The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl had a fascinating interview with Mahmoud Abbas last week, in which the Palestinian Authority leader told Diehl that right now he’s got nothing to do — he’s just killing time waiting for everyone else to do something:
On Wednesday afternoon, as he prepared for the White House meeting in a suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City, Abbas insisted that his only role was to wait. He will wait for Hamas to capitulate to his demand that any Palestinian unity government recognize Israel and swear off violence. And he will wait for the Obama administration to force a recalcitrant Netanyahu to freeze Israeli settlement construction and publicly accept the two-state formula.
Until Israel meets his demands, the Palestinian president says, he will refuse to begin negotiations. He won’t even agree to help Obama’s envoy, George J. Mitchell, persuade Arab states to take small confidence-building measures. "We can’t talk to the Arabs until Israel agrees to freeze settlements and recognize the two-state solution," he insisted in an interview. "Until then we can’t talk to anyone."
Abbas’ comments, Diehl writes, mark the return of a "long-dormant Palestinian fantasy":
What’s interesting about Abbas’s hardline position, however, is what it says about the message that Obama’s first Middle East steps have sent to Palestinians and Arab governments. From its first days the Bush administration made it clear that the onus for change in the Middle East was on the Palestinians: 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.
Obama, in contrast, has repeatedly and publicly stressed the need for a West Bank settlement freeze, with no exceptions. In so doing he has shifted the focus to Israel. He 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. "The Americans are the leaders of the world," Abbas told me and Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt. "They can use their weight with anyone around the world. Two years ago they used their weight on us. Now they should tell the Israelis, ‘You have to comply with the conditions.’ " …
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 U.S. 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.
Instead, he says, he will remain passive. "I will wait for Hamas to accept international commitments. I will wait for Israel to freeze settlements," he said. "Until then, in the West Bank we have a good reality . . . the people are living a normal life." In the Obama administration, so far, it’s easy being Palestinian.
After the jump, the transcript of Abbas’s press conference with President Obama last Thursday afternoon:[[READMORE]]
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Hello, everybody. Well, it is a great pleasure to welcome President Abbas to the Oval Office. We had — we just completed an extensive conversation, both privately as well as with our delegations, about how we can advance peace in the Middle East and how we can reaffirm some core principles that I think can result in Palestinians and Israelis living side by side in peace and security.
As I’ve said before, I’ve been a strong believer in a two-state solution that would provide the Israelis and Palestinians the peace and security that they need. I am very appreciative that President Abbas shares that view. And when Prime Minister Netanyahu was here last week I reiterated to him that the framework that’s been provided by the road map is one that can advance the interests of Israel, can advance the interests of the Palestinian people, and can also advance the interests of the United States.
We are a stalwart ally of Israel and it is in our interests to assure that Israel is safe and secure. It is our belief that the best way to achieve that is to create the conditions on the ground and set the stage for a Palestinian state as well. And so what I told Prime Minister Netanyahu was is that each party has obligations under the road map. On the Israeli side those obligations include stopping settlements. They include making sure that there is a viable potential Palestinian state. On the Palestinian side it’s going to be important and necessary to continue to take the security steps on the West Bank that President Abbas has already begun to take, working with General Dayton. We’ve seen great progress in terms of security in the West Bank. Those security steps need to continue because Israel has to have some confidence that security in the West Bank is in place in order for us to advance this process.
And I also mentioned to President Abbas in a frank exchange that it was very important to continue to make progress in reducing the incitement and anti-Israel sentiments that are sometimes expressed in schools and mosques and in the public square, because all those things are impediments to peace.
The final point that I made was the importance of all countries internationally, but particularly the Arab states, to be supportive of a two-state solution. And we discussed how important it is that the Arab states, building off of some of the recognition of the possibilities of the two-state solution that are contained in the Arab Peace Initiative continue to provide economic support, as well as political support, to President Abbas’s efforts as he moves the Palestinian Authority forward, as he continues to initiate the reforms that have taken place, and as he hopefully is going to be able to enter into constructive talks with the Israelis.
So, again, I want to thank President Abbas for his visit and a very constructive conversation. I am confident that we can move this process forward if all the parties are willing to take on the responsibilities and meet the obligations that they’ve already committed to, and if they keep in mind not just the short-term tactical issues that are involved, but the long-term strategic interests of both the Israelis and the Palestinians to live side by side in peace and security.
