Olmert and Abbas meet in New York, urge direct talks as Trump plan rejected

Netanyahu slams meeting as ‘low point in Israeli history’; PA leader says he’s willing to pick up negotiations from where he left off with former Israeli PM in 2008

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert hold a press briefing on February 11, 2020 in New York. (Bryan R. Smith/AFP)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert hold a press briefing on February 11, 2020 in New York. (Bryan R. Smith/AFP)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met with former premier Ehud Olmert Tuesday and committed to restarting peace talks where they left off with the former Israeli leader over a decade ago, while rejecting a current US-backed peace effort.

The New York meeting and press conference by the two drew vociferous condemnation from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who accused them of trying to undermine the US peace plan.

Rejecting the Trump plan in a joint press conference held on the sidelines of a UN Security Council meeting, Abbas called for a resumption of the talks he had held with Olmert when the latter was Israel’s prime minister 12 years earlier.

The two had “made real progress,” Abbas insisted, saying he was “fully ready to resume negotiations where we left it with you, Mr. Olmert, under the umbrella of the international Quartet, and not on the basis of the plan of annexation and legalizing settlements and destroying the two-state solution.”

Abbas “is a man of peace. He is opposed to terror. And therefore he is the only partner that we can deal with,” Olmert, who was seated beside the Palestinian leader, told reporters.

“I think that there is a partner,” Olmert reiterated, calling Abbas “the only partner in the Palestinian community that represents the Palestinian people, and that has manifested that he is prepared to negotiate.

A sketch of the land for peace offer made by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008. The map was hand-drawn by Abbas. (photo credit: Walla News)

Talks between Olmert and Abbas broke down in 2008 amid legal trouble for the Israeli leader and an Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip. Olmert has said that he proposed in 2008 relinquishing almost the entire West Bank to Abbas, with one-for-one land swaps, dividing Jerusalem to enable a Palestinian capital and conceding Israeli sovereignty in the Holy Basin to an international trusteeship.

Abbas did not responded to the offer.

Netanyahu succeeded Olmert as prime minister in 2009 and last met Abbas for direct negotiations in 2010.

Olmert was later convicted and jailed on a series of corruption charges.

Both Netanyahu and Abbas have accused each other of undermining efforts to advance peace.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas during the state funeral of late president Shimon Peres, held at Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem on September 30, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Shortly after the press conference, Netanyahu lambasted his predecessor’s appearance alongside the Palestinian leader in New York.

The meeting was “a low point in Israeli history, shameful and disgraceful,” Netanyahu said. “After I worked for three years with [US President Donald] Trump to produce the ‘deal of the century,’ a former prime minister goes to Abu Mazen [Abbas] in order to fight against it. It’s unbelievable,” Netanyahu told the right-wing TV network Channel 20 on Tuesday night, referring to Abbas’ nom de guerre.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd-R) attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on February 9, 2020. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool/AFP)

In his comments, Olmert said he “didn’t come to the United States to criticize the US president or his political plan. It’s not appropriate, there’s no reason for me to do it in America.”

But he insisted that in the end, peace could only come from direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Trump’s plan “is aimed at eventually making peace between Israel and the Palestinians. So we have to negotiate with the Palestinians. Who will we negotiate with?” Olmert asked.

Even Trump’s plan “repeats again one basic principle, which is the starting point for everything, and this is the two-state solution,” said Olmert, insisting that was “a positive side” in the plan that “must be pursued further by all sides, including by the Palestinian side. I hope that the Palestinian side…will not ignore that there is here a commitment for a two-state solution in the plan of President Trump.”

Direct negotiations “will take place,” he insisted. “It will take some more time, but these negotiations will take place, and the partner of Israel to these negotiations will be Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. Who will be the partner from the Israeli side — we will know later this year,” he concluded, referring to the upcoming March elections.

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert speaks at a briefing at UN headquarters in New York with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on February 11, 2020. (Bryan R. Smith/AFP)

Olmert’s participation in the press briefing was also condemned on Tuesday by Israel’s envoy to the world body Danny Danon, who lashed the former premier for “helping the Palestinians’ diplomatic terrorism. This is harmful not only to Israel, but also to the United States, which presented an important plan for peace in the Middle East.”

The press conference followed Abbas’ speech to the UN Security Council earlier in the day, in which the PA leader rejected the US peace plan, saying it “legalized what is illegal: settlement building and confiscation and annexation of Palestinian lands.”

“I affirm, here, that it is necessary that this deal or any part of it not be considered an international reference for negotiations,” he said.

The PA president added that the plan “transforms our homeland into fragmented residential encampments” and described the territories it envisions for a future state of Palestine as “Swiss cheese.”

“This deal carries within it dictates, reinforcement of the occupation, annexation by military force and anchoring of an apartheid system,” he said.

Breaking with past American administrations, the US plan announced late last month envisions the creation of a Palestinian state in about 70 percent of the West Bank, a small handful of neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, most of Gaza and some areas of southern Israel — if the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, disarm Hamas and other terror groups in the coastal enclave, and fulfill other conditions.

US President Donald Trump, left, listens as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks during an event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, January 28, 2020, to announce the Trump administration’s much-anticipated plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The plan also allows Israel to annex settlements, grants the Jewish state sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and overriding security control west of the Jordan River, and bars Palestinian refugees from settling in Israel.

Abbas also said Tuesday he was prepared to launch negotiations with Israel under the patronage of the Quartet, made-up of the US, Russia, the UN and the European Union, and on the basis of international resolutions, if Israel showed it was a partner for peace.

“I am serious about what I say. I am prepared to stay here in the headquarters of international legitimacy to begin these negotiations immediately,” he said.

Abbas also said the Palestinians would not “resort to violence and terrorism regardless of the act of aggression against us.”

“We believe in peace and fighting violence,” he said. “We will fight by way of popular, peaceful resistance.”

Abbas has frequently stated that he opposes violence as a means to advance the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership’s goals.

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