Abbas said ready to drop settlement freeze precondition for talks

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is prepared to drop his demand for a West Bank settlement freeze as a precondition for restarting peace talks with Israel in order to give Washington “a chance” at reaching a deal, a senior aide told Bloomberg news in a report published Thursday.

Mohammad Mustafa, Abbas’s senior economic adviser and former deputy prime minister, said Palestinian leaders were also willing to back away from efforts to have Israeli officials prosecuted on war crimes charges and ease off pressure to secure international condemnation of the Jewish state at the United Nations.

Halting Israeli settlement building in the West Bank has been a longstanding demand of Abbas, ever since former US president Barack Obama urged the move as a trust-building measure ahead of planned talks in 2010. The Israeli government froze settlements for 10 months outside Jerusalem that year, but talks were not renewed.

Mustafa said the change in policy was meant to give US President Donald Trump an opportunity to secure a peace deal, a goal the American leader has said he is determined to achieve as part of improving ties between Israel and the Sunni Arab world.

“We have not made the settlements an upfront issue this time,” said Mustafa, who is considered a close confidant of Abbas. “We think it’s better for all of us right now to focus on giving this new administration a chance to deliver.”

Mustafa, who spoke to Bloomberg earlier this week, explained that Abbas was being pushed to the negotiating table by unemployment and financial pressure caused by unfulfilled promises of international funding.

Illustrative photo of a construction site in Tekoa, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, on September 7, 2014 (Flash90)

During Trump’s first foreign trip last month, which included stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel and the West Bank, the US president gave a speech at the Israel Museum calling on both sides to put aside the “pain and disagreements of the past” and work toward peace.

Trump met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas while in the region.

In March, Netanyahu told security cabinet members that Israel would curb construction in West Bank settlements as a goodwill gesture to Trump and keep it limited to inside the boundaries of existing settlements or adjacent to them. According to the decision, if legal, security or topographical limitations do not allow adherence to those guidelines, new homes will be built outside the current settlement boundaries but as close as possible to them. While billed as restrictions, the directives allow for considerable new construction.

Since taking office, Trump has repeatedly emphasized his intent to succeed where other presidents have failed by striking a final Israeli-Palestinian accord.

Talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority fell apart in April 2014 after just over a year of negotiations amid mutual recriminations, despite an intensive effort by then-US secretary of state John Kerry to push the sides toward an agreement. Peace efforts have remained stagnant since then, though Trump is attempting to push the sides toward returning to the table.

US President Donald Trump delivers a speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on May 23, 2017. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

Mohammad Shtayyeh, a member of the Abbas’s Fatah party Central Committee, said that Trump’s recent decision to put on hold his election campaign promise of relocating the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem gained him support among Palestinians.

“There is a new dynamic,” said Shtayyeh. “The embassy issue is behind us.”

Trump earlier this month signed a waiver delaying by six months any measures to move the embassy, a measure that would be seen as formal US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Shtayyeh noted that Palestinians like Trump’s personal involvement in the situation with the Israelis as compared to previous US president Barack Obama, who tasked his secretary of state with the issue.

“With this administration, the White House is engaged and that’s a huge difference,” Shtayyeh said. “That doesn’t mean I’m optimistic. Don’t misunderstand.”

This file photo taken on December 28, 2016, shows the US Embassy building in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

Mustafa also belittled Israeli confidence-building measures that were announced ahead of Trump’s visit and said they were a disappointment to Palestinians. Israel said at the time that it would keep the Allenby Bridge that fords the Jordan River between the West Bank and Jordan open for longer hours to ease movements of Palestinian workers who use it on a daily basis, as well as plans to build a West Bank industrial zone.

“We don’t want to be tricked with small, not-so-meaningful steps,” Mustafa said.

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