x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Abbas says Netanyahu's speech to Congress offered 'nothing we can build on' for peace

Israeli prime minister's avowal to US Congress not to accept pre-1967 borders earns plaudits at home but bodes ill for renewed peace talks as Palestinian president renews pledge to seek UN recognition of Palestinian statehood in September.

Israeli riot police file past Palestinian homes in the Ras al Amud neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP
Israeli riot police file past Palestinian homes in the Ras al Amud neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP

TEL AVIV // Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, yesterday lambasted Benjamin Netanyahu's address to the US Congress as offering no prospects for peace and renewed his pledge to seek United Nations recognition of Palestinian statehood in September.

Mr Abbas's statements came a day after the Israeli prime minister ended a five-day visit to Washington, where he made two speeches that Israeli commentators said were aimed more at garnering the support of his right-wing camp at home than at reigniting months-long suspended peace talks.

Speaking to the US Congress on Tuesday, Mr Netanyahu repeated his rejection of any Palestinian state being based on the Israeli borders that existed before the 1967 Middle East war, during which Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He said such boundaries would leave Israel unable to defend itself.

Land swaps: the map

He also reiterated that Israel was determined that Jerusalem would remain undivided, indicating he would not allow the Palestinians to gain control over East Jerusalem, which they want as the capital of their future state.

The latter assertion is especially popular on the Israeli Right. Some prominent right-wing government ministers and legislators late yesterday were due to take part in a ceremony marking the completion of a new Jewish neighbourhood that is slated to become one of the biggest for Jewish Israelis in mostly Palestinian East Jerusalem. The project, whose sponsors include a settler group and a pro-settler American businessman, will house 110 Jewish families in the Ras al Amud neighbourhood.

Mr Abbas told the Palestine Liberation Organisation yesterday that Israel was offering "nothing we can build on" for peace.

"We said in the past and we still say that our choice is negotiation, negotiation and nothing but negotiation. But if nothing happens in September we will go [to the UN]," he said

The Palestinian leader added that seeking such recognition was not aimed at delegitimising Israel or isolating the country.

Nevertheless, the US president, Barack Obama, made a bid in the past week to dissuade the Palestinians from pursuing their plan, calling it "simply unrealistic" and cautioning that it would be rather a "symbolic" effort.

Yesterday, he stepped up his criticism of the Palestinian plan during a press conference in London with British Prime Minister David Cameron, saying: "For the Palestinians to take the United Nations route rather than the path of sitting down and talking with the Israelis is a mistake." Mr Obama also said that achieving a peace agreement would require a "wrenching compromise" by Israelis and Palestinians.

Mr Obama has so far not said whether the US plans to veto the Palestinian plan at the UN. Nevertheless, his statements hold few doubts that he has sided with the Israelis, who are growing increasingly worried that any such UN recognition would also impose an unfavourable peace agreement on the country and possibly ignite violence with the Palestinians.

Mr Abbas said he planned to consult Arab leaders next weekend about how to respond to Mr Obama's peace pact framework, put forth during a speech last week. It included supporting the long-time Palestinian demand for the pre-1967 borders to serve as the starting point for peace negotiations. Mr Netanyahu had condemned Mr Obama's statement, saying it would leave Israel with "indefensible" frontiers.

However, without Israel accepting such a condition, there appears to be little hope for reigniting a peace process that has been deadlocked since September.

Mr Netanyahu, according to Israeli commentators, appears more concerned about keeping his right-wing support base intact ahead of elections scheduled for next year rather than offering concessions for reigniting peace talks.

Sima Kadmon, writing in Yediot Ahronot, Israel's largest circulation newspaper, said Mr Netanyahu was returning home victorious among many right-wing backers. She added: "The prime minister's standing was strengthened greatly this week and … Netanyahu is returning to a solid coalition that will ensure his hold on power for many months."

But he was criticised for not taking advantage of the opportunity to speak in front of the US Congress to further peace efforts. The Haaretz newspaper blasted his address as "a wasted opportunity" and declared in an editorial that "Israel deserves a different leader."

Ari Shavit, a prominent centrist political commentator, warned in a radio interview that Israel's international standing may have been hurt by the 45-minute speech, even as it drew applause and 20 standing ovations from a US Congress known for the support that Israel draws from most of its members.

"We are heading straight for the wall. [Netanyahu] made peace with Congress but he lost the world."