Dr. Omar Awadallah , head of public administration for UN human rights organizations at the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, expressed his hope that the French initiative and the subsequent conference scheduled before the end of the year, will halt the monopoly of the one country sponsoring the peace process in the region. He also said it could end the era of direct bilateral negotiations and promote the concept of a multilateral framework. He stressed that the significance of this initiative is that it is international, not just French.
As part of the “Hosted by MIFTAH” segment, Dr. Awadallah said conference-goers will address two central issues: ending the Israeli occupation and the responsibility of countries to resolve the conflict, given that having two states in this region would be in the United States’ interests.
Following is the full text of the interview:
*What is the idea behind the French initiative? Would you say this initiative meets its own aspirations at a time when Israel is bent on continuing its rejection of peace?
To us, this initiative was and still is in order to restore international status to the Palestinian cause after the events that swept through the Middle East, especially in the Arab region. These events pushed the Palestinian cause back on the world’s agenda and this is why we worked together with the French from day one to get this initiative off the ground. We have continued to support this initiative alongside the French an international effort to restore the Palestinian cause to its former status based on the determinants of international law towards an end to the occupation. .
*What do the Palestinians hope will come out of the peace conference? How much Arab and international support does it have?
We welcomed this initiative, which is part of the Palestinians’ strategy after they gained observer membership at the UN. The strategy entailed joining a number of international organizations and agreements and adopting international law as the specific path for peaceful Palestinian resistance. That is, we sought to have the largest number of countries involved in a resolution to the Palestinian cause and to the Arab-Israeli conflict, first and foremost by ending the Israeli occupation of occupied Palestinian land.
The move was made back then by Foreign Minister Riyad Malki, who spoke with his French counterpart about the role France could play. France was encouraged and the discussion of the French initiative became part of a larger discussion about a [UN] resolution, either on the specifics of a solution or a resolution against settlements. This happened in tandem with President Abbas’ speech at the beginning of the year in which he spoke about a peace conference similar to that of the P5+1 and the efforts this international diplomacy generated in resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis. Hence, there was international determination to untangle files in the Middle East similar to the Palestinian cause. This is why we took on the French initiative, marketed it to the Arab League and presented it to the Islamic Cooperation Organization, ultimately gaining Arab and Islamic support for it.
*How does this initiative differ from previous ones? Can it be merged with others?
The difference we see in this initiative is that it restores international momentum to the cause and puts an end to the monopoly of one country over the mediation in negotiations between Palestine and Israel. It also ends the era of direct bilateral talks. Not only do we hope it will restore the Palestinian cause to its natural place in the international arena, it will also prompt countries to shoulder their responsibilities. This multilateral presence in the future peace process is the most important part of the initiative. Still, we don’t want the conference to be a mere photo-op for countries to attend and then go their separate ways, leaving Israel and Palestine to negotiate bilaterally with only one or two other countries at hand. That is why it is so imperative to have a multilateral framework to reintroduce the Palestinian cause, based on international law and internationally-recognized criteria for the peace process.
*Can we also consider the French initiative a European initiative as well?
If we talk about what we want the results of this initiative to be, they would be outcomes recognized by Europe and actually the entire world except for Israel, which does not recognize the necessity of a two-state solution on the 1967 borders. The outcomes would include recognizing East Jerusalem as occupied and the capital of the state of Palestine and the references of a peace process must be international law including relevant UN resolutions, in addition to the Madrid conference principles, the Roadmap plan, and most importantly the Arab Peace Initiative as the framework for a solution. These are all acceptable points of reference for world countries and if we are talking about the US administration, well, the Roadmap plan was the vision of former US President George Bush. So, this initiative could be a global one, not just French. It is not important who called for the conference or where it is held. The aim is to make it clear to the world that there is a cause that needs to be resolved, because without a resolution to the issue of Palestine, there will be no stability in the Middle East.
*Do you think Donald Trump’s victory in the recent US presidential elections will impact the future of this initiative given his open support for Israel?
