On the eve of a planned United Nations Security Council vote on a resolution condemning Israeli settlement activities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, President Obama called his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, on Thursday to discuss the measure.
Palestinian sources said Obama tried to dissuade Abbas from proceeding with the resolution, which the U.S. strongly opposes on grounds that it will obstruct efforts to resume Palestinian-Israeli negotiations suspended since September.
Abbas’ spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, confirmed that the conversation took place and said it went on for over 50 minutes. He said the two leaders discussed the situation in the Middle East, particularly developments in Egypt and Tunisia, as well as the anti-settlement resolution.
Palestinian officials said the resolution was submitted to the Security Council on Wednesday for discussion and a vote by Friday. The resolution condemns Israeli settlement activities in the West Bank and calls for a total halt to settlement construction in the region, including East Jerusalem.
Earlier Thursday, Abbas said he decided to go to the Security Council after the Middle East quartet, which is made up of the U.S., the European Union, Russia and the U.N., had failed in its last meeting in Munich, Germany, to condemn Israeli settlements and recognize the 1967 lines as the borders of a future Palestinian state.
Abu Rudeineh said Abbas has summoned the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee and his Fatah party’s Central Committee for an urgent meeting on Friday to discuss the Obama conversation.
"President Abbas, and after a long telephone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama, has called members of the Palestinian leadership to a quick and urgent meeting to discuss the latest developments that were the subject of discussion with President Obama," he said.
Sources said Abbas wants to discuss with the Palestinian leaders Obama's ideas regarding the resolution, which Palestinian officials have already said does not rise to the level of their expectations.
Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad Malki said the U.S. has tried to convince the Palestinians to withdraw their Security Council proposal, but without success. He said the proposed U.S. alternative to the Palestinian resolution would not make them change their minds.
The U.S. apparently tried to persuade the Palestinians to accept a nonbinding statement by the Security Council condemning Israeli settlements and calling for resumption of negotiations based on the June 1967 borders, but not a state based on those borders.
Malki said a U.S. veto of the proposed Security Council resolution would seriously hurt Washington's already shaky credibility in the region, particularly because the declared U.S. position is that the settlements are illegal and an obstacle to peace and that Israel should stop them.
If Abbas, on the other hand, accepts a watered-down U.S. proposal on settlements, he might hurt his standing at home, particularly as the Arab street is up in arms against the traditional leadership.
In Ramallah, over 1,000 Palestinians demonstrated in the city center on Thursday under the slogan "the people want an end to division." This movement, if it grows, may become a serious concern for the Palestinian Authority as its demands may go beyond just a call for unity.
As a way to cool down rising uneasiness in the street, Abbas has called for presidential and legislative elections in the Palestinian territories before September. Analysts say he's hoping that this move would shift the pressure to his arch rival, the Islamist Hamas movement, which ousted his forces from the Gaza Strip and took control of it in June 2007. Hamas opposes elections, including local elections scheduled for July 9.
But before people were able to swallow the idea of national elections, Abbas said Thursday that elections would not be held without the Gaza Strip, knowing very well that Hamas would not allow them to be held in its territory.
For the Palestinian people, this means no elections, indefinitely.
-- Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank