As Abbas asks Putin to sideline US, Trump urges new peace push

US administration reiterates commitment to solving conflict after pushing back against settlement annexation claim; diplomat says Washington ‘understands’ Mideast leaders’ worries

US President Donald Trump takes part in a meeting on infrastructure with state and local officials in the State Dining Room of the White House on February 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. At right is Vicksburg, Mississippi, Mayor George Flaggs. (AFP/ MANDEL NGAN)
US President Donald Trump takes part in a meeting on infrastructure with state and local officials in the State Dining Room of the White House on February 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. At right is Vicksburg, Mississippi, Mayor George Flaggs. (AFP/ MANDEL NGAN)

Amid a spat with Israel over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claims of coordinating West Bank annexation moves with Washington Monday, US President Donald Trump pushed for a new peace initiative in a phone call with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

At the same time, a US diplomat said the US “understood well” Arab countries concerns regarding the lack of a peace plan.

Trump spoke with Putin to offer condolences over the loss of a passenger jet Sunday, ahead of the Russian president’s meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is in Moscow to push for a smaller US role in peace talks.

“President Trump said that now is the time to work toward an enduring peace agreement,” read a statement from the White House, sent late Monday.

The call between the leaders came as the White House was pushing back against a claim by Netanyahu that he was working with the Americans on an initiative for Israel to annex West Bank settlements.

“Reports that the United States discussed with Israel an annexation plan for the West Bank are false,” White House spokesman Josh Raffel said in a statement. “The United States and Israel have never discussed such a proposal, and the president’s focus remains squarely on his Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset on February 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Raffel’s rare on-record statement came hours after Netanyahu announced at a Likud faction meeting that he’d been discussing with the Trump administration a “historic” initiative to annex Israeli settlement areas over the Green Line.

In the wake of the White House denial, Netanyahu swiftly backpedaled, with his office issuing a clarification that he had merely “updated the Americans on initiatives being presented in the Knesset.”

The White House’s on-record denial of Netanyahu’s claim, and the prime minister’s swift reversal, was seen as an unprecedented clash between Jerusalem and the Trump administration.

The administration has in the past shown less opposition to settlement building than predecessors, but the pushback and comments from Trump to an Israeli paper over the weekend that settlement building “very much complicates” peace signaled that the administration may be taking a tougher line in order to woo the Palestinians back to the table.

The White House says it is on work on a peace plan, but has yet to publish any details.

Abbas has refused any contact with Trump’s administration since Washington’s decision at the end of last year to recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

The December 6 White House declaration outraged Ramallah and others across the Muslim world. Palestinian leaders have said it means Washington can no longer serve as a Mideast peace broker.

Trump, on the other hand introduced his decision as merely based on reality. The president stressed that he was not specifying the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in the city, and called for no change in the status quo at the city’s holy sites. Afterward, however, he said several times that his decision had taken Jerusalem “off the table.”

“Given the atmosphere created by the United State’s actions, we… refuse any cooperation with the United States as a mediator,” Abbas told Putin.

“In case of an international meeting, we ask that the United States be not the only mediators, but just one of the mediators.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, on February 12, 2018. (AFP PHOTO/SPUTNIK/Mikhail KLIMENTIEV)

Putin told Abbas only that he had spoken with Trump.

“Obviously, we spoke about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict … I would like to convey to you his best wishes,” he said in comments before the two went behind closed doors.

“It is very important for us to know your personal opinion in order to set the record straight and put in place a common approach to solve this problem,” Putin told his guest.

The diplomatic tangle came as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is traveling throughout the Middle East, though not visiting Israel. A State Department official said the peace process was among the topics being discussed with Arab leaders.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, speaks during a press conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry after their meeting, at Tahrir Palace, in Cairo, Egypt, February 12, 2018. (Khaled Elfiqi/Pool photo via AP)

“We understand very well worries in many governments throughout the region regarding what they see, what they don’t see. But at the end of the day, the administration is committed, the president is committed to trying to see if a peace is possible,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “There’s a common message from everyone, which is that the US should not turn its back, that the US must stay engaged, that the US is the primary actor, and that’s a near uniform message we receive.”

“The President, the administration is focused on our peace,” the official added when asked about Netanyahu’s comments.

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