RAMALLAH, West Bank — President Barack Obama has told the Palestinians to sit tight during a U.S. election year, while holding out the promise of a serious push for Palestinian statehood if he wins a second term, the Palestinian foreign minister said Friday.
A U.S. State Department spokeswoman insisted Washington remains engaged, though U.S officials, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the diplomacy, said the peace process is bogged down and prospects for resuming even low-level exploratory talks are slim.
It may be politically risky for Abbas to be seen as just marking time until November.
The Palestinian public is increasingly impatient with deadlock on all fronts, and Abbas could score points by reconciling with his longtime rival Hamas. But an alliance with the Islamic militants, who seized control of the Gaza Strip from Abbas' Palestinian Authority in 2007, could upset the U.S. and hurt a statehood bid later. Israel has already warned that it won't negotiate a statehood deal if Abbas forges a coalition with an unreformed Hamas.
For now, Abbas appears to have his hands full just keeping the Palestinian issue from fading away — or being steamrolled by internal American politics.
The Palestinians have watched in dismay as Republican candidates, eager to please Jewish donors and voters, appeared to compete over who is more pro-Israel: At one point Newt Gingrich, backed financially by an ardently Zionist Jewish billionnaire, called the Palestinians "an invented people." Obama himself struck what was perceived as a pro-Israel tone in recent weeks.
The challenge goes beyond the U.S. election. The Palestinians' traditional Arab allies are preoccupied with the Arab Spring uprisings transforming the region. Europe is struggling with a painful euro zone crisis. And there is mounting concern about a possible Israel-Iran war over Tehran's suspected attempts to obtain nuclear weapons.
The Iran issue dominated the White House meeting between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week, serving as a reminder to the Palestinians that the world has little time for them right now.
The Palestinians knew what they were in for as the U.S. headed into the campaign, Riad Malki, the Palestinian foreign minister, said in an interview.
"Everybody was telling us, including the Americans, 'don't expect that much from us during the election year because the president will be focusing on how to be re-elected, and in order to do so, he should really shift his attention ... to other issues,'" Malki said.
Asked whether Abbas holds out hope that Obama — if re-elected and freed from some of his domestic political shackles — will push hard for serious negotiations on Palestinian statehood, Malki said: "They (the Americans) told us so."
He said the Obama administration asked Abbas to be patient until then.
State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said Friday that "we completely reject that characterization both of our views and the message" to Palestinians and Israelis.
On Monday, the Quartet of Mideast mediators — the U.S., the European Union, the U.N. and Russia — will meet in New York to review peace efforts, but is not expected to issue a statement or come up with a new initiative.
During more than three years in office, Obama failed to restart negotiations that broke off in 2008. At the time, Abbas and Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, exchanged initial border proposals, but ultimately failed to close the gaps before Olmert stepped down amid corruption allegations.
Abbas says he will only negotiate with Netanyahu if Israel freezes settlement building on occupied lands and recognizes the pre-1967 war lines as the starting point for talks on the borders of a future Palestine. In that war, Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the territories the Palestinians want for their state.
Netanyahu insists all disputes be addressed in negotiations, including settlements.
As a next move, Abbas plans to send a letter to Netanyahu in coming days, holding the Israeli prime minister responsible for the failure to relaunch serious negotiations, Malki said. Copies of the letter will be sent to foreign leaders and Mideast mediators.
Palestinian officials said the letters are a cry for attention. "It's a loud shout, to say we cannot continue like this," said Wasel Abu Yousef of the PLO Executive Committee.
Malki said the letter will not contain a deadline for an Israeli response.
Earlier this week, Jordan's foreign minister urged Abbas to avoid language that could be seen as an ultimatum, a Palestinian official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss internal discussions.
Abbas and his aides will meet after a certain period to review Israel's response to the letter, if there is one, Malki said. "It is up to us to decide later how to proceed ... based on the reaction from the Israeli leadership and based on the international community's reaction to that," he said.
The options include reviving last year's stalled attempt to win full U.N. membership through the Security Council or seeking the U.N. General Assembly's recognition of Palestine as a non-member observer state, Malki said. He emphasized that nothing has been decided.
Malki said the Palestinian leadership would act responsibly, and appeared to rule out desperate measures in coming months, such as dissolving their self-rule government in parts of the West Bank. Palestinian officials have also ruled out a return to large-scale violence.
Abbas is under pressure at home to end the Palestinian political split, which has weakened their statehood claim. After a breakthrough last month, in which Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal agreed that Abbas could lead an interim unity government until general elections are held, both sides have hit the brakes.
Hamas leaders in Gaza lambasted Mashaal for making the deal without consulting with them. And Abbas now says he won't pull together a transition government of politically independent technocrats unless he can get Israeli assurances that the elections can be held in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said this week that Netanyahu would not stand in the way of Palestinian elections. Malki said Abbas has sought, but not received clear Israeli assurances through intermediaries.
Palestinian analyst George Giacaman said both Abbas and Hamas are reluctant to move forward because they are unwilling to break with their traditional allies. "If they reconcile completely, the first thing the U.S Congress will do is not just to stop aid to the Palestinians, but declare the PLO a terror organization if Hamas joins," he said.
Malki said Abbas is moving cautiously.
"We are not going to rush things," he said.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed reporting.