Abbas says ‘Jewish state’ demand not up for debate

PA president to meet Kerry on Wednesday; Palestinians threaten to resume unilateral international campaign

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas attends the 25th Arab League summit, March 25, 2014 (photo credit:AFP/Yasser al-Zayyat)
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas attends the 25th Arab League summit, March 25, 2014 (photo credit:AFP/Yasser al-Zayyat)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told the Arab League Summit in Kuwait on Tuesday that he has so far refused to even discuss recognizing the Jewish State — a key demand of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu —  and that by raising the issue Israel was trying to disrupt the peace talks.

“Israel has not missed an opportunity to derail US peace efforts, including raising new demands, such as the demand for recognition as a ‘Jewish state,’ which we have refused to so much as discuss,” Abbas could be seen saying in video footage from the conference.

In a draft statement endorsed by foreign ministers, the summit stressed a “categorical rejection” of the demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and rejected “all pressures exerted on the Palestinian leadership” to force it into agreeing to that demand.

The statements came ahead of a meeting between Abbas and US Secretary of State John Kerry in Amman on Wednesday. Kerry will be interrupting a visit to Italy in order to meet with the Palestinian leader and discuss the peace process with Israel.

Kerry’s trip aims “to continue to narrow the gaps between the parties,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Tuesday, adding that the US diplomatic chief would also be in touch with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “over the phone or by video conference.”

His unexpected visit — setting off from the Italian capital just hours after arriving — came as fresh tensions rose over the peace talks, which Kerry is struggling to keep on track beyond an April 29 deadline.

Negotiations also risked being waylaid by a row over the release of prisoners by Israel.

Israel pledged when talks began in July 2013 to release 104 veteran Palestinian prisoners in four batches, in exchange for the Palestinians refraining from pursuing legal action against the Jewish state in international courts.

Abbas agreed that for the nine-month duration of the talks he would shelve efforts to use the UN’s November 2012 recognition of Palestine as a nonmember observer state to press for membership in international bodies where it could fight Israel.

But after the release of a total of 78 inmates so far, Israeli cabinet ministers have warned that the remaining prisoners will not be freed on March 29 unless the Palestinians agree to extend the talks beyond their April 29 deadline.

In response, Palestinian leaders on Tuesday threatened to renew their diplomatic push at the United Nations if Israel fails to free Arab prisoners as scheduled this weekend.

“We shall turn to the UN’s international organisations if Israel does not release the fourth and final group of prisoners,” said Yasser Abed Rabbo, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee.

“The release of the prisoners is in return for the freeze on seeking membership in international organisations,” he told official Voice of Palestine radio.

“If Israel were to refuse to free the fourth batch it would have serious consequences, including initiatives at the United Nations,” former Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Shtayeh, said in a statement.

Israel particularly objects to the Palestinians’ demand for Arab Israelis or Palestinian residents of Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem convicted of terrorism to be included in the release.

A senior Palestinian official told AFP on condition of anonymity that in recent talks with US special envoy Martin Indyk, Abbas warned that if the April 29 talks deadline was not met “Israel would be in violation of agreements and (the Palestinian leadership) would have the right to turn to the UN and to take any measures it deems necessary.”

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