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PLO’s man in Washington: No talks without settlement freeze

PLO’s man in Washington: No talks without settlement freeze

Following President Obama’s latest meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last night, there is increasing sentiment in Washington the administration’s intense efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations are at an impasse.

There are rumors that the White House is considering a pause in its shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East, a recognition that the administration goal to convince the Israeli government to impose a freeze on settlements might not be possible in the near term and the tumultuous situation inside the Palestinian Authority might prevent that side from sitting down at the table.

The Palestinian Authority, for one, is calling on the administration not to take a break in their initiative, while still acknowledging that there is wide space between the current atmosphere and one that could precede a resumption of talks.

“I don’t think the administration can impose a pause on their activities. We heard that, it is not official or confirmed,” said Ambassador Maen Rashid Areikat, PLO representative to the United States and head of the PLO mission in Washington, “The middle east conflict is too important an issue for the administration to abandon or to take a back seat, I think.”

In an exclusive interview with The Cable, the PA’s top man in Washington said that his government did not want to sit down with the Israelis unless there is total settlement freeze and unless all final settlement issues are on the table, including refugees, Jerusalem, settlements, security, water, borders, everything.

The Obama administration’s process-focused strategy misses the mark, he said.

“I’m not saying that we are totally disappointed or that we have given up hope that there will be good preparation for any future resumption of negotiations, but we are making ourselves clear to the administration and others that this time around, it has to be done right. We cannot just get engaged in a process for the sake of a process. That will lead nowhere.”

The Palestinians saw as a misstep, the remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her meeting in Israel with Netanyahu, where she appeared to endorse Netanyahu’s idea of a partial settlement freeze and then later backed off those remarks.

“We were disappointed, we made that clear,” Areikat said, adding that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made it clear to Clinton during their meeting in Abu Dhabi last week that there will be no return to negotiations or political contacts with the Israelis if settlements activities are not totally frozen.

He praised Special Envoy George Mitchell as “a very decent and insightful man of integrity,” and said he was not the problem. New administrations make mistakes and Clinton’s remarks were simply that.

“We still have confidence that this administration will do something to take things back in the right direction,” Areikat said, “This is still a young administration, They have only been in power 10 months. We have to give them the benefit of the doubt.”

Areikat said the announcement that he would not seek reelection would not effect his office’s work on a day-to-day basis and that PA elections could come as early as Jan. 25. Hamas has pledged not to participate in such elections, placing their legitimacy at question. Akeikat said that no decision has been made by Abbas yet as to how to handle that situation.

He also criticized his Israeli counterpart Michael Oren, Netanyahu’s ambassador to Washington, for comparing the writers of the Goldstone Report, which accuses Israel of war crimes in Gaza, to Holocaust deniers.

“This notion that accusing everybody who criticizes Israel as being an anti-semite and a Holocaust denier, I think we should go beyond that. These are clichés that we heard in the 70s and the 80s,” Areikat said, “I think we should rise up. They are trying to play on the feelings of Jews around the world.”

(Correction: Netanyahu’s title corrected to “prime minister.”) 

Photo: The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia