RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories: Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas would support a five-year Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank provided a NATO force is deployed to ensure security, the New York Times has reported.
Abbas, in an interview published by the paper on Sunday, shifted from his insistence on a three-year time frame for Israel's withdrawal from occupied territories under any future peace deal.
"At the end of five years my country will be clean of occupation," Abbas said, insisting however that NATO forces should be deployed during this period to undertake cross-border security and anti-terrorism duties.
"For a long time, and wherever they want, not only on the eastern borders, but also on the western borders, everywhere," NATO could be stationed, he said.
"The third party can stay. They can stay to reassure the Israelis, and to protect us."
Abbas's comments came as the United States tries to coax Israel and the Palestinians into ending a decades-old conflict and bringing about a two-state solution.
But US-backed peace talks are faltering over a number of seemingly irreconcilable issues, including that of security arrangements in a future Palestinian state.
Israel insists it be allowed to maintain a long-term military presence, notably in the Jordan Valley, where the West Bank borders Jordan.
But the Palestinians demand that Israel withdraw entirely to make way for an international force.
The Palestinians would only have a police force and no army under a final status agreement, Abbas said, so a NATO force would undertake anti-terrorism and cross-border security tasks.
"We will be demilitarised," Abbas told the Times. "Do you think we have any illusion that we can have any security if the Israelis do not feel they have security?"
Hardline Israeli officials slammed Abbas's proposal, opposing the notion of evicting Jewish settlers from their homes in the occupied West Bank.
Abbas's "programme cannot be implemented, because he still wants to expel 400,000 settlers from their homes," Housing Minister Uri Ariel, himself a settler, said in remarks broadcast by public radio.
Deputy foreign minister Zeev Elkin told the radio Abbas "does not want peace, since he refuses to recognise Israel as a Jewish state."
"We cannot talk of progress while he says he doesn't want to throw us into the sea just now, but later instead," Elkin said.
Israel demands Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
But the Palestinians refuse this, fearing it will preclude the right of return for refugees who fled or were driven from their homes when Israel was created in 1948.
It is unclear what would be the fate of Israeli settlers under a final peace deal, although local media reports say the idea of land swaps or even leasing land from Palestinian authorities have both been floated.
Settlements are illegal under international law.