WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama on Monday told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that he would have to make tough political decisions and take “risks” for peace, as would Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Abbas, for his part, reiterated his rejection of Israel’s demand that its status as a Jewish state be enshrined in a future peace accord, asserting that previous Palestinian recognition of Israel was sufficient.
“Everyone understands the outlines of what a peace deal would look like,” Obama said, describing an agreement that reflected the pre-1967 lines with agreed land swaps. He said that he would continue to emphasize “the importance of rule of law, transparency, and effective reform so that not only do the Palestinians ultimately have a state on paper, but, more importantly, they have one that actually delivers on behalf of their people.”
Obama also noted that the US was the largest humanitarian donor to the Palestinian Authority, a fact that could offer some leverage in encouraging concessions in the peace process and government reforms in the PA, which has been accused of deep-seated corruption.
Sitting next to the president, Abbas spoke through a translator, thanking Obama for the opportunity to come to the White House and for the “economic and political support the US is extending to the Palestinian state so it can stand on its own feet.”
He outlined the Palestinian positions for negotiations, including “working for a solution that is based on international legitimacy and also the borders — the 1967 borders — so that the Palestinians can have their own independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital and so that we can find a fair and lasting solution to the refugee problem.”
Unlike Obama, Abbas did not emphasize territorial swaps.
Speaking to Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, Abbas said that “since 1988 and into 1993, we have been extending our hands to our Israeli neighbors so that we can reach a fair and lasting peace to this problem. Since 1988, we have recognized international legitimacy resolutions and this was a very courageous step on the part of the Palestinian leadership. And in 1993, we recognized the State of Israel.”
Netanyahu has said that recognition of Israel as the Jewish people’s nation-state is a key Israel position for a peace deal. Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry faced criticism from some in Israel for telling members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs that the Israeli condition was a “mistake.”
“We know that’s an issue that the Israelis have spoken about,” State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday shortly after Abbas’s comments, “but we will let those issues remain discussed behind closed doors.”
During his meeting with Obama, Abbas said that from the Palestinian perspective, “we don’t have any time to waste. Time is not on our side.”
He discussed March 29 as the target date for the final release of Palestinian prisoners to which Israel committed as part of the agreement for a nine-month period of talks. That period, which began in July, is set to expire in April. Abbas said that the release of prisoners “will give a very solid impression about the seriousness of the Israelis on the peace process.”
Israeli ministers said last week that they would have difficulty approving the release if an agreement was not reached to extend the peace talks.
Israel committed to the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners when talks were launched in July. It has so far released 78 of those in three phases, with Palestinians demanding that the fourth — scheduled for later this month — also include Arab Israelis, something Israel has rejected.
A major effort is underway in Washington to make sure that both sides remain at the negotiating table after the conclusion of the nine-month period, and Abbas’s statement indicated that the release would be a critical factor in a decision to continue talks.
Kerry, chief negotiator Martin Indyk, PA Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat, Spokesman Nabil Abu Rudaina, and PLO ambassador Maen Erekat, all looked on as Obama and Abbas addressed journalists before going to a joint working lunch at the White House.
While welcoming Abbas on Monday, Obama complimented Kerry for “working diligently” toward a comprehensive agreement.
He also praised Abbas as “somebody who has consistently renounced violence, has consistently sought a diplomatic and peaceful solution that allows for two states, side by side, in peace and security: a state that allows for the dignity and sovereignty of the Palestinian people and a state that allows for Israelis to feel secure and at peace with their neighbors.”
At the same time, Obama warned that peace was “elusive” and that peace talks would require “very hard, very challenging, tough political decisions and risks.”
Abbas, too, thanked Kerry for his efforts, and described the current moment as “a historic opportunity.”
Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, denied reports that the meeting between the two had been tense or unsuccessful. Later Monday, Abbas was set to hold a meeting with the secretary of state at the State Department.
Earlier in the day, thousands of Palestinians took to the streets of West Bank cities in support of Abbas’s visit to Washington.
Demonstrators waved the Palestinian national flag as well as that of Abbas’s Fatah party, chanting “we are with you, president!” as Abbas was to weigh up an anticipated US request to extend the faltering negotiations with Israel.
“We’re here today to stand up to pressures upon us and make sure President Abbas adheres to his convictions,” said Nasser Eddin al-Shaer — former Palestinian education minister and member of Fatah’s Islamist rivals Hamas — who joined a 5,000-strong rally in the northern West Bank city of Nablus.
Some 1,500 people turned out in the West Bank administrative center of Ramallah, and more than 1,000 in the southern flashpoint city of Hebron.
AP and AFP contributed to this report.