Defense Minister Ehud Barak this weekend criticized the way Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have handled relations with the Palestinian Authority over the last four years, telling Haaretz in an interview: "The last government should have done much more to advance the peace process vis-a-vis [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas."

Barak also welcomed the conciliatory statements made by Abbas to Channel 2 interview on Thursday, whereby he declared that as long as he remains in power, he will not allow a third intifada to break out.

Abbas admitted in the interview that as a Palestinian refugee from Safed he wants to return to the city, but said only as a tourist, because Safed is part of Israel. "I believe that the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine. And the other parts are Israel," Abbas said. "Now and forever".

Barak said in an interview with Haaretz that Abbas' remarks were very courageous in light of the PA leader's political situation vis-a-vis Hamas. The defense minister termed the TV interview "very important because of its clarity" and because it was broadcast on "the channel that reaches more homes in the country than any other."

President Shimon Peres also reacted positively, saying Abbas' remarks should be taken seriously because "they accord with the position of the majority of the Israeli public, which supports the two-state solution."

Netanyahu, however, condemned Abbas and hinted that his remarks were aimed at deceiving the Israeli public. "There is no connection between the Palestinian Authority chairman's statements and his actual actions," read a statement issued by the Prime Minister's Office last night. It went on to say that Abbas "has refused to renew the negotiations with Israel for four years."

Among other reactions to Abbas' statements, Labor Party chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich, in a clear appeal to right-wing voters, was restrained. "A retreat to the 1967 border is inconceivable," she said, adding that the Palestinian leader's promise not to permit a third intifada to erupt was "satisfactory."

Political newbie Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party is also targeting Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu voters, declined Haaretz's requests for his reaction to the Abbas interview.

In the interview Barak noted, though, that Abbas was not perfect and bore much of the responsibility for the stalled negotiations, calling "in error" the PA president's categorical rejection of all West Bank construction. "I told him a few times that when I was in talks with Arafat we built four times more in the settlements than now, and that when Olmert talked with him in Annapolis we built twice as much as today," Barak said.

But Barak laid part of the blame for the absence of talks at the door of Netanyahu's government, which he has served as defense minister for the past four years. Barak said Netanyahu claimed to support unconditional negotiations but did little to advance the peace process.

Barak stressed that despite his close cooperation with Netanyahu on the Iranian nuclear topic, he took issue with the prime minister when it came to the Palestinians, and made his own views clear in every meeting of the security cabinet. Barak repeated several times that if the international community saw Israel trying to make progress with the Palestinians, this would help in creating a worldwide consensus on the Iran issue.

"We have responsibility in the long term," Barak said, adding, "I did not succeed in getting the cabinet to deliberate in a deeper manner with the Palestinians. Many figures in Likud do not mean what I mean when they say negotiations without preconditions. I told Netanyahu all the time that we had to take ourselves in hand and present a policy initiative, without the petty games, and to say clearly what we are willing" to accept.

When asked why he did not do more as defense minister to advance the peace process, Barak cited the balance of political forces within the Netanyahu government. "When Lieberman is a major force in the government and the Likud representation in Knesset looks the way it does, that is the situation," Barak said.

He added that the Palestinian issue must be given a more central spotlight in the current elections campaign, as violence could resurge should the diplomatic freeze ensue. "Economy and society are important," Barak said, "but calm in Judea and Samaria is like health – you don't feel just how crucial it is until it's no longer missing… to say we can maintain this equilibrium for so many years is a very erroneous way to read reality. We are on borrowed time."