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Palestinian leader gives interview to Israel media

The Palestinian president made a fresh bid to win over public opinion in Israel by giving a rare interview to Israeli journalists in which he cast himself as a serious partner for peace talks.

world Updated: Jul 01, 2010 20:37 IST

The Palestinian president made a fresh bid to win over public opinion in Israel by giving a rare interview to Israeli journalists in which he cast himself as a serious partner for peace talks.

The interview, reported in major Israeli newspapers on Thursday, came as Washington's special Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, was visiting the region trying to find enough common ground between the two sides to allow direct talks to resume.

It was also President Mahmoud Abbas' first direct attempt to explain his government's positions to Israelis and counter claims by Israeli hard-liners that they have no partner for peace talks. In a related move, Abbas tried to rally support last month at a meeting with more than 30 Jewish-American leaders and other political heavyweights during a trip to Washington.

"Don't let me lose hope," the 75-year-old Palestinian leader told the Haaretz newspaper. Mitchell has been shuttling between the Israelis and Palestinians for two months with the aim of relaunching direct negotiations in the fall. But Abbas said earlier this week that he has not received enough encouraging signs from Israel to warrant that. During the three-hour interview Wednesday in his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Abbas told the Israeli journalists that borders of a future Palestinian state and security relations with Israel are the two issues on the table, and that if an agreement on them is reached, direct talks can resume.

Abbas also said he proposed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that an international force under NATO or U.N. auspices reinforce Palestinian security forces in a future Palestinian state. "I'm still waiting to receive an answer or some sort of sign from him," Maariv quoted Abbas as saying.

The Haaretz and Maariv dailies gave the interview front-page coverage while Yediot Ahronot, the nation's largest newspaper, tucked it into page 14.

The topics ranged from peacemaking efforts, his family's pressure to get him to retire from politics, to the World Cup, Abbas' smoking habit and his controversial doctoral thesis on the Holocaust. "President Abbas is trying to reach out to the Israeli public," said his top aide and chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat. "He wanted to say that we want an Israeli partner for the end game, a partner that chose peace, not settlement, peace, not occupation." Netanyahu has endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state but has given no details on how much of the Israeli-controlled West Bank he would be willing to cede. He also opposes any withdrawal from east Jerusalem, the section of the city claimed by the Palestinians as their capital.

In lighter moments, Abbas recounted taking a cigarette break with President Barack Obama and others, and had his picture taken with the Israeli reporters. He also discussed his 1982 doctoral thesis at a Soviet university in which he cast doubt over whether 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust. He told the reporters that he does not deny the Holocaust.

Netanyahu's office refused comment on the Abbas interview, but noted that Wednesday, the prime minister said, "the best way that the Palestinian Authority can persuade the Israeli public that they're ready to live in peace with us is to talk peace with us - to talk directly."