RAMALLAH - If diplomatic stagnation continues after the Israeli election and construction in the settlements doesn't stop, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will dismantle the PA and return responsibility for the West Bank to the Israeli government, he told Haaretz in an interview on Thursday.
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Abbas also claimed that since the PA achieved nonmember state with observer status at the United Nations last month, Israel has reduced its security cooperation with the PA in the West Bank.
"If there is no progress even after the election I will take the phone and call [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu," Abbas said. "I'll tell him, 'my dear friend, Mr. Netanyahu, I am inviting you to the Muqata [the PA presidential headquarters in Ramallah]. Sit in the chair here instead of me, take the keys, and you will be responsible for the Palestinian Authority."
"Once the new government in Israel is in place, Netanyahu will have to decide -- yes or no," Abbas said.
The interview with Abbas took place after he held a meeting in the Muqata with Meretz chairman MK Zahava Gal-On in the run-up to the January 22 election.
During the election campaign, other parties, most notably the Likud and Labor, have been playing down the Palestinian issue as much as possible.
Gal-On, who came to the meeting with her diplomatic adviser, former career diplomat Ilan Baruch, discussed Meretz's diplomatic plan with the PA president. The party believes that Israel must recognize the Palestinian state and conduct talks with it to reach an agreement that will replace the Oslo Accords.
"Meretz supports the Palestinian initiative at the United Nations and believes that we must end the occupation and set up a Palestinian state," Gal-On told Abbas, urging him to reach out to the Israeli public directly to explain his reasons for going to the United Nations.
During the meeting with Gal-On, as well as during his interview with Haaretz, Abbas said that based on the opinion polls he's seen in the Israeli media, he is assuming that Netanyahu will be forming the next government. He said he would be willing to renew talks with Netanyahu immediately after the election, but would demand that Israel freeze construction in the territories for the duration of the talks, renew the transfer of tax proceeds that Israel collects on the PA's behalf, and release some 120 Palestinian prisoners who are imprisoned in Israel since before the 1993 Oslo Accords.
"These are not preconditions, these are commitments Israel already took upon itself in the past," said Abbas, and hinted that he needed some kind of gesture from Israel. "If Netanyahu will do these things, it would help [restart talks]. I only ask of him not to build [in the settlements] during the negotiations."
The PA president stressed that despite Israeli fears, he does not plan to exploit Palestine's new status as a UN nonmember state to bring charges against Israel before the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
"I won't do anything as long as there are diplomatic negotiations," he said.
"But if the stalemate continues, if there's no movement in the peace process, the building in the settlements continues and Israel won't release our money so that we can pay salaries, what's left for us to do?"
At this point, Saeb Erakat, head of the Palestinian negotiating team, who was sitting next to Abbas, interrupted, and said that a team of Palestinian and foreign lawyers were in the midst of preparing a legal opinion and recommendations regarding how to proceed with regard to the ICC, and that a summary document would be presented to Abbas in February.
"As far as we're concerned, all possibilities are on the table," said Abbas after Erekat's remark. "But we won't act or do anything until we're certain there's no reason to wait any longer."
Abbas discussed the deteriorating security situation in the West Bank in the weeks since the General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood, saying he had ordered the Palestinian security forces to prevent violent acts against Israel.
"We will not permit a third armed intifada, only nonviolent resistance," he said.
During his meeting with Gal-On, Abbas said that since the vote making Palestine a nonmember state, it was actually Israel that had started to reduce its security cooperation with the Palestinians, as part of its punitive measures against the PA.
"The Israeli government has taken 50 different steps since the UN move," Abbas told Gal-On. "The Israeli military has started to raid Palestinian cities without coordinating with our security forces. They don't ask permission and don't even let us know in advance."
The secretary-general of the PA presidency, Tayeb Abdul Rahim, who also attended the meeting, intervened and said that during the past three months Israel had arrested 200 members of the PA security forces, though most were released after a brief questioning.
During the interview, Abbas responded to Netanyahu's attacks against him for trying reconcile with Hamas.
"Hamas is a reality," Abbas said. "Israel itself understands this when it speaks to Hamas in Gaza. "
He added that his security forces had approved demonstrations by Hamas in several West Bank cities recently because to have blocked the demonstrations would be undemocratic.
With that, he stressed that the PA security forces had not stopped foiling Hamas terror activities.
"If they smuggle weapons or explosives or launder money, we arrest them immediately," Abbas said. "We've done this many times and we've confiscated weapons that were smuggled to Hamas men from Israel. We will not allow Hamas or any other organization except for the security forces to have weapons."