Palestinian leader urges world powers to replace US in peace talks

Mahmoud Abbas said Washington could no longer be an honest broker after the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. (AFP)
Updated 21 February 2018
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Palestinian leader urges world powers to replace US in peace talks

UNITED NATIONS: In a highly visible snub to the Trump administration, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for an alternative to US-mediated negotiations with Israel during a rare address to the UN Security Council on Tuesday.

Abbas urged other world powers to step in and facilitate peace talks, saying that Washington could no longer play an honest broker after President Donald Trump’s December 6 bombshell decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“The United States has contradicted itself and contradicted its own commitments and has violated international law and the relevant resolutions with its decision regarding Jerusalem,” Abbas said in an impassioned, 33-minute address to the top UN body.

“Therefore, to solve the Palestine question, it is essential to establish a multi-lateral international mechanism emanating from an international conference and in line with international law and the relevant resolutions.”

Abbas and his allies were left furious in December when US President Donald Trump reversed decades of US policy to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and set in motion the process of moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv.

He called for an international conference by mid-2018 to replace US-led mediation efforts. It would involve Palestinians, Israelis and the permanent UN Security Council members – the US, Britain, France, Russia and China – as well as the European Union and the UN, he said.  

That confab should welcome Palestine as a full UN member, with lands based on the borders prevailing before the 1967 war, when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza. Abbas also called for a U-turn on Trump’s Jerusalem decision and “halting transfer of the US embassy” there.

Arab News approached experts for their assessment of Abbas’ speech and his bid to “internationalize” the peace process. They warned that Middle Eastern geopolitics was becoming ever-more unfavourable to the Palestinian cause.

Jonathan Cristol, a scholar at the World Policy Institute, a think tank, said Abbas likely found sympathetic ears in the chamber, but that would not change Washington’s drive for a peace deal that would likely hurt Palestinians.

“In part, Abbas came to the UN because he expected to find more support among non-regional actors than within his own region, where concerns about Iran, combined with the wars in Syria and Yemen, make the Palestinian issue a more marginal factor,” Cristol told Arab News.

In an emailed statement to Arab News, Diana Buttu, a former advisor to Abbas, warned her former boss that calls for an international conference would “never lead to Palestinian freedom” and called for a policy re-think in Ramallah.

“What Abbas should instead be doing is signing onto the grassroots, global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement to apply pressure on Israel to respect Palestinian rights and harnessing the immense untapped power of the Palestinian people to engage on widespread popular resistance to Israel’s half-century-old military rule,” Buttu said.

Abbas’ first UN Security Council address since 2009 was also his first face-off with top US officials since Trump’s announcement, with UN envoy Nikki Haley and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in the 15-nation chamber. 

At the UN meeting, Haley brushed aside Abbas’ call for a rethink of the US embassy shift, saying “that decision will not change”. She warned that the Palestinian leader was only notching up diplomatic points rather than making life better for his people.

“You can choose to denounce the US, reject the US role in peace talks and pursue punitive measures against Israel in international forums like the UN,” Haley said. “That path will get the Palestinian people exactly nowhere towards the achievement of their aspirations.”

Israel, which often accuses both the European Union and the UN of an anti-Israel bias, says it would not accept any mediator other than Washington. Israel’s UN envoy Danny Danon said the Palestinians are not interested in peace.

“The current US administration is once again working hard to make progress towards peace,” Danon said. “Mr Abbas, however, is once again looking hard for an excuse. This time, he claims it was the American announcement about Jerusalem that drove him to reject negotiations.” 

As well as the embassy shift, the US has axed $65 million from a scheduled $125 million in UN payments for Palestinian refugees, and is poised to unveil a peace plan that is widely tipped to favour Israelis at the expense of Palestinians.

Abbas, 82, needs to plug that funding gap and rally global support to pre-emptively reject the Trump administration’s long-awaited peace proposal amid fears it will dash Palestinian hopes for a two-state solution.

