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(photo credit: AP)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will not resume negotiations with Israel unless the Netanyahu government agrees to a complete settlement freeze and publicly accepts a two-state solution, Abbas has told The Washington Post in an interview.
And since he does not believe Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will lift his opposition on these issues, Abbas and his leadership expect American pressure to gradually force Netanyahu out of office, the paper reported on Friday. "It will take a couple of years," it quoted one of Abbas's officials as saying.
Abbas was interviewed the day before his Thursday meeting at the White House with US President Barack Obama.
Setting out what the newspaper called "a hardline position," the Palestinian leader conditioned a resumption of talks with Israel on Netanyahu's agreement to a halt in all settlement building - a demand being repeatedly stressed by Obama, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other senior US officials - and formal Israeli government acceptance of Palestinian statehood.
Abbas added that he would not even assist Obama's special envoy, George Mitchell, in trying to encourage Arab states to begin warming relations with Israel until Israel accepted these conditions. "We can't talk to the Arabs until Israel agrees to freeze settlements and recognizes the two-state solution," Abbas was quoted saying. "Until then we can't talk to anyone."
However, The Washington Post went on, "Abbas and his team fully expect that Netanyahu will never agree to the full settlement freeze - if he did, his center-right coalition would almost certainly collapse. So they plan to sit back and watch while US pressure slowly squeezes the Israeli prime minister from office. 'It will take a couple of years,' one official breezily predicted."
Abbas, the article continued, "rejects the notion that he should make any comparable concession - such as recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, which would imply renunciation of any large-scale resettlement of refugees."
Abbas intends to remain passive, he told the paper. "I will wait for Hamas to accept international commitments. I will wait for Israel to freeze settlementsâ€¦ Until then, in the West Bank we have a good reality . . . the people are living a normal life."
Abbas also told The Washington Post that former prime minister Ehud Olmert accepted the principle of a "right of return" to Israel for Palestinian refugees and offered to resettle thousands of Palestinians in Israel. And he said Olmert proposed a Palestinian state on 97 percent of the West Bank, and showed him its contours on a map.
Abbas said he turned down Olmert's peace offer because "the gaps were too wide."
"What's interesting about Abbas's hardline position," wrote The Washington Post's Jackson Diehl, who conducted the interview along with a colleague, "is what it says about the message that Obama's first Middle East steps have sent to Palestinians and Arab governments." While the Bush administration placed the onus for change in the Middle East on the Palestinians, Diehl wrote, the Obama administration had shifted the focus to Israel.
The upshot, wrote Diehl, is that "in the Obama administration, so far, it's easy being Palestinian."
The Palestinians, under Bush, knew that "until they put an end to terrorism, established a democratic government and accepted the basic parameters for a settlement, the United States was not going to expect major concessions from Israel," wrote Diehl.
But Obama, with his repeated demands for a settlement freeze, "has revived a long-dormant Palestinian fantasy: that the United States will simply force Israel to make critical concessions, whether or not its democratic government agrees, while Arabs passively watch and applaud."
As Abbas told his interviewers, "The Americans are the leaders of the worldâ€¦ They can use their weight with anyone around the world. Two years ago they used their weight on us. Now they should tell the Israelis, 'You have to comply with the conditions.'"
Diehl wrote that Netanyahu and the Likud party had not reconciled themselves "to the idea that Israel will have to give up most of the West Bank and evacuate tens of thousands of settlers" for a permanent accord. "But Palestinians remain a long way from swallowing reality as well. Setting aside Hamas and its insistence that Israel must be liquidated, Abbas - usually described as the most moderate of Palestinian leaders - last year helped doom Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, by rejecting a generous outline for Palestinian statehood."
Olmert's offer "was more generous to the Palestinians than either that of Bush or Bill Clinton," wrote Diehl. "It's almost impossible to imagine Obama, or any Israeli government, going further."