So, thank you again, Mr. President.
PRESIDENT ABBAS: (As translated) Thank you very much, Mr. President, for receiving us here at the White House. We came here to tell you first of all that we congratulate you for the confidence that was expressed by the American people in electing you President of the United States. And we wish you all success in your mission.
Mr. President, you referred to the international commitment as we stipulated in the road map. I would like to take this opportunity to reaffirm to you that we are fully committed to all of our obligations under the road map, from A to Z. And we believe, like you, Mr. President, that carrying out the obligations of all parties under the road map will be the only way to achieve the durable, comprehensive, and just peace that we need and desire in the Middle East.
Mr. President, I believe that the entire Arab world and the Islamic world, they are all committed to peace. We’ve seen that through the Arab League Peace Initiative that simply talks about land for peace as a principle. I believe that if the Israelis would withdraw from all occupied Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese land, the Arab world will be ready to have normal relationships with the state of Israel.
On our part, we are carrying our security and responsibility in the West Bank, and have law and order in that areas under our control because we believe that it is in our interest to have security. It’s in the interest of stability in the region. And here I would like to pay tribute and thank you to General Dayton and all those who work with him in helping and supporting and training our security organizations to carry out their duties and responsibilities.
Mr. President, I believe that time is of the essence. We should capitalize on every minute and every hour in order to move the peace process forward, in order to cement this process, in order to achieve the agreement that would lead to peace.
Thank you very much.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you. We got time for a couple of questions. Julianna.
Q Thank you, Mr. President. I’m going to ask you a question about your trip next week to Riyadh. Reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil is a cornerstone of your energy policy. And when you meet with Riyadh’s King Abdullah next week, what message will you take to him about U.S. energy policy, oil prices, output quotes, and the like?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, you know, Saudi Arabia has been an important strategic partner in providing us with our critical energy needs. We appreciate that. It’s a commercial relationship as well as a strategic relationship.
And I don’t think that it’s in Saudi Arabia’s interests or our interests to have a situation in which our economy is dependent, or better yet, is disrupted constantly by huge spikes in energy prices. And it’s in nobody’s interest, internationally, for us to continue to be so heavily dependent on fossil fuels that we continue to create the greenhouse gases that threaten the planet.
So in those discussions I’ll be very honest with King Abdullah, with whom I’ve developed a good relationship, indicating to him that we’re not going to be eliminating our need for oil imports in the immediate future; that’s not our goal. What our goal has to be is to advance the clean energy solutions in this country that can strengthen our economy, put people back to work, diversify our energy sources.
And, you know, interestingly enough, you’re seeing the Saudis make significant investments both in their own country and outside of their country in clean energy, as well, because I think they recognize that we’ve got finite — we have a finite supply of oil. There are going to be a whole host of countries like China and India that have huge populations, need to develop rapidly.
If everybody is dependent solely on oil as opposed to energy sources like wind and solar, if we are not able to figure out ways to sequester carbon and that would allow us to use coal in a non-polluting way, if we don’t diversify our energy sources, then all of us are going to be in trouble. And so I don’t think that will be a difficult conversation to have.
Q (Question asked in Arabic.) Mr. President, if Israel keeps declining to accept the two-state solution and to freeze the settlement activities, how the U.S. would intervene in the peace process?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: We’ll, I think it’s important not to assume the worst, but to assume the best. And in my conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu I was very clear about the need 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, so that we can initiate some of the economic development plans that Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has said are so important on the ground.
And that conversation only took place last week. I think that we don’t have a moment to lose, but I also don’t make decisions based on just the conversation that we had last week because obviously Prime Minister Netanyahu has to work through these issues in his own government, in his own coalition, just as President Abbas has a whole host of issues that he has to deal with.
But I’m confident that if Israel looks long term — looks at its long-term strategic interests, that it will recognize that a two-state solution is in the interests of the Israeli people as well as the Palestinians. And certainly that’s how the United States views our long-term strategic interests — a situation in which the Palestinians can prosper, they can start businesses, they can educate their children, they can send them to college, they can prosper economically. That kind of situation is good for Israel’s security. And I am confident that the majority of the Israeli people would see that as well.
