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Abbas, Haley exchange strong criticism over Middle East at U.N. Security Council

During a rare address to the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for an international Middle East peace conference to be convened by the middle of this year and slammed the Trump administration for its recognition last December of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. (Video: Reuters)

With President Trump’s Middle East peace envoys looking on, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday accused the Trump administration of abdicating its commitment to a peace settlement and an independent Palestinian state.

Abbas, the leader on whom three U.S. presidents have hung hopes for successful negotiations, all but wrote off Washington as a potential peace broker during an angry address to the U.N. Security Council. He appealed instead to the United Nations, and called for an international peace conference this year under U.N., not American, sponsorship.

“We met with the president of the United States, Mr. Donald Trump, four times in 2017, and we have expressed our absolute readiness to reach a historic agreement,” Abbas said during a tense session devoted to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Nikki Haley told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Feb. 20, that U.S. negotiators were "ready to talk" and offering an "outstretched hand." (Video: Reuters)

“Yet this administration has not clarified its position,” Abbas said. “Is it a two-state solution, or one state” of permanent Israeli occupation?

Trump’s envoys, son-in-law Jared Kushner and negotiator Jason D. Greenblatt, sat silently as Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, asserted that ­Abbas is shortchanging his own people with a default to grievances that “will get the Palestinian people exactly nowhere.”

Haley addressed Abbas directly, although he had abruptly left the chamber following his speech.

“Our negotiators are sitting right behind me, ready to talk,” Haley said. “But we will not chase after you. The choice, Mr. President, is yours.”

By setting challenges and ultimatums, Abbas and Haley both suggested the session is a marker for the increasingly bitter relationship between the Trump administration and the Palestinian leadership, and for a U.S.-backed peace plan that remains under wraps.

Abbas urged an international framework for negotiations involving the Palestinian Authority, Israel and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, including the United States.

“No country alone can solve a regional or international conflict, without the participation of other international partners,” he said.

Senior Palestinian leaders have boycotted the Trump administration for more than two months, including what Trump has complained was a snub to Vice President Pence during a Middle East visit in January.

Haley addressed the reason — Trump’s declaration in December that the United States considers Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital — and told Abbas he can do nothing to reverse the U.S. position.

Abbas should channel his anger into action toward a settlement and a better life for his people, Haley said. She did not pledge, as U.S. diplomats and presidents had done for more than two decades before Trump, that the result of negotiations would be an independent Palestinian state.

She also addressed comments earlier this month from senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who accused the United States of seeking a “coup” to depose Abbas. Erekat was also quoted in the same interview as advising Haley to “shut up and realize the Palestinian leadership is not the problem.”

“I will not shut up. Rather, I will respectfully speak some hard truths,” Haley said as she criticized Abbas and her U.N. colleagues for what she called bias against Israel.

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The session marked the first time senior U.S. officials have even been in the same room with Abbas for months. Abbas entered moments before speaking, skipping the greetings among ambassadors, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres and the U.N. Middle East representative, Nikolay Mladenov.

He stood to go immediately after he concluded his by-invitation address, startling Haley and leaving Israeli U.N. Ambassador Danny Danon to dismiss him as a coward.

“Once again, he is running away,” Danon said. “He put his demands on the table and he left, and he is expecting you to deliver the results. It’s not going to work that way. The only way to achieve results is to have direct negotiations.”

Both Israel and the Palestinians routinely accuse one another of being the obstacle to successful negotiations, as their representatives did Tuesday, but both have also habitually cultivated the United States as the most important intermediary.

Abbas said Trump’s embassy move was a “dangerous” prejudging of the status of Jerusalem, a city that is holy to three religions. Security Council diplomats from France, Sweden and other states made the same point more delicately. Diplomats also urged Trump to reinstate funding he cut for Palestinian refugees.

“We call upon the United States not to renounce on their historic and essential role they have been playing” as a major donor, French U.N. Ambassador François Delattre said.

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Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state. The United States had long maintained that the city’s status could be resolved only through direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

The three Americans answered questions from Security Council members in a private session after the meeting, a U.S. official said, including whether the Trump administration is biased. One of the Americans replied that if the Trump administration was as ­biased toward Israel as some assume, “we could have done this in a month,” instead of a year, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the closed-door session on the record. The Americans also rejected the notion of a separate international framework for talks, the official said.

Abbas sought out Trump early in his presidency, despite Trump’s campaign pledge to move the embassy and frequent pro-Israel statements as a candidate. The Palestinian was among the earliest foreign leaders to visit the White House, in May of last year, and used the visit to praise Trump as a leader committed to peace.

“I believe that we are capable under your leadership and under your courageous stewardship and your wisdom as well as your great negotiating ability,” Abbas said as he stood alongside Trump then. “I believe we can be partners — true partners to you — to bring about a historic peace treaty,” Abbas said through an interpreter. “Now, Mr. President, with you we have hope.”

Trump offered his services as a broker and assured Abbas, “We will get this done.” The two met again at the U.N. General Assembly in September. Trump phoned Abbas in December to inform him of the Jerusalem decision and invited him to visit the White House again. Abbas has not accepted.

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Trump has recently cast doubt on his own Middle East peace project. “I don’t know, frankly, if we are going to even have talks,” Trump said in an interview this month with the conservative Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom. “But I think it is very foolish for the Palestinians and I also think it would be very foolish for the Israelis if they don’t make a deal. It’s our only opportunity, and it will never happen after this.”

A White House spokesman, Josh Raffel, said Kushner and Greenblatt “appreciated the opportunity” to hear Abbas’s speech but were disappointed by the content. “We were hoping to hear some new and constructive ideas.”

The U.S. proposal remains in the works, Raffel said. “We will present it when it is done and the time is right.”

Loveday Morris and Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.