JERUSALEM – A comprehensive peace deal can be reached between Israel and the Palestinians within six months if Israel completely freezes its settlement construction, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in an interview published Wednesday.
Abbas told the Israeli daily Haaretz that he proposed the six-month freeze to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in a pair of a recent telephone conversations.
"I suggested to him (Barak) three weeks ago that Israel freeze all construction in the settlements for six months, including east Jerusalem," Abbas told the Israeli daily Haaretz. "During this time we can get back to the table and even complete talks on a final status agreement. I have yet to receive an answer."
Barak's office refused to respond to Abbas' comments. But a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Palestinians should "stop making excuses."
Israel has announced a 10-month moratorium on all new housing construction projects in the West Bank. But Palestinians have rejected the move as insincere and insufficient, since some building continues and the limitations do not apply to east Jerusalem — which Israel captured along with the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war and which Palestinians claim as their future capital.
Peace talks between Israel and Palestinians broke down a year ago and have not resumed since Netanyahu came to power in March. Abbas refuses to renew them until Israel halts all its construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, as is laid out in the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.
Abbas acknowledged to Haaretz that Israel was correct in noting that the Palestinians hadn't insisted on a settlement freeze before. "True, in 1993 we didn't say so," Abbas said of the year negotiations began. "But then there were no agreements about a freeze. Now, there is the road map."
An interview with an Israeli newspaper is rare for Abbas, and it seems aimed at influencing Israeli public opinion to support a settlement freeze.
Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said following Israel's gesture it was time for Abbas to return to talks, rather than dictate more preconditions.
"I think the expectation now is that the Palestinian side will answer in kind," he said. "Unfortunately we have just seen the Palestinian leadership place more and more obstacles in restarting the talks ... I call upon the Palestinian side to stop making excuses and return to talks."
Netanyahu's West Bank construction limitations have also put him at odds with Jewish settlers who have vowed to defy the order and have confronted government inspectors since the edict was announced last month. On Tuesday, angry settlers beat and seriously injured a female Israeli police officer in the most serious such clash yet.
The impasse over resuming peace talks comes at a time when Abbas' political standing at home is steadily eroding. His term as president ends in January, five years after he was elected, and the standoff with his Islamic militant Hamas rivals is intensifying.
Hamas wrested the Gaza Strip from Abbas in 2007, leaving him with only the West Bank. Reconciliation talks mediated by Egypt have reached a deadlock, with Hamas rejecting a proposal to hold new elections in June. Hamas has argued that Cairo's proposal gives Abbas too much control over how the vote is conducted.
Abbas and leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization were to meet later Wednesday in Ramallah to approve an extension of his term and that of all Palestinian institutions until new elections are held.
Abbas has insisted he will not run again for office once elections are called and reiterated so in the Haaretz interview. "If I can't reach my goals I see no reason to hold on to my chair. If there is progress in talks, that will be welcome. But if elections take place before talks resume, I will not be running."
Abbas also disclosed in the interview some of the progress he made in his talks with former Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert a year ago. He said the two leaders agreed on the deployment of international monitors in the West Bank and Gaza following a peace deal and made strides on the touchy topics of Palestinian refugees and the division of Jerusalem.
"We didn't reach an agreement, but let's say Olmert understood the way things stood," he said.
Abbas' comments generally match Olmert's version of the talks.