washington, before leaving for the Quartet meeting in Moscow, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton took note of the occasion, and said:  “I offer best wishes for a safe and happy holiday to everyone celebrating today in Ireland, in the United States, and around the world”.

Later Wednesday, U.S. State Department Acting Deputy Spokesman Mark C. Toner told journalists in Washington, meanwhile, that the U.S. was still waiting for a “response” from Israel…

[Response to what?  It hasn’t been publicly disclosed.  Clinton did call Netanyahu last Friday, reportedly warning him that his government had sent a “deeply negative signal” about its commitment to renewed peace talks.  The phone call lasted 45 minutes … Glenn Kessler reported more details (without sourcing) in the Washington Post yesterday about three specific U.S. demands:  “In an effort to get peace talks back on track, the Obama administration is pressing Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to reverse last week’s approval of 1,600 housing units in a disputed area of Jerusalem, make a substantial gesture toward the Palestinians, and publicly declare that all of the ‘core issues’ in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the status of Jerusalem, be included in upcoming talks, U.S. officials said.  The three demands, relayed on Friday by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in a tense phone call with Netanyahu, have not been publicly disclosed by the administration. But Israel is expected to provide a formal response on Tuesday. U.S. officials are casting it as a test of Netanyahu’s commitment to the relationship between the United States and Israel. ‘We have to have guarantees that these kinds of things will not happen again’, said a senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.  ‘If he is unwilling to make that kind of commitment, it raises the questions of how committed he is to negotiations — and it raises the question of how committed he is to the relationship between Israel and the United States’. The official said that the Obama administration views the success of the Middle East peace talks as central to the national security interests of the United States and that any failure by Netanyahu to fully embrace the talks would be viewed negatively.  ‘He says he is serious about engaging in peace talks’, the official said.  ‘We are putting that to the test’ … Publicly, Netanyahu on Monday was giving no quarter. In remarks to parliament, he said Israel has been building in East Jerusalem for more than four decades.  ‘The building of those Jewish neighborhoods in no way hurt the Arabs of East Jerusalem and did not come at their expense’, he said.  The Obama administration had originally sought a halt to all settlement activity in the West Bank — and also in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as the site of a future capital but which Israel annexed in a move not recognized by other nations. The United States accepted a 10-month moratorium, with caveats that excluded East Jerusalem and existing projects in the West Bank. But U.S. officials believed they had extracted a secret promise from Netanyahu not to allow any provocative steps in East Jerusalem. Now, in effect, the administration wants Netanyahu to make that deal public — and stick to it. ‘He has to take a firm stand to prevent similar kinds of announcements that will have a negative effect on negotiations’, the official said … The demand that Netanyahu declare core issues such as borders, refugees and Jerusalem part of the indirect talks could split Netanyahu’s fragile coalition government.  Some members refuse to give up any part of Jerusalem in talks with the Palestinians and would not accept the status of the holy city as part of negotiations.  The requested gesture to Palestinians could take several forms, such as releasing prisoners or turning over more of the West Bank to Palestinian control”.   This Glenn Kessler report is in the Washington Post here.]

Here is the exchange from today’s State Department briefing:
QUESTION: So how is the – Prime Minister Netanyahu’s phone call to the Secretary? Did – how’d it go? Did he come up with positive responses to her recommendations, suggestions, demands that she made to him on Friday?

MR. TONER: Well, thanks for asking, Matt. We’re still looking forward to a response. It hasn’t happened yet. There hasn’t been a call yet. But as Secretary – we’re really in no – we’re really in the same place we were yesterday. As Secretary Clinton said, we’re engaged in active consultation and we’re looking for, really, both sides to represent – to demonstrate the requisite commitment to this process.

QUESTION: Do you think you’ll get one today, a call today? I mean it’s already in the evening there now.

MR. TONER: Well, she’s up in the air. So it’s hard to predict.

QUESTION: Well, so she’s just basically sitting there by the phone like a lonely teenager on Saturday night waiting to Bibi to give her a call. Is that the impression you’re trying to leave us with?

MR. TONER: I think I said we’re looking forward to a response. I didn’t say waiting expectantly by the phone … And in fact, she’s not waiting by the phone. She’s on her way to Russia where she’ll meet with her Quartet partners.

QUESTION: Why didn’t the call happen? What’s your understanding of why the call didn’t happen. I mean we were told to expect it by now.

MR. TONER: I truly don’t know, Matt.

QUESTION: And so is this why Vice President Biden felt the need to call Prime Minister Netanyahu, to ask him why he’s not calling the Secretary of State back? [n.b. – one Israeli media report said that the call ended at 0200 am Wednesday morning, presumably Jerusalem time]

MR. TONER: You’ll have to ask the Vice President’s office.

QUESTION: Do you know anything about that call?

MR. TONER: I don’t.

QUESTION: Do you know if the Secretary got a readout on the Vice President’s call?

MR. TONER: I don’t know. I frankly don’t know that – has the Vice President’s office confirmed the call? I mean I saw press reports. So you’ll have to go the Vice President’s office.

QUESTION: Is it fair to say that the Israeli Government is digging in? I mean Avigdor Lieberman says the demands that the U.S. is making are unreasonable. He said that today. There’s no sign of any change there.

MR. TONER: Again, Lach, I just would repeat what I just said, which is that we’re still looking forward to a response. We’re pretty much in the same place we were yesterday; looking for both sides to take the steps, to show determination, and to reassert their commitment to the process. She’s on her way to Russia. There will be Quartet meeting there. I don’t want to get ahead of the diplomacy that’s going to take place there, but I also don’t want to characterize various responses coming from various corners.

QUESTION: Does the lack of a response to date sort of hinder the Secretary’s ability to effectively deal with the Quartet? I mean, she isn’t informed by any Israeli position on this. So how are they going to talk about the way forward when they don’t even know what Israel is saying in response?

MR. TONER: Well, it’s a regular consultation. I mean, there will be input from all the different players and parties and, again, we’re looking forward to the response. So we’ll just wait and see if it comes. I don’t want to prejudge something that’s happening on Friday.

QUESTION: Can you … tell us about Senator Mitchell’s travel plans, why he’s not on the plane with
the Secretary if, as P.J. said yesterday, it’s a logistical reason that he did not go to the region himself? I mean why wouldn’t he take (inaudible).

MR. TONER: Karen just told me. I didn’t realize he wasn’t on the plane with the Secretary. I can try to get an answer for you.

QUESTION: Did the Israelis actually indicate that they would call back? I mean is it Netanyahu who said, ‘I will get back to you. So you’re waiting for this call?’ Or was it just implied that eventually you would get their response?

MR. TONER: Sure. It’s hard for me to say. I mean I wasn’t obviously on the call and I don’t want to get into the substance of the call, but the expectation is that there will be a response”.

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