'Jerusalem is definitely not off the table'

Coax Abbas back to table with carrots, not sticks, opposition head urges

Isaac Herzog thinks pushing the Palestinians into a corner by threatening and punishing them will only do harm; says Sunni states ready to upgrade ties

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Opposition chairman Isaac Herzog speaks on a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on January 25, 2018. (Courtesy)
Opposition chairman Isaac Herzog speaks on a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on January 25, 2018. (Courtesy)

DAVOS, Switzerland — Opposition chairman Isaac Herzog called on US President Donald Trump to make an overture to the Palestinians Saturday, saying that they should be induced to return to talks rather than threatened.

In an interview with The Times of Israel prior to returning home from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Herzog said he didn’t believe in “pushing the Palestinians into a corner,” panning the tactics adopted by Trump and backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that has led Ramallah to boycott US peace efforts.

“After many sticks, it is time for some carrots too,” he said.

On Thursday at the conference, Trump gave a scathing critique of the leadership in Ramallah and threatened to cut Washington’s aid to Ramallah if Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refused to negotiate with Israel or work with the US on a peace plan.

“They’re going to have to want to make peace, too, or we’re going to have nothing to do with it any longer,” the president said.

Herzog said he recognized Trump’s frustration over the PA’s refusal to meet with US Vice President Mike Pence and added that he was appalled by Abbas’s “totally unacceptable” speech in front of the Palestinian National Council earlier this month, in which he denied Israel’s connection to Jerusalem. “But at the end of the day, we are the ones that have to live with each other.”

US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, eastern Switzerland, on January 25, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / Nicholas Kamm)

“Cutting their budget may adversely affect the situation and throw the Palestinians into poverty and create more conflict,” the opposition chairman and former Labor party head argued.

Ties between Washington and the PA have spiraled downward since Trump announced on December 6 that he was recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

Meeting with Netanyahu in Davos, Trump said the move had been intended to allow the sides to move past one of the most intractable core issues that has helped fuel the conflict.

“We took Jerusalem off the table, so we don’t have to talk about it anymore. They never got past Jerusalem. We took it off the table. We don’t have to talk about it anymore,” Trump said Thursday.

Reflecting wide-ranging Israeli support for Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem, Herzog said it “did justice to Zionism and the Jewish world.”

But he argued Trump did not intend to remove it from negotiations altogether.

“It’s definitely not off the table,” he said. “Jerusalem is a core issue in any peace process, and it’s the most complicated issue that should be left to the end of negotiations.”

Herzog claimed that the president meant that the fact that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital is what is no longer negotiable.

Herzog was invited to Davos along with Netanyahu, and said he was there to present an alternative to Israel’s right-wing government.

Once the head of the dovish Labor Party, Herzog has seen his political fortunes diminish since losing to Netanyahu in 2015 election. Last year, he lost the reins of Labor to political neophyte Avi Gabbay, who has moved the party to the right, but he has stayed on as opposition head since Gabbay is not a Knesset member and cannot serve in that position. Critics have accused Herzog of failing to present a strident enough counterweight to Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.

Herzog said while at Davos he met with various world leaders on the sidelines of the forum, including ones from what he said were “moderate Sunni states,” who signaled they would be ready to establish ties with Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, meets with Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog, at the president’s office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, August 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

“The message I got from them, said Herzog, was clear: ‘We are ready to follow suit with what Egypt and Jordan did by formalizing ties with you and, but for this, you have to move with the Palestinians. There has to be a process and you have to make certain steps.'”

He said he did not think Netanyahu, who has boasted of growing covert ties with Sunni states, particularly Saudi Arabia, was prepared to take the necessary steps

Herzog said Netanyahu needed to “talk less and do more” in light of the “deadlock” between Israel and the Palestinians, but still praised the prime minister, who is also the foreign minister, for the plethora of meetings he held with world leaders in Davos, including sit-downs with Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Herzog himself nearly joined Netanyahu’s government in 2016 as part of an arrangement reportedly brokered by Egypt and the US to push peace talks forward. The initiative fell apart, though, and Herzog was pilloried by his own party for considering joining up with the coalition, leading to his eventual ouster.

The opposition leader admitted that his loss in the Labor leadership elections last July “has not been a simple situation.”

Since taking leadership of the party, Gabbay has aggressively tried catering to more centrist, and even right-wing, voters. He has said “the left has forgotten what it means to be Jews,” and pledged not to evacuate any settlements in the framework of a peace deal with the Palestinians.

But on Friday, the former minister from the coalition Kulanu party vowed that he would not sit in a coalition with Netanyahu’s Likud party or Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu.

Herzog disagreed with his successor, saying Gabbay “should maintain all options in order to be able to lead the country.”

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