U.S. presses Abbas to resume direct peace talks
RAMALLAH, West Bank -- A senior U.S. envoy warned the Palestinian president that he must move quickly to direct talks with Israel if he wants President Obama's help in setting up a Palestinian state, according to an internal Palestinian document obtained Monday by The Associated Press.
The 36-page memo, sent to senior Palestinian officials, advised Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to resist growing U.S. pressure, warning that rescinding his conditions for face-to-face negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be "political suicide."
Abbas has said he won't resume talks that broke off in December 2008 unless Netanyahu accepts the idea of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, with some alterations, and freezes all settlement building there.
Netanyahu refuses to commit to anything before the start of talks but has said he will not give up east Jerusalem.
On Monday, he strongly indicated that he would not extend a 10-month freeze on housing starts in West Bank settlements beyond September.
The Palestinian memo was distributed just before a crucial meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo on Thursday.
The ministers are set to decide whether they favor a move to direct talks or support the Palestinian position that U.S. shuttle diplomacy should be allowed to run its course. Indirect talks, with U.S. envoy George Mitchell meeting separately with Abbas and Netanyahu, began in early May and were to last up to four months, until early September.
However, in recent days, the U.S. has stepped up pressure on Abbas to go to direct talks now.
In a July 17 meeting, Mitchell told Abbas that direct talks must begin soon in order to keep Obama engaged, according to the Palestinian memo, which summarized recent diplomatic efforts and was e-mailed to leaders of Abbas' Fatah movement.
Mitchell told Abbas that in the event of direct talks, the U.S. administration can push forcefully for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state, according to the document. If Abbas refuses to negotiate, Obama may not be able to be of much help, get the settlement curb extended or prevent the demolition of Arab homes in east Jerusalem, the document said.
The envoy told Abbas he should seize the fleeting opportunity and not waste time, the memo said. He cautioned Abbas not to count on Netanyahu being replaced by another Israeli leader anytime soon, the document said.
In Washington, State Department officials would not confirm that the memo reflected Mitchell's exact words or talking points, but said that "this indeed illustrates where we are." The officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the negotiations.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the memo is based, in part, on notes taken of an oral presentation he made to Fatah leaders, but that not all points made in it are accurate.
Erekat confirmed that U.S. officials told Abbas that "if he wants Obama to help, then he needs to go to direct talks."
Erekat denied that Abbas was warned by Mitchell of the possible downside of refusing to go to direct talks or told that Netanyahu could remain in office for several more years.
Two Palestinian officials confirmed receipt of the memo, which carried the letterhead of the Palestinian Negotiations Department.
The document summarizes diplomatic contacts with the Obama administration since February. It says that since the beginning of July, Abbas has come under growing pressure from the U.S. to go to direct talks.
The memo ends with recommendations to Abbas.
"There should be steadfastness in the Palestinian position regarding direct talks," the document says. "Going to direct talks while the Israeli government refuses to stop settlement activities and refuses to continue talks where they left off in December 2008 would be like political suicide."
Also Monday, Israeli settlers entered a Palestinian village, set fire to a field, tried to tear down an unfinished house and attacked villagers, residents said. The rampage appeared to be in response to the demolition of illegal settler buildings earlier in the day by Israeli authorities.
The two sides began hurling rocks at each other, injuring 10 people, including one settler who was seriously hurt, Palestinian witnesses and Israeli police said.
The Israeli military, which controls the West Bank, arrived on the scene and separated the sides. No shots were fired.