Obama with Netanyahu - Reuters - May 20, 2011
U.S. President Barack Obama with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office in Washington, May 20, 2011. Photo by Reuters
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There is a chance to avert the UN General Assembly vote in September on the recognition of the Palestinian state, said the White House official in a conference call with U.S. Jewish leaders. The Palestinians have been “fairly forthcoming on this score,” he stressed, and now the ball is in Netanyahu’s court.

Steven Simon, a new National Security Council head of the Middle East and North Africa department, replaced Dan Shapiro, who was approved as the new U.S. Ambassador to Israel. In a conference call Friday with U.S. Jewish leaders – something Shapiro used to hold quite frequently – Simon said:

“Our European partners, and we in Washington, are waiting to see whether the parties are actually going to sign up to the President’s principles as a basis for negotiations. The Palestinians have been fairly forthcoming on this score. So we are kind of comfortable with that, but not completely, and now we are working with the Israeli government to see whether or not they can accept these principles as a basis for negotiations.

"Those discussions are ongoing. The time frame for those discussions is kind of compressed, because UN rules basically say that the Palestinians have to submit all the paperwork before the Security Council actually meets in September . That really pushes us back into July, so we’ve got basically a month to see if we can work something out with the Israelis and Palestinians on accepting these principles as a basis for negotiations. If that happens, we are somewhat confident that the Palestinians would drop their action in the UN.”

Simon added that the Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat -- who visited Washington this week at the same time as the Israeli envoy Yitzhak Molcho, but for separate meetings with U.S. officials – said, “the Palestinians would accept those [Obama's] principles as a basis for negotiations, if the Israelis did - and now we are waiting to see whether the Israelis can do this.

"And we are in very close consultations with Israel now on exactly this issue because the best outcome at this point would be to have both sides embrace these principles as a basis for negotiations, and flesh that out a little bit, and then be able to say to Europeans on one side, and to the Security Council on the other, and the Palestinians on the third side: 'Listen, at this point there is an alternative out there, there’s motion, we have principles that both sides have agreed on, we have a basis for talks, there is no need at this point to go to the UN. That’s where we want to be.”

Simon stressed that the U.S. Administration wants “to head it off,” and that President Obama tried to rally European support and wanted to show that there was some action, and that the U.S. will oppose the Palestinian action in the UN, no matter what.

Simon said the U.S. administration was concerned about the escalation of the Palestinian protests on Naksa day. “This sort of behavior could be the beginning of a trend that we want to stop, it could be dangerous”, he said.

On “1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps,” he said that the exact numbers are “up to the parties to decide. Olmert and Abbas came close to a number. We think it’s got to be most of the West Bank, but the parties will have to combat it out”.

The French initiative, said Simon, came as a surprise to the U.S. – but despite the skepticism expressed by the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- who said that the “conference (in Paris) about relaunching the talks won’t be productive without agreement of the parties to return to talks” – Simon said, “Peace proposals are a good thing. U.S. and Israel will need European support. The French meant well. They were missing couple of bits that are important to us: end of claims, recognition of Israel as a home for the Jewish people.”

The U.S., he stressed, is the essential player, and not the French. At the end of the day, it’s the U.S. who is going to frame the agreement.

This week the U.S. imposed additional sanctions on Iranian officials and organizations, responsible for the human rights abuses.

“Sanctions are biting, they are pretty severe”, Simon said, adding that the U.S. is working on a new round of sanctions and discussed additional sanctions with Europe. “Pressure will increase”, he said.