Palestine is currently a non-member observer state at the UN, and would need a favorable UN Security Council vote to be upgraded to full membership. The Trump administration would be expected to veto any such upgrade.


First Russia air strikes hit south Syria as assault looms

Forces loyal to President Bashar Assad began ramping up their air strikes and artillery fire on the zone. (AP)
Updated 51 min 2 sec ago
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First Russia air strikes hit south Syria as assault looms

  • Russia, the United States, and Jordan agreed in July of last year on a de-escalation zone in rebel-controlled parts of southern Syria that would tamp down hostilities there
  • Intense Russian air strikes are hitting towns in Daraa’s eastern countryside for the first time since the cease-fire was agreed in southern Syria last year

BEIRUT: Russia bombed rebel-held parts of southern Syria late Saturday for the first time since brokering a cease-fire there nearly a year ago, a monitor group said, as allied regime troops prepare a ground assault.
Southern Syria is a strategic prize for local and global players involved in the country’s convoluted seven-year war.
After securing the capital Damascus, Syrian President Bashar Assad appears keen to recapture the southern provinces of Daraa and Sweida, still mostly held by rebels.
He has sent military reinforcements there for weeks, dropped flyers demanding rebels surrender, and escalated bombardment in recent days.
Late Saturday night, his Russian allies bombed rebel-held towns in Daraa for the first time since the summer of 2017, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“Intense Russian air strikes are hitting towns in Daraa’s eastern countryside for the first time since the cease-fire was agreed in southern Syria last year,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.
The Observatory said the warplanes used Saturday — based on type, location, munitions and flight patterns — had come from the Russian-operated Hmeimim base in coastal Syria.
The Britain-based monitor said at least 25 Russian strikes hit the rebel zones but did not have any casualty figures.

Russia, the United States, and Jordan agreed in July of last year on a de-escalation zone in rebel-controlled parts of southern Syria that would tamp down hostilities there.
Since then, Moscow’s warplanes — active in Syria since 2015 — had refrained from bombing rebel positions in the south.
But violence has been ratcheting up this week as Syrian government forces look to retake the south militarily.
Forces loyal to Assad began ramping up their air strikes and artillery fire on the zone on Tuesday.
At least 19 civilians in rebel-held zones have died since then, according to the Observatory.
Several civilians have also been killed in opposition fire on government zones, with state news agency SANA reporting Saturday that two civilians were killed in Daraa city in rebel shelling.
Some 12,000 people have been displaced from Daraa province in recent days, the Observatory said, with many seeking refuge in poorly-equipped displacement camps further west.
The United Nations has warned that growing violence is putting the lives of 750,000 people in rebel parts of the south in danger.
On Saturday, regime forces took two villages in Daraa province, their first ground gains after days of bombardment, the Observatory said.

“The Russian strikes started around 10:30pm local time (1930 GMT) and stopped after midnight,” said Ibrahim Mohammad, a media activist in the battered rebel town of Busr Al-Harir in Daraa.
He said he and other residents had taken to their basements and bomb shelters as soon as they heard the planes, describing a steady thud of bombardment for nearly two hours.
In an effort to avoid a deadly offensive, international powers are holding talks aimed at reaching a negotiated settlement for Syria’s south.
“All sides should seize the opportunity to negotiate a deal for the conditional return of the Syrian state to the south west and avert a military conclusion that, for all sides and the local population, would be a worse outcome,” wrote the International Crisis Group think tank last week.
“The US, Russia and Jordan, which brokered a south-western cease-fire in 2017, should urgently extend that truce in preparation for a broader settlement,” the report added.
Earlier this month, Assad said contacts were ongoing between Russia, the United States and Israel over the southern front.
“We are giving the political talks a chance, but if they fail, there will be no choice but liberation by force,” he said.
The regime has retaken large parts of Syria from the opposition since Russia intervened militarily on its side in 2015.