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Abbas proposed secret talks for peace within year

Written by: Staff

JERUSALEM, Mar 24 (Reuters) Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose peacemaking policies were rejected by Hamas after it won elections, said he proposed secret peace talks with Israel and believed a deal could still be reached within a year.

In an interview with Israel's Haaretz newspaper published today, Abbas said he proposed opening ''a back channel of talks'' to American officials and former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres, who has spearheaded peace efforts in the past.

Hamas's shock election victory appeared to torpedo any hopes of resuming negotiations to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Abbas said: ''I am convinced that within less than a year, we will be able to sign an agreement.'' Israel responded today by casting doubt on Abbas's ability to lead any negotiations.

''Real political power in the Palestinian Authority is no longer in the hands of Mr Abbas and his colleagues, but has been transferred to Hamas,'' said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev.

''The question that has to be asked is, Does Mr Abbas have the ability to deliver?'' Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has publicly called Abbas irrelevant, and the Jewish state has vowed not to deal with Hamas, which has rebuffed calls to renounce violence, recognise Israel and abide by interim peace deals.

Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose centrist Kadima party is expected to win a March 28 general election, is threatening to bypass Abbas with unilateral moves to consolidate settlements and draw a final border with the Palestinians.

Olmert plans to name Livni, a rising political star within Kadima, as deputy prime minister, Israeli media reported.

Peres met earlier this month with Abbas in Amman, Jordan, the first face-to-face talks between the Palestinian president and officials close to Olmert since Hamas won a parliamentary election on January 25.

A Peres spokesman declined to comment on Abbas's proposal for covert negotiations.

''I can promise that you have a partner for this peace. On the day after the (Israeli) elections you will find us ready to sit in negotiations with no prior conditions,'' Abbas said.

If an agreement is reached, Abbas said he would be the one to sign it. Abbas said he would be prepared to put any peace agreement to a referendum, adding that he was ''certain'' a majority of Palestinians would support it at the polls. But Abbas told Haaretz that he feared Israel was not interested in negotiations and was avoiding them under the pretext of having no Palestinian partner after Hamas's victory.

Olmert has proposed unilaterally dismantling isolated Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank while strengthening bigger enclaves.

Abbas said doing so might bring about a 10-year ceasefire, ''but it will not bring you peace.'' Asked if he would agree to a territorial swap whereby Israel would retain some of its settlements, Abbas said: ''I do not rule it out. In the negotiations each side will present its requests. It will all be done according to international law.'' Hamas, whose charter officially calls for Israel's destruction, plans to present its cabinet line-up to a Hamas-dominated parliament for a vote next week.

The militant group has selected Hamas loyalists to fill almost all of the 24-member cabinet after Abbas's Fatah faction and other moderate parties refused to join the government.

Hamas has rejected Abbas's call for the new government to respect a commitment to peacemaking with Israel.

Hamas has masterminded nearly 60 suicide bombings against Israelis since a Palestinian uprising began in 2000, but has largely adhered to a truce declared a year ago.


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