- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2014

President Obama pushed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday for a breakthrough in the peace process, saying all sides know what sacrifices need to be made as they hurtle toward a U.S.-imposed April deadline for concrete progress.

But the prospects remained grim, and even Mr. Abbas struck a gloomy note, saying the window for getting a deal is slipping away.

“We don’t have any time to waste. Time is not on our side,” he said.

The latest flare-up is over Israel’s status as a Jewish state. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demanded the Palestinians recognize that fact as a precondition to further progress. But Mr. Abbas has balked, and such a concession could be seen as politically poisonous for him back home.

On Monday, he referenced the demand, but would only say that the Palestinian Authority recognizes “the state of Israel.”

“Since 1988, we have recognized international legitimacy resolutions, and in — and this was a very courageous step on the part of the Palestinian leadership — and in 1993, we recognized the state of Israel,” Mr. Abbas said.

Last week, testifying to Congress, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said the gap between the trust deficit between the two sides is overwhelming.

“The level of mistrust is as large as any level of mistrust I’ve ever seen, on both sides. Neither believes the other is really serious,” he said. “Neither believes that the other is prepared to make some of the big choices that have to be made here.”

Last summer, when talks between the two sides resumed, Mr. Kerry set a deadline of the end of April for getting a deal done.

Now, the U.S. is signaling it would at least like to have a framework or outline in place.

One test could be coming up at the end of this month.

Mr. Abbas said he has struck a deal with Mr. Kerry on a number of political prisoners Israel will release by March 29. It would be the fourth and final release to take place in accord with an offer the Israelis made last year, when both sides were trying to jump-start negotiations.

“We are hopeful that the last — that the fourth batch would be released by the 29th of March because this will give a very solid impression about the seriousness of these efforts to achieve peace,” Mr. Abbas said.

Some Israeli politicians have criticized the potential release of prisoners, saying that some of those still being held were convicted of murder and that the previous prisoner releases haven’t earned any tangible results in negotiations with the Palestinians.

Mr. Obama hosted Mr. Netanyahu two weeks ago at the White House.

On Monday, the president described the broad framework of the deal that’s been on the table for decades, which would have both Israel and a Palestinian state, generally along the borders that existed before the 1967 war — though with room for negotiating some land swaps.

“We remain convinced that there is an opportunity. And I think everybody understands the outlines of what a peace deal would look like,” Mr. Obama said ahead of the lunch meeting with Mr. Abbas.

Mr. Abbas, meanwhile, speaking through an interpreter, said any deal must give the Palestinians “East Jerusalem as its capital” — one of the major sticking points that has blocked movement on many other issues.

Another intractable issue has been the “right of return,” which would give Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war that created the state of Israel — and their families and descendants — the right to return to Israel and reclaim their homes and property. The large number of refugees who might return under such as deal could shift the population balance toward Palestinians, which is why Mr. Netanyahu wants guarantees that Israel will officially remain a Jewish state.



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