A meeting between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and senior White House official Jared Kushner reportedly left the Palestinian leader fuming and refusing to agree to watered-down demands that Ramallah cut off payments for some convicted terrorists and their families.
According to Palestinian sources quoted in Hebrew and Arabic media Friday, Abbas and his advisers accused the US of taking Israel’s side and refused a demand to stop paying salaries to several hundred prisoners serving time for the most serious crimes.
Kushner, who is US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and chief Middle East adviser, met with Abbas in Ramallah on Wednesday, along with Trump’s international negotiator Jason Greenblatt.
Kushner, making his first negotiating foray to the region, held two key meetings Wednesday– with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then with Abbas — before heading back to Washington.
Kushner began his meeting with Abbas by stating all the Israeli concerns, including stopping the payments, according to Hebrew media reports, angering Abbas.
“The American delegation accepted Israel’s position with regard to paying salaries to prisoners,” a Palestinian source told Ynet, “and described it as a means of inciting terror, demanding it be stopped.”
According to reports in Arabic media, the Americans watered down their demand about payments to prisoners. Originally the US wanted all payments halted, but now they only want the Palestinians to stop paying salaries to some 600 prisoners serving life sentences who are responsible for the deaths of Israelis, Israel Radio reported, quoting Arabic media.
On Thursday Abbas defended payments to Palestinian prisoners, including convicted terrorists, as a “social responsibility,” and said Israel was using the issue as a pretext to avoid peace talks.
Later Thursday, senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused the Netanyahu government of taking extremist positions.
“Incitement and glorification of terror have been a longstanding policy by this extremist government,” Erekat said, and further accused Israel of trying to “deviate attention [from the stalled peace talks] by inventing new excuses, such as allegations of incitement.”
Palestinian sources said the US officials had also taken the Israeli stance regarding incitement.
“They sounded like Netanyahu’s advisers and not as honest mediators,” a Palestinian source told Haaretz.
“They began by presenting Netanyahu’s claims,” the source said. He said that Abbas asked the Americans about their position on major construction projects over the Green Line recently announced by Netanyahu, “the core issues of the conflict,” but didn’t get any answer.
“We told the Americans that the settlements were the source of the despair and terror because they remove any future hope for Palestinians to live in their own land,” a Palestinian source told Ynet.
The source said, “We don’t have great expectations from these negotiations, but why should we pay such a high price as ending salary payments?”
Reportedly Abbas refused to end the payments to prisoners, but instead insisted on restarting the trilateral committee on incitement. The committee includes Israeli, Palestinian and American officials and was formed as part of the Wye River Memorandum in 1998. The committee met every two months until the outbreak of the Second Intifada in September 2000.
Earlier this week, Netanyahu accused Abbas of lying that he wants peace and “poisoning” the minds of young Palestinians, amid a resurgent efforts at peacemaking by the US.
“Palestinian President Abbas tells the world that he educates Palestinian children for peace. That’s a lie,” Netanyahu tweeted in one of a series of angry tweets, preceding the arrival in the region of Kushner and Greenblatt.
Sitting down with Netanyahu on Wednesday before he met with Abbas, Kushner and other US officials discussed “potential next steps” to make progress on Trump’s goal of “a genuine and lasting peace” between Israelis and Palestinians, the White House said. The meetings are aimed at laying the groundwork for a resumption of negotiations for the first time in three years.
US officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have said that they are pushing Abbas to end incitement to violence against Israel, and to stop paying stipends to terrorists and their families. At the same time, it is understood that the US does not want to impose preconditions that would prevent a resumption of substantive peace efforts.
US sources confirmed that the payments to prisoners and incitement were discussed, but denied that they clouded the talks. They said that the talks mainly focused on hearing the Palestinian demands and their order of priority.
But hinting at challenges facing peace efforts, both sides “underscored that forging peace will take time and stressed the importance of doing everything possible to create an environment conducive to peacemaking,” a White House statement said.
A senior Palestinian official said Wednesday that the preparatory meeting with Greenblatt on Tuesday had also not gone well and became tense over the payments to prisoners. He said the Americans “are buying” Netanyahu’s complaints about Palestinian incitement, and that Greenblatt was insisting on an end to the payments.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing a closed diplomatic meeting, said the Palestinians had rebuffed Greenblatt’s pressure and demanded an Israeli settlement freeze. He said a Palestinian delegation would head to Washington next month for further talks.
In an official statement made after Wednesday’s meeting by senior Abbas aide, Nabil Abu Rudeineh said that Kushner addressed some of the thorniest issues on the table in his meeting with Abbas and stressed Trump’s commitment to restarting negotiations.
“The meeting has deeply and clearly discussed all the permanent status issues, mainly refugees and prisoners,” Abu Rudeineh said, according to Palestinian media sources. “During the meeting, Kushner told President Abbas that President Trump is committed to reaching a serious peace deal.”
A meeting between Trump and Abbas in Bethlehem in May was also reportedly tense, with the US leader angrily berating his counterpart over allegations of incitement.