McCain backs peace talks for Israel and Palestinians

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The Independent US

The Republican presidential candidate John McCain yesterday endorsed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, amid growing fears that time is running out for the process.

Although he did not visit the occupied Palestinian territories during his two-day visit to Israel, Mr McCain said that, after telephoning Mr Abbas, he believed the Palestinian president "wants to get this process started" and was against the firing of rockets from Gaza.

At the same time, Mr McCain went out of his way to imply that he would maintain the US embargo on Hamas if elected president.

He told the Jerusalem Post that both Hamas and Hizbollah were "dedicated to the extinction of everything that the US stands for". He said that American citizens would require "pretty vigorous actions" in the face of cross-border attacks like those made from Gaza.

Mr McCain's remarks came as the leading Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, drew attention to a new poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research showing a sharp fall in support for Mr Abbas and an equally sharp rise in support both for Hamas and for the use of violence since the Annapolis summit last November.

The poll shows that 46 per cent of Palestinian voters would support Mr Abbas for President and 47 per cent would support the Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh – compared with a 19 point lead for Mr Abbas three months ago.

Even more startlingly, the poll registered that 84 per cent of Palestinians backed an attack that killed eight students at a religious Zionist Jerusalem yeshiva on 6 March.

Mr Erekat said that, since Annapolis, 358 Palestinians had been killed, 1,200 wounded, more than 2,000 arrested, more than 35 had their homes demolished and a total of 5,378 housing units were under construction in Jewish West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements despite the road-map obligation to freeze building.

He added that the Palestinians are "no longer using their ears to listen to Saeb Erekat talking about peace; they are using their eyes to see what Israel is doing".

Mr Erekat insisted that a negotiated two-state agreement was still possible in 2008 and that serious talking was under way but added that "we may disappear" if it failed to bear fruit. "It is time for decisions," he added.

In contrast to Mr McCain, the International Crisis Group said the "bankrupt" policy of isolating Hamas and squeezing Gaza had "backfired" and the international community needed to adopt a goal of "influencing Hamas's conduct rather than defeating it".