Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas doubts that any peace agreement can be reached by the end of 2008, as not one of the six key issues in a final-status arrangement has yet been resolved, but insists that any future deal will have to include the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Speaking to Haaretz on the 15th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords, Abbas said that Washington plays a central role in the peace process. Senior American officials are anxious to reach an agreement by the end of the year and are convinced this is possible.
However, the gaps between the parties remain wide.
"We presented our ideas and demands regarding the six issues," Abbas stated, "but have not received any answer from the Israeli side."
Among other things, the Palestinians are demanding negotiations over disputed lands claimed by both sides, such as the Latrun region, as part of their demand for an Israeli withdrawal from the entire West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, subject to territorial swaps.
Regarding the refugees, the Palestinian president said: "We understand that if all five million refugees return to their homes, the State of Israel will be destroyed." Nonetheless, he added, Israel must discuss both its responsibility for the refugee problem and a practical right of return.
From his remarks, it was apparent that he was trying to bring across the message that he is probably the best negotiations partner Israel can currently hope for. On one issue, however, he was adamant: the right of return. In any future peace deal, Israel will have to commit to absorbing Palestinian refugees, following negotiations over the numbers, he insisted.
"Palestinians who do not return to Israel will be able to return to Palestine," he continued. He also said a solution to the refugee problem would be based on the Arab peace initiative of 2002, which stated that the solution must be based on United Nations Resolution 194, but acceptable to Israel.
Abbas pointed out that every Muslim nation in the region, including Iran (prior to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election as president), adopted the Arab initiative. "I presented the document with the Iranian signature to Olmert, but he did not respond," Abbas said. "Regrettably, to this day no debate has been held by the Israeli cabinet."
Abbas stressed that he will not agree to an interim arrangement such as a state in temporary borders. Any agreement must address all the components of the conflict, including Jerusalem and the right of return, he said; therefore, "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed."
He concurred with Jordan's King Abdullah II, who told the French newspaper L'Express that he doubts Israel wants to resolve the conflict, as it lacks long-term vision. The outlines of an agreement are well known, he said, and Israel's internal political disputes are apparently the reason no progress has been made.
Under an Arab League proposal to reconcile Fatah and Hamas, Abbas said, all members of the Fatah-Hamas unity government would have to honor all agreements and commitments signed by the PLO, including the Arab initiative and the road map. He urged Israel to release all the Hamas parliamentarians it has jailed, saying: "We have made it clear to Israel that any peace agreement would involve the release of all Palestinian prisoners."
He also warned against the increasing strength of Al-Qaida in the territories and said the way to curb the organization's power is to end the blockade of Gaza, since suffering strengthens the extremists.
"Even today, I am sure I would sign the Oslo Accords," Abbas concluded. "I risked my life for peace, and if I have to pay for it with my life, it is still a marginal price."
He rejected calls from some leading Palestinian for a single state in which Palestinians would have equal rights. "We must stick to the 'two states for two peoples' solution. But the continued construction of settlements, the roadblocks, the raids in the West Bank distance it."
He emphasized that the West Bank and Gaza must be united, or there will be no Palestinian state. Nonetheless, he insisted that this must be achieved only through diplomatic means. "We erred when we made the second intifada into an armed struggle, and I will do everything to prevent a third armed intifada," he said.
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