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.

Mohamad Torokman/Reuters
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.

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

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.

At the end of last week, the Arab League – whose backing Abbas depends on – rejected US efforts to restart even indirect negotiations without a basic framework for discussions, such as making 1967 borders the starting point for territorial discussions.

What the Palestinian messages could accomplish

The lunch meeting was not front-page news in Israel, but it did receive wide coverage in print, TV, and digital media, even though TV cameras were not allowed to record Abbas's speech. The impact, however, was limited because the delegation was tagged as Israeli peace activists, a group discredited in the eyes of many Israelis because of the failure of negotiations, though the gathering also included members of Mr. Netanyahu's Likud party.

"Israelis don't trust the Palestinians to reach agreement and they don't trust the Palestinians to implement an agreement. Israelis are not really paying attention because they didn't think the process was gong to yield anything anyway, and therefore they're not interested in nuances on the Palestinian side,'' says Dahlia Scheindlin, a Tel Aviv-based pollster.

"The more that they can be seen as normal parts of the Israeli discourse, and the more the Palestinian leadership breaks out of the same narrative that blames everything on the [Israeli] occupation," she says, "the more it will be changing its personality in Israeli society.''

In the absence of peace talks, the Palestinian messages could reinforce a push in the dovish Labor party to withdraw from Netanyahu's coalition. While that wouldn't force new elections, a labor withdrawal would leave Netanyahu a narrower right-wing government and remove a "fig leaf'' of international legitimacy, says Gil Hoffman, a political commentator for the Jerusalem Post.

Abbas: 'We don't want to miss this opportunity'

Sunday's banquet was held in an office complex known to Israelis and Palestinians as the "Muqata,'' the former compound of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, which was nearly destroyed by Israeli tanks in 2002 during the second Palestinian intifada.

Underneath a banner of Arafat and Abbas, Israeli parliament members from three dovish parties sat on a dais alongside Palestinian negotiators and spokesman. Waiters addressed the guests in Hebrew, and religiously observant Jews were served strictly Kosher meals.

While veteran peace colleagues embraced old comrades, they also warned that time is running low for a two-state solution.

"Everybody is saying that this will be the last time,'' said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a key Palestinian member of the Geneva Initiative. "And we as old veterans who spent decades in the struggle for making peace, I'm sorry to say we are joining the camp of the pessimists.''

Both Palestinians and Israelis largely support a peace deal, but are skeptical that one will be implemented. Abbas sought to counter the persistent Israeli perception that the Arabs "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity'' for peace, as former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Ebban once quipped.

The Palestinian president denied Israeli claims that he turned down or failed to respond to territorial compromise offers from Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert. When an Israeli peace activist questioned Abbas' refusal to negotiate with Netanyahu, he remained silent, allowing other spokespeople answer for him.

At the conclusion of the banquet, however, he acknowledged Israeli skepticism by invoking Mr. Ebban's quip – only to turn it around.

"We don't want to miss this opportunity. Please, help us not to miss it.''

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