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Palestinian sees prospects of peace deal dimming

Image: Palestinian Muslims praying in Jerusalem
Palestinian Muslim worshippers pray in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan on Friday.Bernat Armangue / AP
/ Source: The New York Times

After President Obama’s high-profile speech on Thursday in which he laid out broad principles for reaching an Israeli-Palestinian deal, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, called an emergency meeting at his headquarters in Ramallah in the West Bank. He advised his associates not to comment on the speech, according to a senior Palestinian official who attended the meeting, but to wait instead for Mr. Obama’s meeting with the prime minister of Israel in the White House “and see if there are any positive signs.”

By the end of that meeting, judging by the statements of Mr. Abbas’s associates, the prospects of renewed negotiations leading to a swift agreement appeared at least as distant, if not more, than before.

The official, Nabil Shaath, a leader of Mr. Abbas’s party and a veteran negotiator, said that Mr. Obama’s speech had “contained little hope for the Palestinians,” except for the one sentence that spoke of the borders of a future Palestinian state being based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps, a shift in American diplomatic language that addressed a long-held Palestinian demand.

But sitting alongside Mr. Obama after a two-hour meeting in the Oval Office, Mr. Netanyahu publicly and forcefully shot down that notion. Ignoring the element of land swaps, which would afford negotiators some flexibility, the Israeli leader totally rejected the idea of withdrawing to the pre-1967 lines, reiterating that they are “indefensible” and do not take into account the “demographic changes,” meaning the large Israeli settlement blocs that have taken hold in the West Bank over the last 40 years.

Yet Mr. Netanyahu is “continuing to make that demographic change through settlement and colonization,” fumed Mr. Shaath in a telephone interview from Ramallah. He noted that Mr. Obama made only passing reference to the continuing construction in his speech and did not mention it at all in his statement on Friday.

In a world of nuclear weapons, rocketry, and powerful air forces like Israel’s, Mr. Shaath added, it was irrelevant to speak of borders as indefensible, especially, he said, when applied to “a tiny country like Palestine.”

Adding to the sense of Palestinian outrage, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, the official spokesman of Mr. Abbas, issued a statement after the Obama-Netanyahu meeting saying that Mr. Netanyahu’s position was “an official rejection of Mr. Obama’s initiative, of international legitimacy and of international law.”

It was the Palestinians who walked out of the last round of peace negotiations last September after a partial Israeli moratorium on building in the settlements expired. In order to return to talks, Palestinian officials say, they want to hear Mr. Netanyahu agree to the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations and a renewed, if temporary, settlement freeze.

In the absence of negotiations, the Palestinian leadership plans to seek international recognition of a Palestinian state in the United Nations General Assembly in September, an idea that is opposed by the United States and that could isolate Israel.

Mr. Shaath said that Mr. Obama’s speech conceded most issues to the Israelis, including viewing Israel as a Jewish state, opposing the plans for United Nations recognition and criticizing the Fatah faction for its recent reconciliation pact with Hamas, which the United States designates as a terrorist organization.

On the refugee issue, one of most delicate and intractable in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr. Obama managed to upset both sides. Mr. Shaath criticized the president for suggesting that refugees could be left, like the status of Jerusalem, for discussion at a later stage after the subjects of borders and security. The Israelis were critical that Mr. Obama failed to spell out that the solution for Palestinian refugees of the 1948 war and their descendants lay not in Israel, but within the borders of a future Palestinian state.

Mr. Netanyahu said Friday that it was time to tell the Palestinians that any return of refugees to Israel proper was “not going to happen.”

Mr. Shaath, the veteran Palestinian negotiator, said that any idea that the positions articulated in Washington might induce the Palestinians to abandon their march toward the United Nations was “utterly ridiculous.”

Palestinian officials brushed aside the statements by Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu that the recent pact between Fatah and Hamas raises serious problems and requires answers from the Palestinian leadership. Fatah leaders said that the reconciliation was an internal affair that had nothing to do with the peace process.

In Israel, the news channels broadcasted the statements at the White House in real time, but there was little immediate reaction since the meeting ran late into the Sabbath eve. Channel 2 News, which generally has the highest ratings, extended its Friday news program to cover the event, but minutes later the commercial channel reverted to its usual programming — a local singing contest that is the Israeli equivalent of “American Idol.”

But the Palestinians were not alone in their view that the recent developments in Washington had not helped the peace process. In a critique of Mr. Obama’s speech, Robert Satloff, executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which is widely seen as pro-Israel, said that the approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace enunciated by Mr. Obama had “within it the seeds of deepening tension and perhaps even rift between the two sides.”

Mr. Satloff’s article was recommended to reporters by Mr. Netanyahu’s media department as “one of the best analyses of the situation.”

This story, "Palestinian Sees Prospects of Deal Receding," originally appeared in the New York Times.