- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2017

President Trump told Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas privately at the White House on Wednesday that a condition for Middle East peace must include the Palestinians halting their “pay for slay” policy of rewarding terrorists who attack Israelis.

In his first meeting with Mr. Abbas, Mr. Trump announced he is starting “a process” with Israel and the Palestinians to work toward a historically elusive peace agreement. The most recent talks fell apart in 2014 during the Obama administration.

“We’ll start a process which hopefully will lead to peace,” Mr. Trump said with Mr. Abbas at his side. “I would love to be a mediator, an arbitrator or a facilitator, and we will get this done.”

While Mr. Trump didn’t mention publicly the issue of Palestinians paying terrorists or their families for killing Israelis, White House aides said the president did confront Mr. Abbas about it behind closed doors.

“The president raised concerns about the payments to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails who have committed acts of terrorism, and to their families, and emphasized the need to resolve this issue,” said White House press secretary Sean Spicer.

The Palestinian Authority, which receives millions of dollars in aid annually from the U.S., spends about $300 million per year on Palestinian terrorists who are imprisoned in Israel, and to support their families. A group of Republican senators wrote to Mr. Trump ahead of the meeting, urging him to bring up the topic and reverse the Obama administration’s practice of downplaying the issue.

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America said the killings by Palestinians of Israelis and Americans “have been unwittingly funded by U.S. taxpayers.” It is urging Congress to approve the Taylor Force Act, which would stop U.S. tax dollars from being used to kill American and Israeli civilians. The legislation is named for an American graduate student killed by a Palestinian on a trip to Israel in 2016.

The president also urged Mr. Abbas privately to stop inciting violence against Israelis, “particularly in media outlets directly associated with the Palestinian Authority,” Mr. Spicer said.

The main Palestinian television station is known for broadcasting messages about Zionists murdering young Palestinians, and sometimes issuing explicit calls for vengeance.

During their public comments, Mr. Trump said the Palestinians must show a commitment to ending violence and working with the U.S. and its allies to defeat Islamist terrorists.

“There cannot be lasting peace unless the Palestinian leaders speak in a unified voice against incitement to … violence and hate,” Mr. Trump said. “All children of God must be taught to value and respect human life, and condemn all of those who target the innocent. Peace also means defeating ISIS and other terrorist groups,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State terrorist group.

The 82-year-old Mr. Abbas, who has struggled to retain his leadership of the Palestinian Authority, said reaching a two-state solution with Israel would enable the Palestinians “to fight and deter terrorism, and fight the criminal ISIS group,” which he said “has nothing to do with our noble religion.”

Mr. Abbas also pledged to Mr. Trump publicly “that we are raising our youth, our children, our grandchildren on a culture of peace.”

Middle East analysts say the prospects for a peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis have never been worse.

Responding to Mr. Trump’s optimism, Middle East analyst Aaron David Miller of the Wilson International Center said on Twitter, “Never in decades of involvement have I heard a U.S. president more confident with less prospect.”

But Mr. Trump said he has conferred with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and he believes there is “a very, very good chance” for an agreement.

“Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve always heard that perhaps the toughest deal to make is the deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” Mr. Trump said. “Let’s see if we can prove them wrong. OK?”

“OK,” Mr. Abbas replied.

Mr. Abbas spoke in Arabic during the event but concluded in English by addressing Mr. Trump directly.

“Now, Mr. President, with you we have hope,” Mr. Abbas said.

Later, during a working lunch with the U.S. and Palestinian delegations, Mr. Trump said the solution to peace is “something that I think is, frankly, maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years.”

“We need two willing parties,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Abbas. “We believe Israel is willing. We believe you’re willing. And if you are willing, we are going to make a deal.”

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson called it “a historic opportunity because there are a number of positive conditions in place.”

The Palestinian leader said he envisions a two-state solution with a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem, and Israel’s borders defined by the so-called 1967 lines. He said “it’s about time” for Israel to stop occupying Palestinian lands and to recognize a Palestinian state.

“We are the only remaining people in the world that still live under occupation,” Mr. Abbas said. “We are aspiring and want to achieve our freedom, our dignity and our right to self-determination.”

The president said the U.S. can’t impose a peace agreement on the two parties, and said the Palestinian leaders must speak “with a unified voice” against violence.

“The Palestinians and Israelis must work together to reach an agreement that allows both peoples to live, worship and thrive and prosper in peace,” he said.

Mr. Abbas also expressed the hope that Mr. Trump will be able to bring about “a permanent solution” to peace in the Middle East.

“You have the determination and the desire to see it to fruition and to become successful,” Mr. Abbas said through an interpreter. “I believe that we are capable under your leadership and your courageous stewardship and your wisdom, as well as your great negotiating ability. I believe with the grace of God and with all of your efforts that we can be true partners to you to bring about a historic peace treaty under your stewardship.”

Several previous presidents have tried and failed to broker a Middle East peace deal. Asked by a reporter what’s different this time, Mr. Spicer replied, “I think the man is different.”

“This president’s style is one to develop a personal bond with individuals, and I think you saw that today with President Abbas … talking so kindly about the president,” Mr. Spicer said. “You saw that in the relationship that exists, and it’s only getting stronger between the president and Prime Minister Netanyahu. You have two individuals who, because of this president, are increasing their desire for peace.”

He added, “The president’s ability to connect with an individual, to work with them toward a shared goal, to have backroom diplomacy, is something that is going to continue to pay dividends and get results for this country.”

Mr. Trump didn’t mention the phrase “two-state solution” publicly Wednesday, offering only the broad outlines for fostering talks. Nor did he discuss publicly his campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a proposal that is opposed vehemently by the Palestinians. Vice President Mike Pence did say Tuesday that Mr. Trump is giving “serious consideration” to the move.

The president did offer to Mr. Abbas unspecified U.S. aid “to help unlock the potential of the Palestinian people through new economic opportunities.”

Mr. Abbas spoke of the need to resolve “the issue of the refugees,” a perennial sticking point in Israeli-Palestinian talks involving Palestinians’ “right of return” to reclaim property.

The Palestinian leader told Mr. Trump, “We believe that we are capable and able to bring about success to our efforts because, Mr. President, you have the determination and you have the desire to see it [come] to fruition and to become successful.”

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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