“I have to commend President Abbas,” Obama told reporters before their talks aimed at nudging his administration’s brittle Mideast peace effort ahead.
“He has been somebody who has consistently renounced violence, has consistently sought a diplomatic and peaceful solution that allows for two states, side by side, in peace and security – a state that allows for the dignity and sovereignty of the Palestinian people and a state that allows for Israelis to feel secure and at peace with their neighbors,” he added.
During his remarks, which lasted for just over four minutes, Obama made no mention of last week’s barrage of rockets, fired from the Gaza Strip at Israeli communities in the south, the most extensive such attack since 2012.
While the majority of the more than 70 rockets launched from Wednesday until the weekend were attributed to the Islamic Jihad, some were launched by the military wing of Abbas’ own Fatah organization, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.
On its website, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade said it fired 107mm rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot, and charged that the Palestinians were “witnessing an unprecedented beloved assault on our people and our leaders by the Zionist killing machine and charlatans of the descendants of apes and pigs.”
The State Department at the time condemned the rocket attacks, saying there was no justification for them and asserting that “Israel, like any nation, has a right to defend itself.”
The rocket barrage began on Wednesday afternoon, when 41 were fired, and more fell overnight, but it was not until Thursday afternoon that Abbas commented.
Speaking alongside visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron, Abbas condemned the rocket attacks, but also retaliatory Israeli airstrikes and the earlier killing – “in cold blood,” he said – of three Islamic Jihad fighters in Gaza. The Israeli military said they were targeted after firing mortars at Israeli soldiers across the border.
“We condemn the aggression and the military aggression with all its forms including the rockets,” Abbas said through an interpreter.
Before his meeting with Abbas, Cameron had met in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who told him, “You are going to visit President Abbas shortly. He has not condemned the firing of rockets on our citizens. How can you not condemn the firing of rockets on innocent civilians?”
When Israel and the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) agreed last July to resume U.S.-brokered talks over a nine-month period, Secretary of State John Kerry secured a pledge from Netanyahu to free 104 long-term Palestinian prisoners, in four batches, as a goodwill gesture.
The first three rounds of releases have taken place and, sitting alongside Obama in the Oval Office on Monday, Abbas said the P.A. was hopeful that the fourth round would occur by March 29, as that would be an indication of Israel’s seriousness.
When the last group of prisoners were released, two-and-a-half months ago, many Israelis were riled when Abbas gave them a heroes’ welcome at a public celebration. All but two of the 26 freed prisoners had been serving lengthy or life prison terms for murdering either Israelis or Palestinians accused of “collaborating” with Israel.
Kerry visited Israel two days after the release and welcoming ceremony, and during a joint press conference with him Netanyahu questioned Abbas’ commitment to peace.
“To glorify the murders of innocent women and men as heroes is an outrage,” Netanyahu said. “How can he say that he stands against terrorism when he embraces the perpetrators of terrorism and glorifies them as heroes?”
Kerry in his responding remarks did not comment on Abbas’ reception for the prisoners – apart from alluding to “the difficulties that the prime minister has just referred to” – and did not condemn the action.
He also commended both Netanyahu and Abbas for having “taken significant steps for peace.”
The Israeli foreign ministry recently released a document on what it called a “culture of hatred cultivated by” P.A. figures and official media outlets against Israel, including incitement to violence and demonization of Jews.
It also cited the veneration of terrorists, including Abbas’ posthumous awarding of the P.A.’s highest decoration to Abu Jihad, who as head of the PLO’s military wing was accused of planning attacks in which 125 Israelis were killed. At a ceremony last November, Abbas called Abu Jihad “the model of a true fighter and devoted leader.”
In 2010, Abbas gave a military funeral to one of the key planners of the PLO’s terrorist attack targeting Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972.