RAMALLAH - If Israel completely halts construction in the settlements, negotiations with the Palestinians on a final-status agreement can be completed within six months, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told Haaretz Tuesday, adding that Israel needn't declare the freeze, just carry it out.
Abbas, who appeared self-assured and upbeat during the exclusive interview, said the Palestinians had no preconditions for talks with Israel but wanted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to meet his obligations to the road map, which calls for a cessation of construction in the settlements.
"I spoke with Defense Minister Ehud Barak twice over recent weeks," Abbas said. "I suggested to him three weeks ago that Israel freeze all settlement construction for six months, including in East Jerusalem, without declaring it, just carrying it out in practice. I want to emphasize: without even declaring [the freeze]. But I demanded a complete freeze of settlement construction."
"There are enough construction inspectors in the area," Abbas continued. "During this time, we can return to the negotiating table and perhaps even achieve 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," Abbas said.
"The road map made demands of all parties. We were required to stop terror attacks, recognize Israel and even stop incitement. So come and see what we did. Although the joint committee against incitement is no longer active, we did act and are acting against incitement. They said there is a problem with incitement in speeches in mosques during Friday prayers. Today there is no more incitement at any mosque," he said.
"The security situation throughout the West Bank is excellent. But what steps have you 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 coordination, so why do this?"
The interview, which took place in Abbas' office, was held shortly after he finished speaking to the Palestine Liberation Organization Central Council, which began a conference Tuesday. It was considered one of his best speeches, during which he amused the audience with several barbs, including calling Judge Richard Goldstone "Mohammed Goldstone."
He criticized his detractors in the PLO, American journalists and of course, Netanyahu. He also took Hamas to task for its handling of talks on freeing kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. He also called on Israel again to stop building in the settlements so talks could resume.
Abbas revealed some of the agreements he had reached with former prime minister Ehud Olmert.
"In one of the three-way meetings during the talks, former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was present. I asked her for fications regarding talks on the borders of the occupied lands. She said clearly that from the U.S. perspective this included the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley and the no-man's-land [the Latrun area]," he said.
"The next day, we started talking about maps. Olmert showed me one map and I brought back one of ours. He showed me a new map and I brought back a map of ours. And so it went. We agreed that 1.9 percent would be with you and Olmert demanded 6.5 percent. It was a negotiation, we didn't complete it. As a shopper enters a store, that's how we held the talks."
According to Abbas, a few days before Operation Cast Lead, he told then-U.S. president George W. Bush that despite extensive American efforts, the talks had not been completed.
"He asked me if it would be all right if on January 3 we sent [chief negotiator] Saeb Erekat, and Israel would send an envoy to complete the talks. But a few days before the departure for Washington, Saeb called Shalom [Turgeman, Olmert's political adviser] and said the situation did not allow it. Everything got stuck."
Abbas said discussions were held on refugees and Jerusalem, but no agreements were reached. "But let's say Olmert understood the way things stood. He also agreed to the approach that what was Arab would remain in Arab hands," Abbas said, referring to areas of Jerusalem.
"On the matter of the holy places, he proposed international monitors," Abbas said. He said he had agreed to an international force in the West Bank and Gaza after an Israeli withdrawal, and that "both sides had agreed to the presence of a third party."
"First I suggested NATO and Olmert said the Americans wouldn't agree. Then I proposed the European Union and he explained that they couldn't. Then we agreed to the presence of UNIFIL, led by the Americans. President Bush agreed to that, the Egyptians agreed and you agreed."
Asked whether talks are currently underway between Abbas and Netanyahu's team, he said the two leaders haven't been talking, but "talks are constantly underway between the parties on security and economic cooperation."
Is Abbas in favor of a deal to release Gilad Shalit? "I am responsible for the entire Palestinian people, and I am interested in completing this deal right away. I sent an official message to Israel that I am interested in this, including the release of Marwan Barghouti," Abbas said, referring to the Fatah leader currently in prison.
What would happen with Hamas-ruled Gaza if an agreement were signed between the Palestinian Authority and Israel? "Hamas has no connection to the negotiations for which I am responsible. We have said this in the past. Any agreement we reach, we will submit for a referendum," Abbas said.
When asked if he would run for reelection, Abbas said: "No. That is my final position. It is neither tactics nor maneuvering."
Although he said he respects the position of Fatah, which has asked him to stay in office, Abbas said that "if I can't reach my goals I see no reason to hold on to my chair. If there is progress in talks, that will be welcome. But if elections take place before talks resume, I will not be running."
That seems like a hint to Israel that if talks do not resume, it will have to deal with much more extreme figures after the next PA elections.
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