The Cable

PLO's man in Washington: No talks without settlement freeze

Following President Obama's latest meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last night, there is increasing sentiment in Washington the administration's intense efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations are at an impasse.

There are rumors that the White House is considering a pause in its shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East, a recognition that the administration goal to convince the Israeli government to impose a freeze on settlements might not be possible in the near term and the tumultuous situation inside the Palestinian Authority might prevent that side from sitting down at the table.

The Palestinian Authority, for one, is calling on the administration not to take a break in their initiative, while still acknowledging that there is wide space between the current atmosphere and one that could precede a resumption of talks.

"I don't think the administration can impose a pause on their activities. We heard that, it is not official or confirmed," said Ambassador Maen Rashid Areikat, PLO representative to the United States and head of the PLO mission in Washington, "The middle east conflict is too important an issue for the administration to abandon or to take a back seat, I think."

In an exclusive interview with The Cable, the PA's top man in Washington said that his government did not want to sit down with the Israelis unless there is total settlement freeze and unless all final settlement issues are on the table, including refugees, Jerusalem, settlements, security, water, borders, everything.

The Obama administration's process-focused strategy misses the mark, he said.

"I'm not saying that we are totally disappointed or that we have given up hope that there will be good preparation for any future resumption of negotiations, but we are making ourselves clear to the administration and others that this time around, it has to be done right. We cannot just get engaged in a process for the sake of a process. That will lead nowhere."

The Palestinians saw as a misstep, the remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her meeting in Israel with Netanyahu, where she appeared to endorse Netanyahu's idea of a partial settlement freeze and then later backed off those remarks.

"We were disappointed, we made that clear," Areikat said, adding that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made it clear to Clinton during their meeting in Abu Dhabi last week that there will be no return to negotiations or political contacts with the Israelis if settlements activities are not totally frozen.

He praised Special Envoy George Mitchell as "a very decent and insightful man of integrity," and said he was not the problem. New administrations make mistakes and Clinton's remarks were simply that.

"We still have confidence that this administration will do something to take things back in the right direction," Areikat said, "This is still a young administration, They have only been in power 10 months. We have to give them the benefit of the doubt."

Areikat said the announcement that he would not seek reelection would not effect his office's work on a day-to-day basis and that PA elections could come as early as Jan. 25. Hamas has pledged not to participate in such elections, placing their legitimacy at question. Akeikat said that no decision has been made by Abbas yet as to how to handle that situation.

He also criticized his Israeli counterpart Michael Oren, Netanyahu's ambassador to Washington, for comparing the writers of the Goldstone Report, which accuses Israel of war crimes in Gaza, to Holocaust deniers.

"This notion that accusing everybody who criticizes Israel as being an anti-semite and a Holocaust denier, I think we should go beyond that. These are clichés that we heard in the 70s and the 80s," Areikat said, "I think we should rise up. They are trying to play on the feelings of Jews around the world."

(Correction: Netanyahu's title corrected to "prime minister.") 

Photo: The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia

The Cable

USDA's Rajiv Shah to be named USAID head

Senate Foreign Relations chairman John Kerry promised swift proceedings for Rajiv Shah, President Obama's impending nominee for administration of the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

In an interview with The Cable, Kerry said he has been notified that the White House has chosen Shah, the USDA Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics and Chief Scientist, to head up USAID and will announce later today. Two administration officials also confirmed that the Shah announcement will come today.

"It's terrific, we'll move forward as soon as we can, I hope weeks," Kerry said. He said he wasn't aware of any objections on the Republican side. Kerry will meet with Shah in the coming days, he said.

When asked if personally supported Shah, Kerry said, "Basically, in principle, unless I come across something that says otherwise."

Shah, 36, previously helped launch the Global Development program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Development groups were quick to praise the selection but also to call for increased powers for the USAID administrator role, which is now under review.

"Congress should confirm Dr. Shah quickly," said Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) by Co-Chairs David Beckmann and George Ingram in a statement, "We are hopeful that his unique combination of knowledge about global health, agriculture, and other issues will allow him to provide a strong and indispensable development voice as major decisions are made about U.S. foreign policy."

They called for Shah to receive a seat at the National Security Council, a lead role in the State Department's Quadrennial Defense and Diplomacy Review, and they also implored the administration to return independent budget authority to USAID.

UPDATE: The nomination is now official. In a statement released to the press, President Obama said, “The mission of USAID is to advance America’s interests by strengthening our relationships abroad.   Rajiv brings fresh ideas and the dedication and impressive background necessary to help guide USAID as it works to achieve this important goal.  I am grateful for all that USAID has accomplished under the leadership of Acting Administrator Alonzo Fulgham, and the thousands of career men and women who fulfill USAID’s mission day in and day out – particularly their hard work in jumpstarting a landmark initiative to bring more than $20 billion for agriculture development to the world's most food-insecure countries.  I look forward to working with Rajiv in the months and years ahead.”