The transitional period between the signing of a peace agreement with Israel and the final withdrawal of all IDF troops from the West Bank cannot exceed three years, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said in an interview aired Tuesday.
The comments, taped in December and screened at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) annual conference in Tel Aviv, stand in contrast to Israel’s stated position, which is that a withdrawal will be staged over a long period of time, anywhere from 10 to even 50 years.
“Whoever proposes 10-15 years for a transition period does not want to withdraw,” Abbas said. “We said that a transitional period cannot exceed three years, during which Israel can withdraw gradually. We are willing to allow a third party take Israel’s place during and after withdrawal to soothe our concerns and Israel’s, and ensure both sides that things will continue as normal.”
Abbas proposed NATO as the third party. Israel has expressed opposition to a third-party security presence, saying it must retain a long-term presence in the Jordan Valley following any agreement – a position that is one of the main sticking points in the current negotiations.
During the interview – which received wide news coverage when it was first recorded, and then against last week as part of pre-conference publicity – Abbas, when asked how he would get Hamas to comply with an agreement, said: “Hamas is not a problem, just leave it to us.”
He did not rule out addressing the Knesset or inviting Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to speak to the Palestinian parliament, but gave no indication that this might take place anytime soon.
“I say to the Israeli people, we are neighbors, we have fought many wars against each other,” he stated when asked whether he could convey a message of hope or security to the Israeli people.
“I pray to God these wars are over,” he said. “We consider them and the use of force part of the past. We genuinely want peace with Israel and we can also bring peace between 57 Arab and Islamic states with you. We want the Israeli people to live in security in their state, and the Palestinian people can live in their independent sate.”
Abbas was interviewed by Gilead Sher, who heads INSS’s center for applied negotiations and, as chief of staff to then-prime minster Ehud Barak, served as Israel’s chief peace negotiator between 1999 to 2001, the period of the Camp David and, later, Taba negotiations.
Sher is leading an INSS team drawing up plans for a “coordinated unilateral” Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank in the event that the current talks with the Palestinians break down.
INSS head Amos Yadlin explained that this would likely entail the withdrawal to the security fence, with Israel holding on to some 15 percent of the territory, including the major settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley. He added that this type of move would only be feasible with support form the US, Britain, France and Germany, and stressed that it was not the preferred solution, but rather one Israel had to begin thinking about in the eventuality that the current round of talks leads nowhere.
Sher, speaking at the conference, said US Secretary of State John Kerry would likely present a paper that could lead to a continuation of negotiations, and possibly even interim agreements, but “certainly not lead to a permanent agreement, at least not in the foreseeable future. Therefore, we say let’s prepare a responsible alternative plan that can complete the negotiations and create two states for two peoples so we don’t deteriorate to a bi-national state that could be one of two things: either an unequal state or a Jewish-Palestinian one.”
In his interview of Abbas, Sher did not ask whether the agreement he envisioned would mean an end to the conflict and all Palestinian claims on Israel; why he was adamant in his refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state; and whether Israelis could remain in their settlements in the West Bank in a future Palestinian state.
During the session devoted to the negotiations, survey results were presented showing that both the Israeli and Palestinian publics would support an accord agreed upon and supported by their leaders.