RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas held a rare meeting Sunday with dozens of Israeli lawmakers, ex-generals and peace activists, urging them to tell the Israeli public that he opposes violence and is committed to reaching a peace deal.
The outreach, over a lunch of meat and rice at Abbas' West Bank headquarters, appeared aimed at generating domestic pressure on Israel's hardline prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, at a time when U.S.-led peace efforts seem hopelessly bogged down.
Many of the Israeli participants were veterans of two decades of failed peace efforts and exchanged hugs and greetings with their Palestinian counterparts. However, the visitors also included some from Israel's nationalist camp, including activists from Netanyahu's Likud Party, a confidant of the founder of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party and several ultra-Orthodox journalists.
After the speeches, the Israelis excitedly crowded around Abbas to talk and have their pictures taken.
Binyamin Lipkin, editor of an ultra-Orthodox newspaper, said he felt Abbas was sincere and that he would deliver the president's message to his readers. "He is the last remaining partner for Israel," Lipkin said.
In recent months, Abbas has pushed to directly reach the Israeli public and has also met with Jewish American leaders. In the Israeli media, the Palestinian president is often portrayed as a well-meaning but weak leader who cannot deliver a peace deal.
In his remarks Sunday, Abbas reassured his audience that under his leadership, Palestinians remain committed to nonviolence and that he is sincere about reaching a peace agreement.
Netanyahu has urged Abbas to resume direct talks that broke down in September, but Abbas has said he cannot do so without a freeze in Israeli settlement building. Netanyahu has refused to do so, and the U.S. has not presented a way out of the deadlock that is acceptable to both sides.
The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem – territories Israel captured in 1967 – but have said they are willing to swap some land to enable Israel to keep some of its larger West Bank settlements.
Despite the difficulties, Abbas said his priorities have not changed.
"We are ready to conclude peace, to have our state in the 1967 borders," he said.
Abbas said the Palestinians have undergone a transformation since their uprising and Israel's harsh reprisals left thousands dead. "We changed the culture of terror and violence into a culture of peace and stability here in the West Bank in the last four years," he said.
"We do not want to miss this opportunity," he told the Israelis. "We don't want to miss it. Please help us not to miss it. I have eight grandchildren. I want a peaceful life for them."
Amram Mitzna, a former leader of Israel's Labor Party, said he believes Israeli public opinion has become more accepting of the idea of Palestinian statehood.
"The historic debate over what should be the agreement between us and the Palestinians is behind us," he said. "Therefore, this meeting is important. It gives hope, despite a difficult reality."
Still, Israelis remain deeply divided over a possible partition of Jerusalem and the extent of possible land concessions.
Also Sunday, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch said in a report that Israel systematically stifles the development of Palestinian communities in the West Bank and east Jerusalem while fostering the growth of Jewish settlements on those lands.
In a 166-page report, the group urged the U.S. to slash aid to Israel because of what it said are blatantly discriminatory practices.
Israel has built dozens of settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem over the past four decades to buttress its control there. The international community considers the settlements to be illegal.
Late Sunday, Netanyahu criticized what he called the "hypocrisy of human rights organizations that turn a blind eye to the most repressive regimes in the world ... and instead target the only liberal, democracy in the Middle East."