Peace is more important than settlements, Abbas tells Israelis

Palestinians question recognition of Israel

Mubarak urges Quartet to shoulder responsibilities, warns of repercussions of Israeli stance

Arabs prepare draft for UN Security Council to denounce settlements

U.S. analysts say Netanyahu’s position blamed for peace process deterioration

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas held a rare meeting last week with dozens of Israeli lawmakers, ex-generals and peace activists, urging them to tell the Israeli public that he opposes violence and is committed to reaching a peace deal.

The outreach, over a lunch of meat and rice at Abbas' West Bank headquarters, appeared aimed at generating domestic pressure on Israel's hard-line prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, at a time when U.S.-led peace efforts seem hopelessly bogged down.

Many of the Israeli participants were veterans of two decades of failed peace efforts and exchanged hugs and greetings with their Palestinian counterparts. However, the visitors also included some from Israel's nationalist camp, including activists from Netanyahu's Likud Party, a confidant of the founder of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party and several ultra-Orthodox journalists.

After the speeches, the Israelis excitedly crowded around Abbas to talk and have their pictures taken.

Binyamin Lipkin, editor of an ultra-Orthodox newspaper, said he felt Abbas was sincere and that he would deliver the president's message to his readers. "He is the last remaining partner for Israel," Lipkin said.

In recent months, Abbas has pushed to directly reach the Israeli public and has also met with Jewish American leaders.

In the Israeli media, the Palestinian president is often portrayed as a well-meaning but weak leader who cannot deliver a peace deal.

In his remarks, Abbas reassured his audience that under his leadership, Palestinians remain committed to nonviolence and that he is sincere about reaching a peace agreement.

Netanyahu has urged Abbas to resume direct talks that broke down in September, but Abbas has said he cannot do so without a freeze in Israeli settlement building. Netanyahu has refused to do so, and the U.S. has not presented a way out of the deadlock that is acceptable to both sides.

The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — territories Israel captured in 1967 — but have said they are willing to swap some land to enable Israel to keep some of its larger West Bank settlements.

Despite the difficulties, Abbas said his priorities have not changed.

"We are ready to conclude peace, to have our state in the 1967 borders," he said.

Abbas said the Palestinians have undergone a transformation since their uprising and Israel's harsh reprisals left thousands dead. "We changed the culture of terror and violence into a culture of peace and stability here in the West Bank in the last four years," he said.

"We do not want to miss this opportunity," he told the Israelis. "We don't want to miss it. Please help us not to miss it. I have eight grandchildren. I want a peaceful life for them."

Amram Mitzna, a former leader of Israel's Labor Party, said he believes Israeli public opinion has become more accepting of the idea of Palestinian statehood.

"The historic debate over what should be the agreement between us and the Palestinians is behind us," he said. "Therefore, this meeting is important. It gives hope, despite a difficult reality."

Still, Israelis remain deeply divided over a possible partition of Jerusalem and the extent of possible land concessions.

The New York-based group Human Rights Watch said in a report that Israel systematically stifles the development of Palestinian communities in the West Bank and east Jerusalem while fostering the growth of Jewish settlements on those lands.

In a 166-page report, the group urged the U.S. to slash aid to Israel because of what it said are blatantly discriminatory practices.

Israel has built dozens of settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem over the past four decades to buttress its control there. The international community considers the settlements to be illegal.

Netanyahu criticized what he called the "hypocrisy of human rights organizations that turn a blind eye to the most repressive regimes in the world ... and instead target the only liberal, democracy in the Middle East."

Meanwhile, A large crowd of Palestinians cheered a Hamas leader's pledge never to recognize Israel and celebrated the Islamist movement's 23rd anniversary at a Gaza rally punctuated by sonic booms from Israeli jets.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, whose group runs the Gaza Strip, said the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) headed by Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas had made a "historic mistake" by recognizing Israel.

"We said it five years ago and we say it now ... we will never, we will never, we will never recognize Israel," Haniyeh told the gathering which some organizers said was attended by around 250,000 people.

Haniyeh had raised speculation last month about a change in Hamas's charter, which calls for Israel’s destruction, by suggesting the group could accept a referendum on any peace treaty giving the Palestinians a state on land Israel captured in a 1967 war.

But he said such a truce would entail "no recognition of Israel and no concessions over any part of the land of Palestine."

In his speech, Haniyeh challenged critics and local surveys which said Hamas's popularity was in decline over poor governance in Gaza.

He voiced confidence that Hamas, which defeated Abbas's long-dominant Fatah movement in a 2006 election and seized the Gaza Strip in 2007 from forces loyal to the Palestinian leader, would win any future ballot.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned Israel over its strategy in the Middle East and blamed Israel on the stalled Middle East peace process.

"Israel should understand that the country's people will only be safe, when their government carried out peace talks instead of military talks," Mubarak said in a speech at a joint session of Egypt's parliament.

