White House denies US officials told Abbas settlement freeze would topple Netanyahu

Al-Hayat report quoted PA officials saying Kushner delegation indicated building would have to continue because of domestic Israeli considerations

A White House official on Saturday denied reports that the visiting delegation of Trump administration officials told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas this week that a freeze on Israeli settlement building was impossible as it would topple the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

PA officials told the pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat that the Trump administration delegation made the remarks to Abbas during their meeting in Ramallah on Thursday, indicating that a settlement freeze could not be a precondition for resumed peace talks and that building would thus continue.

“This is nonsense,” a senior White House official told The Times of Israel. “These comments were never made.”

Al-Hayat said the US delegation did not make significant progress in its bid to revive the stagnated Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and told the Palestinian leader it would work to strengthen economic, security and diplomatic ties between Israel and the PA before any talks would resume.

White House adviser and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, peace envoy Jason Greenblatt and Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategy Dina Powell met with Abbas on Thursday as part of a trip to the region aimed at looking for way to jumpstart peace talks.

For weeks, Palestinian officials had expressed pessimism at US peace efforts, and Abbas had reportedly sought a US commitment to endorse the two-state solution.

The delegation indicated openness to the notion of a two-state solution, but did not indicate a commitment to Palestinian statehood based on the pre-1967 lines, according to the al-Hayat report.

Channel 10 reported Saturday night that the Palestinians, for their part, made clear to the Americans that they do not intend to halt their payments of stipends to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Despite a State Department spokesperson declining to endorse a two-state solution a day before the meetings, Abbas on Thursday still gave the US team his vote of confidence in official remarks. Abbas expressed optimism that a deal with Israel could be reached with the help of “sincere” efforts from the Trump administration.

Construction of new buildings in the West Bank settlement of Na'ale,February 08, 2017. (Flash90)
Construction of new buildings in the West Bank settlement of Na’ale, February 8, 2017. (Flash90)

“We affirm that this [US] delegation is working toward peace, and we are working with it to achieve soon what Trump called the ‘peace deal,’” Abbas said.

In his remarks carried by the official PA news outlet, Wafa, Kushner did not mention a two-state solution and only offered vague sentiments about peace in the future.

“President Trump is very optimistic and hopes for a better future for the Palestinian people and the Israeli people,” Kushner said.

“We hope they can work together and live together for many years and have a much better life,” he added.

A joint statement issued after the Ramallah talks stated: “The Palestinian Authority and the US delegation had a productive meeting focused on how to begin substantive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Both sides agreed to continue with the US-led conversations as the best way to reach a comprehensive peace deal.”

The delegation arrived in Israel after several meetings with other leaders around the Middle East on the topic, including in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Before meeting with Abbas on Thursday, the delegation met with Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, where Kushner told the prime minister that Trump is “very committed” to help broker a peace deal.

Kushner also said “the relationship between Israel and America is stronger than ever and we really thank Prime Minister Netanyahu for his leadership and his partnership.”

Netanyahu in response said he believed peace with the Palestinians was “within our reach.”

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