Abbas says talks with Trump positive, if short on specifics

Mahmoud Abbas (AFP)
Mahmoud Abbas (AFP)

West Bank - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said his first meeting with President Donald Trump left him hopeful, even though they did not discuss specifics about how to restart long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Abbas said he believes the Trump administration can play an important role as a mediator.

"What is needed is to bring the two parties together, to bring them closer and then to facilitate things between them," he told reporters late on Wednesday, after his White House meeting.

Trump also struck an optimistic note on Wednesday, saying he believes an Israeli-Palestinian deal can be reached. He did not explain what type of solution he envisions.

The Palestinians want to set up a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. Abbas reiterated the demand as he stood next to Trump at the White House.

However, there have been no serious negotiations since gaps widened with the 2009 election of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel's prime minister.

Netanyahu rejected the 1967 frontier as a baseline for border talks and ruled out a partition of Jerusalem where Palestinians hope to establish a capital. The Netanyahu government, like those before it, have expanded settlements on war-won lands, despite US appeals to curb construction.

'Positive' meeting 

Despite the lack of specifics, Abbas described his meeting with Trump as positive and said that "we build hopes on it".

"So far, we didn't talk about a mechanism, but the contacts between us and the Americans began and will continue," he said.

Abbas said he is ready to meet with Netanyahu, and suggested the Israeli leader is avoiding such talks.

"We had planned to meet in Moscow, but he didn't show up," Abbas said, referring to Russian efforts several months ago to set up such a meeting.

Netanyahu has said he is willing to meet with Abbas. In the past, Abbas balked at the idea of such a summit, saying it would be pointless without general agreement on the framework of negotiations and a significant curb in settlement construction. Abbas did not explain his apparent shift in position.

Abbas' positive portrayal of the meeting with Trump may not be enough for a sceptical public at home. Many Palestinians have become disillusioned with Abbas' strategy, after two decades of intermittent US-led negotiations ended in failure while Israeli settlements keep expanding.

In the West Bank, the main focus appeared to be a hunger strike by hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, now in its 18th day.

At the time of the Abbas-Trump meeting, several thousand Palestinians attended a solidarity rally for the prisoners, with speakers calling for a new campaign of civil disobedience against Israeli rule.

The hunger strike is led by imprisoned uprising leader Marwan Barghouti, widely seen as the most popular choice to succeed the 82-year-old Abbas one day. Barghouti, in prison since 2002, is serving five life terms after an Israeli court convicted him of directing attacks that killed five people during a Palestinian uprising against Israel.

The turnout at the rallly "reflects the people's support for the prisoners at a time when the Palestinian leadership failed in everything," said Sharif Suleiman, a 32-year-old project manager who attended the gathering. "They failed in negotiations, in building institutions and in reforms."

Fierce opposition 

Abbas also faces fierce opposition from his main political rival, the Islamic militant group Hamas, which seized Gaza from him in a 2007 takeover. Hamas has dismissed Abbas' strategy of negotiations as a waste of time and said he does not represent the Palestinians.

After a decade of failed reconciliation attempts, Abbas recently adopted a tougher stance toward Hamas, saying he would use financial pressure to force the militants to cede ground.

His West Bank-based autonomy government announced this week that it will stop paying for electricity Israel sends to power-starved Gaza - about $11m a month.

Such a step could potentially plunge Gaza into darkness since the electricity from Israel is currently the main source of power for the territory of 2 million people. Gaza has been enduring rolling blackouts for years, largely as a result of border blockades by Israel and Egypt that were triggered by the Hamas takeover.

Hamas has said it would not bow to pressure from Abbas.


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