A CONVERSATION WITH MAHMOUD ABBAS

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Sunday, September 30, 2007

When the Islamic radicals of Hamas kicked their more secular Fatah rivals out of the Gaza Strip in June, it looked as though the peace process was dead. But surprisingly, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have held a series of in-depth talks that U.S. officials hope may culminate in some kind of deal or framework to be presented at a proposed meeting of Middle East leaders in Washington in November. Last week, the Fatah chief attended the opening of the U.N. General Assembly and met with more than 35 world leaders to encourage them to support whatever agreement he may reach with Olmert. Abbas discussed the peace talks with Newsweek-Washington Post's Lally Weymouth.

Q. I understand that in your talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, you have gone into the really sensitive issues, such as borders, refugees and Jerusalem. How far have you gone in your conversations?

A. I cannot really talk about the talks . . . because they are only a probing, not negotiations. We tackled all the sensitive issues like borders, refugees, settlements, Jerusalem and security. But talking only. I cannot say anything about his attitude, and he cannot quote me. Why? Because in the beginning we said, let us talk and after we finish, we will establish our teams. We have already established the teams that are drafting an agreement about these sensitive issues.

What is your sense of Olmert?

I believe that he is sincere and serious and wants to make peace. I know his internal problems. But he is determined to do something.

Isn't it difficult to come up with a document in such a short time?

It's difficult but not impossible.

Are you talking about producing a declaration of principles [like the 1993 pact reached by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat]?

Not a declaration of principles but a framework -- a framework that deals with the principles of every element of the final-status issues. This is what we propose to present to the conference. After the conference, we will start negotiating the details of these issues in order to have a peace treaty.

The key issues have been around for so long, wouldn't it be difficult to solve them in a few weeks?

These are very difficult issues, but it is not impossible [to resolve them] because we know each other's positions -- we know how to handle these issues in spite of the difficulties facing us.

What do you think of the ideas that Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon has floated about giving the Palestinians areas in East Jerusalem where they have a majority? Is that satisfactory to you?


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