Palestinian President Abbas says UN should replace U.S. as Mideast mediator
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures as he talks during the closing news conference following the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation's Extraordinary Summit on Dec. 13, 2017 in Istanbul.Onur Coban / Pool via AP
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ISTANBUL — Breaking with years of courting the U.S., Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called Wednesday for the United Nations to replace Washington as a Mideast mediator. And he suggested he might not cooperate with the Trump administration's much-anticipated effort to hammer out an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
At a summit in Turkey, Arab and Muslim leaders "rejected and condemned" President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital — the trigger for Abbas' sharp policy pivot — but stopped short of backing his more combative approach toward Washington.
A possible Palestinian refusal to engage with the U.S. and growing backlash against Trump's shift on Jerusalem, including from Arab allies, cast new doubt over the administration's already seemingly remote chances of brokering a deal and succeeding where its predecessors have failed.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Wednesday the administration would continue to work on a Mideast plan that it believes will benefit Israelis and Palestinians. Referring to Abbas, she said that the "type of rhetoric that we heard has prevented peace in the past, and it's not necessarily surprising that those types of things would be said."
In shunning the U.S., Abbas would find himself in uncharted territory.
He does not have an immediate practical alternative to more than two decades of U.S.-led negotiations on the terms of Palestinian statehood. The Palestinians seek such a state on lands captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.
On the other hand, Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital was decried by Palestinians and others in the region as a provocative show of pro-Israel bias, making it difficult for Abbas to justify dealing with Washington as a mediator.
Trump's argument that his announcement does not mean an endorsement of specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem has not gained traction in the ensuing uproar.
The fate of Jerusalem is a hot-button issue in the region, and even the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt — reportedly eager to help advance Trump's Mideast efforts — cannot afford to be seen as soft on the religious claims of Muslims and political claims of Palestinians to the contested city. Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem is home to Islam's third-holiest shrine, along with the most revered site in Judaism and a major Christian church.
Wednesday's extraordinary summit of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation ended with a call on Trump to rescind an "unlawful decision that might trigger chaos in the region" and on the world to recognize east Jerusalem as the capital of a state of Palestine.
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A concluding statement lacked tougher criticism of U.S. policy contained in an earlier draft, which questioned Washington's continued role as a Mideast mediator and warned that Trump's shift on Jerusalem threatened global security.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who hosted the summit, stuck to the harder line, saying at a news conference that it is "out of the question" for Washington to continue mediating between Israel and the Palestinians.
"That process is now over," he said.
Abbas' speech marked a high-profile break with what had been his unwavering policy in more than a decade as Palestinian leader.
Despite setbacks, he had considered a close relationship with the U.S. the centerpiece of his efforts to win Palestinian statehood through negotiations.
In another sign of a harder Palestinian stance, Abbas aides said earlier this week that he would not meet with Mike Pence when the U.S. vice president visits the region, starting this weekend.
Abbas was initially to have hosted Pence, a devout Christian, in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem, following the vice president's visit to Israel.
Trump's nod to Israel on Jerusalem came at a time of mounting speculation about the terms of an Israeli-Palestinian deal the U.S. might propose.
Palestinian officials have said they have not heard anything official from the U.S. team led by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner or from the powerful Saudi crown prince who met Abbas last month.
Saudi Arabia did not participate in a high-level capacity in Wednesday's summit.
But in Riyadh, King Salman and his heir met Wednesday with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who also leads the United Arab Emirates' armed forces. A statement said they discussed "the serious repercussions of the negative decision of the U.S. to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel."
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to criticize Abbas' comments, though he did not directly refer to the Palestinian leader.
Netanyahu said in a speech Wednesday that Palestinians should "work for peace and not for extremism."
"All of these declarations do not impress us," Netanyahu said.
He said Israel is committed to protecting the freedom of worship for all religions in Jerusalem, but reaffirmed Israel's claims to the entire city.
Israel has considered Jerusalem its capital since the state's establishment in 1948 and sees the city as the ancient capital of the Jewish people
Israel captured east Jerusalem in 1967 and annexed it to its capital, a move not recognized by most of the international community. Over the past 50 years, Israel has cemented its control over the eastern sector, building large settlements there that are now home to more than 200,000 Israelis.
Despite efforts to ensure a large Jewish majority, the share of the Palestinian population in Jerusalem has grown — from 26 percent in 1967 to 37 percent today.