Thursday, December 17, 2009

Peace possible within six months: Mahmoud Abbas

PALESTINIAN leader Mahmoud Abbas has declared that a final-status agreement between Israelis and Palestinians can be completed within six months if Israel freezes all construction in Jewish settlements and in East Jerusalem.

In the most optimistic timeframe given by any key player in the Middle East in recent times, Mr Abbas said he had put a fresh proposal to Israel's Defence Minster, Ehud Barak.

Mr Abbas made the comments in a wide-ranging interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Israel has announced a 10-month freeze on new construction in the West Bank but Palestinians say it is inadequate because it fails to include Arab-dominated East Jerusalem and allows for at least another 3000 new houses and public buildings to be built.

The Abbas comments suggest that East Jerusalem -- the most sensitive issue of all as both Israelis and Palestinians want Jerusalem as their capital -- is the major obstacle to new peace talks.

"But I demanded that construction stop . . . during this time, we can get back to the table and even complete talks on a final-status agreement. I have yet to receive an answer.

"They tell me I had not previously demanded a construction freeze in the settlements. True, in 1993 we didn't do so, but then there were no agreements about a freeze. Now there is the road map."

The road map was an agreement brokered in 2003 by the Middle East Quartet -- the UN, US, Russia and the European Union -- and backed by former US president George W. Bush. With the aim of a formal agreement by 2005 leading to a two-state solution, Israel agreed to halt all settlement activity and gradually withdraw from the West Bank while Palestinians agreed to cease all terrorist activities and incitement to violence against Israel and to improve security in the West Bank.

"So come and see what we did," Mr Abbas said in the interview. "The security situation throughout the West Bank is excellent. But what steps have you (Israel) taken so far?

"You have not met a single clause in the road map. You removed a few roadblocks and there are still 640. Every day there are arrests, house demolitions. I don't understand why. We have security co-ordination, so why do this?"

Mark Regev, the spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told The Australian yesterday that in a speech Mr Abbas gave in Arabic yesterday to a Palestinian conference, he included preconditions that he did not include in the interview.

"What is of concern to us is that yesterday in the speech in Arabic, Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) placed more reasons why we can't start negotiations," Mr Regev said.

"Up until now, he was talking about a settlement freeze. Now he is adding (a return to) 1967 borders. It's like we have to accept the outcome of negotiations before negotiations start. We are concerned that they are trying to avoid negotiations.

"The reason we haven't been negotiating is the Palestinians have been placing new preconditions on talks."

Asked about Mr Abbas's claim that he had put a proposal to Mr Barak and had not received any response, Mr Regev said: "Let's be fair: the 10-month cessation of new housing in the West Bank is unprecedented and has been called as such internationally.

"No Israeli government has ever gone so far.

"Internally in Israel, groups such as Peace Now have called it historic.

"Yet he (Mr Abbas) ignores it.

"It doesn't make sense to me."

The Australian

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