Israel fumes as Abbas uses US visit to undermine Netanyahu
Haviv Rettig Gur , THE JERUSALEM POST
Senior Israeli officials were dismissive and defiant on Saturday night, following Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's visit to Washington, highlighted by a report in which PA officials said the leadership is waiting for US pressure to bring down the Netanyahu government.
The report in Friday's Washington Post came a day after Abbas's White House meeting with US President Barack Obama.
"It will take a couple of years" for this American pressure to force Netanyahu from office, the Washington Post quoted one of Abbas's officials as saying, presumably bringing opposition head Tzipi Livni to power.
"With all due respect to the United States, our strategic ally, we are an independent democratic country, and our political leadership is chosen by internal democratic processes," coalition chairman and Likud MK Ze'ev Elkin said on Saturday night.
A senior government official recalled former foreign minister Abba Eban's declaration that the Palestinians "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Let that not happen this time as well."
"It would be a pity if the Palestinian leadership threw away the very real chance that exists to move forward with this Israeli government on our proposed three-track approach of political, economic and security issues. If they decide they don't want to work to move the process forward, they'll have no one to blame but themselves," the official added.
According to the report, Abbas and his leadership believe the government would likely fall if Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu surrendered to American demands for a total freeze on construction in West Bank settlements.
"If it is true that Abu Mazen [Abbas] believes Livni will be a more comfortable negotiating partner for the Palestinians, then it shows the wisdom of the Israeli voter, who decided to place someone else in charge," Elkin declared.
He insisted the government was stable - "I think every member of the coalition is responsible enough to enable this government to last its appointed term" - and that it would not easily give in to American demands.
"Our experience with American dictates in the very recent past has not been a good one," he said. "It was the United States that insisted on allowing Hamas to run in the Palestinian elections. I don't think this government will very easily cave to demands that are not carefully considered and responsible, no matter how much we value our strategic partnership with the United States."
Abbas was interviewed the day before his Thursday meeting with the US president, during which Obama reiterated his calls on Israel "to stop the settlements, to make sure that we are stopping the building of outposts, to work with the Palestinian Authority in order to alleviate some of the pressures that the Palestinian people are under in terms of travel and commerce."
Setting out what the newspaper called "a hardline position," the Palestinian leader conditioned a resumption of talks with Israel on Netanyahu's agreement to a halt in all settlement building and formal Israeli government acceptance of Palestinian statehood.
Abbas added that he would not even assist Obama's special envoy, George Mitchell, in trying to encourage Arab states to begin warming relations with Israel until Israel accepted these conditions.
"We can't talk to the Arabs until Israel agrees to freeze settlements and recognizes the two-state solution," Abbas was quoted as saying. "Until then, we can't talk to anyone."
However, the Washington Post went on, "Abbas and his team fully expect that Netanyahu will never agree to the full settlement freeze - if he did, his center-right coalition would almost certainly collapse. So they plan to sit back and watch while US pressure slowly squeezes the Israeli prime minister from office.
"'It will take a couple of years,' one official breezily predicted."
Abbas "rejects the notion that he should make any comparable concession - such as recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, which would imply renunciation of any large-scale resettlement of refugees," the article continued.
Abbas intends to remain passive, he told the paper.
"I will wait for Hamas to accept international commitments. I will wait for Israel to freeze settlements… Until then, in the West Bank we have a good reality... The people are living a normal life."
Abbas also told the Washington Post that former prime minister Ehud Olmert accepted the principle of a "right of return" to Israel for Palestinian refugees and offered to resettle thousands of Palestinians in Israel. He said Olmert proposed a Palestinian state on 97 percent of the West Bank, and showed him its contours on a map.
Abbas said he turned down Olmert's peace offer because "the gaps were too wide."
"What's interesting about Abbas's hardline position," wrote the Washington Post's Jackson Diehl, who conducted the interview along with a colleague, "is what it says about the message that Obama's first Middle East steps have sent to Palestinians and Arab governments."
While the Bush administration placed the onus for change in the Middle East on the Palestinians, Diehl wrote, the Obama administration had shifted the focus to Israel.
The upshot is that "in the Obama administration, so far, it's easy being Palestinian," Diehl wrote.
Under George W. Bush, the Palestinians knew that "until they put an end to terrorism, established a democratic government and accepted the basic parameters for a settlement, the United States was not going to expect major concessions from Israel," wrote Diehl.
But Obama, with his repeated demands for a settlement freeze, "has revived a long-dormant Palestinian fantasy: that the United States will simply force Israel to make critical concessions, whether or not its democratic government agrees, while Arabs passively watch and applaud."
Diehl wrote that Netanyahu and the Likud Party had not reconciled themselves "to the idea that Israel will have to give up most of the West Bank and evacuate tens of thousands of settlers" for a permanent accord.
"But Palestinians remain a long way from swallowing reality as well," he added. "Setting aside Hamas and its insistence that Israel must be liquidated, Abbas - usually described as the most moderate of Palestinian leaders - last year helped doom Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, by rejecting a generous outline for Palestinian statehood."
Olmert's offer "was more generous to the Palestinians than either that of Bush or Bill Clinton," wrote Diehl. "It's almost impossible to imagine Obama, or any Israeli government, going further."
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's spokesman Tzahi Moshe confirmed on Saturday night that the foreign minister would go to Russia and Belarus on Monday for talks "that are part of the special strategic connection which the minister believes Israel has with Russia."
In Moscow, Lieberman will meet with President Dmitri Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, "and will discuss many issues, including Iran and the strengthening of Israel's relationship with 'Eastern bloc' countries," Moshe said.
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.