JERUSALEM (AP) – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was quoted Friday as saying Israelis and Palestinians have not been able to agree on a single issue in nine months of peace talks, but he promised to go on working with whomever replaces the outgoing Israeli prime minister.
“I can’t say that even one issue has been agreed upon,” Abbas told the Israeli daily Haaretz. “The gap between the sides is very large.”
With U.S. encouragement, Israelis and Palestinians have been making a renewed attempt to negotiate a peace deal since late last year. The sides declared that they hoped to wrap an agreement up by the end of 2008.
But talks have achieved little visible progress, and in recent months Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have backed away from that goal.
Abbas said it was “doubtful we could reach an agreement by the end of 2008 even if (Olmert) stayed in his job.” The interview was conducted mainly in English, the paper said, and Abbas’ quotes were translated into Hebrew.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for Olmert, said Friday that “important work has been done” in talks so far. “Gaps in some areas have been narrowed, but of course gaps remain,” he said.
Facing a string of corruption charges, Olmert announced he would step down after his Kadima Party elects a new leader on September 17. Olmert is likely to remain for a time as a caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed or new elections are held.
Of Olmert, Abbas said, “I think very highly of him, and we worked together for over a year. Now he is preparing to leave and we will respect what the Israeli public decides. We will negotiate with any prime minister elected in Israel and wish Olmert well.”
Palestinian and Israeli officials have said recently the sides have made some progress on negotiating the borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state. But none has been made on the fate of Jerusalem, the holy city considered the toughest issue facing negotiators.
Another of the sticking points in the talks concerns the Palestinian refugees who lost their homes in fighting over Israel’s establishment 60 years ago and their descendants, around 4.5 million people, according to U.N. figures. Israel says an influx of Palestinians would mean the end of Israel’s existence as a Jewish country. “We understand that if we demand that all five million return to Israel, the state of Israel will be destroyed,” Abbas said. But he said he would demand that Israel let in a “reasonable number” of refugees and accept responsibility for creating the problem. Israel has said it won’t accept more than a token number
of refugees and will not take responsibility, which it says lies with the Arab nations who invaded the nascent state when it was established.
Haaretz interviewed Abbas in English and translated his quotes into Hebrew. The AP translated them back into English for this story.
During the peace talks, Palestinians have complained that Israel has not done enough to improve life for Palestinians in the West Bank, where Abbas rules in name with a Western-backed government but where Israel maintains overall control. Palestinians say Israel’s security roadblocks humiliate them and cripple their economy.
The Israeli military said Friday it had removed five unmanned roadblocks in the northern West Bank in an effort to ease movement for Palestinians. On Wednesday, it removed a manned checkpoint near the southern West Bank town of Hebron.
Hundreds of roadblocks and checkpoints remain throughout the West Bank, measures Israel says are necessary to protect Israelis from attack.