Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas called on President Barack Obama on Saturday to impose a Mideast peace deal, reflecting growing frustration with what Palestinians see as Washington's failure to wrangle concessions out of Israel's hardline government.
In an unusually blunt appeal, Abbas said that if Obama believes Palestinian statehood is a vital U.S. interest, then the American leader must take forceful steps to bring it about.
"Since you, Mr. President and you, the members of the American administration, believe in this, it is your duty to call for the steps in order to reach the solution and impose the solution — impose it," Abbas said in a speech to leaders of his Fatah movement.
"But don't tell me it's a vital national strategic American interest ... and then not do anything," he added.
Abbas spoke a day after meeting with Obama's special Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, who has tried in vain for more than a year to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Abbas says there's no point in holding talks as long as Israel keeps building settlements on Palestinian-claimed land and refuses to discuss the fate of east Jerusalem, the sector of the city Palestinians claim as a future capital.
Mitchell is expected to hold talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, their second meeting in three days. However, there was no sign of a breakthrough in this round.
The U.S. has proposed so-called proximity talks, in which Mitchell would shuttle between the two sides, in hopes of ending the stalemate and paving the way for direct negotiations. However, the Palestinians say they won't engage unless Israel promises not to start new housing projects in east Jerusalem. Netanyahu reiterated earlier this week that he will not freeze construction in the city.
The issue of settlement expansion has emerged as a major point of contention between Israel and the Obama administration.
Israel has resisted U.S. demands for a comprehensive freeze, instead agreeing only to slow construction in the West Bank, but not east Jerusalem. Tensions flared in March when Israel announced plans for 1,600 new homes for Jews in east Jerusalem. The announcement, which came during a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, enraged U.S. officials.
Washington's failure to get Israel to comply with a settlement freeze — one of the Jewish state's obligations under a U.S.-backed peace plan first introduced in 2003 — has frustrated the Palestinians.
Israelis and Palestinians have negotiated for nearly two decades, with the U.S. acting as a broker. The outlines of a deal were sketched out a decade ago, by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton, but the two sides never came close to a final agreement.
Under the Clinton plan, the Palestinians would establish a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — the areas Israel occupied in the 1967 Mideast War. Border modifications would enable Israel to annex large West Bank settlements and Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem. Israel would swap some of its territory to compensate the Palestinians for the annexed areas.
The traditional U.S. position has been to act as a mediator, while treating Israel and the Palestinians as equal partners who in the end must make their own decisions. Critics have said this approach does not take into account the imbalance of power — that Palestinians live under Israeli military occupation.
Earlier this month, The Washington Post quoted Obama administration officials as saying the president is considering proposing a new American peace plan for the Mideast.
Since then, however, top U.S. officials have reiterated the traditional view that the final decisions lie with Israelis and Palestinians.
This week, National Security Adviser James Jones told a Washington think tank that "peace must be made by the parties and cannot be imposed from the outside," but that the U.S. is ready to "do whatever is necessary to help the parties bridge their differences."
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said "the Israeli position is that we believe the only way to solve the problem is through direct negotiations."
Abbas, meanwhile, warned in Saturday's speech that chances for a two-state solution are fading, and that Israelis could find themselves one day — against their wishes — sharing a single state with the Palestinians. He was referring to concerns that Israeli settlement expansion could one day prevent partition of the land.
The Palestinian leader also dismissed the idea of establishing a Palestinian state within temporary borders, in about half of the West Bank. An Israeli newspaper reported earlier this week that Netanyahu made such a proposal, though Israeli and Palestinian officials denied Saturday that Israel formally presented the idea.
A Palestinian state with provisional borders is part of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan as an interim step toward full independence. However, the road map never got off the ground and the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected provisional statehood, fearing the temporary borders would become the final ones.
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