“I am cautious about saying that I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Abdullah, whose government is hosting the first negotiations since 2010 in which Palestinian and Israeli negotiators met together in the same room.
The low-level talks, organized by the diplomatic Quartet consisting of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia, began Jan. 3 and completed a third round Sunday, with the next meeting scheduled for Jan. 25. Despite widespread pessimism about the outcome, the discussions have been “both good and tough,” and a chance for the two sides to “start throwing initial passes at each other” to set the stage for more formal negotiations, Abdullah said.
While each side has accused the other of blocking progress, Abdullah said sentiments in the region appear to have shifted in recent weeks.
“I do believe they want a way out, a way to get to [direct] negotiations,” Abdullah said in an interview with The Washington Post. “We all know the positions in which they have entrenched themselves. However, the intent, I believe, is there — from both sides. It is little baby steps, right at the beginning.”
Abdullah, who presides over one of only two Arab governments with peace treaties with Israel, has sought repeatedly to help broker an agreement that would create an independent state for more than 3 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In interviews last spring, he expressed deep pessimism about the chances for a peace settlement, citing what he described as an increasingly conservative political culture in Israel that appeared less inclined to compromise on borders and security arrangements with the Palestinians.
Israeli leaders also have pointed to continued instability in Arab countries as a reason to move cautiously in allowing the creation of an independent Palestinian homeland on Israel’s borders. But Abdullah said recent parliamentary elections in Egypt have persuaded at least some Israeli officials that the consequences of delaying peace could be more harmful in the long run. “The more the Israelis play with kicking this down the line, the more they are in danger of losing what they think is the ideal future Israel,” he said.
Abdullah said he was meeting with Obama to fine-tune strategy, but he acknowledged that it was not yet time for a major U.S. push on Middle East peace.
“We can’t expect for the Americans to wade in, full-weight, unless we have enough of a package where the outcome is somewhat predictable,” he said.
His remarks came as Israeli and Palestinian leaders squabbled over the future of the Quartet-sponsored talks. Palestinian leaders are insisting on significant progress in the negotiations by Jan. 26, which they say is the deadline initially set by the Quartet for an exchange of proposals on borders and other key issues. Israeli officials say the deadline is April 3.
“The Palestinians have no interest in entering peace talks. I’m ready to travel now to Ramallah [in the West Bank] to start peace talks with Abu Mazen, without preconditions,” the Associated Press quoted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as telling lawmakers in a closed meeting. Abu Mazen is the nickname of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
State Department officials urged the Palestinians to be more flexible about deadlines.
“Although this Jan. 26 date has been out there, we do not want to see it be a rigid sort of straitjacket which chills the atmosphere,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.