(CNSNews.com) – Behind the polite talk at Thursday’s re-launch of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at the State Department was a deep gulf on what Israel calls a make-or-break issue – Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
Addressing Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas directly in English, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu identified what he called “two pillars of peace that I think will enable us to resolve all the outstanding issues … legitimacy and security.”
“Just as you expect us to be ready to recognize a Palestinian state as the nation-state of the Palestinian people, we expect you to be prepared to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said, adding that the more than one million non-Jews living in Israel enjoy full civil rights.
“I think this mutual recognition between us is indispensable to clarifying to our two people – our two peoples – that the conflict between us is over.”
Abbas’ response, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton turned the floor over to him minutes later, was that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had already recognized Israel – in September 1993, when his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, and then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had signed “a document of mutual recognition.”
“And in this document, we give enough to show that our intentions are good, our intentions with respect to recognizing the state of Israel,” he added, speaking in Arabic through a translator.
Left unsaid was the fact that neither in 1993 nor since then has the PLO agreed to recognize Israel specifically as a Jewish state.
On the contrary, Abbas and other Palestinian leaders have repeatedly rejected this Israeli requirement.
“Palestinians reject the demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state,” PLO Executive Committee member Wassel Abu Yousef told reporters in Ramallah less than a fortnight ago, after Netanyahu told his cabinet that “recognition of Israel as the national state of the Jewish people” was a necessary component of a peaceful settlement to the conflict.
At a landmark convention in Bethlehem last year, Abbas’ Fatah faction of the PLO adopted a platform rejecting recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
It linked the stance to the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees who left present-day Israel in 1948 and their descendants, now 4.7 million in number, according to the U.N. (Israel’s total population is 7.5 million, 1.5 million of whom are Arabs.)
Asked at a press briefing Thursday about the Jewish state dispute, U.S. Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell acknowledged that differences between the sides were “many,” “deep” and “serious” and that both sides would need to be willing to make “difficult concessions.”
But he said he believed Netanyahu and Abbas were “committed to doing what it takes to achieve the right result.”
As the talks began in Washington Thursday, back in the region the PLO released a statement through its news agency Wafa outlining its vision for a peace agreement.
On the issues which repeatedly have proven to be stumbling blocks over the years since the Oslo accords were signed in 1993, the PLO stance was clear:
-- There could be no viable Palestinian state without East Jerusalem as its capital, it said, claiming that the city had been the Palestinians’ political, administrative, cultural and religious center “for centuries.”
-- The borders of a Palestinian state must be those that were in place before the 1967 Six Day War, it said – Gaza, all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Palestinians would have to have control over airspace and territorial waters “with no residual Israeli presence or control,” and there would also have to be a “territorial link” between the West Bank and Gaza.
-- Israeli settlements in the West Bank “pose the single greatest threat to a viable two-state solution, and hence, to a just and lasting peace.”
-- All Palestinian refugees must have “the right to return to their homes,” and to choose how to exercise that right, the PLO document said.
Neither those stances, nor Israel’s rejection of them, have changed substantively over the years since 1993.
What has changed is that Abbas goes into the talks with much weaker support among Palestinians than his predecessor, a reality underlined by a protest rally in Ramallah on Wednesday and a terrorist press conference in Gaza City on Thursday.
At the rally, leaders of the Palestinian National Initiative, a left-leaning movement, said Abbas was going into the talks without the support of confidence of the Palestinian people
The Palestinian news agency Ma’an reported that hundreds of protestors chanted slogans including, in reference to Abbas, “President of Palestine, we are not with you.”
Among other things, Abbas’ legitimacy is frequently called into question by Palestinian critics who note his presidential term formally ended in January 2009.
At the time he argued that Palestinian law called for presidential and legislative elections to be held simultaneously, so he was entitled to extend his tenure until legislative polls, due in January 2010. But those elections were postponed because of the ongoing rift between Fatah and Hamas.
Hamas has controlled Gaza since seizing control in mid-2007, leaving Abbas’ authority limited to the West Bank.
‘Resistance’ to continue
In Gaza Thursday, senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri told a press conference Abbas does not represent the Palestinian people and has no mandate to negotiate on their behalf.
He also said “resistance” operations will continue in the West Bank.
A man identified as Abu Obeida, a spokesman for Hamas’ “military wing,” said 13 armed groups have now agreed to cooperate in carrying out more effective attacks against “the Zionist enemy.”
Hamas has claimed responsibility for two shooting attacks in the disputed territory in recent days – the killing of four Israelis in a shooting near Hebron on Tuesday and the wounding of another two Israelis in a similar incident near Ramallah on Wednesday.
Another terrorist organization, Islamic Jihad, praised the attacks on Thursday and called for more. The group’s leader, Khaled Al-Batsh, said in Gaza the negotiations with Israel must stop, Ma’an reported.
Abbas’ security forces reportedly rounded up hundreds of Islamists in the West Bank after the deadly Hebron shooting. Hamas issued a statement calling the arrests “a national crime.”
The next set of Netanyahu-Abbas talks has been scheduled for Sept. 14-15, “in the region” – reportedly Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt – and Clinton and Mitchell are due to take part.
Mitchell said Thursday the Israeli and Palestinian leaders have also agreed to meet every two weeks over the coming months, with U.S. representatives attending at least some of those meetings.