We are talking about a peace conference that is to be held before the end of the year, that is, before the new US administration takes office. From day one, the Palestinians have wanted to increase international efforts to make the French initiative a success. One idea was to present a draft resolution against settlements that would be a kind of structure of support for the peace conference. It would also give us some indication of the form the conference will take. A Security Council resolution on settlements must precede the conference, given that settlements are the primary obstacle to a peaceful solution. That is why the conference will be held during the current US administration’s time in office.
The US administration has always had a unique relationship with Israel, but this could be a positive thing. That is, the next administration under Trump may have very close ties with Israel but as long as he keeps a peaceful relationship with Palestine and the Palestinian leadership, this could be positive. We have heard Trump saying he wants to be an honest broker and stand “right in the middle”, even though he did change his rhetoric later on to more bias language towards Israel. Still, we think that the existence of a Palestinian state on land occupied in 1967 and the resolution of the refugee problem is, in general, the vision of Trump’s party. President Bush laid the groundwork for this years ago, so we believe two states in the region is an American interest as well.
*Will Israel’s absence from the conference effect whether it is held or not?
Whether Israel attends or doesn’t attend the conference, it must be held, because there are two issues at hand: the first is the Israeli occupation and the need to end it. The second is the responsibility countries have in regards to their role in the conflict. So, whether Israel is there or not, this should not affect the initiative. The question is, would the outcomes of the conference be better if Israel were present? This, I believe, depends on our role and the role of the countries that will attend. In the end, we expect the conference to produce clear mechanisms and outcomes that can be implemented.
*Are there any practical mechanisms in place for the outcomes of the conference and will they be binding for Israel?
No doubt, if we want what we are demanding, there must be binding mechanisms for implementation put in place. This could be through a multilateral mechanism from the countries, or through adding new members to the Quartet, or though backing the outcomes by issuing a binding Security Council resolution for them. Attending countries should also have a say in the consequences should either Palestine or Israel fail to implement what was agreed upon. This is what President Hollande expressed when he began this process – there would be punitive measures brought against anyone who fails to deliver. Most importantly, we need the means for implementation and the method in which these issues will be managed.
During the preparatory meeting in June, Foreign Minister Malki sent letters to the countries, laying out the Palestinians’ principles and fixed positions so they know that the Palestinian vision is in line with international law. We just hope the countries will remain adherent to the principles and foundations of international law in this regard.
*Palestinian civil society has always demanded that you include it any international event such as this, especially in terms of involving women and youth leaders. Will we see this presence at the Paris conference?
The working groups that came out of the Paris conference include specialized in civil society. Sweden heads this group and worked with groups from Palestinian civil society. Hence, the ideas of Palestinian civil society have been incorporated. Anyway, anyone who represents the Palestinian people at the conference will be representing all of the people and sectors.
In any case, the conference’s agenda has not yet been set – will it be at the level of heads of state or foreign ministers how many countries will attend, these things we still don’t know. I think that from now, it is important for civil society to begin lobbying and advocacy campaigns. What do they want from the conference? What do our youth want? Our women?
It is important that our voices be heard. Civil society has a role in this. We have one of the most active civil societies in the world and there is a unique relationship between the government and this society that will enable them to cooperate in forming a joint paper on what we want from this conference.
*What do you say to the fact that Israel, an occupying country, heads some UN committees?
The structure of the United Nations is unique in how it deals with member states in its committees. That is why Israel now heads the Sixth Committee, which is unfortunately the international law committee. Israel did not win presidency of this committee because of its upstanding reputation in international law. We confronted the UN with this, telling them it was a disgrace for an occupying power that violates UN resolutions and international law to head a committee this important. But there is a procedural system within the UN for groups such as the African group, Asia, western Europe etc. Israel represents the western European group and it was the only country that nominated itself for head of this committee. We however, objected and called for a vote. Unfortunately, the countries voted for Israel anyway.
Right now, we are working on several scenarios as part of our strategy to confront any gains Israel might try to achieve or any important groups it may try to head within the UN. Israel has apparently begun to operate differently than before when it used to disregard and ignore the UN. Now it is trying to clean up its image there.