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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with President Barack Obama in the White House earlier this month.

Editorial: Mr. Abbas Goes to Washington

Political courage has been a rare commodity among Arab leaders in recent years. That’s why it was somewhat refreshing to hear Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas make some forthcoming comments about Israeli-Palestinian peace during his recent visit to Washington.

Should Abbas be willing to go a step further and move from the ineffectual format of “proximity talks” to the far more promising U.S.- and Israeli-supported direct negotiations, he would find in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a willing partner for productive peace talks.

Abbas’s visit to Washington earlier this month was unusual in several respects. Beyond the customary meetings with President Obama and other senior officials, Abbas held a dinner meeting with Jewish leaders, addressed the Brookings Institution and granted a one-hour interview to Charlie Rose. In these various meetings, Abbas laid out a vision for peace with Israel that took into account some important Israeli requirements.

In sharp contrast to Yasir Arafat’s refusal to renounce further claims in a two-state solution with Israel, Abbas stated that a peace agreement would end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “We want this state,” he said. “Twenty-two percent out of the whole Palestine [approximately corresponding with the West Bank and Gaza]. We accept it. No more demands. No more. End of claims… End of conflict.”

While it’s not much of an admission to say that Jews were in Palestine, it is important to highlight any time a Palestinian leader says something about the Jewish connection to the land—particularly since Yasir Arafat consistently denied any such connection.

In addition, Abbas explicitly recognized that Israel’s capital will be in Jerusalem, and implicitly conceded that Israel could keep the Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem.

“West Jerusalem is the capital of Israel,” he said. “East Jerusalem is an occupied territory since 1967… Our right is in East Jerusalem. Prime Minister Olmert reiterated many times—the Palestinian neighborhoods will be part of the Palestinian capital, and the Jewish neighborhoods will be the Israeli capital.”

There is little doubt that the main purpose of Abbas’ statements was to persuade the Obama administration, the Washington political elite and Jewish supporters of Israel that the PA truly wants peace and is willing to go far to accommodate Israeli needs. It is also likely that Abbas intended to prepare the ground for the expected failure of the proximity talks by presenting the PA as forthcoming so that Israel will be blamed for the failure and pressured to make more concessions.

Nonetheless, given the Palestinian political context, Abbas displayed considerable courage in making these statements about living in peace with Israel.

Abbas was aware that his Palestinian enemies would use his statements against him. On the eve of his arrival in Washington, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Damascus-based terrorist groups issued a joint statement warning him against giving up on “the rights of the Palestinian people” in exchange for a “U.S. illusion of a new settlement under the slogan of a ‘two-state solution.’”

In defying these warnings, Abbas took a considerable risk, compounded by his frank acknowledgement that “there is absolute and total cooperation between our agencies and the Israeli ones on the security area” and by his denial that the PA denies the Holocaust.

There is, of course, much more that Abbas can do to promote peace. When speaking to his own people in the Palestinian territories, he should repeat, in Arabic, what he told his audiences in Washington and get the PA media to carry his message to the public.

Most importantly for today, Abbas should move immediately from the current proximity talks to direct negotiations with his Israeli counterpart, as urged by the United States. The difficult task of making peace between Israel and the Palestinians can only be accomplished when both sides sit down and engage in face-to-face negotiations. BACK TO TOP