Los Angeles Times
May 28, 2005
WASHINGTON — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday applauded the Bush adminis- tration's stepped-up efforts to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but he acknowledged that President Bush did not support his proposal to initiate informal talks on major issues holding up an accord.
A planned visit to the Middle East by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "is a sign that the administration is committed to moving the peace process forward to a successful conclusion," Abbas told reporters a day after meeting with Bush at the White House and winning a pledge of $50 million in direct aid. Rice, who is likely to visit the region in July, has not previously been involved in the details of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
On at least one issue, however, Abbas said he had made little headway.
The Palestinian leader has proposed that informal talks with Israel begin on some of the major issues a peace deal would have to resolve: the border between Israel and a Palestinian state, the fate of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the status of mostly Arab East Jerusalem.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has rejected the idea of so-called back-channel talks, preferring to focus on his plan to withdraw Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip this summer. Many Palestinians believe Sharon has proposed piecemeal withdrawals from Gaza and parts of the West Bank to delay negotiations on larger issues.
Abbas reiterated his proposal during his visit, without success.
"I did not hear from President Bush any support for the idea of back-channel talks on permanent-status issues," Abbas said. "I also did not hear any rejection . I think the problem is with Mr. Sharon, who rejects the idea."
A White House official said he could not confirm that the issue had been discussed in Abbas' meeting with Bush but noted that the administration had frequently said it thinks it is too early to open negotiations on the major issues to be dealt with in the "road map," as the U.S.-backed peace process is known.
"Right now we need to keep the focus on Prime Minister Sharon's Gaza disengagement plan and its disengagement from parts of the West Bank," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Thursday. "It's critical that we get that right . We've got to get it right in Gaza in order to get back to the road map."
Abbas argued that it would be helpful to begin talks on the major issues now.
"This should not impact at all the Gaza withdrawal or the road map," he said. "The back channel would not be a direct negotiation on the permanent-status issues, but it would be looking in great depth at these issues [to] come up with creative solutions so that when the time comes on these issues, we will be ready with solutions on both sides."
Abbas also argued that the issue of Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital, might be easier to resolve than commonly believed.
"The needs of the Palestinian people now are really very humble. We have lowered the ceiling," he said.
"What I'm asking for is East Jerusalem, not all of Jerusalem," he said. "I'm sure we can come up with all kinds of arrangements for the people to live in Jerusalem."
Abbas said his offers to Sharon to help prepare for the withdrawal from Gaza have gone largely unanswered.
"We are prepared not only to coordinate but also to cooperate with the Israelis to make this withdrawal clean, calm and complete," he said, " but we still have no answers."
A former State Department official who participated in earlier U.S. negotiations with Israel and the Palestinians said the administration's commitment to pushing both sides toward a settlement is too tentative.
Abbas "has the intention to make peace but not the capability. Sharon has the capability but not the intention," said Aaron David Miller.
"And the Bush administration has not yet decided whether this is a top priority or not . It is still being held back by fear of failure."