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Abbas invites Israeli lawmakers to lunch in Ramallah

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas hosted a banquet yesterday to appeal directly to Israelis, the latest move in an attempt to circumvent stymied peace talks.

By Correspondent / December 20, 2010

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (C) sits between his senior aide Yasser Abed Rabbo (R) and Amram Mitzna (L), a retired general and ex-leader of Israel's Labour party, during a meeting with members of the Middle East peace plan dubbed the Geneva Initiative, in the West Bank city of Ramallah December 19.

Mohamad Torokman/Reuters


Ramallah, West Bank

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas knows well the dangers of being branded by Israel as an unreliable partner for peace.

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So yesterday, he hosted two busloads of Israeli parliament members and public figures for lunch in Ramallah. Over a four-course banquet featuring lamb, stuffed grape leaves, and Hebrew-speaking waiters, he appealed directly to the Israeli public to back a peace treaty over the status quo of steady Israeli settlement expansion.

"I cannot understand that building a settlement here and there is better than peace,'' said Mr. Abbas, a grandfather of eight who indicated he was willing to compromise on tough issues to make a deal stick. "Peace is more precious than the settlements because it is the future of our generations.''

At the event, organized by the Geneva Initiative – an Israeli-Palestinian group that has drafted its own plan for peace – Abbas said that he would allow a US-led peacekeeping force in a future Palestinian state, run under the auspices of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), to allay Israeli security concerns.

He also expressed confidence that once the two sides agree on borders and security, negotiators would be able to find solutions for the other main items of dispute – a broad hint that he is ready to compromise on issues like Jerusalem and the status of more than 1 million Palestinian refugees who seek the right to return to family homes in Israel.

Palestinian leaders appeal directly to Israelis

Even as Abbas's government stands firm on its refusal to return to peace talks without an Israeli settlement freeze, it is increasingly circumventing the negotiating table to build support for a Palestinian state.

Sunday's overture was the latest in a recent string of Palestinian leaders making personal forays into the Israeli media; Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's first one-on-one interview to an Israeli TV channel was broadcast this weekend, and recent billboards feature Palestinian negotiators with the slogan, "I am your partner."

Midway through the meal in Ramallah, visitors were given a booklet, "Meetings of President Mahmoud Abbas with Jewish leaders."

Such personal diplomacy has a powerful precedent in former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's 1977 visit to Jerusalem, which helped generate Israeli public support for territorial concessions that led to the 1979 Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt.

Israel doubtful Abbas can deliver

But Abbas, who faces a skeptical Palestinian public and Hamas rivals who favor violence over negotiations, must overcome questions in Israel about whether he has the strength and political will to deliver on a deal.

"Israel remains ready for a discussion of all the core issues with the Palestinians without any preconditions,'' says Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu, in a phone interview. "If the Palestinians sincerely want peace we fail to understand their refusal to engage.''

Abbas has also been accused by Israel of blocking talks by demanding a settlement freeze and other preconditions, and of preempting negotiations by asking other countries to recognize Palestinian sovereignty with or without a peace deal.


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