Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has urged U.S. President Donald Trump to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks from the offer made by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008. Abbas and his staff showed Trump documents and maps from Israel’s talks with the Palestinians near the end of Olmert’s term, explaining the proposal to him.
The differences between the sides on borders narrowed a great deal in the 2008 negotiations, an official from Abbas’ bureau told Haaretz.
At one point in 2008, Abbas rejected an Israeli peace proposal that included a withdrawal from 93 percent of the West Bank because it did not provide for a contiguous Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.
It is untrue, as Israel has claimed, that last week’s Trump-Abbas meeting in Washington was confined to marginal issues such as payments to prisoners, incitement and the Palestinian efforts to impose sanctions against Israel by FIFA, the international soccer association, said the Palestinian official. The meeting touched on core issues as well, and borders in particular, he added.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks about retaining control of the Jordan Valley and all of East Jerusalem and continuing to build in the settlements but no agreement can be achieved on these positions, the official continued. Instead, borders are a good place to start, he said.
The Palestinians showed Trump the details of the negotiations with Olmert. “At the time, we presented land swaps of 1.9 percent [of the West Bank] and Olmert offered 6.3 percent, and this is where things ended because Olmert left politics, and we told [Trump] and his staff that the differences are not so great and that is a good starting point for any negotiations on borders, which is a critical issue and which will have implications for all the core issues and the permanent agreement,” said the official.
The Palestinian leadership is interested in making progress but it is impossible to start serious talks when the Israeli government is so far from the positions that had already been agreed to in the past, he said.
“If we achieve accords on the borders, we can bridge all the other gaps,” the official said. “But if the conversation starts at Netanyahu’s opening position, that he isn’t prepared to say what Israel’s borders are, we won’t get anywhere.”
The Palestinian Authority has started preparing for Trump’s visit to Bethlehem, scheduled for May 23. Trump will also be visiting Israel.
“The Americans asked for [Trump to visit] Bethlehem and received an immediate positive answer,” the Palestinian official said. Visiting Ramallah was never on the agenda.
Ramallah may be the administrative capital of the Palestinian Authority, but Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity are no less important. In any case, the capital of the Palestinian state is East Jerusalem so Ramallah has no priority over Bethlehem, said the official.
“It’s true that Ramallah is the focus and the main city, but Bethlehem’s special status, and the fence and the settlements around it, can give Trump a crucial picture of the situation and what the occupation and settlements mean,” he said.
The visit to Washington created chemistry between the two leaders, and the most important part of the next stage will be to create mutual trust and try to make progress according to a clear framework, said Abbas’ aides. At the same time, Palestinian officials say they are seeing signs of nervousness and disappointment on the Israeli side, which was expressed in the personal attack by Netanyahu’s bureau and Israeli government spokesmen against Abbas. But it was decided not to respond directly, nor to provide details of the talks with the White House because every detail could lead to pressure on the U.S. administration, said the Palestinian official.
Other Palestinian factions are trying to cool the enthusiasm over the visit to Washington and warn that Trump has declared a number of times that he is a sworn supporter of Israel, and that at the press conference with Abbas Trump did not say a single word about two states or the settlements.
Abbas is scheduled to leave for Moscow on Wednesday to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Abbas plans to update Putin on his meeting with Trump and the efforts to restart the peace process.
The Palestinian embassy in Moscow stated the visit was planned in advance to coordinate positions with Russia regarding the peace process. The PA and Moscow have a coordinating committee, and senior Palestinian officials regularly brief the Russians on diplomatic matters.
In an interview with the Russia Alyoum channel, Abbas said that the meeting was crucially important.
“We presented an entire explanation of our demands and the Palestinian position, which is important from our perspective and that of the new president. We essentially presented everything that would be needed for a future agreement.”
According to Abbas, he had a good feeling both before the meeting and afterward, saying the U.S. president showed interest and revealed that he wanted to move quickly, “and even said within a year or a bit more.”
Abbas noted that Trump’s decision to visit Bethlehem is a sign that the meeting had a good outcome and that until their meeting in Bethlehem on May 23 there would be other expert-level meetings between the Palestinians and the Americans.
Abbas also made clear that there was no direct connection between his meeting with Trump and his visit to Moscow this week, as both meetings had been planned in advance. The PA, he said, seeks to develop ties with all international players, especially large and important countries like the United States and Russia.