Abbas shows optimism on recent moves toward peace

War with Israel effectively over, he says in interview


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- The new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, said in an interview that the war with the Israelis was effectively over and that the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, was speaking "a different language" to the Palestinians.

Sharon's commitment to withdraw from Gaza and dismantle all Israeli settlements there in addition to four in the West Bank, despite "how much pressure is on him from the Israeli Likud rightists," Abbas said, "is a good sign to start with" on the road to real peace.

"And now he has a partner," Abbas said.

In a 40-minute interview in his Gaza office late Saturday night, Abbas spoke with pride about persuading the radical groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad to respect the mutual declaration of a truce that he and Sharon announced Tuesday at their first summit in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, which was the highest-level meeting between Israelis and Palestinians in four years.

Abbas said the war with the Israelis will be over "when the Israelis declare that they will comply with the agreement I made in Sharm el-Sheik, and today our comrades in Hamas and Jihad said they are committed to the truce, the cooling down of the whole situation, and I believe we will start a new era."

In an interview with The New York Times, his first interview with a Western news organization since he was elected president of the Palestinian Authority on Jan. 9, Abbas spoke of several developments, saying that:

Hamas had made a commitment to him to run in the July elections for the Palestinian legislature, continuing Hamas' "conversion into a political party."

He had fired nine senior police and national security officials in Gaza and was prepared to fire more if they did not get "the first message" that they are to enforce his cease-fire.

The release of Palestinian prisoners was his first priority, and would be a measure of how much tensions cool in the West Bank and Gaza.

He would reject any idea of a sovereign Palestinian state in temporary borders before a final settlement.

The Americans were talking to him "in a very helpful way," and that he hoped the Bush administration would deliver on its promises of political and economic aid.

And that at nearly 70, he expected to retire after a single five-year term. Abbas wants progress to continue so that both sides can move quickly to political discussions about the road map, a diplomatic process meant to lead to tackling the most difficult issues that have deeply stymied both sides: questions of final borders, refugees, Jerusalem and "President Bush's initiative about a democratic Palestinian state," Abbas said.

While he is happy to coordinate Israel's withdrawal from Gaza with Sharon, he said, the Palestinians need a political horizon looking toward a real state.

At their meeting in Sharm el Sheik, Sharon made many positive commitments, Abbas said, including a joint committee to discuss releasing the 200 or so Palestinian prisoners held since before the 1993 Oslo accords, the pullback of the Israeli military in the West Bank and the reopening of Gaza's seaport. Israel acted further yesterday to improve relations by agreeing to release a first batch of 500 prisoners.

Sharon also spoke "about the Palestinian independent democratic state" and "about the occupation, never to be an occupier any more," Abbas said. "So on all these things he was positive, but what we want to know is the implementation on the ground."

Asked about his first priority, Abbas was quick and explicit.

"Prisoners, prisoners are our priority, and we told everyone about it," he said, including the new U.S. secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. "The situation will be stabilized and will cool down in Gaza and the West Bank" to the degree that Sharon "helps us to release the prisoners," Abbas said. The Palestinian Authority says Israel holds nearly 8,000 Palestinians, but the Israeli government has had fierce debates about whether to release Palestinians held for attacks against Israelis, with Sharon expressing public understanding of Abbas' need to show Palestinians quick benefits from the new quiet.

Less than a month after he took office on Jan. 15, Abbas spoke with surprising optimism. The Israelis say he started slowly and timidly but has done better, showing more courage when challenged; Abbas contends much has been accomplished, given the deterioration of the Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat, "but we can't negotiate everything in 10 days."

With his upbeat mood, he may be trying to instill hope in the Palestinians, who, as he says, "are observing, and they see progress, and they are happy with it, but they want more," he said. "They want job creation, they want to eat, and they want security."

But Abbas will face serious challenges from Hamas and other radicals, whose support may be tactical, and some of whom want Abbas dead.

Abbas said he was surprised that the armed militants, many wanted by Israel, embraced his candidacy. "All the fugitives came to me from all factions and said, `We are for you, you were with us and we want you to solve our problems,'" he said. They wanted real jobs in the security forces of the Palestinian Authority "and to be secure from Israeli assassination and attacks," he said. "I promised them, and now it is realized."

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