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Abbas invites Israeli lawmakers to lunch in Ramallah

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Even as Abbas's government stands firm on its refusal to return to peace talks without an Israeli settlement freeze, it is increasingly circumventing the negotiating table to build support for a Palestinian state.

Sunday's overture was the latest in a recent string of Palestinian leaders making personal forays into the Israeli media; Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's first one-on-one interview to an Israeli TV channel was broadcast this weekend, and recent billboards feature Palestinian negotiators with the slogan, "I am your partner."

Midway through the meal in Ramallah, visitors were given a booklet, "Meetings of President Mahmoud Abbas with Jewish leaders."

Such personal diplomacy has a powerful precedent in former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's 1977 visit to Jerusalem, which helped generate Israeli public support for territorial concessions that led to the 1979 Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt.

Israel doubtful Abbas can deliver

But Abbas, who faces a skeptical Palestinian public and Hamas rivals who favor violence over negotiations, must overcome questions in Israel about whether he has the strength and political will to deliver on a deal.

"Israel remains ready for a discussion of all the core issues with the Palestinians without any preconditions,'' says Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu, in a phone interview. "If the Palestinians sincerely want peace we fail to understand their refusal to engage.''

Abbas has also been accused by Israel of blocking talks by demanding a settlement freeze and other preconditions, and of preempting negotiations by asking other countries to recognize Palestinian sovereignty with or without a peace deal.

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