Top minister: Abbas torpedoed talks by refusing Kerry meet

Yuval Steinitz says PA president walked away from the peace table, notes Israel will survive with or without peace deal

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz on February 2, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz on February 2, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

WASHINGTON — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refused to meet with US Secretary of State John Kerry, effectively putting an end to peace talks, Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz told an audience at the American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum Tuesday evening.

In a strongly worded speech condemning the Palestinian leadership for its lack of commitment to the peace process and highlighting Israel’s concerns regarding the ongoing P5+1 negotiations with Iran, Steinitz sounded a critical tone while still taking care to voice support for the Obama administration’s effort in strengthening the US-Israel strategic partnership.

According to Steinitz, it was Abbas, and not Kerry, who canceled at the last minute a visit to Ramallah that represented a last-ditch effort by the American diplomat to save the peace talks which collapsed last month.

“It is quite clear to everybody involved who left the negotiations table suddenly,” Steinitz told the audience. “Who decided, two-three months ago, to leave the negotiations table and to approach the international community with requests for membership to organizations and to approach Hamas to form a unity government.”

In contrast, Steinitz said, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had already met with Kerry in Jerusalem and even already “accepted, with some reservations, the overall framework” put forth by the US secretary of state.

“Abbas rejected Kerry’s framework and refused to meet him in Ramallah — and Kerry flew back the next morning without any meeting” taking place, Steinitz said.

The framework agreement was mean to guide talks beyond their April 29 expiration date, and was touted as what would have been a modest achievement after nine months of negotiations.

Talks broke down in March and April amid mutual recriminations by each side that other had shut down negotiations with unilateral moves. Washington said both sides had made “unhelpful” moves leading to the talks’ suspension, while expressing hope that negotiations would soon resume.

Although the canceled meeting with Abbas on April 1 was well-documented at the time, reports had suggested that it was Kerry, not Abbas, who called off the meeting in frustration at Abbas’s violation of preconditions for talks by soliciting membership in international treaties.

US officials were apparently blindsided by Abbas’s sudden moves that derailed the talks, but Steinitz claimed that Israel “knew in advance that this was coming.” Israel, Steinitz said, was a willing partner in the peace talks which began in July 2013 under a proposed nine month framework to reach a comprehensive agreement.

“We are eager to make peace,” Steinitz said, but then took a harsher tone. “Nobody in the world should preach to us, pressure us, convince us to make peace — because this little country is eager to make peace.”

“Nobody should tell us that we need peace in order to survive, exist and flourish. We will survive. Israel will survive as a democratic Jewish state whether our neighbors will finally agree to accept it and make peace with us or not,” Steinitz continued.

His comments may have been a dig at US officials, including both Kerry and negotiations team leader Ambassador Martin Indyk, both of whom have said recently that the failure of talks and the failure to achieve a two-state solution will lead to an erosion of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Kerry, who warned that Israel could become an “apartheid state,” later defended the direction — if not the wording — of his comments by arguing that a similar argument had been made by Israeli officials, including Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.

Steinitz warned that while “most Israelis in order to make peace are ready to make concessions, including difficult concessions, including territorial concessions,” it was important for Israelis to “know with confidence that what we are getting in return is genuine peace and real security.”

Stressing two sticking points in the negotiations with the Palestinians, Steinitz said that “genuine peace” means an end to the conflict – including “that Israel has the right to be accepted and recognized as a Jewish state by all its neighbors.”

“Abbas said that he would never recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state,” Steinitz complained, reiterating claims made by US interlocutors and Israelis alike that Abbas refused to even discuss the issue.

“This is a nonstarter. You cannot demand Israel recognize a Palestinian state as a state for the Palestinian people and at the same time deny the Jewish people the right to its own nation state,” Steinitz complained. A second matter of concern for the Israelis, he said, was the need to maintain a security presence in the Jordan Valley. Steinitz said that such a presence was “necessary to prevent what happened in Gaza” after the 2005 pullout of all Jewish settlements in the coastal region.

Describing as “ridiculous” the idea that the Palestinians would take over control of the Jordan Valley after three years, Steinitz said that the Palestinian Authority was not unwilling but incapable of living up to its commitment to prevent hostilities and smuggling, just as it proved to be in Gaza.

‘Sometimes productive’

Steinitz also discussed the P5+1 talks with Iran, the latest session of which was held earlier Tuesday in Vienna.

With US officials acknowledging Tuesday that negotiators were beginning to draft the language for a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, Steinitz reiterated the Israeli position that “a bad deal is worse than no deal.”

The minister acknowledged that Israel had been in close consultation with National Security Adviser Susan Rice as well as chief nuclear negotiator Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, saying “we appreciate the cooperation and the very close open and intimate dialogue that is sometimes very productive.”

When the crowd at the AJC gathering audibly chuckled at the use of “sometimes” to describe a contentious issue that has served as a point of discord between Washington and Jerusalem, Steinitz corrected the statement to “usually very productive.”

Despite the nod to the consultations, Steinitz went on to describe the nuanced difference between the US position – that Iran must not be allowed to achieve a nuclear weapon – and Israel’s position – that the comprehensive agreement must dismantle Iran’s capability to achieve a nuclear weapon.

“Maybe at first glance it sounds very similar, but it is two different things,” Steinitz explained. He pointed to past nuclear negotiations with Libya and North Korea, arguing that Libya had been prevented from becoming a nuclear power because the nuclear program was not just frozen, but the capacity to build a bomb was dismantled.

“What we demand is that not only will Iran commit itself and enable to world to verify that it is not building a bomb but that Iran will not remain a threshold nuclear state, one step or two steps away from a bomb,” Steinitz argued. The measure of nuclear threshold status, Steinitz said, was the ability to enrich uranium.

“If you leave centrifuges it will mean that Iran is capable of producing nuclear weapons in a year to a year and a half,” Steinitz warned. “If they want a civilian nuclear program, they can have it. You don’t need even one centrifuge to do it,” he added, citing a number of countries that have civilian nuclear programs without doing in-country enrichment.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a Japanese TV station that Iran would use an agreement with the world powers to distract world attention, “and then attack us.”

A “good deal,” Steinitz said “means that Iran is far away from the goal, that it can have a civilian nuclear program without a heavy water reactor and underground nuclear facilities.” Steinitz emphasized that Israel “prefers a diplomatic solution” and promised that Israel will “endorse a diplomatic solution on the condition that we can have a satisfactory comprehensive solution that we can trust.”

Steinitz ended his discussion of Iran, however, on a warning note. “We keep our right to self-defense and we will have to evaluate and make our own estimates if an agreement will be signed,” he cautioned.

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