Washington — Putting the onus on the Israeli side, a senior Obama adviser told Jewish leaders on Friday that the U.S. would like to see Israel re-enter peace talks based on parameters recently set forward by President Obama.
Steve Simon, senior director for Middle East and North Africa at the National Security Council, indicated in a conference call with leaders of Jewish organizations that the response so far from the Palestinian side has been more positive than from the Israelis.
“The Palestinians have been fairly forthcoming on this score. So we are kind of comfortable with that, but not completely, and now we are working with the Israeli government to see whether or not they can accept these principles as a basis for negotiations,” he said.
Simon made clear that adopting Obama’s guidelines for resuming peace talks would present the best chance for convincing the Palestinians to withdraw their bid for statehood in September at the United Nations Security Council.
Simon recently replaced Dan Shapiro as Obama’s top Middle East adviser. Shapiro will be heading to Tel Aviv this summer after being confirmed as the next U.S. ambassador to Israel. This was Simon’s first conversation with Jewish leaders, a forum the White House occasionally uses when it wishes to brief the Jewish community on current events. The conversation was described as being off the record, but details were provided to the Forward by participants.
According to the senior adviser, the administration is now waiting to see if the parties “will sign on to the president’s principles.” He described this initiative as going back to the negotiating table to discuss the two issues outlined in Obama’s May 19 Middle East policy speech: borders and security. On the borders issue, the baseline for negotiations would be the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps. When asked by one of the participants on the call if Obama would consider revising these guidelines or adjusting them so they take into consideration reservations expressed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his message to Congress, Simon responded: “The president is not going to un-say it.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met separately on June 7 with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to explore the possibility of renewing the talks. After the meeting, Palestinian representative Saeb Erekat said his side would be willing to accept the Obama guidelines if Israel does the same. Simon, in his conversation with Jewish leaders, seemed to indicate that Israel has yet to demonstrate the same willingness. “We are waiting to see if the Israelis are able to do that,” he said.
In the conversation, the senior White House adviser tried to lay out the rationale for the recent push for resuming peace talks. Simon explained that the administration views returning to the negotiations as the most effective way of blocking a Palestinian drive to have the U.N. General Assembly vote on recognizing their state in September. He said that if both parties accepted the Obama outlines, the U.S. would be “somewhat confident that the Palestinians will drop” their bid for statehood. He added that the timeline for progress is shorter than some think, since a decision on asking the General Assembly to vote on recognizing a Palestinian state can be submitted as early as July.
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