Sebastian Scheiner, File, Associated Press
JERUSALEM — President Barack Obama spoke grandly of big picture peacemaking Thursday, but the Palestinians are focused on a specific demand — that Israel freeze settlement building before they'll return to talks.
Stingingly rebuffed by Obama on this score, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas now finds himself at a crossroads: Fold and see his tattered credibility suffer further, or stick to his guns while peace efforts stay frozen and Israel continues to build on the land Palestinians — and Obama himself — want for their state.
Abbas signaled that he's not changing course, creating a moment of rare public friction between him and Obama at a joint news conference following their meeting Thursday. After Obama said neither side should set terms for renewing negotiations, basically siding with Israel, Abbas pointed out that most of the world deems Israeli settlements illegal.
"We don't demand anything beyond the international resolutions and it's the duty of the Israeli government to stop settlement activities to enable us to talk about all issues in the negotiations," he said.
Abbas also warned that growing numbers of Palestinians are losing faith in the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel because of the encroachment of settlements.
The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in 1967. Since that war, Israel has built dozens of settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — now home to more than a half million Israelis — that make a partition deal increasingly difficult, some say impossible.
Abbas argues that he cannot negotiate the borders between Israel and a future Palestine while Israel unilaterally determines that line by accelerating settlement construction, particularly in east Jerusalem. Israel disputes the logic of this because it has dismantled settlements in the past.
Now Abbas' options are becoming more unappealing.
Abbas has been the most unwavering Palestinian advocate of establishing a Palestinian state through negotiations with Israel, saying it's the only path to independence.
If he rejects Obama's terms, it means negotiations will likely remain frozen, depriving Abbas of a credible political program and, as time goes by, legitimacy.
Abbas was elected in 2005 to a four-year term, but has stayed on because the bitter political split between him and the rival Islamic militant group Hamas, which seized Gaza in 2007, has prevented new elections.
Two senior Abbas aides provided conflicting interpretations of the Obama-Abbas meeting.
Veteran negotiator Saeb Erekat, gave a more upbeat assessment. He said Obama told Abbas that he remains committed a Palestinian state, considers a peace deal a priority and will send U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to the region to follow up.
Abbas "came out more confident of the possibility of making peace after meeting with the president," Erekat said, but did not elaborate.
Another adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity because of possible diplomatic repercussions, said Abbas was disappointed in Obama and expects peace efforts to remain paralyzed.
Talks between Abbas and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert broke down in 2008. Since then, Abbas and Olmert's hard-line successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, have been unable to find common ground for resuming them.
Erekat also said Obama told the Palestinian leadership that "Kerry will be really engaged in the next few weeks."
Top U.S. diplomats have made many shuttle missions in 20 years of intermittent U.S.-led negotiations, but all were ultimately unsuccessful.
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