He stressed that the United States and the Quartet should take responsibility over stalled negotiations on the Palestinian issue, adding that the international movement is not commensurate with the challenges and dangers that the issue is facing.

Mubarak held separate talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell in Cairo, as the United States rushes to salvage the peace talks.

However, Arab foreign ministers convened on the same day, and decided at the meeting to stall the peace talks between Palestinians and Israel unless the U.S. makes a serious offer to stop Israeli building of further settlements.

Mubarak also insisted that Egypt is accountable to its actions for establishing an independent Palestinian state whose capital is East Jerusalem.

The Arab states plan to present a draft resolution to the United Nations Security Council against the Jewish settlements and they will turn to the UN General Assembly if the United States vetoes the draft, a Palestinian official said.

Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian negotiator, said that the UN General Assembly is similar to the UN Security Council in its ability to call for sanctions on the state that does not implement its resolutions.

Even if the U.S. vetoes the draft resolution, the Palestinians can get a resolution against the settlement building at the UN General Assembly as Arab, Latin American and African countries are likely to vote in favor of the draft, Shaath said.

However, Shaath said that the United States may not vote against the draft resolution "since it is difficult for it to use the veto after it has publicly opposed the settlement."

U.S.-sponsored negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians stopped in September after Israel resumed building settlements in the West Bank.

The Obama administration's decision to stop seeking a new Israeli settlement freeze as a way back into talks with the Palestinians has diminished prospects of achieving a peace accord within a year and eroded U.S. credibility in the region, analysts said.

The decision also represented a belated recognition that even if they had persuaded Israel to renew a construction moratorium in the West Bank for three months, U.S. officials would have faced an even more difficult problem after that expired.

President Obama understood "that after three months of a second settlement freeze, he would have found himself without any kind of agreement and facing repeated demands to extend the freeze again, necessitating another exhausting bargaining session with [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu,'' Haaretz newspaper political commentator Akiva Eldar wrote.

Israelis and Palestinians traded blame over who was responsible for the U.S. decision, which has left both sides perplexed about the way forward and hoping for clarity from a speech on the Middle East that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will deliver in Washington.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the U.S. decision would have "grave consequences in the region.'' "If you cannot have him stop settlements for a few months, what do you expect get out of him on Jerusalem or the 1967 borders,'' Erekat said of Netanyahu in an interview. "I think Mr. Netanyahu knows the consequences for the American administration's credibility in the region.''

Israeli officials, who always were cool to extending a settlement freeze as a precursor to talks, said the Palestinians were to blame for insisting on including Jerusalem in the freeze. Still, the officials portrayed the change in American tactic as an opportunity for progress.

"That mechanism proved not to be effective and now we have to find an alternative mechanism to move this process forward,'' said an Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions. "As we go into this next stage of the peace process, we think the chances of it succeeding are even greater because of the close coordination with the United States.''

The administration, which in September set a one-year deadline for negotiations, expended enormous political capital over nearly two years by making a settlement freeze a priority.

The effort rankled relations with Israel and inflated hopes in the Arab world that the United States could persuade Israel to halt construction in the West Bank and win further Israeli concessions down the road. Instead, the U.S. ended up spending more time haggling with Israel over a settlement freeze than negotiating between Israelis and Palestinians over the core issues that divide them, analysts said.

"Trying to get a freeze . . . was always the wrong focus,'' said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. peace negotiator. "It forced the Obama team to either pummel the Israelis into one or bribe them. Neither worked. And now 20 months in, we have no freeze, no direct talks, no process, and no prospect of a quick agreement. Plus, our street credibility is now much diminished and our options are bad.''

After the 10-month Israeli partial moratorium expired in September, the Obama administration developed a package of incentives, including billions of dollars' worth advanced fighter jets, to entice Israel into extending the freeze for three more months. But talks on the extension collapsed, including over whether the United States would accept Israeli construction in parts of East Jerusalem that Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.

"The significance of the U.S. decision to stop pushing for a moratorium . . . is that Obama is refusing to give Netanyahu a seal of approval to build in Jerusalem,'' Eldar wrote.

A Palestinian delegation, which was invited to Washington, won't travel there before Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas consults in the coming days with the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee and Abbas's Fatah Party's central committee, Erekat said.

Erekat also said in light of the breakdown and decisions by Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay this week to unilaterally recognize Palestine as an independent state , the Palestinians would formally appeal to the U.S. to do the same.

As for West Bank construction, the Israeli official said Israel will continue to build in existing settlements in the West Bank but will not expropriate more land for new settlements. Israel's security cabinet also decided to allow for expanded exports out of the Gaza Strip. An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter, said the policy would be fleshed out in the coming days, but that in principle, exports of agricultural produce, textiles and manufactured furniture would be among the items that Palestinians in Gaza would be permitted to export abroad or to the West Bank.

Israel has limited Gaza's exports as part of a blockade of the Gaza Strip that is designed in part to put pressure on the Hamas-led government that seized power there in 2007. The international community has pressured Israel to allow the resumption of exports.