Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has said Israel should withdraw from occupied territories within three years under any peace deal, rejecting Israel’s demands for a long-term security presence in border areas.
His remarks came as an April deadline loomed for faltering US-backed peace talks, which have been in deadlock over the issue of future security arrangements and other core disputes.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meanwhile reiterated his demand Palestinians recognise Israel as the Jewish state, and hawkish ministers spoke out against concessions, highlighting the lingering gulf between the two sides.
“Those who are proposing 10 to 15 years (before a withdrawal) do not want to withdraw at all,” Abbas said in an interview screened on Tuesday at the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) held in Tel Aviv.
“We say that in a reasonable time frame, no longer than three years, Israel can withdraw gradually,” he said.
Israel wants to maintain a long-term military presence in the Jordan Valley, where the West Bank borders Jordan, but the Palestinians insist Israeli troops must completely withdraw, making way for an international force.
“We have no problem with there being a third party present after or during the withdrawal, to reassure Israel and to reassure us that the process will be completed,” Abbas said.
“We think NATO is the appropriate party to undertake this mission.”
Abbas reiterated Palestinian demands that a two-state solution be based on the lines which existed before the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in 1967, and said east Jerusalem must be the Palestinian capital.
But hawkish Israeli cabinet ministers speaking at the conference voiced fierce opposition to the Palestinian demands, particularly for territory.
“Our ancestors will never forgive an Israeli leader who divides our land and our capital,” Economy Minister Naftali Bennett said, in a veiled warning to Netanyahu.
Bennett also criticised US efforts to bring about a peace agreement.
“Anyone who comes up with a bizarre idea in the Western world, they say, let’s try it out on the Jews,” he said, referring to reports that Jewish settlers could remain in the West Bank and lease their land from a future Palestinian state.
“The state of Israel is not your laboratory,” he said, apparently addressing US Secretary of State John Kerry, who kick-started talks in July and has been on 11 visits to the region.
‘An ocean of peace’
Palestinian negotiators complain that Israel is trying to sideline their demands in the talks — such as future borders — by imposing its own agenda of security in the Jordan Valley and Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
The Palestinians recognised Israel more than two decades ago but have refused to recognise its religious character, fearing that doing so would undermine the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
Netanyahu called such a recognition “the first foundation for peace between us and the Palestinians” since it would “end the conflict” by “cancelling the right of return” and any territorial claims.
The two sides began a nine-month track of US-backed peace negotiations in July but so far there has been little visible progress.
The Palestinians have warned that after the deadline they could take legal action in international courts against Israel over its settlement expansion in the occupied territories.
“I hope we succeed so we don’t have to resort to legal or diplomatic or political confrontation on the world stage,” Abbas said.
“A solution will bring Israel recognition from 57 Muslim countries, a clear, straightforward and diplomatic recognition between these countries and Israel,” Abbas added.
“I hope the Israeli people can understand what it is to be in an ocean of peace, from Mauritania to Indonesia, rather than in an island of peace as it is at the moment.”
Netanyahu said he could only accept an agreement leading to the creation of “a demilitarised Palestinian state that recognises the Jewish state.”
“I know that the Americans want to reach such an arrangement, I don’t know if the Palestinian leadership is ready to make the necessary concessions,” he said. “We’ll know in the near future.”