U.S. says ready to talk Mideast peace; Abbas calls for conference

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United States declared at the United Nations on Tuesday it was “ready to talk” with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who rejected U.S.-led Middle East peace efforts as “impossible” after Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

During a rare U.N. Security Council address, Abbas instead called for an international conference to be held by mid-2018 to kick-start the stalled peace process with Israel and create a “multilateral mechanism” to oversee it. He left the chamber before U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley spoke.

Palestinians view the Trump administration’s intentions on Middle East peace with deep skepticism after Trump reversed decades of U.S. policy and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and initiated the move of the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv.

“Our negotiators are sitting right behind me, ready to talk. But we will not chase after you. The choice, Mr. President, is yours,” said Haley, referring to Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, and U.S. Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt.

Kushner and Greenblatt are working on a new peace plan and met with the 15 Security Council ambassadors behind closed doors after the public meeting on Tuesday. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last week the plan was “fairly well advanced.” There has been little detail on the plan so far.

White House spokesman Josh Raffel said a peace plan would be presented “when it is done and the time is right.” But following Trump’s decision, the Palestinians no longer view the United States as a neutral negotiator.

“We met with the President of the United States, Donald Trump, four times in 2017, and we have expressed our absolute readiness to reach a historic peace agreement,” Abbas said. “Yet this administration has not clarified its position. Is it for the two-state solution, or for one-state?”

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Israel considers all of Jerusalem to be its capital. The Palestinians want the eastern part of the city as the capital of a future independent state of their own that would include the West Bank and Gaza.

Jerusalem is home to sites holy to Muslims, Jews and Christians.

The Trump administration has given qualified support to the two-state solution, saying it would back it if the parties agreed to it.

Abbas, who shunned a visit by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to the region last month, said the conference should include the Palestinians, Israel, the five permanent U.N. Security Council members - the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France - the European Union and the United Nations.

French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre said Paris was open to studying Abbas’ suggestions. Deputy British U.N. Ambassador Jonathan Allen described U.S. leadership on the issue as “indispensable.”

Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Danny Danon said Abbas was part of the problem, not the solution, and that the “only way to move forward is direct negotiations” between Israel and the Palestinians.

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Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the so-called Quartet - made up of the United Nations, the United States, Russia and the EU - and the League of Arab States could play a role in kick-starting the stalled peace process.

Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Jonathan Oatis