WEST BANK: Abbas still waiting for U.S. answers on Israeli settlements
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday took the opportunity of laying the cornerstone for the new presidential headquarters just north of the West Bank city of Ramallah to tell the world that he was still waiting for U.S. answers regarding an Israeli settlement freeze that would pave the way for resuming direct negotiations.
However, he said, the answer may come as early as Thursday.
“We did not yet receive the official U.S. answers on stopping settlements,” Abbas said. “Maybe we will hear something official tomorrow."
If Israel accepts a freeze, "we are ready" to restart talks, he said. "If not, we will say this option is over and we will search for an alternative.”
The U.S. has been holding intensive talks with Israel to get it to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank for three months in return for hefty incentives. Israel has not agreed.
“We are waiting,” Abbas said.
He said that if talks resumed, they would focus on borders and security. “We will mark the borders and then we will continue in the negotiations,” he said.
Abbas said that although negotiations remained his main choice, “if efforts to resume negotiations fail, we will look for alternatives, which are all peaceful. We will not at all agree that the lowest-costing occupation in the world remains sitting on our chests.”
“We are ready to have the Palestinian state,” he said. “Is Israel ready to accept this state next to it, not in its place? We have agreed to build a state that will live side by side with the state of Israel in stability and security. We do not want less than that and we are not asking for more.”
Abbas said he would not accept a Palestinian state with provisional borders on 50% or 60% of the area of the West Bank as offered by Israel.
“If we accept that,” he said, “then they will become permanent borders. We will never agree to that.”
Abbas said the WikiLeaks documents “are scandalous.”
However, he added, “not a single thing in the notes incriminates us. Let the entire world know that what we tell the Americans or Israel we say at the [Fatah] Central Council and we say it everywhere. We had nothing to fear.”
One of the documents revealed that Israel informed Abbas of its intention to wage a war on Gaza at the end of 2008, asking him whether he was ready to take over the coastal strip after Israel defeats the Islamist Hamas movement, which had been in control of the Gaza Strip since June 2007. Abbas rejected the Israeli offer.
“We had nothing to worry from what was leaked about the aggression against Gaza,” he said. “What we told them was honorable.”
The new presidential headquarters will be completed in 18 months. It will be built on a 10-acre lot in a small town just north of Ramallah. It will include a four-floor presidential building, a guesthouse, helipad, military camp and green area. It will replace the current headquarters, known as the Muqata, which was built during the British mandate early last century and was used by Abbas and his predecessor, the late Yasser Arafat.
However, Palestinian officials insist that the new headquarters is temporary until the Palestinians regain control of East Jerusalem, which will become the capital of their new state and the base of their government.
As for the current presidential compound, it will most likely be turned into a museum encompassing the Arafat burial site, his office and bedroom and all his belongings. The museum was supposed to have been completed this year, but for some reason it was postponed.
-- Maher Abukhater in Ramallah