Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has reportedly demonstrated a willingness to restart talks with Israel, telling Jewish leaders that his UN speech on Thursday would include a greater display of sensitivity to Jewish claims to Israel.
Meeting Monday evening with about 10 Jewish leaders, Abbas endorsed Alan Dershowitz’s formula for returning to talks with Israel, participants said.
The meeting was held under the auspices of the Center for Middle East Peace. Top Jewish organizational leaders declined attendance, reportedly at the request of the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has discouraged Jewish meetings with Abbas until the Palestinians leader gives up demanding a settlement freeze as a precondition for returning to talks.
According to a report in Haaretz on Thursday, Abbas said at the meeting that he had assured the US government that he would not make a bid for recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN until after the US elections. Abbas also reportedly called on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to abandon his calls to “wipe Israel off the map.”
Among those in attendance were Dershowitz, the Harvard legal scholar and a leading defender of Israel; Robert Wexler, the CMEP director and a top Jewish surrogate for President Obama; and Peter Joseph, who heads the Israel Policy Forum.
Participants described Abbas as emphasizing an urgent need to return to talks with Israel due to the protests and fighting roiling the Arab world, and due to increased tensions with Iran. He asked his Jewish interlocutors why Israel was demanding that he recognize Israel as a Jewish state when he had repeatedly recognized its legitimacy.
He was told that insensitivity to Jewish claims helped fuel the demand, and was reminded that last year in his speech to the UN General Assembly, he noted only Muslim and Christian claims.
Abbas told the group to watch for his speech to the General Assembly, scheduled for Thursday at noon, saying that he would also note Jewish claims.
The office of the Palestinian representative in Washington would only confirm that the meeting with the Jewish leaders took place and that aspects of what was discussed would be featured in Abbas’s speech
Abbas and his senior negotiator, Saeb Erekat, also reacted with keen interest to a proposal that Dershowitz first made in January — that Abbas agree to resume negotiations as long as Israel freezes settlements once the talks start.
Dershowitz told Haaretz he believes that if Netanyahu and Abbas hold serious talks they will find that their positions are closer than might be assumed.
Abbas signed a copy of the proposal, and Dershowitz said he would make the case again to Israel that it should agree to its terms.
The formula helps untangle a sequencing problem; the last time Israel suspended settlement building for 10 months in 2010, it took Abbas nine months to return to talks, and he left as soon as the freeze was over.
Under Dershowitz’s formula, Abbas would be obliged to be at the table as soon as the freeze began.
Wexler told Haaretz that Abbas faced “serious questions” during the meeting and made efforts to convince those present that he recognizes Israel’s right to exist, and the Holocaust.
“I know there was a holocaust,” Abbas reportedly said.
The president repeated his commitment to a Palestinian state, and said that he accepts a 2002 Arab proposal to find a “justified and acceptable” solution to the refugee problem.
However, others reported that Abbas at times appeared to despair of the situation of the Palestinian economy and talked of abandoning the Oslo accords and retiring from public life.
Among the Jewish leaders who declined to attend, representatives of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee either did not return requests for comment or declined comment.
The Israeli Embassy did not return a request for comment.