- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2008

Top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat warned yesterday that the U.S.-backed government of President Mahmoud Abbas may “disappear” if a permanent peace deal with Israel is not concluded by the end of the year.

“There is a limit to a people’s patience, even the Palestinians,” Mr. Erekat said a day after an Oval Office meeting between President Bush and Mr. Abbas produced little visible progress on an agreement to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday announced plans for a trip next week that will include stops in Israel and the West Bank, with just 10 months left to meet a deadline set in last November’s Annapolis summit to create a new Palestinian state before Mr. Bush leaves office. Mr. Bush has separate meetings scheduled with Palestinian and Israeli leaders when he travels to the region in mid-May.

Mr. Erekat said he remained optimistic that a comprehensive peace deal — outlining the borders of a secure Palestinian state and dealing with such touchy issues as the control of Jerusalem — would be approved by Palestinians in a popular referendum.

“But if there is not an agreement by the end of this year, I tell you our government stands a chance of disappearing,” he added, speaking at a briefing at the Palestine Center in Washington just before returning home.

Conditions for peace in the region appeared to deteriorate even as the Palestinian delegation was concluding its brief Washington visit.

A Palestinian gunman killed two Israeli security guards yesterday near the West Bank’s boundary with Israel. The militant faction Hamas, which broke with Mr. Abbas last year and controls the Palestinian enclave in the Gaza Strip, said it was behind the attack.

Israeli officials in Jerusalem dismissed a Hamas offer for a six-month truce to curb the latest violence, saying the militant group would just use the time to rebuild its missile arsenal to fire on Israeli cities.

“Unfortunately, Hamas is playing games. Hamas is biding time in order to rearm and regroup,” David Baker, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, told reporters.

Both Mr. Erekat and Mr. Abbas said yesterday there remained large “gaps” with Israel over the contours of the proposed Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and continuing Israeli settlement development in lands claimed by the Palestinians.

“Frankly, so far nothing has been achieved,” Mr. Abbas told the Associated Press.

“All the files are still open. None of them are concluded. The situation is still as it was,” he added.

Palestinian officials expressed disappointment that Mr. Bush and his aides did not give a stronger push to the negotiations this week. Mr. Erekat said he had hoped for a strong U.S. statement against new Israeli settlement construction and in favor of a new Palestinian state based on the borders before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Mr. Erekat did not elaborate on what might follow if the Abbas government collapsed. Hamas won a popular election in 2006, but its government collapsed amid factional infighting with Mr. Abbas’ Fatah movement. Hamas then seized control of the Gaza Strip after clashing with Fatah supporters last June.

Mr. Erekat said Hamas had to “rescind its coup in Gaza,” but acknowledged the internal divisions among Palestinian factions mean “that we are living our worst nightmare since 1967.”

Israel and the U.S. refuse to deal with Hamas, a hard-line Islamist movement whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel as a state and refuses to renounce violence in pursuit of its goals.

Mr. Erekat said Mr. Abbas is committed to the peace talks, but will not cling to power if he is ineffective.

“This is not a president who just wants to hold on to his chair,” he said.

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