Abbas Wants Secret Israeli-Palestinian Talks for Peace

Julie Stahl | Jerusalem Bureau Chief | Friday, March 24, 2006

Abbas Wants Secret Israeli-Palestinian Talks for Peace

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has proposed to Washington and Israel that secret "back channel talks" be opened with the Palestinians to reach a final peace deal, he said in an interview published Friday.

Abbas said he believes there is a chance he can negotiate a final peace deal with Israel despite the fact that his parliament is dominated by Hamas, which calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.

Meanwhile, Israeli security forces are on high alert against the possibility that Palestinian terrorist groups might attempt to carry out attacks in the run-up to Israeli elections next week.

Israeli officials have said they see Abbas as "irrelevant" now that Hamas will be in control of the new Palestinian government.

Hamas has refused to recognize the State of Israel, abandon terrorism and abide by agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinians. Hamas officials have also rejected the idea of negotiating with Israel.

Following the Palestinian elections, "real political power and authority was unfortunately transferred to Hamas," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev.

Israel wants to negotiate and move forward in the peace process, said Regev, who questions whether there is a Palestinian partner for the process.

But Abbas said that he is still in charge and that there is a "partner for peace" on the Palestinian side.

"We are in a historic period, in which we must decide whether we will move toward peace and a better future for our children. I can promise that you have a partner for this peace," Abbas told the Israeli daily Ha'aretz in an interview published Friday.

Abbas said that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians could be carried out through the PLO, which signed the Oslo Accords with Israel in 1994. Those accords created the Palestinian Authority to govern the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Earlier this week, the PLO -- which Abbas also heads -- rejected Hamas' government platform, saying it was illegitimate. Hamas reacted by saying that the PLO had no right to reject the platform.

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he wants to establish Israel's borders within four years, preferably through negotiations with the Palestinians. But if there is no possibility for reaching an agreement, Israel would establish its borders unilaterally.

According to opinion polls, the Kadima party will likely garner the most votes in next week's parliamentary elections, and Olmert will lead the next government.

Abbas said that Olmert's unilateral plan might bring about a "10-year hudna [ceasefire] and a state with temporary borders," but it would not bring peace because the conflict would not be resolved.

According to Abbas, he made a proposal to former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and to Washington that Israel and the Palestinians open "a back channel of talks, far from the spotlight." He said he was convinced that an agreement could be signed between Israel and the Palestinians within a year.

Peres, who holds the second-highest position in the Kadima party, met with Abbas two weeks ago. He said on Thursday that his party was ready to open negotiations with the Palestinians according to the U.S.-backed road map peace plan "immediately after the elections" to establish the final borders.

"Unfortunately, the Palestinians are right now divided. Hamas is an impossible party. ... They don't want to negotiate," said Peres, who was one of the architects of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the early 1990s.

The question of negotiating with Abbas depends on how much power he really has, Peres stated.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Stewart Tuttle said he could not comment directly on Abbas' remarks but stated that Washington was interested in seeing a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as prescribed in the road map.

The U.S. still sees Abbas as a "relevant figure" and the president of the P.A., said Tuttle. The U.S. will continue to work with Abbas, he said.

In the meantime, Israeli forces are on heightened alert. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz extended the closure on Palestinian territories imposed last week, which bans Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza from entering Israel.

There are more than 50 warnings of planned terror attacks in Israel now, radio reports stated on Friday.

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