IN the first interview given to a Western news organisation since he was elected as President of the Palestinian Authority five weeks ago, Mahmoud Abbas struck a remarkably optimistic tone about the state of his personal relations with Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister. During an interview with The New York Times Mr Abbas said that he believed “a new era” is starting and that Mr Sharon is “speaking differently”.
He praised Mr Sharon for his commitment to withdraw from Gaza and dismantle all settlements there and four in the West Bank despite “how much pressure is on him from the Israeli Likud rightists”. At the same time Mr Abbas insists that he has not abandoned any of the “red line” issues he thinks essential to an overall settlement with Israel.
Among these, he said, is the right of Palestinian refugees, under UN Resolution 194 of 1948, to return to their lands or be compensated.
The Israelis will not be pleased to hear this reference to the much-quoted 1948 Resolution; they do not accept that the refugees were forced to leave in the face of the Israeli army's advance. In Mr Abbas, however, they will be dealing with a man who has personal experience to back his position.
Abbas was 13 at the time and had to leave the town of Safed which for almost fifty years he was able to visit only once, and then under cover.
President Abbas also spoke strongly about the need for Israel to release some 8'000 Palestinian prisoners; thus far the number offered by Mr Sharon has been about 500 and the President made clear that he links improvements in Israeli-Palestinian relations to the issue of prisoners as much as to any other element in the complex negotiations now starting.