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Abbas renews call for peace conference in Moscow
By KHALED ABU TOAMEH
06/26/2012
PA president meets Russia's Putin in Bethlehem, requests Moscow's help releasing Palestinian prisoners in Israel.
 
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday renewed his call to hold an international peace conference in Moscow and said negotiations were the only way to achieve peace with Israel.

Still, Abbas holds fast to his stance that direct face to face negotiations can only occur once Israel freezes all settlement activity including Jewish building in east Jerusalem.

Abbas, who was speaking in Bethlehem after meeting with visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin, said he requested Moscow’s help in the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons, especially those who were imprisoned before the signing of the Oslo Accords.

Putin landed in Israel on Monday, and met with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres that day. After meeting with the Palestinians on Tuesday, he headed to Jordan.

Some Palestinians criticized Putin for not visiting Ramallah, the headquarters of the PA presidency, while others denounced his continued support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday that Iran’s participation was crucial to the success of a meeting on the escalating conflict in Syria, planned by UN-Arab league peace envoy Kofi Annan in Geneva this weekend.

Lavrov added that regardless of whether representatives from Iran were present, he would attend the international conference that Annan is attempting to organize on June 30 in Geneva.

“We are ready to go. Iran must be present. Otherwise the circle of participants will be incomplete and will not gather everybody who has influence on all Syrian sides,” Lavrov told reporters.

“I think [Iran] must be invited. There is an understanding [about this] among those who are most actively organizing [the conference],” he said, on the sidelines of Putin’s visit to Jordan.

Abbas said that Israel was refusing to release veteran prisoners although an agreement had been reached with the Palestinians.

He also denounced settlements as an obstacle to peace.

“We affirmed to his excellency [Putin] that negotiations are the only way to achieve peace between us and the Israelis,” Abbas said. “We say that it is important to hold a peace conference in Moscow, as had been agreed several years ago.”

Abbas said he also told Putin that the PA was keen on pursuing efforts to achieve reconciliation with Hamas.

Putin, for his part, described his talks with Abbas as constructive.

He said the talks dealt with the peace process, the situation in the Middle East and various projects between the Russia and the PA.

The Russian president, who toured the Church of Nativity earlier, said Moscow had no problem recognizing an independent Palestinian state, as it had already done so 25 years ago.

He made those comments just three days before the UN’s World Heritage Committee, of which Russia is a member, is set to vote on whether to add the church to its list of World Heritage sites.

If it does so, it would mark the first time that a site has been registered on that list to the country of Palestine. The PA can pursue such registration because in October the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization accepted Palestine as a member and awarded it full rights to all UNESCO-related bodies.

On Tuesday the Bethlehem municipality published an appeal to the committee urging it to place the church on the World Heritage list.

Putin hailed the inauguration in Bethlehem of a Russian scientific and cultural center.

The new center includes a theater with space for 340 people and a store for selling Russian goods, he said.

Abbas later made a surprise visit to the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, where he met with residents and walked through the camp’s narrow alleyways.

Tovah Lazaroff and Reuters contributed to this report.
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