A peace deal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be achieved within less than a year, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas told Haaretz on Wednesday.

Speaking to Haaretz from the Muqata compound in Ramallah, Abbas said he had proposed to the United States to open covert negotiations for a final status settlement. The talks would be spearheaded by President George Bush, after the new Israeli government was set up.

Abbas said he had also raised the idea at a meeting with Shimon Peres (Kadima) two weeks ago in Jordan. However, a senior Palestinian source said Bush had not responded to Abbas' suggestion to pressure the new Israeli government to abandon its unilateral policy and resume the peace process.

Abbas said the Hamas government would not stop him from negotiating with Israel. If both sides reached an agreement, he would be the one to sign it and if necessary, would even put it to a referendum, he said. He said he would act to moderate Hamas and that at least one Hamas minister told him he would be ready to talk to Israel on ministerial issues.

Abbas said he feared Israel was not interested in negotiations and was avoiding them under the pretext of having no Palestinian partner.

The solution must be based on the 1967 borders, the PA chairman said, adding that he did not rule out territorial exchanges. He also said any solution to the refugee problem must be accepted by Israel.

Addressing the Israeli voter he said, "These are historic times. I can assure you that you have a peace partner. Perhaps this is the last chance to give both our nations the right to live safely. The future generations would not forgive us if we pass it up."