Latest update 21:35 02.08.10
The United States did not threaten to cut its ties with the Palestinian Authority unless President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to enter direct peace negotiations with Israel, a U.S. State Department official said on Monday, adding, however, that there were consequences to the failure to advance the stalling peace talks.
Over the weekend, Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, claimed that Washington had ramped up pressure on Abbas to move from American-mediated talks to direct negotiations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"There has been huge pressure on the Palestinian Authority to move to direct talks," Ashrawi said in an interview with al-Quds al-Arabi, an Arabic-language newspaper published in London.
"They even threatened to isolate the Palestinians and cut off relations," she was quoted as saying.
Abbas has so far resisted calls from Israel and the international community to sit down opposite Netanyahu. But on Thursday the Arab League appeared to undermine his position, voting in favor of direct talks.
However, speaking with reporters on Monday, State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley refuted these reports, saying that the U.S. "didn't threaten to severe ties with the Palestinians, but there are consequences"
"We have made a strong argument to them [Palestinians] that you gain leverage inside a direct negotiation, not by trying to set conditions prior to the start of that negotiation," Crowley said.
When asked whether President Obama brought a question of quality of relations with the Palestinian Authority in his letter to Mahmoud Abbas, Crowley refused to answer.
"I'm simply going to say that we believe and are strongly encouraging the Palestinians and the Israelis to move into direct negotiations," he said, adding that "absent a direct negotiation, there will be no end to the conflict, there will be no peace agreement, and there will be no Palestinian state. That's a fact."
The U.S. official did indicate, however, that there would indeed be consequences to such a failure to move ahead with talks, saying that the United States had "a strong sense of urgency as to where we are."
"There are consequences to failing to take advantage of this opportunity," Crowley said, adding that there were "consequences just in terms of the Middle East itself and how the Israeli citizens, how the Palestinians, how other countries evaluate this and will draw their own conclusions, if these leaders at this time fail to take advantage of this opportunity. We don't think that there's anything to be gained by waiting."
Crowley added that Washington felt "the longer we wait, the more we give impetus to those who are opposed to peace in the Middle East and will try to use this period of time to try to prevent the process from moving forward," repeating that it was not a threat of any kind.
"I wouldn't characterize it that way", said Crowley. "We have had intensive conversations with the parties in recent weeks. We strongly believe that this is the time where the parties need to move from proximity talks into direct negotiations," Crowley said.
The State Department spokesman said that the U.S. saw "clear benefits to taking that step at this time," adding that Washington had been "encouraged by the fact that neighboring countries have given a green light to proceed with direct negotiations."
"We're trying to move the parties in that direction," Crowley said, adding that he did not feel that that pressure should be construed as a threat, saying the U.S. administration would rather "characterize this as a significant opportunity for the Palestinians in terms of what they feel that they need to resolve the core issues."
"I think there's an opportunity here that we think after weeks and months of working with the parties, gaining a better understanding of where they are and what they want to do, we think the time is right," Crowley said.
Talks made a tentative restart in May after a 15-month breakdown following Israel's two-week invasion of Gaza in December 2009 and January 2010 but have so far showed little progress.
The Palestinian government has so far insisted on seeing some "progress" from the Israeli side before moving to direct talks.
The Israeli government, the U.S. and the European Union have all expressed their desire that direct talks get under way "immediately.