Abbas offers Israel dialogue for amnesty, arms

PARIS Fri Jun 8, 2012 8:54pm BST

French President Francois Hollande and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attend a news conference following a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris June 8, 2012. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

French President Francois Hollande and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attend a news conference following a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris June 8, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

PARIS (Reuters) - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Friday he was ready to hold dialogue with Israel if it freed prisoners and re-armed his police, but there could be no full peace talks without a freeze on West Bank settlements.

"We recently told them that if Israel accepted to free prisoners and allow us to re-arm the police then we would again sit at the same table as Netanyahu," Abbas said, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"If Mr Netanyahu agrees ... then we will establish a dialogue, but that doesn't mean a negotiation," Abbas told reporters during a visit to Paris.

U.S.-sponsored negotiations on the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel stalled in 2010 in a dispute over Israeli settlements in the occupied territory, swathes of which it has vowed to annex under any eventual accord.

Israel has in the past released prisoners from Abbas's Fatah faction in what it described as goodwill gestures toward the Palestinians. The Israelis also regularly coordinate with Abbas's security forces in the West Bank and have a say on the degree to which they are armed and deployed.

The Palestinian leader reiterated his insistence on a total freeze on settlements, which most world powers consider illegal, saying it was wrong to call describe this as a "precondition".

Responding to Abbas's remarks, Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said in Jerusalem: "Israel remains ready for the immediate resumption of peace talks without any preconditions."

Asked whether Israel planned any prisoner releases or arms handovers in the foreseeable future, Regev had no immediate comment.

Abbas was in Paris to firm up aid pledges from France, to which Paris gave 10 million euros (8.07 million pounds), and seek Hollande's support for recognition of a future Palestinian state and for unity talks between Fatah and Hamas, a rival, armed, Islamist faction that runs Palestinian Gaza and does not recognise Israel.

Making his first comments on the Middle East peace process since being elected president in May, Hollande said that everything had to be done to restart the long-stalled talks.

Hollande stopped short of offering to recognise a Palestinian state without a peace deal, but he said he hoped to accept an offer to visit the region.

"Today, we must do everything to facilitate the recognition of a Palestinian state via a negotiated process," Hollande said. "Dialogue must start again and the sooner the better."

Hollande's predecessor, conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, took a strong stand on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, proposing United Nations observer status for the Palestinians last year and setting out a one-year roadmap for peace.

Paris also broke from its allies in October when it backed Palestinian efforts to become a full member of UNESCO, the U.N.'s cultural arm and the first U.N. agency to grant the Palestinians full membership.

Abbas said that as the Palestinians had failed to get the number of votes required at the U.N. Security Council to gain full nation recognition, he would go to the U.N. General Assembly to gain non-member status if there was no progress on the peace process.

"We will ask for recognition at the U.N. General Assembly to obtain non-member status," he said. "Switzerland and the Vatican have taken that path previously."

(Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing bt Brian Love and Michael Roddy)

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