Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can't seem to unify the political factions within his own community, but there is one disparate group that he does have the ability to bring together: the American Jewish community.
Representatives from all sides of the pro-Israel NGO world all came together to meet with Abbas at a private dinner at the Newseum last night. The groups put aside their differences over Israeli tactics, U.S. pressure, treatment of Gazans, and treatment of the Israeli human rights community to show a united front to the Palestinian leader and get him to answer the questions on their mind.
Leaders of more hawkish groups like AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, the Conference of Presidents, Mort Zuckerman, Elliott Abrams, and Dov Zakheim broke bread with the more dovish likes of J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and Hillel.
The Cable spoke got the readout from multiple participants. Here's how it went:
Host Robert Wexler, president of the S. Danial Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and rumored next ambassador to Israel, opened with some short remarks. Abbas made a quick speech, and the rest of the two-and-a-half-hour session was all questions and answers.
Three topics dominated the questioning: how and when to move to direct talks, Palestinian "incitement" and how far Abbas would be willing to show both sides he was serious about peace, and to a lesser degree, what to do about Hamas.
The Gaza flotilla incident was not discussed. Nobody, including Abbas, brought it up.
Most participants we spoke with said Abbas gave mostly constructive answers, went further on explanations that he ever has before, and sometime gave as good as he got.
"I've never seen him as impressive," said one conservative participant. "You have to give the guy credit. He handled himself well in a den of lions."
Another participant, however, called Abbas "evasive" and said he failed to answer key questions.
But the Palestinian leader did relay the message from his meeting with Obama, which is that everyone must push faster toward direct talks. When participants asked him why he won't just agree to direct talks now, Abbas pointed back to the White House.
"He said, ‘This is what the administration asked me to do. How can I go further than the Obama administration?'" one participant remembered.
Abbas took the same tack regarding the fraught issue of Israeli settlements, saying the White House has asked the Israelis to stop settlements and defending his position as supporting Obama's.
"That's basically calling for preconditions again that the administration has rejected," one participant said, expressing skepticism that Abbas is really pushing for direct talks now.
Abbas did say something to the effect of, "nobody knows better than I that final peace can only be negotiated face to face."
Abbas continued to insist that the settlements issue is not a precondition to direct negotiations, but said that there needs to be progress made on core issues before he's ready to move forward with direct talks.
He also got in a couple good jabs, such as when he was asked why he won't do more to convince Israelis he's serious about peace. He pointed out that he had appeared on Israeli television, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to appear on Palestinian TV.
When asked if he would acknowledge Israel as a "Jewish state" as part of a peace deal, Abbas hedged, saying that Israel could identify itself however it wanted to, after the two states had been separated.
At one point, he said, "I recognize that West Jerusalem is the capital of Israel," a comment that perked up the ears of several participants.
Attendees asked Abbas why he hadn't done more to curb incitement against Israel among his own people. He defended a law passed against incitement, acknowledged it wasn't being well enforced, and then criticized Netanyahu for refusing to join his proposed trilateral commission on the issue.
"He didn't always give a straight answer; he didn't always give answer that people wanted to hear," one impressed participant admitted. "But I think he had a lot of guts for doing this. Would Bibi do the same thing with Palesinian community leaders?"