RAMALLAH — At the start of Monday’s visit to Palestinian Authority headquarters by 11 Labor MKs and one from Hatnua, PA President Mahmoud Abbas shook hands warmly and posed for picture after picture with the Israeli delegation’s leader, Labor MK Hilik Bar. Behind them in the large meeting room was a huge photograph of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, the golden Dome of the Rock sparkling. A dozen Israeli camera crews and still photographers, congregated at the far end of the meeting room beneath a large Palestinian flag, recorded the scene for posterity. Along the side wall, out of shot, was another big Palestinian flag, with the late Yasser Arafat’s beaming features at one end of it, and Abbas’s smiling face at the other.
At the conclusion of the second, private part of the visit, from which journalists were supposed to have been excluded — after the MKs had introduced themselves to Abbas, two or three had asked pointed questions, and Abbas had ducked these while exuding bonhomie — the president posed for more pictures, many more. He posed with the entire visiting political delegation, with individual MKs, and with the representatives of two pro-peace Israeli groups who had joined the MKs. Labor’s ex-social activist Itzik Shmuli returned from the bathroom; Abbas got the rest of the group together and posed with Shmuli too. Stav Shaffir, the second social activist-turned-Labor MK, back a bit later from the loo, made it into yet a few more shots before the PA chief took his leave.
Conspicuously absent from all these photographs, indeed absent from the entire room during the entire visit, was the Israeli flag. Not so much as a little one on the table. It made for quite a contrast to the scene on July 31, when members of Bar’s Knesset Caucus to Resolve the Arab-Israeli Conflict, hosting PA politicians in the Israeli parliament at a meeting attended by 33 MKs from parties representing 77 of the 120 MKs, held their talks with the Palestinian flag alongside Israel’s behind them — a much-headlined Knesset precedent.
Also largely absent from Monday’s meeting were Palestinian journalists. Labor invited a busload of Israeli reporters to document the initial, public section of the meeting, and several of Abbas’s advisers were present too. But while an aide to Abbas said that Palestinian journalists were present, and a solitary one was espied, they proved hard to find.
During the encounter, Abbas took pains to assert that, although there were “opponents of peace” on the Palestinian side too, he was sure that most of his people support a two-state solution. Evidently, however, he didn’t want to take the risk of inviting a sizable contingent of his own media to document, for his two-state-supporting people, this meeting with the dovish representatives of that other state. And if his people saw the photographs, he didn’t want that other state’s national flag causing him any trouble.
Still, coverage in Tuesday’s PA newspapers was prominent — front page stories in Al-Ayyam and Al-Hayat Al-Jadidah, both featuring pictures of Abbas with Bar, both based on a press release issued by the PA news agency WAFA. And the public and private halves of the visit were conducted in a notably warm and friendly atmosphere.
With the journalists in the room, Abbas said Israel and the Palestinians had been “very close” to an agreement when Ehud Olmert was prime minister, and lamented the lost opportunity, “for us and for you,” when that effort collapsed – because of Olmert’s resignation, he said. (Olmert has argued that Abbas missed the opportunity by failing to respond to the dramatic peace offer he made in 2008, shortly before he stepped down.) But the current talks were “very serious” too, Abbas said, and the nine-month time frame was “sufficient” to reach a permanent accord. (This assertion made the Al-Ayyam headline.)
He hailed Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, spoke of the need to quash incitement from both sides, and condemned “all attacks” that spill blood, with a specific reference to Saturday night’s incident in Psagot, the killing of an Israeli soldier in Hebron, and the deaths of four Palestinians at Qalandiya. “We don’t want blood,” he said. “We want peace.”
He also protested the IDF’s “unnecessary” incursions into PA-controlled territory, castigated Israeli religious extremists “who come to disturb the peace” at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and reserved particular bitterness for settler attacks on Palestinians, their property, their trees, their churches and their mosques. (Al-Hayat Al-Jadidah headlined with his plea that the government put a stop to such attacks.)
Like Abbas, Bar spoke of the imperative for a two-state solution, said he was pleased to hear the negotiations were moving “in a good direction,” and praised Abbas for leading “nonviolent resistance. He said the delegation had come to Ramallah to underline their backing for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni in the effort to reach a peace accord. “It’s not always obvious,” said Bar, “but in the Knesset there is a very clear majority, 70 MKs, to support a two-state solution.”
After the journalists had been asked to leave, the meeting continued in much the same tone, with added cigarettes. There was a moment of good humor when David Tzur (Hatnua), the only MK present from the coalition, couldn’t get his microphone to work. “It’s because you’re in the coalition,” joked Abbas adviser Yasser Abed Rabbo.
There was a short speech from each MK — most of them first-time Knesset members, several visiting the PA’s Muqata HQ for the first time. (Shas was to have sent an MK, but the visit coincided with the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.) And there were a few pointed questions.
Apropos Netanyahu’s Sunday night speech at Bar-Ilan University, in which the prime minister said the failure to attain a peace accord stemmed from the Palestinian refusal to recognize “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” Labor’s Micky Rosenthal asked Abbas, “Do you have any objection to saying ‘Jewish Israel’?” His party colleague, Moshe Mizrahi, followed up, rather more passionately. “What difference does it make to you?… Why not say you recognize Israel as a Jewish state?”
Abbas would not be drawn.
He spoke a little about Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, saying that the
Islamists would have to accept “all our positions” on the negotiations, including a two-state solution and nonviolent resistance. If they did that, “we’ll immediately hold elections.”
He referred to a demonstration against the talks with Israel, right here in Ramallah on Sunday, but said, “We took our decision and we will not stop the negotiations.”
He said there was “nothing preventing” him from meeting with Netanyahu, even in the near future, but that this summit would come when the Americans deemed it appropriate.
But he ignored the “Jewish Israel” questions, referring the MKs instead to a book the PA put out a couple of years ago setting forth its positions, and repeating, “Let’s leave the specific issues to the negotiations.” A leaflet distributed to the MKs, “The Palestinian Position on Some Political Issues,” did include a section on the Israeli demand for Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state. It read as follows: “1. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) recognized the state of Israel in 1993 (mutual letters of recognition). 2. Prime Minister Netanyahu introduced this demand only two years ago, in order to obstruct the peace process. 3. Israel did not demand from Jordan and Egypt to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, when it signed peace treaties with them. 4. When the advisors of US President Harry Truman asked him in 1948 to recognize Israel as a Jewish state he crossed out ‘Jewish state’ and wrote instead ‘the state of Israel.’ 5. If the Israelis wish to change the name of Israel, they should do so at the United Nations.”
Then came those farewell photographs, and the MKs emerged to relay to the reporters most of what had been said. They professed themselves encouraged, judged that Abbas had sounded quite optimistic, and found it unsurprising that he hadn’t responded to Netanyahu’s “Jewish Israel” comments. A few of Abbas’s advisers emerged too, and one of them, Mohammed Madani, did dispute the prime minister’s contention that blame for the lack of an accord lay with the Palestinians. “We’re not the problem. We can get Hamas on board,” he said. “It’s Israel that has to decide if it wants it.”
None of the MKs mentioned the lack of an Israeli flag, which was a little surprising. At a meeting dedicated to reconciliation, and after all the headlines surrounding the high symbolism of the Palestinian flag at the Knesset two months ago, you’d have thought someone might have noticed.