Lawmakers: Obama going easy on Abbas

A bipartisan group of lawmakers allied with Israel on Monday accused President Obama of going easy on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in peace negotiations.

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Abbas met Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington on Monday as the administration tried to advance an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement by an April 29 deadline.

Critics say Obama is pushing Israel too much in the talks while not publicly pressing Abbas to make the concession of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.

"Peace is a two-way street, and Abbas has failed to deliver on the necessary steps to pave the way for peace," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in a statement.

"Abbas refuses to accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, fails to combat incitement against the Jewish people and has been ineffective in delivering transparency and accountability within the Palestinian Authority. These steps are a necessary prerequisite to making peace achievable between Israel and the Palestinians."

Ahead of Obama's meeting with Abbas, the chairmen of the House committees overseeing the State Department urged Obama to take a tougher line, given what they said are concessions by Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on economic assistance and freeing prisoners.

“It is time for President Abbas to follow suit and commit to recognizing Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people,” the Friday letter made public Monday stated. “We therefore urge you to raise in the strongest possible terms with President Abbas these issues.”

The letter was signed by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and ranking member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), as well as House Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee Chairwoman Kay Granger (R-Texas) and ranking member Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.).

Obama, at the Monday meeting, publicly urged Abbas to make “tough” choices to seal a peace deal, but he did not press the Jewish state issue.

"It was disappointing that President Obama did not firmly press President Abbas on recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already expressed his nation's willingness to recognize a Palestinian state or at least autonomy, so it is important that Palestine extends the same recognition,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.).

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) said Obama needs to do “far more” on the issue, and he was disappointed by a statement by Kerry last week signaling the issue was up for negotiation.

“It is simply absurd to say you are trying to negotiate a two-state solution, and in the end, both are going to Arab states,” Sherman said.  

He said the April 29 deadline for a negotiating framework can be met if Obama gets Abbas to oppose extreme elements on his side and to recognize the Jewish nature of Israel. If not, Israel will continue to face the possibility of a takeover by returning Palestinian refugees.

“I think you could have a real framework if Abbas is willing to abandon and is pushed to abandon those elements on his side,” Sherman said. He said in exchange, Israel could allow a small number of aging Palestinians with memory of living in Israel to return there.

Kerry, in response to a Sherman question during a hearing last week, said that Jewish state was resolved in 1947 in Resolution 181, which included more than 30 mentions of “Jewish state," as well as by other acknowledgements by Palestinian leaders.

"I think it is a mistake for some people to be raising it again and again as a critical decider in their attitude toward the possibility of a state and peace and we have obviously made that clear. That's a conversation that will continue,” Kerry said.

Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) also said Obama should be more forceful.  

"It shouldn't be news to Abbas or anyone who sets foot in the White House that the United States would expect Israel to receive justified recognition as a Jewish state,” he said.

Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) said Obama needed to project more strength, especially in light of troubles with Russia.

“Nowhere is that more important than in the Middle East, where this administration has had a less than inspiring track record of standing with our ally Israel,” Price said Monday.

Middle East expert Jim Phillips of the Heritage Foundation said he suspects Obama is being a bit more forceful with Abbas in private in trying convince him to be more flexible, but that is not enough.

“I wish the president would be more forthcoming in saying that publicly,” he said. He said Abbas appears to be holding the Jewish state issue as a final bargain card, so is unlikely to yield without more public pressure.

“I think the White House has brought more public pressure on Netanyahu ... that suggests there is a double standard,” Phillips said.

Not everyone thinks Obama is making a mistake with Abbas, however.

Khaled Elgindy, an expert with the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, said Kerry and Obama are right to try to set the Jewish state issue aside for now.

“I think it is wise if they have dropped the issue. I would disagree with those who make this a requirement,” he said.

Elgindy said Abbas is standing by the Palestinian recognition that Israel exists as a nation, that there are ways to find common ground on how to handle Palestinian refugees, but framing the issue as recognition of Israel as a Jewish homeland makes that much harder.

“What I find bizarre about it is that, essentially, you are asking one side to accept the ideological underpinnings of the other side. I don't know that I have ever seen that before, certainly not as a precondition for negotiation,” he said.

“It is perfectly understandable why Israel raises the issue. It is a question of when it gets raised,” he said, arguing it would be better to focus on a deal on concrete issues of security, water rights, economic assistance, borders and the status of East Jerusalem. 

— This story was updated at 6:37 p.m.