AP Interview: US asks Palestinians to sit tight

Associated Press
CORRECTS PHOTOGRAPHER'S BYLINE   Palestinians gather during the funeral of Zakariya Abu Eram in the West Bank town of Yatta, near Hebron, Friday, March 9, 2012. According to the Israeli military, a Palestinian stabbed an Israeli soldier in the neck during a raid in the town of Yatta, seriously wounding him. The soldier opened fire, wounding the assailant and killing Eram who was not involved in the attack, witnesses said. The Israeli military claim he was the attacker's accomplice.  (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

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RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The Obama administration has told Palestinian leaders to expect little help with their statehood bid during the U.S. presidential campaign, the Palestinian foreign minister said Friday.

However, the Americans also held out the promise of vigorous U.S. mediation in the Mideast conflict if President Barack Obama is re-elected, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki said in an interview.

Palestinians are aware of the constraints of domestic U.S. politics and will act responsibly, Malki said, suggesting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would not take steps in the coming months that might damage his ties with Washington.

Even so, Malki said the Palestinians are keeping all options open, including some opposed by the U.S., such as reviving a bid to win U.N. recognition of a state of Palestine without waiting for renewed peace talks with Israel.

Abbas plans to send a letter to Benjamin Netanyahu holding the Israeli prime minister responsible for the failure to relaunch serious negotiations, Malki said. Copies of the letter will be sent to foreign leaders and Mideast mediators, Malki said.

The Palestinians hope the letter will help keep international attention focused on the conflict, Malki said.

Negotiations between Abbas and Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, broke off in 2008 after Israel's last offer was not accepted. Obama's efforts to revive the talks have failed.

Abbas says he will negotiate only if Israel freezes settlement building on occupied West Bank lands the Palestinians want for their state and recognizes the pre-1967 war lines as the starting point for talks on the borders of a future Palestine. In that war, Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the territories the Palestinians want for their state.

Netanyahu has rejected both demands, saying all disputes can be addressed in negotiations, including settlements.

Abbas says he needs firm ground rules for talks because the gaps between him and the hard-line Netanyahu are far wider than with the Israeli leader's predecessors.

Even before the U.S. election campaign heated up, Palestinian leaders had lost hope that Obama could, in his first term, exert the kind of pressure on Israel they believe is needed to resume serious peace talks.

With the campaign in full swing, the Palestinians have further lowered their expectations.

"Everybody was telling us, including the Americans, 'don't expect that much from us during the election year because the president will be focusing on how to be re-elected, and in order to do so, he should really shift his attention ... to other issues,'" Malki said. He did not say how those messages were delivered. Obama administration officials are frequent visitors at Abbas' headquarters.

This shift away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was highlighted during Netanyahu's White House meeting this week, which was dominated by discussion between the two allies on how best to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Asked whether Abbas hopes Obama — freed from some domestic political constraints if re-elected — would push hard for a resumption of serious negotiations with Israel, Malki said: "They (the Americans) told us so." He said the Obama administration asked Abbas to be patient until then.