Abbas Softens on Settlement Freeze

By Jane Eisner

Published September 21, 2010.
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Speaking to a room full of American Jewish leaders on Tuesday evening, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas indicated that if the moratorium on Israeli settlement building expires as scheduled on Sunday, he would not necessarily quit peace negotiations.

“I cannot say that I will leave the negotiations,” Abbas said in a wide-ranging discussion with about 60 leaders. But he added that it would be “difficult for me to resume talks” if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu allows construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The fate of the Obama administration-brokered talks between Israelis and Palestinians has until now been contingent on the 10-month freeze on settlement construction continuing past the Sept. 26 expiration date. Abbas noted that when Netanyahu declared the moratorium, the two sides were only in proximity talks — with former Senator George Mitchell shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

“Now, when we are starting real negotiations, now he [Netanyahu] refuses to give us two, three, four months, to give the opportunity for negotiations to tackle final status issues,” Abbas said. “Why? We cannot miss this opportunity.”

Earlier Tuesday, the Quartet of Middle East peace negotiators called on Israel to extend the moratorium, saying the freeze has had a positive impact as the two sides seek a peace deal within the next year. But Abbas’ audience was not the international community — it was the crowd of Jewish leaders sitting around an elegantly decorated table in the Plaza Hotel, at a dinner sponsored by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.

And the Palestinian president struck a conciliatory note again and again.

He spoke about a “just resolution for the refugees” and pointedly declined to endorse the Palestinian “right of return,” which many in Israel believe would signal the end of the nation as a Jewish state. “Nobody can impose anything on the other while they are negotiating,” he said.

And when asked if he would acknowledge a nation known as “The Jewish State of Israel,” Abbas shrugged. If Israel were to change its name, “of course, we have to accept it.”






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