Mohammed Abbas, Reuters
LONDON — Britain condemned Israeli settlements on Monday as “deliberate vandalism” of efforts to establish a Palestinian state, bolstering Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as negotiators attempt to revive moribund peace talks.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s comments were some of Britain’s strongest yet on the Middle East’s most intractable conflict, and come as Abbas tours Europe while negotiators from both sides undertake initial discussions on resuming full talks.
The exploratory discussions began on January 3 and followed a long break in negotiations after Abbas suspended talks 15 months ago over Israel’s expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West bank, where Palestinians want to found a state.
All parties to the talks have accepted the ultimate goal of a “two-state solution,” which would see a Palestinian state established alongside Israel. The sides remain divided over its borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees and other issues.
Israel says such issues can be resolved only at talks with no preconditions. Palestinians say Israel must first halt settlement building, which they believe moves the goalposts while talks are under way and gives Israel incentive to stall.
“Once you place physical facts on the ground which make it impossible to deliver what everyone has for years agreed is the ultimate destination, then you do immense damage,” Clegg told reporters during a visit to London by Abbas, referring to settlements interfering with the two-state solution.
“It’s an act of deliberate vandalism to the basic premise upon which negotiations have taken place for years and that is why we have expressed our concerns as a government in increasingly forceful terms,” he said.
He prefaced his comments by saying there was no stronger supporter of Israel than himself.
In February last year, Britain and almost all other members of the United Nations Security Council backed a resolution condemning settlement building as illegal and a major obstacle to peace.
The resolution was vetoed by the United States, which says it wants Israel to stop settlement construction but believes international condemnation is unhelpful.
Abbas, who is also due to visit Berlin and Moscow, welcomed the deputy prime minister’s comments.
“This is exactly what we had wanted to hear officially from government of the United Kingdom,” he said, speaking next to Clegg. He reiterated his call for a halt to settlement building.
Abbas did not say why he was considering returning to the negotiating table now despite continued settlement building, but Clegg said the Arab Spring had ushered in a period of change that could make negotiations more fruitful.
“If there was any time for real progress, then it is now at a time when so much change and transformation has taken place throughout the region,” Clegg said.
Abbas said he had received no new proposals from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but that Palestinian negotiators were still scheduled to meet their Israeli counterparts two or three more times.
The “Quartet” of international peace mediators – the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations – sought in October to revive the peace talks, which broke down weeks after they began in 2010.
The group wants the two sides to state their positions on the borders and security arrangements of a future two-state solution by January 26.
Last week, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a hardline coalition partner to Netanyahu who is often sidelined in statecraft, dismissed the newly rekindled diplomatic contacts.
“They (the Palestinians) are preparing a groundwork of excuses to shift responsibility for the talks’ failure to Israel,” he said, according to an official transcript of a parliamentary briefing.
Transcript: PM and President Mahmoud Abbas Speech
Monday 16 January 2012
PM: “Britain and the Palestinian Authority have very good and strong relations.”
Prime Minister David Cameron:
“Well, it’s a great pleasure to welcome President Abbas back to Number 10 Downing Street. Britain and the Palestinian Authority have very good and strong relations and last year we upgraded our diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority.
Britain wants to see a two-state solution come about. We are passionate about this; we do everything we can to push and promote this agenda at every available opportunity. I spoke to the Israeli Prime Minister after the New Year and I am delighted to have the Palestinian President here today.
We believe the peace talks that have begun in Jordan do provide an opportunity – an opportunity we hope that both sides will pursue. We think this is absolutely vital.
Obviously, as a friend of Israel and a friend of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people, we want to see a strong, democratic, peaceful Israel alongside a strong, democratic and peaceful Palestine. We believe that is achievable, but we can’t achieve it without the two parties coming together and talking and discussing. In the end, this two-state solution can only come about from the two parties talking to each other. We cannot want it more than you want it.
So, we wish you well. We will do everything we can to help promote these discussions. We think that time, in some ways, is running out for the two state solution unless we can push forward now, because otherwise the facts on the ground will make it more and more difficult, which is why the settlement issue remains so important.
But we wish you well; we hope the talks can continue and we hope that the two-state solution that we strongly support can be achieved and we say that as a friend of Israel but also a very strong friend of the Palestinian people, the Palestinian Authority, and indeed as major donors to the Palestinian Authority and the institutions that you are so successfully building up. But President Abbas, you are very welcome here again.”
President Mahmoud Abbas (via interpreter):
“Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you very much Prime Minister. We are indeed very happy to be here and I would like to thank you for the invitation. And I would like to thank you also on behalf of the populace, on your stance vis-á-vis Palestine, on your support for the solution which we also – the two-state solution.
You have indeed played a very, very important role in building our Palestinian institutions and this we can witness through the assistance that you have been offering us.
Of course, nothing can be achieved without negotiations. As you know, there are negotiations going on right now because of the initiative that King Abdullah II of Jordan has taken. We are optimistic about those negotiations and at the same time we hope that there will be something tangible as a result of these negotiations.
Of course, time is of the essence; there must be speed, we must be fast in achieving those things because the settlements and the whole thing will go on – seeing the settlements going on, is going to help everything; it’s what stands in the face of everything at the same time. So, settlements have to stop. Settlements have to stop in order for us to be able to continue our negotiations; to come to some sort of solution and a solution which will encompass the vision of the Palestinian state to come in the future.
I personally know very well that you have a very balanced relationship, be that towards Israel or the Palestinian Authority. This at the same time is of great importance because you could play a political role, so to speak, so that we can find the balance that we all want to seek. We always need your help, sir. As we need your help and I am indeed very happy to be here with you.”