We must not let this opportunity slip away, says Abbas

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 28-Feb-05 | Author: Donald Macintyre| Source: The Independent

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas talks to reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Mahmoud Abbas interviewed on eve of Palestinian summit in London

Attacks such as the suicide bombing on Friday that killed four Israelis in Tel Aviv "will not be tolerated" by the new Palestinian leadership, President Mahmoud Abbas pledged on the eve of a two-day visit to London.

Mr Abbas, who will hold talks with Tony Blair and Jack Straw, before tomorrow's conference to bolster support for the Palestinian Authority (PA), confirmed Israel has shared information with it in the hunt for the organisers of the bombing, which was claimed by Islamic Jihad.

The Palestinian President, known popularly as Abu Mazen, made clear in an exclusive interview with The Independent his eagerness to move to negotiations on a lasting settlement with Israel, declaring: "We believe peace is possible now and we are ready to negotiate with Israel to reach a true and lasting peace based on justice and international legitimacy." He said he wanted the conference, hosted by Mr Blair and attended by the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, and the foreign ministers of 23 countries "to send a clear signal of the international support of what we have already achieved" in Palestinian efforts at institution-building and fulfilment of obligations under the internationally agreed road map to peace.

"We have an opportunity and it would be irresponsible if we, the Israelis, or the world allow it to slip away," he said.

He added he expected the meeting to lead to a full-scale international conference "to relaunch final status negotiations and a credible peace process" to which he said he believed Mr Blair was committed.

Mr Abbas, who came under renewed Israeli pressure yesterday to take tougher steps against militant armed factions, hinted at foreign involvement in the attack, saying "there may be other parties that want to destabilise the situation", and added: "It is necessary to deal with the party who is responsible for the planning."

In his first interview with a British newspaper since his election on 9 January, Mr Abbas mentioned the PA's arrest of at least two militants on Saturday in connection with the suicide bombing. He said an end to violence and "security chaos" was "first and foremost a Palestinian interest" and insisted the PA was making "100 per cent efforts" towards that and "it has yielded good results so far". But he repeated calls for Israel to withdraw its military forces to positions held before the beginning of the intifada in September 2000 "to give us a chance to reassume our responsibilities".

He added: "An end to violence cannot be sustained when Palestinians are being killed by the Israeli army on a daily basis. Ending the violence is a mutual Israeli and Palestinian commitment." Mr Abbas's remarks, in the interview conducted by e-mail, came as Ariel Sharon told his Cabinet that the orders for the attack "came from Islamic Jihad elements in Syria". He added: "Even though we know this for a certainty, the fact is not enough to absolve the Palestinian Authority of its responsibility".

The immediate test for the PA will be in vigorous action against Islamic Jihad members. There would be "no diplomatic progress until the Palestinians take strong action to eliminate the terrorist organisations and their infrastructures," he added.

The Justice Minister, Tzipi Livni, said she told the PA she wanted to go ahead with a joint meeting on the release of prisoners after last Friday's bombing. The Defence minister, Shaul Mofaz, said he had given the PA a list of wanted militants to arrest. Meanwhile, a document to be agreed at tomorrow's conference, which seeks to balance Israeli and Palestinian demands in the text, will now open with reaffirmation of the importance of the road map. It mentions President Bush's calls, repeated last week, for a viable and contiguous Palestinian state, as well as Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's peace plan based on a return to 1967 borders.

At one point it notes that "the revival of the Palestinian economy will depend on a significant dismantling of the system of closures and restrictions on movements of people and goods by Israel". But it adds that dismantling will have to be consistent with Israel's security needs. And, in what amounts to an endorsement of the road map's requirement on the Palestinians to dismantle "terrorist infrastructures", it says that a new US-led security group's "purpose will be to help the PA fulfil all of its security obligations under phase one of the road map".

The conference was scaled back after Israel and the US raised objections, fearing the convening of a full peace conference would focus on "final status" issues such as Jerusalem.

Mr Blair made it clear the meeting will be against the backdrop of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and is intended to issue practical support to help build Palestinian infrastructure.

While almost all the questions in Mr Abbas's interview were submitted last month, his answers were delivered last Friday and Saturday.