Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY-17) and Congresswoman Shelley Berkley (D-NV), senior members of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, issued the following statement regarding their letter to President Barack Obama, urging the United States reject Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' threats to walk out of the Mideast peace talks.
"The United States must make it clear to President Abbas that the stakes are too high to be held up by petty ploys such as walkouts and threats. For months, President Abbas rejected direct peace talks with the Israelis, saying that their settlement moratorium was insufficient. Now he says he'll pull out of the talks if Israel doesn't extend that very moratorium. This just exposes the hypocrisy with which the Palestinians are approaching the talks. These talks will only succeed if both sides come to the table without preconditions to resolve the core issues. It's now time for the Palestinians to shoulder some of the burden of peace, and the Obama Administration should clearly and immediately condemn any Palestinian withdrawal from the talks," said Rep. Engel.
"If the Palestinians are serious about reaching a peace agreement after all these years, then let both parties stay at the negotiating table," said Congresswoman Berkley. "Continued threats of a walk-out will not soften Israel's resolve, so it's time for President Abbas to end these bluffs and to demonstrate that he is serious about these negotiations," said Rep. Berkley.
A full text of the letter from both Representatives is listed below:
Dear Mr. President
We are glad to see that direct talks have resumed between the Israelis and the Palestinians to try to find a peaceful solution to their ongoing conflict. We are deeply concerned, however, with continuing threats by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to withdraw from the negotiations. The parties disagree on several fundamental points, but those issues must be resolved at that negotiating table and with dialogue, not through walk-outs or boycotts.
Before the talks began, President Abbas refused to enter into direct negotiations with Israel for over eighteen months. Now that direct talks have finally begun, Abbas is still threatening to pull out of the negotiations if Israel does not maintain the construction moratorium on the West Bank. The United States must make it clear to Abbas that the negotiations must continue without threats or walk-outs, and that dialogue is the only way to peace.
Last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a ten-month halt to West Bank construction as a gesture to induce the Palestinians to enter negotiations. This came about despite the fact that settlements are a final status issue to be resolved in negotiations and not a precondition to entering them. The hypocrisy of President Abbas' threat to pull out of the talks today if Israel does not extend the moratorium is laid bare when one recalls that he condemned the moratorium when it was originally announced. This threat is merely another stunt to get the United States to unduly pressure Israel, and we must reject it.
Israel has limited construction in the West Bank to consensus settlements that will always be part of Israel in any final deal, and even there, Israel is not expanding beyond the existing construction lines. The settlements are building up, not out, and the built-up areas of these consensus settlements comprise only four percent of the West Bank.
In the current Israeli political climate, it could be difficult for Netanyahu to maintain a complete construction moratorium throughout the West Bank after September 26, when the ten-month pause ends. Additionally, there are several thorny, core issues yet to come, including borders, Jerusalem, and refugees. Abbas must not be permitted to threaten a withdrawal every time difficulties and disagreements arise. For more than fifteen years, Palestinians negotiated with Israel without preconditions, and that must continue to be the case now.
We urge you to make it clear to President Abbas that he must remain committed to negotiations without preconditions and that threats of a Palestinian walk-out will not lead to additional pressure on Israel to make concessions. Rather, such threats will be rejected as contrary to the spirit of dialogue and will be viewed as steps to undermine these important peace talks.