Rebuffing Abbas gambit, US says Europe knows it can’t be lead peace broker
Source decries Palestinian rhetoric 'misrepresenting' Trump

Rebuffing Abbas gambit, US says Europe knows it can’t be lead peace broker

Senior official says Palestinians also realize EU can’t play main mediating role, adds peace plan will place emphasis on ‘brighter future for Palestinians’

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (2nd R) arrives for a meeting with EU Foreign ministers in Brussels, Belgium, on January 22, 2018.  (AFP/ POOL / OLIVIER HOSLET)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (2nd R) arrives for a meeting with EU Foreign ministers in Brussels, Belgium, on January 22, 2018. (AFP/ POOL / OLIVIER HOSLET)

WASHINGTON — European countries do not think they can replace the United States as the main broker of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, a senior White House official said Tuesday, pouring cold water on efforts by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to court the EU as a replacement for the US.

“There isn’t a single European country or other country we’ve spoken to since the December 6 announcement that in any way, shape or form believes a US-led process could be replaced,” a White House official told reporters during a briefing Tuesday. “They all want to work with the US, despite the Palestinian reaction.”

Since Trump’s Jerusalem decision last month, the Palestinian leadership has refused to meet with US officials on peace talks and has repeatedly said the US can no longer be an honest mediator in the conflict.

While US Vice President Mike Pence was in Israel this week, Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, snubbed him and instead flew to Brussels trying to woo the European Union to take from Washington its mantle of main sponsor of the peace process.

On Monday, European Union Foreign Policy chief Federica Mogherini said Brussels was ready to take a “central role,” alongside the United States, expanding the international role in mediating between Israel and the Palestinians.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas (L) is welcomed by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini prior to attend a EU foreign affairs council at the European Council in Brussels, January 22, 2018. (EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP)

The US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as Pence wrapped up his two-day visit to Israel, suggested the Palestinians were disingenuous in their rhetoric of seeking another international actor to take the US’s place, while admitting that the current impasse could be called “a huge bump.”

“I don’t think anybody believes the US can be replaced in this process,” the official said. “Frankly, I don’t believe the Palestinians believe the US can be replaced in this process.”

The position echoed the stance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has said the Palestinians don’t want peace if they refuse to work with the US.

The Palestinian boycott has come as the US is trying to finalize a peace plan, which the official said would include a regional element that could extend across the region, including Saudi Arabia. But the official said the plans had been somewhat derailed by the Palestinians’ refusal to meet with them, as well the the “complexity” of involving other regional actors.

“We don’t want to put out a timeline because, first of all, we need to bake a plan we think is fair to both sides, that both sides will look at and start talking about,” the official said.

“We also obviously hit bumps in the road. We are hitting a bump right now. Some would call it a huge bump. Some would call it an expected bump. But one thing we are certain is any time we would put out a calendar we would blow through those deadlines,” the official added.

The official said the plan was designed to improve the quality of life for Palestinians, while maintaining the long-held US position that an agreement can only be achieved through negotiations between the sides.

“In our view, it’s not our job to impose a deal on either side,” he said. “It’s our job to present a plan that we think is appropriate, reasonable, fair for both sides, in particular for the Palestinians to have a brighter future and it’s going to be up to the parties to make their decisions if they can come to terms on a deal.”

Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner (L) meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on August 24, 2017. (courtesy, WAFA)

That same official also said that while the Palestinian leadership has closed off communications with the White House, there are Palestinians who are in touch with them and want to work with them.

“There’s a difference between the Palestinian leadership and Palestinians,” he said. “One of the tragic things that I have noticed since December 6 is there are so many Palestinians who are reaching out. They all want to continue to talk, but they’re all afraid to talk. So they’re asking for quiet meetings, private meetings. They’re under a lot of pressure not to talk. It doesn’t bode well for what we’re trying to create if there’s no freedom of speech among the Palestinians, so that troubles me greatly. And we’re trying to figure out how to deal with it.”

President Donald Trump delivers a speech to the Arab Islamic American Summit, at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. From left, Ivanka Trump and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner. (AP/Evan Vucci)

The official expressed frustration with the rhetoric that has emerged from Palestinian leadership since December 6, saying it had misrepresented President Donald Trump’s position, specifically omitting his emphasis that he was not defining the parameters of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, prejudging final status negotiations or changing the status quo at any of the holy cites.

The Palestinians are “taking parts of the President’s speech and ignoring the rest of the speech and using the parts that they don’t like for their own political purposes and completely not referring to the parts of the president’s speech that speak to those issues,” the official said.

He added: “I don’t view the rhetoric coming out of the Palestinian side as helpful to reach a peace agreement. We’re not arrogant enough to say that the peace deal we’re going to deliver will solve the problem, but we’ll only know if they engage in dialogue. And refusing to engage in dialogue — and worse, the harsh rhetoric that they are speaking — isn’t going to get us to even step one, which is: What do you think of the plan? And how would you like to negotiate the plan?”

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