Mahmoud Abbas caught up in Israeli election row as comments distorted

The Palestinian president expressed hope that the next Israeli government would be more open to meeting

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures as he speaks during a meeting with the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank July 25, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with two members of the Israeli left-wing Democratic Camp alliance in Ramallah Tuesday, sparking controversy after a media outlet reportedly misquoted his comments about the Israeli Prime Minister.

The event momentarily put Mr Abbas, 84, who is often absent from the news, in the centre of Israel’s electoral brawl ahead of elections in September.

Israeli Knesset Member Issawi Friej and Noa Rothman - the granddaughter of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995 - met with Mr Abbas in the presidential compound to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is rare for Israelis to visit Ramallah, as they are generally barred from doing so.

Mr Friej and Ms Rothman are members of the newly-formed Democratic Camp alliance between the left-wing Meretz Party, Stav Shafir, a social activist and former member of the Labour Party, and Ehud Barak, a previous Prime Minister now re-entering electoral politics. It hopes to play a part in unseating Mr Netanyahu, who is facing corruption charges.

During the meeting, Mr Abbas said he had requested meetings several times with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but his Israeli counterpart had refused.

Mr Abbas also expressed hope that the next Israeli government, to be elected in September, will be more open to meeting.

Following the event, Ms Rothman tweeted criticism of Mr Netanyahu, saying he was stalling the peace process.

“It is Netanyahu, who through his lack of action and ignoring of the Palestinian problem, who is proving again and again that he himself is not a partner for creating peace for the coming generations,” she tweeted.

Tuesday evening, Mr Netanyahu tweeted out a story from the Jerusalem Post, a local English newspaper, with the headline, “Abbas expresses hope Netanyahu will be defeated in election,” declaring the piece gave voters another reason to vote for his Likud party.

Ms Rothman’s spokesperson said that Mr Abbas did not say this. Mr Abbas did not endorse a party or candidate, local journalists briefed on the meeting reported.

Nonetheless, Mr Netanyahu wrote on Twitter, “Abu Mazen [Mr Abbas] in a meeting with Meretz this evening:" I hope that Netanyahu will lose in the elections". If someone needed another reason to vote for Likud...”.

Mr Netanyahu won elections in April but failed to form a government, sending the country back to the ballot box..

“Fake,” tweeted back Israeli journalist Barak Ravid. “He didn’t say that.”

United States Middle East Envoy Jason Greenblatt also tweeted out the Jerusalem Post story, accompanied by the message: “Disingenuous to suggest negotiations stalled under this admin – there were no negotiations happening! It’s time for the PA to realise their tired arguments won’t achieve peace.”

Relations between the Palestinian leadership and the Trump administration have been icy since the US moved its embassy to Jerusalem in 2017 and soon after cut off aid to Palestinian refugees, among other moves. Mr Greenblatt’s team is working on a peace plan, an endeavour Mr Abbas has rejected as biased towards Israel.

The plan is not expected to endorse a two state solution and end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank along 1967 borders, the longstanding demand of the Palestinian leadership and, until now, US policy.