WASHINGTON: U.S. President Barack Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas held “long” and “difficult” talks on the Middle East peace process, with no document presented by the American side, the chief Palestinian negotiator said Tuesday.
Abbas was welcomed to the White House Monday by Obama, who said both the Palestinians and the Israelis needed “to take some tough political decisions and risks if we’re able to move it forward.”
The two leaders met as the April deadline for reaching a full peace treaty – set when the talks resumed in late July – approaches.
“The meeting was difficult and the meeting was long,” Saeb Erakat told the Wilson Center think tank.
“Contrary to what people expected – that we will come out of this meeting with an official American proposal document – this has not happened,” he said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who persuaded the two sides to return to talks after a three-year hiatus, is drawing up a framework due to set out the guidelines for negotiations going forward.
But U.S. officials confirmed late Monday that no document had yet been presented to the Palestinians.
Erakat said that more discussion was needed before an official document could be submitted.
“I am not saying that those discussions are meaningless. ... We are talking very seriously – very in depth,” he added.
In line with an agreement Kerry wrested from both sides to keep details of the negotiations secret, Erakat refused to discuss the content of the White House talks.
“No one benefits more from America’s success – Kerry’s success – than Palestinians, and no one loses more if they fail more than us. That is the truth,” he said.
Both sides have expressed serious concerns over the apparent compromises being demanded to end their decades-long conflict.
Kerry has pledged the framework will address all of the core issues on which the two sides disagree, including the fate of Palestinian refugees ejected from Israel when it was created in 1948. It also will address the fate of Jerusalem, sought by both parties as the capital of their future state.
Palestinians have been particularly critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence that they must recognize his country as “the Jewish state.”
“Israel’s name is the State of Israel. That’s how they call themselves,” Erakat said, adding that the Palestinians had already recognized its right to exist.
Palestinians fear that recognizing Israel as “the Jewish state” will torpedo their efforts to win the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Meanwhile, Israel told Abbas that it might not carry out a final stage of a Palestinian prisoner release unless he commits to prolonging the peace talks beyond the April deadline.
A senior Palestinian official said there would be “big consequences” if the release did not go ahead.
Israel’s chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni, issued her warning just a day after Abbas voiced hope the prisoners would be free by March 29.
“There was never any automatic commitment to release prisoners unrelated to making progress in negotiations,” Livni said in a speech in southern Israel that could complicate Washington’s efforts to salvage peacemaking.
She was referring to Israel’s agreement, as part of U.S. efforts to revive the statehood talks, to free 104 inmates jailed for attacks – many of them deadly – against Israelis before a 1993 interim peace deal.
Israel has freed more than 70 of the prisoners since negotiations resumed in July. Abbas’ spokesman said a failure to hand over the final batch of prisoners would represent a violation of an accord struck with the United States and Israel.
“Any violation of this agreement would bring about big consequences,” said Nabil Abu Rudaineh, without giving further details.
U.S. officials fear the negotiations would collapse if Israel fails to free the final group of prisoners. Palestinians regard brethren jailed by Israel as heroes in a quest for an independent state in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip. Israel views them as terrorists.
“The key to the door for Palestinian prisoners is in Abu Mazen’s hands,” Livni said, using a kunya by which Abbas is often referred to.
An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Israel wanted assurances that Abbas would not walk out of the talks once the prisoners went free.
Netanyahu, who met Obama in Washington two weeks ago, has said any peace deal with the Palestinians would take at least another year to negotiate should both sides accept U.S.-proposed principles to keep the talks going.
“We need to be sure the negotiations will last beyond the release of prisoners, and that they will be substantive, and on solid ground,” the official said.
Another stumbling block, the official said, was a Palestinian demand that Israeli Arabs convicted of deadly attacks on Jews be included among those due to go free this month.