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Defiant Abbas Reiterates Conditions Before Talks

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 12, 2009

JERUSALEM, Oct. 11 -- Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday seemed to distance himself from U.S. efforts to restart peace talks and defended his recent handling of a report on war crimes in the Gaza Strip in a defiant televised address meant to boost his political standing amid growing criticism.

As U.S. special envoy George J. Mitchell ended his latest trip to the region with no apparent progress, Abbas said that he "commends the general policy of President Obama." But he also said he had insisted to Mitchell that peace talks could not begin until Israel halts the construction of Jewish homes in the West Bank and certain areas of Jerusalem -- a demand the Israeli government has rejected and the United States has recently tried to de-emphasize.

Under criticism for a series of perceived concessions to the United States and Israel in recent weeks, he also used the speech to deliver a harsh criticism of Israel, saying that recent clashes around Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque and construction in Arab neighborhoods of the holy city amounted to an effort to "erase the Arab and Muslim identity of Jerusalem." He said that he would push for the prosecution of Israeli troops for war crimes during the winter's three-week war in the Gaza Strip.

"We are at the peak of this terrible and awful battle," Abbas said, but "we will witness the day when our children will be able to raise the flag of Palestine, an independent Palestine, on the gates of Jerusalem." The Palestinians want control of Jerusalem divided so its Arab sections can serve as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's office did not comment, but an official in his office said he planned to address the Israeli parliament on Monday. But the escalation in rhetoric and the push for war crimes prosecutions could set back U.S. efforts to restart negotiations.

Abbas rarely makes televised addresses. His decision to do so came following criticism of his administration's decision to allow a delay in a United Nations Human Rights Council vote on a report concluding that Israel and the militant Hamas movement both committed war crimes during the war in Gaza.

The sharpness of his language Sunday suggests how difficult his political challenge has become. The Palestinian leader has been called a traitor by his own people and has been accused of "colluding" with the Israeli military.

In a speech in Damascus, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal on Sunday played down talk of potential compromise and said the Arab states should renew their demands for the "liberation" of Palestinian land "from the sea to the river" -- standard phraseology for the elimination of Israel. Meshal said the controversy over the war crimes report and other "lies" by Palestinian Authority leaders made it clear that violence "is our strategic option to liberate our land and recover our rights."

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