Abbas Calls for International Conference on Mideast Conflict

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday proposed an international conference to jump-start stalled peace talks with Israel, and he said the election of a Hamas government, sworn to Israel's destruction, was no obstacle.

Speaking in the Norwegian capital where Israel and the Palestinians secretly hammered out their historic 1993 peace accord — Abbas said that he, as leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, still has the mandate to negotiate.

But he added that "to resolve the conflict, both sides should not be left alone with this imbalance of occupier and occupied."

Israel has long opposed international conferences, however, and Hamas itself refused to comment on the idea.

Abbas' use of a foreign capital to float the idea of peace talks was the latest installment in his increasingly contentious and public power struggle with Hamas, which swept his long-ruling Fatah Party from power in Jan. 25 parliamentary elections.

With the West and Israel trying to force Hamas to renounce its violent ideology by cutting vital aid and tax transfers to the cash-starved Palestinian Authority, Abbas apparently is trying to use his international legitimacy to ease the pressure on his increasingly isolated people.

Abbas said an international group should serve as a broker, possibly the so-called "Quartet" of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, which three years ago proposed a peace blueprint that never got off the ground.

"I am ready to immediately resume negotiations with the Israeli government," Abbas said in a speech at the Nobel Institute in Oslo. "It is important for me to clarify that the Palestinian legislative elections, which brought Hamas to power, are not an obstacle to negotiations."

Abbas said his Palestine Liberation Organization had the mandate to negotiate in the Middle East conflict because it signed all previous agreements with Israel.

Since its election, Hamas has rebuffed international pressure on it to renounce violence and recognize the Jewish state. It refused to comment on Abbas' call for an international conference.

Israel reacted to Abbas' comments by noting that a formula already exists for resuming peace talks — the Quartet's "road map" peace plan, which envisions the ultimate establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

"Israel believes that the best way to move forward is according to the road map, which is the international community's accepted plan for the Middle East peace process," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. "Unfortunately, the new Palestinian leadership under Hamas refuses to accept the road map or even Israel's right to exist."

The road map, which ran aground after both sides failed to meet initial obligations, also envisions an international meeting, but only in the third and final stage of the blueprint for creating a Palestinian state.

Abbas was a key player in months of secret Norwegian-led talks that led to the first Israeli-Palestinian agreement of 1993.

"It was in Oslo we began the peace process, and in Oslo we hope to see the conclusion," he said.

In calling for the conference, Abbas was trying to prevent an alternative to incoming Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's plan to unilaterally draw Israel's final borders with the Palestinians by 2010.

Under Olmert's plan, Israel would withdraw from most of the West Bank, but annex large Jewish settlement blocs and keep most of east Jerusalem, the sector Palestinians claim as a future capital.

U.S. officials reiterated Wednesday that the border must be drawn in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

"Our position is quite simple. The whole final status has to be resolved in negotiations between the parties. No unilateral initiative will contribute to President Bush's vision of two states living side by side in security," said Stewart Tuttle, the U.S. Embassy spokesman in Tel Aviv.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said Abbas' call for an international conference marks the first time he has asked the international community to provide an umbrella for peace talks. "He is telling Mr. Olmert ... that we call on him to resume permanent status negotiations with us, to abandon unilateralism," Erekat said.

Erekat acknowledged that the two sides had not reached the final stage of the road map — where a conference is foreseen — but that "we want to cut the long story short."

At a news conference after his speech, Abbas reiterated that he has the right, as Palestinian president, to dissolve the Hamas government, but that he has no plans to do so.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg pledged a $20 million aid package to the Palestinians that would be transferred to sources outside the Hamas government. He said Norway wants to provide aid through the United Nations, Norwegian humanitarian groups, and with possible direct support to Abbas' office as president.