PA to Ask Obama to Personally Kickstart Peace Process

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By Jack Khoury, Haaretz

Palestinian Authority representatives are expected to request the personal involvement of United States President Barack Obama in the Mideast peace process when they arrive in Washington on Wednesday. The PA representatives are even expected to even ask that Obama present his own initiative that will contain a formula that will allow both Israel and the PA to return to the negotiating table.

Sources in the office of PA President Mahmoud Abbas told Haaretz on Monday that Palestinians were disappointed that Obama didn't present an outline or roadmap for peace like his predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush during the president's first term in office. They also said that in the Arab World many remember not just the president's Cairo speech which presented a positive outline for addressing the Palestinian issue but also that it dissolved when the administration failed to implement any effective step towards realizing the plan, which allowed Israel to continue building settlements in the West Bank.

Muhammad Ashtiya, a political advisor to Abbas, spoke with Haaretz the evening before he left for Washington together with the Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee member Saeb Erekat. Ashtiya said that over the next two days the two PA representatives have planned a series of political meetings with different officials in the White House and the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs ahead of the visit of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama to the region.

"We will present again the Palestinian position and make clear that we have no preconditions to returning to the negotiating table as Netanyahu is claiming," said Ashtiya. "However, we are demanding a formula that will lead to a real and effective process that at its end will guarantee the end of the occupation in the territories of '67 and it would be impossible to talk about this formula while the Israeli government continues to build settlements and establish facts on the ground that will thwart a future agreement. Another topic is the topic of [Palestinian] prisoners [held by Israel]. The administration and Israel need to internalize that this topic has become a national topic and it won't be possible to move forward with the entire peace process without ensuring the release of prisoners."

In this context, Erekat sent a plea on Monday to the European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton in which he warned against the continuation of Israel's arrest policy toward Palestinians in the West Bank and in particular the use of administrative detention. Erekat also warned about the potential consequences if hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners should die, in particular of Samer Issawi, who has been hunger-striking for more than 200 days. Erekat's plea to Ashton came amid a slew of protest activities, including demonstrations and arrests, which have been taking place across the West Bank for several days. Protesters demands have focused on pressuring the PA to place freeing Palestinian prisoners at the top of negotiation priorities and that more efforts be undertaken to free the hunger-striking prisoners.

In Abbas' office they didn't hide their disappointment that the White House is focusing on the Iranian nuclear issue and the civil war in Syria and not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While they clarified that despite the fear of the implications of an Iranian atomic bomb, the deep crisis in Syria and the general instability in the Arab world, the Palestinian issue will remain the defining issue in the Middle East.

"This is how it's been for 65 years, there were many tumultuous events yet the Palestinian issue will always be at the center and it cannot be ignored," said Ashtiya.

Ashtiya also said it would be completely legitimate for Palestinian to demand American recognition of a Palestinian state based upon the United Nations General Assembly resolution passed last November as a confidence building measure if the negotiations freeze continues.

"We have relations with the U.S. and we can expect such a step," said Ashtiya. "The Americans, the international community and also the Israeli government need to adopt a very simple formula: an end to the occupation in the territories of '67 including East Jerusalem and from there we can continue to make progress in discussions and negotiations."

It should be noted that far from Washington, in Cairo, in recent days there have been discussions to strengthen the truce between Israel and Hamas that was achieved as a result of Operation Pillar of Defense late last year.

In Egyptian and other Arab media it has been reported that the Israeli security delegation landed Sunday in Cairo and held meetings with Egyptian intelligence chief Mohamed Raafat Shehata. Shehata was the primary intermediary between Israel and Hamas in reaching the truce after Operation Pillar of Defense and before it was a key intermediary in the prisoner exchange that included Hamas' release of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

According to Palestinian sources, Hamas asked for Egyptian involvement on the issue of Israeli arrests of prisoners released as part of the Shalit deal, something Hamas has termed as a flagrant violation of the prisoner exchange agreement.

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