Palestinian leader warns window closing for lasting two-state solution

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — The Globe and Mail

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas waves to the crowd during a rally supporting the Palestinian UN bid for observer state status, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012. The Palestinians will request to upgrade their status on November 29. The status could add weight to Palestinian claims for a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war from Jordan. (Majdi Mohammed/AP)

Time is running out on the two-state solution for Middle East peace and the current push to relaunch peace talks may be “the last opportunity,” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warns.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail at his presidential compound in Ramallah, the Palestinian leader, in the midst of an intense round of international diplomacy aimed at reviving the moribund peace process, insisted he can make a deal, but time is slipping away. “I think there was some opportunities in the past, but unfortunately we missed these opportunities,” he said.

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“But now, I believe there is a good opportunity. I’m afraid it will be the last opportunity.”

Mr. Abbas sat down for the interview as the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry began a renewed diplomatic push in the Middle East, carrying proposals to revive the peace process. Mr. Abbas confirmed he is putting forward an idea of his own: to have Mr. Netanyahu outline his own proposal for borders so that the Israeli leader’s starting point on a core issue is clear.

Mr. Kerry met Mr. Abbas Sunday, and will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leaders over the next two days.

It is Mr. Kerry’s third trip to the Mideast, and was his third meeting with Mr. Abbas in just over a month, and follows U.S. President Barack Obama’s March visit to Israel and the West Bank.

In the interview, Mr. Abbas insisted that he has the clout to deliver on a peace deal with Israel as long as it has “international legitimacy” and is based on principles endorsed by the international community. He also said that the basis for negotiations with Israel on the shape of a new Palestinian state should be the borders in place before the 1967 war in which Israel took the West Bank and the Gaza strip, with land swaps and other agreements to follow.

It is not clear whether Israel shares Mr. Abbas’s sense of urgency or his priorities. Mr. Netanyahu, for example, has so far refused to endorse the 1967 borders as a basis for talks.

Mr. Abbas spoke to The Globe and Mail on Saturday after he met Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who is touring the Middle East. Mr. Baird, however, did not echo Mr. Abbas’s now-or-never sentiment for kickstarting the peace process. After meeting Palestinian Foreign Minister Rirad al-Maliki, he praised Mr. Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy, but also cautioned about “realistic” expectations.

The two-state solution – separate states of Israel and Palestine living side-by-side – has been the widely-endorsed approach to Middle East conflict, and the basis for negotiations between the two sides since the 1993 Oslo Accords. And without it, Palestinians and Israelis would have no agreed model for a lasting peace.

But analysts and some world leaders have started to question whether it will be viable if it is not accomplished soon. Palestinians have argued continued Israeli settlement activity will not leave enough contiguous land to build a viable Palestinian state; British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed concern last year that “facts on the ground will make it more and more difficult to reach a two-state solution. And King Abdullah II of Jordan, quoted in a recent article in the Atlantic, expressed fear the time may already be past.

The silver-haired Mr. Abbas, now 78, may also be a reason for those fears that the window of opportunity is closing for a two-state deal. As leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the moderate Fatah faction –which rules in the West Bank, but not in Gaza, where Hamas is in control – he is mandated to negotiate for Palestinians. But it’s far from clear who would succeed him.

From Israel’s perspective, with Palestinians divided between two factions in two territories, Mr. Abbas remains a flawed negotiating partner. But he shunts aside questions about whether he could muster support for the “hard choices” of a peace deal and repeats his pledge to hold a referendum if one is at hand. “I don’t know, Hamas, what will be their reaction. But anyhow, they can vote like the others, either yes or no.”

Mr. Abbas, in the interview, also insisted that as long as Mr. Netanyahu is willing to negotiate an agreement based on principles endorsed by the international community, he is in a position to make a deal.

“Why not? Why not? I can,” Mr. Abbas said. “I can make an agreement – according to the international legitimacy. I am ready. Beyond international legitimacy, I cannot.” ”

Seated in his second-floor office in Ramallah, Mr. Abbas displayed the gentle outgoing demeanour of a grandfather, insistent when making a point but smiling, that belies the long decades as a PLO activist, and the troubled years as Palestinian Authority President since 2005.

He provided no clear indication how he would make a deal on one of the most difficult topics, the return of refugees, other than to say it would be on the table for negotiation.

Mr. Abbas said that any ill feeling between the Palestinian Authority and Ottawa – prompted by the Harper government’s opposition last November to the Palestinian bid for observer-state status at the United Nations – is now past. Differences are normal in a relationship, he said. “If you vote for us, you are our friend. If you don’t vote for us, also you are our friend – because on other aspects you help us, you do a lot for us, and we do not forget. But all in all, it’s behind us now.”

It was a marked change in tone. Canada’s campaign against the UN bid had raised warnings of a tit-for-tat dispute. A Palestinian official spoke then of seeking Arab League measures against Canada; the Harper government had warned of “consequences,” which raised the prospect Canada might cut off aid.

Mr. Baird and Mr. al-Maliki also said the two sides have put aside their disagreements and are discussing a new multiyear aid packageto replace the five-year, $300-million package which expired April 1. The current package will be extended because about $60-million of it has not yet been spent, Mr. Baird said.

Mr. Abbas, standing for a picture at the end of the interview, said he told Mr. Baird that his support for Israel should not get in the way. “Your foreign minister told me that he is pro-Israel.” he said. “Why not? If he is a friend to Israel, no problem. If you are a friend to Israel and a friend to us, then you can play a role.”

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