Laura Rozen
September 22, 2010 - 12:00am

NEW YORK — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told American Jewish leaders Tuesday that direct talks with Israel could continue even if a partial moratorium on West Bank settlement construction is not extended.

“I cannot say I will leave the negotiations, but it’s very difficult for me to resume talks if [Israeli] Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu declares that he will continue his activity in the West Bank and Jerusalem,” Abbas said at a dinner organized by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. Observers suggested his remarks indicated there might be a hiatus in the talks, but not a permanent breach.

Abbas had previously insisted he would break off the talks if the Israeli side did not extend the freeze, making way for construction to begin on some 2,000 new Jewish housing units in disputed West Bank settlement land. Netanyahu advisor Ron Dermer, in a call with

Jewish leaders Monday, portrayed a declared end to the settlement freeze as an important test of Abbas' commitment to peace talks.

The Obama administration has called on Netanyahu to extend the freeze while direct talks are proceeding constructively. Privately, they have asked Netanyahu to offer a 90 day extension on the moratorium, but reports indicate Jerusalem has rejected the proposal.

The dinner in the Plaza Hotel was the second such outreach dinner with American Jewish leaders Abbas has done. Meanwhile, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was holding a three-hour dinner with other American Jewish leaders at a private home, in an event sponsored by the Israel Project.

Describing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as "my partner in peace," Abbas, speaking in English, said he accepts the idea of a demilitarized Palestine, and supports a third party security force - that could be Jewish but not Israeli-led — to provide long-term interim security in Palestinian territory.

"The establishment of independent Palestinian state that can live side-by-side with the state of Israel in peace and security on the borders of 1967 with agreed swaps. And a resolution to all the permanent status issues," Abbas said. "Security will be guaranteed by a third party accepted by both to be deployed on the Palestinian side. We want a just resolution for the refugees problem agreed by the two parties as stipulated by the Arab Peace Initiative."

Despite Abbas' evident good will and effort to show sensitivity to concerns expressed by Jewish leaders, one attendee complained Abbas did not go far enough in asserting Jewish connection to Jerusalem's Temple Mount.

"President Abbas missed an opportunity this evening to make a key statement that would have created goodwill in the Jewish community," Orthodox Union President Stephen J. Savitsky said in a statement after the dinner. "The fact and importance of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount to the Jewish People is paramount in Israel and the Jewish community at large, and our historic ties must be acknowledged - irrespective of whatever final arrangement President Abbas seeks to secure in negotiations."

But Abbas also reasserted his belief in the Jewish people's historical connection to Israel, and spoke of a third of the Quran being based on Jewish history. "He also said that if you want to make this about history then we will never have peace, we need to look to the future," Daniel Levy, of the New America Foundation, another dinner attendee, said.

Abbas also said that should Israel officially declare itself to be a state of the Jewish people, he would be prepared to recognize it as such, and said it was up to the Israeli people to decide how to define their national identity.

"If the Israeli people want to name themselves whatever they want, they are free to do so," Abbas said.

Netanyahu has insisted that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, but Abbas has not been prepared to go that far.

The Palestinian strategy is to convince America that "they have to deliver Israel to end the occupation," Levy said. So Palestinian leaders are "redoubling their own efforts to create a real belief in their intentions and to create optimal domestic conditions to . make it easier for the Obama administration to deliver Israel by talking to an important constituency."

So the Palestinian leadership is very actively engaged "in a very open dialogue with a very important constituency, the American pro-Israel community and American Jewish leadership," Levy continued.

This is "also about saying to the Obama administration, 'look at what we're doing. We haven't noticed Benjamin Netanyahu doing such outreach’,” he explained. “ ‘We are doing everything to go the extra mile’."


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017