Palestinians reject Trump bid to force talks through aid cut

Saeb Erekat says the US is acting in ‘bad faith’ and its policies are weakening moderates and encouraging radicals across the Middle East

Saeb Erekat speaks to journalists in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on September 1, 2018. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)
Saeb Erekat speaks to journalists in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on September 1, 2018. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)

A senior Palestinian official hit back at Donald Trump on Friday after the US president said he would withhold aid to the Palestinians until they returned to peace negotiations.

Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat accused the US of acting in bad faith and denied that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had refused to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The last offer for Netanyahu to come to meet Abu Mazen” came from Russian President Vladimir Putin who invited them both to the World Cup final in July, Erekat said, using the Arabic nickname for Abbas.

“Abu Mazen accepted and Netanyahu rejected, that is the truth,” he told journalists in English.

“And then we have some statements from the White House saying that we continue punishing the Palestinians until they come back to the negotiating table. Which negotiating table?”

Netanyahu ultimately attended the semi-finals of the soccer competition. Although both leaders were invited to the final, there was no indication that even if the Israeli leader had attended, he would have met with Abbas while in the Russian capital.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković at the World Cup semi-final match in Moscow on 11 July, 2018. (Courtesy)

In a conference call Thursday with several dozen American Jewish leaders ahead of Rosh Hashanah, Trump noted that he had recently slashed immense amounts of US aid to the Palestinians — a reference to the administration’s recent cuts in overall aid to the Palestinian Authority and its complete defunding of the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA.

“What I will tell you is I stopped massive amounts of money that we were paying to the Palestinians and the Palestinian leaders,” Trump said to the Jewish leaders. “The United States was paying them tremendous amounts of money. And I say, ‘You’ll get money, but we’re not paying until you make a deal. If you don’t make a deal, we’re not paying.’”

“I don’t think it’s disrespectful at all” for US aid to be utilized as a bargaining chip, the president added. Rather, “I think it’s disrespectful when people don’t come to the table.”

US President Donald Trump seen during an event with sheriffs in the White House in Washington, September 5, 2018. (AP/Susan Walsh)

Trump has repeatedly said he aims for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, but the Palestinians have refused to meet with his administration since the US leader controversially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017.

The Palestinians consider the eastern sector of the city as their capital, and the status of Jerusalem is one of the thorniest issues in their conflict with Israel.

Erekat said Trump’s decision had violated a pledge he made to Abbas in May 2017 that his administration would not adopt any radical steps for 12 months to encourage peace talks.

The Trump administration has cut funds to UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, and also scrapped around $200 million in payments by USAID to the Palestinians.

A much vaunted peace proposal has been delayed multiple times. US-brokered peace talks have been frozen since they collapsed in 2014 amid mutual accusations of blame.

Erekat charged that the Trump administration’s policies were weakening moderates and encouraging radicals across the Middle East.

From left to right: Sara Netanyahu, wife of Israeli PM; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Senior White House Adviser Jared Kushner; US President’s daughter Ivanka Trump; Israeli President Reuven Rivlin; and US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin attend the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)

“If the art of their negotiations is to put us in a position where we have nothing to lose, I think they succeeded,” he said, referring to the president’s business credentials.

The United States on Wednesday denied a report that Trump had offered to meet Abbas at the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly later this month.

According to the original Hadashot TV news report on Tuesday, Trump had been seeking to reestablish ties with the Palestinians. However, Abbas responded that he would only accept such a meeting in return for significant diplomatic gestures that would renew trust between the sides.

In addition, he reportedly demanded that Trump fire his Middle East negotiating team, including envoy Jason Greenblatt and the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner.

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