JERUSALEM -- President Barack Obama spoke grandly of big picture peacemaking Thursday, but the Palestinians are focused on a specific demand -- that Israel freeze settlement building before they’ll return to talks.
Stingingly rebuffed by Obama on this score, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas now finds himself at a crossroads: Fold and see his tattered credibility suffer further, or stick to his guns while peace efforts stay frozen and Israel continues to build on the land Palestinians -- and Obama himself -- want for their state.
Abbas signaled that he’s not changing course, creating a moment of rare public friction between him and Obama at a joint news conference following their meeting Thursday. After Obama said neither side should set terms for renewing negotiations, basically siding with Israel, Abbas pointed out that most of the world deems Israeli settlements illegal.
"We don’t demand anything beyond the international resolutions and it’s the duty of the Israeli government to stop settlement activities to enable us to talk about all issues in the negotiations," he said.
Abbas also warned that growing numbers of Palestinians are losing faith in the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel because of the encroachment of settlements.
The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in 1967.
Abbas argues that he cannot negotiate the borders between Israel and a future Palestine while Israel unilaterally determines that line by accelerating settlement construction, particularly in east Jerusalem. Israel disputes the logic of this because it has dismantled settlements in the past.
Now Abbas’ options are becoming more unappealing.
Abbas has been the most unwavering Palestinian advocate of establishing a Palestinian state through negotiations with Israel, saying it’s the only path to independence.
If he rejects Obama’s terms, it means negotiations will likely remain frozen, depriving Abbas of a credible political program and, as time goes by, legitimacy.
Abbas was elected in 2005 to a four-year term, but has stayed on because the bitter political split between him and the rival Islamic militant group Hamas, which seized Gaza in 2007, has prevented new elections.
Two senior Abbas aides provided conflicting interpretations of the Obama-Abbas meeting.
Veteran negotiator Saeb Erekat, gave a more upbeat assessment. He said Obama told Abbas that he remains committed a Palestinian state, considers a peace deal a priority and will send U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to the region to follow up.
Abbas "came out more confident of the possibility of making peace after meeting with the president," Erekat said, but did not elaborate.
Another adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity because of possible diplomatic repercussions, said Abbas was disappointed in Obama and expects peace efforts to remain paralyzed.
Talks between Abbas and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert broke down in 2008. Since then, Abbas and Olmert’s hard-line successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, have been unable to find common ground for resuming them.
Erekat also said Obama told the Palestinian leadership that "Kerry will be really engaged in the next few weeks."
Top U.S. diplomats have made many shuttle missions in 20 years of intermittent U.S.-led negotiations, but all were ultimately unsuccessful.
Some analysts suggested that the U.S. could try to lure Abbas to talks by persuading Israel to agree to a partial settlement freeze, release Palestinian prisoners or hand more West Bank land to Palestinian control.
But it’s unclear if Israel would be willing to make such gestures, which have been proposed in the past, and if Abbas would consider them sufficient.
Much of Obama’s visit appeared to be aimed at building credibility with ordinary Israelis and convincing them that a deal with the Palestinians is in their interest and still possible, at times bypassing Netanyahu and his political allies.
Speaking to Israeli students Thursday, Obama urged them to imagine themselves in the place of Palestinians and outlined some of the daily hardships of living under Israeli occupation.
"Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable, that real borders will have to be drawn," he said. "I’ve suggested principles on territory and security that I believe can be the basis for talks."
But some warned that time is running out for a deal as settlements continue to grow.
"We are reaching the tipping point," said settlement watcher and Jerusalem expert Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer.
"A year from now, if the current trends continue, the two-state solution will not be possible. The map will be so balkanized that it will not be possible to create a credible border between Israel and Palestine," he said.
Palestinians also argue that after two decades of intermittent negotiations, the contours of an agreement have widely been established and it’s time for decisions, not endless rounds of diplomacy. They suspect Netanyahu is seeking open-ended negotiations to give him diplomatic cover for more settlement-building, while being unwilling to make the needed concessions.
Netanyahu has said he is willing to negotiate the terms of a Palestinian state. He reiterated Wednesday, with Obama by his side, that he is ready to return to talks but also said there should be no "preconditions" -- his term for the Palestinians’ insistence on a settlement freeze.
The Israeli prime minister has also adopted a tougher starting position for negotiations than some of his predecessors. He refuses to accept the 1967 frontier as a baseline for border talks -- even though two previous Israeli leaders, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, did offer the Palestinians the overwhelming majority of the West Bank in previous rounds.
Netanyahu also says he will not relinquish any of east Jerusalem, an area Israel expanded into the adjacent West Bank and annexed immediately after the 1967 war.
Israeli governments have built many thousands of homes for Jews in east Jerusalem since then, creating a ring of Jewish settlement within the city’s municipal boundaries that increasingly disconnects its Arab-populated core from the rest of the West Bank. Some 200,000 Jews now live in east Jerusalem, almost even with the Palestinian population in the city, which overall has about 800,000 residents.
In recent months, Netanyahu’s government has approved construction plans for thousands more settlement apartments on Jerusalem’s southern edge that would further isolate Arab neighborhoods in the city from the West Bank, including the nearby biblical city of Bethlehem.
There is strong consensus on the Palestinian side that a two-state deal must include a sharing of Jerusalem -- resulting in total deadlock on this issue.
European diplomats warned in an internal report last month that if the current pace of settlement activity on Jerusalem’s southern flank continues, "an effective buffer between east Jerusalem and Bethlehem may be in place by the end of 2013, thus making the realization of a viable two-state solution inordinately more difficult, if not impossible."
Henry Siegman, a leading critic of Israeli policy in the American Jewish community, said he believes Obama is fully aware of the corrosive effect of settlements.
Time for a deal is slipping away and Obama cannot make do with four more years of just managing the conflict, he said.
"They (U.S. officials) know that if they do nothing, they are sealing the doom of the two-state solution if it has not already been sealed," said Siegman. "It cannot survive another four years, given the rate of colonization that is taking place."