Former prime minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday accused Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of deliberately strengthening Hamas in order to convince the Israeli public that there is no Palestinian partner for peace. Olmert's comments came after PA President Mahmoud Abbas made a rare verbal concession to Israel, saying he had no permanent claim on the town from which he left as a child during the War of Independence in 1948, in an interview with Channel 2.
"The government has taken steps to strengthen Hamas and to weaken the PA, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, an organization which espouses non-violence and negotiations for peace," Olmert said. "This kind of policy towards the only possible peace partner between us and the Palestinians is irresponsible and harms the vital interests of the State of Israel. The interviews that Abbas gave in recent days are proof to the Israeli public that we have somebody to talk to in order to end this bloody conflict between our nations, which has lasted far too long."
Olmert's comments drew a swift and sharp condemnation by Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, who called the accusation "outrageous" and labeled Olmert an advocate of the Palestinian Authority.
Sa'ar condemned the former prime minister for blaming the Israeli government for the impasse in negotiations with the Palestinians, highlighting that Olmert had "not leveled even one word of criticism at the Palestinian Authority despite [Mahmoud Abbas'] deliberate refusal for four years to negotiate with Israel."
Sa'ar also accused Olmert of complicating matters for Israel by offering Abbas far-reaching concessions during his tenure as prime minister, including agreeing to an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and the partition of Jerusalem as part of a peace deal, which Abbas now considers a baseline for negotiations.
Likud MK Danny Danon likewise denounced Olmert, saying the former prime minister had no right to criticize the government given that he was recently convicted of breach of trust and in light of his past leadership failures.
Danon said that "if Olmert wants to protect the security of Israel then he should remain outside the political system so as not to cause any more damage."
Danon also described Olmert's attack on Netanyahu as a desperate attempt to generate headlines.
Netanyahu says he is ready for talks
Earlier Sunday, Netanyahu said he is ready to return to negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as early as today, Army Radio reported
Speaking at the opening of Sunday's cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said if Abbas intends to advance the peace process, he should come back to the negotiation table, adding that it was the only place Abbas's true intentions can be discerned.
Netanyahu accused Abbas of going back on his statement discounting the Palestinian right of return over the weekend, saying "it only proves the importance of direct negotiations with no preconditions."
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman accused Abbas of interfering with Israel elections, the latest in a series of attacks he has launched against Abbas in recent months. In an Sunday interview with Army Radio, Liberman asserted that "Abbas is interfering, to the benefit of the Left, [Labor leader] Shelly Yacimovich and [Zehava Gal-On], who represent Palestinian interests in Israel."
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, however, said Abbas was not simply grandstanding. "In private conversations, too, [Abbas] expresses willingness to concede the right of return," Barak told Army Radio Sunday.
Barak defended Abbas, saying the Palestinian president "is not joining 'Likud Beytenu' and not Zionist youth movements, because he is the Palestinian leader, but you can't say we have no partner with [Abbas]."
On Saturday, Abbas adviser Nabil Abu Rudaineh effectively confirmed Liberman's accusations preemptively, saying the interview on Israeli television was aimed at “affecting Israeli public opinion.” He was also quick to assert that the PA president said nothing that negates the right of return following the Channel 2 interview.
"The position of the Palestinian leadership remains fixed,” Rudaineh said. “The refugees and the right of return are among the final-status issues that will be negotiated with the Israelis. We are committed to the Palestinian principles as endorsed by the Palestine National Council [the PLO’s parliament-in-exile].”
Hamas, Fatah remain at odds on negotiations
Home Front Defense Minister Avi Dichter noted that divisions between the Palestinian factions undermine Abbas's position.
Although Abbas represents "the only partner we can talk to" as the leader of the PA, Dichter told Israel Radio on Sunday, he has limited sway with the Hamas leadership that took over Gaza in a 2007 coup, and has not visited Gaza in five years and is at odds .
"We must be very careful about negotiating with Abu Mazen about Judea and Samaria, and making Gaza a separate issue" that Israel will have to deal with later, Dichter said. "Israel cannot turn its policy in the region into 'three states for two nations.'"
"I think that you have to look at Abu Mazen's [Abbas's] interviews in both English and Arabic," he continued, noting that Abbas told an Egyptian media outlet that the Palestinian right of return to Israel was sacred, despite foregoing that claim in the English Channel 2 interview.
Senior Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar told Army Radio Sunday morning Abbas is afraid he would be killed if he insists on a third Intifada. Abbas said in the Channel 2 interview that there would not be another violent intifada as long as he is in office.
Reacting to the interview, Zahar said, Abbas was scared of being murdered "like they poisoned [former PLO chairman Yasser] Arafat to death."
"With these words, Abu Mazen [Abbas] is actually protecting his life - but at the same time, he is taking a gamble on his good reputation," Zahar added.
Zahar said that the radio was not the place to offer peace proposals and maintained that Abbas had no right to say what he did. "All Palestinians, everywhere, are against him," he contended.
Though Liberman doled out accusations of electoral interference, he has also been on the receiving end of such accusations.
As part of a campaign against the PA president, Liberman in September called Abbas a “liar, coward and wimp” who would quit if he had any modicum of self-respect.
Liberman at the time said Abbas and his government were living “on borrowed time” and that it would be impossible to save them just as it was impossible to save other “rotten regimes” in the Arab world.
Former foreign minister Tzipi Livni said Sunday that there are some members of the current government who do not want to listen to the Palestinians because it would undermine their assertion that there is no partner for peace.
Speaking with Army Radio, Livni recalled her days of conducting negotiations with Abbas as Israel's foreign minister. "I was happy to hear him say the same things in public that we heard in [private]," she said.
Livni, who has been rumored to be considering a return to politics in the upcoming elections, said she believes reaching an agreement with the Palestinians is possible.
The belief in Israel that the Palestinian leadership refused to sign numerous generous offers from Israel is not based on the accounts of those who sat in negotiations that took place, she said. "The negotiations ended before we reached a point that something could be signed."