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Wednesday May 22nd, 2019 11:23AM

Kushner's Mideast peace push met with Palestinian skepticism

By The Associated Press
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RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Presidential adviser Jared Kushner met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Thursday to try to jumpstart moribund peace talks, but after months without progress the Mideast envoy faces growing skepticism on the Palestinian side.

With no clear vision for peace outlined by the administration and domestic issues distracting President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, expectations for the new peace push are low.

The Palestinians initially welcomed Trump's election, but they have since grown impatient with what they say is a failure by the U.S. president to present a roadmap for peace. Specifically, they are seeking a halt to Israeli settlement construction on occupied lands, and an American commitment to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state as part of a peace deal with Israel.

"If the U.S. team doesn't bring answers to our questions this time, we are going to look into our options because the status quo is not working for our interests," said Ahmad Majdalani, an aide to Abbas.

It was not clear whether Kushner offered any clarity during his three-hour meeting with Abbas. Nabil Abu Rdeneh, Abbas' spokesman, called the meeting "positive," without discussing details, and said the Palestinian leader had reiterated his desire for an American commitment to a Palestinian state.

The White House later said both sides agreed the U.S.-talks were the best step forward. "The Palestinian Authority and the U.S. delegation had a productive meeting focused on how to begin substantive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Both sides agreed to continue with the U.S.-led conversations as the best way to reach a comprehensive peace deal," the statement said.

Abbas said ahead of the meeting the Palestinian side appreciated Trump's efforts. "We know things are difficult and complicated, but nothing is impossible with good intentions," he said.

Trump took office with hopes of striking what he calls the "ultimate deal" between Israelis and Palestinians — a goal that has eluded administrations before his dogged by the same intractable issues. But he has since given few details of his vision for peace, managing to frustrate both sides.

Kushner, Trump's chief Middle East adviser and his son-in-law, met Netanyahu in Tel Aviv earlier Thursday before traveling to Ramallah later in the day to meet with Abbas. Kushner is expected to return to the U.S. on Friday.

Before his meeting with Kushner, Netanyahu spoke optimistically of the road ahead.

"We have a lot of things to talk about, how to advance peace, stability and security in our region, prosperity too," Netanyahu said, standing alongside Kushner. "I think that all of them are within our reach."

A statement from Netanyahu's office after the meeting said the talks were "substantive" but gave no details on progress or further steps.

On the campaign trail, Trump took a staunchly pro-Israel line, energizing Netanyahu and hard-liners in his coalition. He promised to relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a move welcomed by Israel and opposed by the Palestinians — and refused to endorse the Palestinian goal of independence. His platform played down the significance of Israeli settlements and he surrounded himself with advisers with deep ties to the settlement movement, including Kushner and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman.

But since taking office, Trump decided not to move the embassy and has urged Israel to restrain settlement construction.

He has not come out in support of the two-state solution, a position backed by most of the international community and also his Republican and Democratic predecessors, indicating vaguely that he supports whichever solution the sides agree to.

Disappointed Palestinian officials privately gripe that Trump's team has begun to support Israeli positions and ignore their concerns.

Further complicating any hope for progress are internal troubles for all three leaders. Trump's administration has become preoccupied with a series of domestic crises, most recently the fallout from the deadly racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this month.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, is facing a growing corruption investigation that could soon lead to an indictment against him. These legal troubles, along with Israeli concerns about a possible long-term Iranian presence in neighboring Syria, make it unlikely that he will agree to any major diplomatic initiative.

After years of on-and-off peace efforts that have yielded no progress, Abbas is deeply unpopular at home. He also is stuck in a bitter rivalry with the Islamic militant group Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip from his forces a decade ago and is now pursuing a reconciliation deal with Mohammed Dahlan, a former Abbas ally who has turned into his political nemesis.

Since the collapse of U.S.-mediated peace talks three years ago, the sides have grown further apart and have been plagued by repeated rounds of violence, including a war between Israel and Hamas and recurring low-level violence sparked by tensions over a contested Jerusalem site holy to both Jews and Muslims.

Israel, meanwhile, has increasingly shifted its sights toward a regional deal with certain Arab countries, rather than one focusing solely on the Palestinians, an approach Trump has expressed support for.

"The time has come for a regional approach," Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely told Israel Radio. "That is the thinking guiding President Trump and the prime minister of Israel, and so our message to the Palestinians is that time is working against them."

___

Associated Press writer Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.

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