Abbas says talks can continue if settlement building stops

PA president says security cooperation between Israel, Palestinians will not be impacted if negotiations collapse

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas holds a press conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 22, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/ PPO/THAER GHANAIM)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas holds a press conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 22, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/ PPO/THAER GHANAIM)

RAMALLAH – The Palestinians will extend negotiations with Israel by nine months on condition that Israel agrees to immediately commence discussing the borders of the future Palestinian state and freeze settlement construction, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said on Tuesday. He stressed, however, that security coordination with Israel will continue regardless of the negotiations’ outcome.

Speaking to Israeli journalists in Ramallah on Tuesday afternoon, Abbas said he had rejected an Israeli demand to deport a number of pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners — some of whom hold Israeli citizenship — expected to be released by Israel as part of a commitment to US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Wishing the Israelis a happy Passover in Hebrew, Abbas said that the sole Palestinian demand for extending negotiations beyond their original April 29 deadline, following the release of the remaining 30 pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners still jailed by Israel, is that Israel agree to discuss borders for a period which will not exceed three months, during which time Israel will entirely freeze construction of Jewish homes beyond the Green Line.

“If Israel believes in the two-state solution, let us sit at the table and see where Israel is. In other words, let’s define the borders,” Abbas said.

The Palestinians have repeatedly bemoaned Israel’s reported refusal to present any maps delineating its borders throughout the recent negotiation rounds, which began in late July 2013.

Abbas said that Israel had not agreed to freeze settlement construction to extend negotiations, but only to freeze planning [of new housing projects] and new tenders.

“We do not accept this. It is dishonest because of thousands of settlements currently in the pipeline not included in the tenders and planning. Give us this demand, and we are prepared to discuss borders and the other final status issues for an additional nine months.”

Abbas said he “did not want to continue the conflict [with Israel] for eternity, but rather end the conflict in a respectable agreement which will fulfill the minimal Palestinian demands for justice. “Any other agreement,” Abbas warned, “could lead to a new outburst of violence in two years, which we do not want.”

In his largely conciliatory appeal to the Israeli public in which he quoted former Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion, Abbas said he did not seek to isolate Israel in the international arena through unilateral bids to join UN treaties and agreements, but rather reach an honorable peace agreement establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

“We do not want to isolate Israel, nor do we want to alienate it from its immediate surroundings. We want to end a painful episode in the history of our nations and turn a new leaf.”

Regardless of the outcome of negotiations, Abbas insisted, Palestinians would not stop security coordination with Israel “as long as I’m around.”

“I do not consider security coordination with Israel to be shameful,” Abbas said, referring to statements by Hamas officials claiming exactly that. “I consider this coordination obligatory. It is obligatory whether or not negotiations exist, whether they succeed or whether they fail.”

He also condemned the recent killing of Israeli police officer Baruch Mizrachi on April 14.

“This is a mistake and a crime. Sixty Palestinians were also killed, that’s a mistake and a crime. We hope it will not repeat itself.”

Responding to reports that he would dismantle the PA should talks fall apart, forcing Israel to reclaim responsibility for all aspects of Palestinian civil life in the West Bank, including health, education and even security, Abbas denied that he intended to dissolve the administration, but presented the collapse of the PA as the inevitable outcome of Israel’s policies towards it.

“If Israel intends to continue its policy towards the PA … the PA will have no authority, because all political, logistical and economic prerogatives will have been stripped from it,” Abbas said. “If Israel continues like this, let it come and take [responsibility] for the PA.”

The press conference came as Palestine Liberation Officials were headed to Gaza to discuss reconciliation with Hamas. Abbas refused to accept the choice voiced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu between reconciliation with the Islamist group and negotiations with Israel.

“Hamas and us are one people,” he said. “Political differences exist within Israel … but I deal with one man named Benjamin Netanyahu, the elected prime minister of Israel. Therefore, When I turn to Hamas, that does not mean I’m turning my back on Israel.”

Responding to a question by The Times of Israel as to whether he asked Israel to absorb a portion of the 600,000 Palestinian refugees fleeing fighting in Syria, Abbas said Israel agreed to allow those Palestinians into the West Bank and Gaza on condition that they explicitly renounce their right to return to Israel proper, a demand he dismissed.

“Today there is talk with Egypt that some 100 refugees living there could enter Gaza without Israel’s agreement, through the tunnels. There are 1,500 tunnels … it is possible that if Egypt agrees, they will return to Gaza.”

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