Now, obviously the Israelis have good reason to be concerned about security, and that’s why it’s important that we continue to make progress on the security issues that so often end up disrupting peace talks between the two parties.
Q (Previous question translated.) President Abbas, you’ve met with President Obama, and perhaps you shared some of your ideas about permanent status resolution. What was in these ideas, and what kind of appropriate mechanism that you have discussed to realize them and carry them out?
PRESIDENT ABBAS: We have shared some ideas with the President, but all of them basically are embodied in the road map and the Arab League Initiative, without any change, without any modification.
Regarding the mechanism to carry it out, of course, there is a mechanism through the Quartet as well as the follow-up committee from the Arab nations. Such a proposal will need to be looked at, studied; then we’ll see where to go from here.
Q Mr. President, do you plan to unveil any part or all of your proposal for Mideast peace when you’re speaking in Cairo next week, or is it some other message you intend to deliver?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I want to use the occasion to deliver a broader message about how the United States can change for the better its relationship with the Muslim world. That will require, I think, a recognition on both the part of the United States as well as many majority Muslim countries about each other, a better sense of understanding, and I think possibilities to achieve common ground.
I want to emphasize the importance of Muslim Americans in the United States and the tremendous contributions they make, something that I think oftentimes is missed in some of these discussions. But certainly the issue of Middle East peace is something that is going to need to be addressed. It is a critical factor in the minds of many Arabs in countries throughout the region and beyond the region. And I think that it would be inappropriate for me not to discuss those.
I’m not going to give you a preview right now, but it’s something that we’ll certainly discuss.
One thing that I didn’t mention earlier that I want to say I very much appreciate is that President Abbas I think has been under enormous pressure to bring about some sort of unity government and to negotiate with Hamas. And I am very impressed and appreciative of President Abbas’s willingness to steadfastly insist that any unity government would have to recognize the principles that have been laid by the Quartet.
In the absence of a recognition of Israel and a commitment to peace, and a commitment to previous agreements that have already been made, it would be very hard to see any possibility of peace over the long term. And so I want to publicly commend President Abbas for taking that position because I think it’s a position that’s in the interest of the Palestinian people, in the interests of peace in the region, and it’s something that the United States very much agrees with.
Q (Asked in Arabic.) Mr. President, if I may, President Bush hoped that you would have a Palestinian state by the time he leaves office. It didn’t happen. Do you have a time frame when this Palestinian state is going to happen? Are you talking about a timetable for negotiation?
(Previous question translated.) The first question to President Abbas: Mr. President, did you receive any kind of clear-cut commitments from President Obama, or any pledges that would help you to strengthen your hands when you are dealing with the Palestinian public and opposition among Palestinians that this peace process activities could be viable and could be actually productive?
And the second question was, did President Obama ask you to have a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu?
PRESIDENT ABBAS: President Obama basically talked and reaffirmed the international commitments that we all agreed to, and they are all embodied in the road map. He talked about the necessity to have two states, he talked about the importance of stopping settlement activities, and he also talked about the importance of achieving peace through negotiating all permanent status issues.
Obviously without discussing and negotiating permanent status issues there will be no progress. We know that all the six issues of permanent status were discussed with the previous Israeli Prime Minister, Mr. Olmert, and what is needed right now is to resume the discussions with the current Israeli government.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: And in terms of a timetable, I have not put forward a specific timetable. But let me just point out, when I was campaigning for this office I said that one of the mistakes I would not make is to wait until the end of my first term, or the end of my second term, before we moved on this issue aggressively. And we’ve been true to that commitment.
From the first week that I arrived in this office, I insisted that this is a critical issue to deal with, in part because it is in the United States’ interest to achieve peace; that the absence of peace between Palestinians and Israelis is a impediment to a whole host of other areas of increased cooperation and more stable security for people in the region, as well as the United States. And so I want to see progress made, and we will work very aggressively to achieve that.
I don’t want to put an artificial timetable, but I do share President Abbas’s feelings and I believe that many Israelis share the same view that time is of the essence, that we can’t continue with a drift**, with the increased fear and resentments on both sides, the sense of hopelessness around the situation that we’ve seen for many years now — we need to get this thing back on track. And I will do everything I can, and my administration will do everything I can — my special envoy, George Mitchell, is working as diligently as he can, as is my entire national security team, to make sure that we jumpstart this process and get it moving again.