JERUSALEM: The Palestinians would abandon historic claims to land that is now in the state of Israel in the event of a far-reaching peace deal, President Mahmoud Abbas has said in his first comments since negotiations began two weeks ago, stressing that a “just” agreement would mean “the end of the conflict” He also indicated rising impatience at the glacial pace of negotiations, telling a group of leftwing Israeli parliamentarians that the Palestinians wanted to accelerate the talks. No progress had been made in the three sessions so far, he said.

“We hope that later on we make advances. I can’t say that I’m optimistic, but I hope we aren’t just wasting our time,” said Abbas ahead of another round of talks next week.

In remarks possibly aimed at reassuring Israelis who believe a peace deal with the Palestinians will be followed by further claims, Abbas said, “You have a commitment from the Palestinian people, and also from the leadership, that if we are offered a just agreement, we will sign a peace deal that will put an end to the conflict and to future demands from the Palestinian side.”

Referring to historic Palestinian cities in what is now Israel, he added, “People say that after signing a peace agreement we will still demand Haifa, Acre and Safed. That is not true.”

The president’s comments referred to the issue of borders, not the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their pre-1948 homes, said an official. “Once we have the borders of our state, we will not seek to expand it. The right of return is a separate issue,” he said.However, the remarks may inflame the Palestinian public, which is already sceptical about the peace process and for whom the right of return is a visceral and deeply emotional issue. Israel insists it will never allow Palestinians to return en masse to their former homes.

Abbas caused uproar last year when he told an Israeli television interviewer that he should have the right to visit his birthplace of Safed, from which his family was forced to flee in 1948, but accepted that he would not return to live there. He later clarified that he was making a personal statement, not waiving the right of return for almost five million Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

Abbas told the Israeli legislators that the Palestinians wanted the two sides to meet more frequently. “We wanted the meetings ... to take place every day or every second day, and not once a week or every 10 days like the Israelis want. I don’t know why they don’t want to. We don’t have much time.”

The Palestinians are also concerned about the absence of Martin Indyk, the US peace talks envoy, from the negotiating sessions at Israel’s insistence. “This is one sign of how and where the talks are heading if the US is not able to assert itself in the peace process,” the senior Palestinian official Yasser Abed-Rabbo said on Thursday.

Israel, the Palestinians and the US have all agreed that the talks should not be accompanied by media statements, nor even confirmation of the time and location of negotiating sessions. The timeframe for reaching agreement has been set at nine months, which ends next May.

The Palestinians have threatened to pull out if Israel continues to press ahead with new construction in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Israeli authorities have announced around 3,000 new homes this month, mostly in settlements “that will remain part of Israel in any possible future peace agreement”, according to the Israeli government.

But Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian negotiation steering committee, said this week there were “no tacit agreements” that the settlement blocs close to the pre-1967 line would be incorporated into Israel.

“All those statements saying ‘everyone knows that the major settlements will stay with Israel’ are simply not true and are designed to deliberately mislead. The 1967 boundary is the basis of a Palestinian state, including East Jerusalem, and we haven’t given anything away,” she said.

The Palestinians would resume moves to sign up international bodies and treaties if settlement expansion continued, she added. A shortlist of 16 treaties and bodies has been identified for early action, according to officials, but it does not include the international criminal court.

“If Israel persists in such policies ... we will have no other option but recourse to international law and international agencies,” Ashrawi said. Such a move would be fiercely opposed by Israel and would be likely to scupper the renewed negotiations.

By arrangement with the Guardian

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