Abbas: I fear a one-state solution

The Palestinian president says he is still prepared to begin negotiations if Israel agrees to institute a full settlement freeze for three months.

HERZLIYA, ISRAEL // Israeli settlement building in occupied territory is undermining chances of a two-state solution and leading instead to a one-state solution, Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, told an English newspaper in remarks published yesterday.

In an interview with The Guardian, Mr Abbas also said he was nevertheless positively inclined towards a suggestion to begin negotiations with so-called proximity talks - direct but lower-level talks - and said he would accept face-to-face negotiations if Israel instituted a full settlement freeze for three months, lowering his demand from last year when the Palestinians wanted a settlement freeze for a year or longer.

Mr Abbas's remarks come as Israeli policymakers, politicians and experts take turns presenting their positions at the Herzliya Conference. The governance and policy conference north of Tel Aviv is traditionally identified with the right-wing in Israel but has gathered enormous mainstream attention since Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister, used it as the platform to announce his decision to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza Strip settlements in 2003.

The mantra of the current Israeli government, which announced a partial and temporary settlement construction freeze in the West Bank minus East Jerusalem in November, is that it is the Palestinians who are now the obstacle to a resumption of negotiations. On Sunday, Uzi Arad, the national security adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, told delegates in Herzliya that it was "a fact that the Palestinians are the naysayers" when it comes to the peace process, something he said that has not escaped the US administration's attention. Mr Arad also went on to say that what is known through the media is not necessarily what is happening behind closed doors, and suggested that US efforts to see negotiations resume might bear fruit in the "near- to mid-term".

Yesterday, however, Tzipi Livni, the head of Kadima, the main opposition party, said the fault for the lack of negotiations lies with Israel. "Negotiations with Palestinians have ceased because of the change in the Israeli political climate," said Ms Livni, who served as foreign minister in the previous Israeli government with which, according to Mr Abbas, negotiations came "closer than ever". It was one of Israel's two main concerns to ensure peace with the Palestinians, she continued, a peace that could come only in the context of a two-state solution.

Such a two-state solution is under threat, however, Mr Abbas told The Guardian because Israeli settlement construction is making it a practical impossibility. The Palestinians have long warned that Israeli settlement building in occupied territory undermines the emergence of a Palestinian state by colonising land that any new state needs to use for its own purposes and severs East Jerusalem from the rest of Palestinian territory.

There have been growing calls in recent years among Palestinians to abandon two-state talks in favour of a civil rights movement that would call for equal rights within a single, binational state. Some of those arguments have come from supporters of a two-state solution who believe Israeli settlement construction over the years has proven that the country is not serious about reaching an equitable negotiated two-state solution.

Indeed, the call for a full settlement construction freeze is partly a test of Israeli intentions in negotiations. That Mr Abbas appears to be slowly climbing down from last year's position that any construction freeze should last for at least one year, however, also indicates that US pressure is beginning to show. George Mitchell, the US envoy to the region, held talks with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders recently in which he suggested that negotiations could start with lower-level contacts focused on specific issues.

To The Guardian, Mr Abbas said it all depends on Israeli intentions. "If there is any substance in the response from the Israeli side - for example, if they accept the framework of a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders and an end to occupation, with timelines and mechanisms - then there will be progress," Mr Abbas said.