With the U.S. administration fearing that the Israeli-Palestinian talks are on the verge of collapse, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to visit the White House on Monday for a critical meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama.
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According to senior U.S. officials, President Obama is expected to press Abbas to accept the American framework agreement as a basis for continuing the peace talks beyond the current April 29 deadline. Obama is also expected to warn Abbas that if the talks break down and he tries to take unilateral measures at the United Nations, the United States will back Israel and try to block such moves, the officials said.
There is no question we are at a pivotal time in the negotiations and in the coming weeks the parties will need to make tough choices as we pursue a framework that can serve as the basis for negotiations, one senior U.S. official told Haaretz, speaking on condition of anonymity. But neither party should let tough political decisions at this stage stand in the way of a lasting peace.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Palestinian intelligence head Majid Faraj have been in Washington for several days to prepare the meeting with Obama. On Sunday, Abbas and Kerry held a lengthy meeting. Following the meeting with Obama, the Palestinian president and Kerry are planned to meet again.
Fatah leadership prompted Abbas to present an uncompromising hardline when meeting Obama. Rallies organized by the Fatah Youth Movement are set to be held in Ramallah and elsewhere on the West Bank on Monday calling Abbas not to capitulate under American pressure.
Abbas is expected to show up determined to reject most articles of the Kerry framework agreement during the White House meeting, particularly the call to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. He is also expected to demand that any framework document state clearly that the Palestinian capital will be in East Jerusalem, an issue the Americans have been glossing over recently.
There cannot be any more concessions on any of the core issues, youth movement leader Hassan Faraj said, adding, We will make clear to Abu Mazen [Abbas] that even at the price of the talks failing, we, members of the Palestinian people, will accept responsibility, even if it means another intifada.
As the White House still strain to draft and pass a framework agreement, some Israelis and Palestinians contemplate the possibility of proceeding with negotiations even without such agreement. Israeli officials have already suggested to the Americans that talks be extended to the end of 2014, even if the a framework agreement doesn't come through. The Israelis hinted that without an extension, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to implement the fourth prisoner release, scheduled for March 28.
Palestinian officials have expressed similar sentiments. President Abbas has stated several times in the recent days that he will agree to extend talks beyond the set deadline even without a framework agreement, but will require that Israel freeze settlement construction and release Palestinian prisoners in addition to the 104 prisoners already agreed upon.
Some Palestinians, meanwhile, see the framework proposal as hopeless. The feeling among the negotiation team members is that the Americans will stop insisting on the framework agreement and a target date because of the large gaps between the two sides on almost all the core issues, said one Palestinian official.
In Ramallah some have mentioned West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti or even Ahmad Saadat, the general secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, as prisoners whose release might provide Abbas with a strong tailwind to keep the talks going.
The Americans, however, are determined to pursue a framework agreement despite the large gaps between the two sides.
We recognize that this is difficult and will require compromises on all sides, said a senior American official. But achieving a framework would be a significant breakthrough for the parties and lay out the path to a final status agreement.