Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sought to soothe Israeli worries about a potential unilateral declaration by the Palestinians of their independence by next year. ďWe have always opposed unilateralism and we are not going to be the ones who will carry out unilateral steps,Ē said Abbas in an interview with Israelís TV Ch 2 on Monday, 25 April 2010. The interview, which ran for some 35 minutes and aired throughout 14 minutes in a primetime news bulletin at 20:00 local time, left a positive impact both upon Palestinians who watched it (aired in Arabic with Hebrew subtitles) and more importantly on the Israelis and on their Prime Minister. Speaking to a Likud gathering on Tuesday evening, Prime Minister Netanyahu said that President Mahmoud Abbas ďintendsĒ to renew stalled peace negotiations and expressed hope that these talks would resume as soon as next week.
Following are the questions and answers:
Frankly, many Israelis doubt that the PA has a long term capacity to control and to sign an agreement with Israel and end the coup in Gaza.
Let them try us. On behalf of the PLO, we say to you that we are ready to sign an agreement. The situation here in the West Bank, as you know, is fully stable. We speak on behalf of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In the near future, when we sign an agreement, we will sign it for and on behalf of all the Palestinians. The Israeli side has to try us. But anticipating failure and assuming that we are incapable means only looking for a pretext not to be serious.
How can the Gaza and Hamas problems be solved?
We are capable of solving the problem of Gaza and Hamas. We are having an ongoing dialogue with Hamas in order to reach reconciliation. We have made a considerable number of steps and we will go on. Ultimately, this reconciliation is inevitable. There are those among Hamas and here in Ramallah who believe that unity is a must for the best of our peopleís interest.
You mean reconciliation with Hamas is still possible?
Yes, there are efforts being made. Talks and contacts continue. We tell them to sign the reconciliation agreement and everything will be solved. Ultimately, there will be elections.
Was there an agreement with Israel on resuming the proximity talks with the Netanyahu government?
Up to this moment, there were the Mitchell efforts. He came and presented to us a few ideas. We submitted to him some ideas. He heard from the Israeli side as well. And talks continue. On 1 May we will present what was suggested to us to the Arab Follow Up Committee. We hope that the response will be positive. But at the moment we cannot give an answer that this is or is not going to happen.
Are there any guarantees from the Americans?
The Americans say that we should rely on them and that they are prepared to continue with talks, serious talks, that include all the core issues of the permanent status. This is what we heard. And this is acceptable to us.
Do you feel that President Obama has more understanding towards the Palestinian stand than President Bush?
President Obama expressed his views. And so did President Bush. President Bush was the one who spoke of the two-state vision. President Bush was the one who sponsored negotiations after Annapolis. Nevertheless, time was not enough to finish the successful negotiations that we held with Olmert. Unfortunately, those talks came to a halt. The reasons that caused the cessation of talks are known. Since he took over, President Obama has declared that solving the crisis and the creation of a Palestinian state fall within the US strategic and vital interests. This is the new talk we heard during the Obama term.
We have lost more than one year because there were no talks between you and the Netanyahu government due to differences over freezing construction works in Jerusalem. But in the past, ceasing construction in Jerusalem was never a condition for talks.
You keep talking about this issue time and again. We have always spoken of fully freezing settlement activities based on two important issues. The first is bilateral agreements signed between us and you. In 1995, we signed the agreement that says explicitly that no party, neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli, is allowed to take unilateral steps that would prejudice the outcome of the permanent status talks. Unfortunately, the Israeli party did not abide by this agreement. Then came the Road Map that was preceded by the Mitchell Report which said that all settlement activities be brought to a halt, including natural growth.
Was there a mistake by the Americans that they asked for a total freeze of settlement activities in the West Bank and Jerusalem? Didnít the US put you on top of the tree?
I wouldnít call it a mistake. Because they reiterated what the Quartet said in the Road Map. In other words, the US did not invent something new. Nor did it come with new ideas about the settlements. What the US said was a repetition of what we, both you and us, accepted. There was nothing new in what they said.
Frankly, is there a special sensitivity between you and the Israeli Prime Minister, Netanyahu? Is there any kind of lack of trust between you?
We look at things in a very objective way. Benyamin Netanyahu is the prime minister who was elected by the Israeli people and by the Knesset. He is the one who has a clear majority in the Knesset. My duty is to deal with him along this basis. It is none of my right to say that I like this one and dislike that one. My duty is to deal with him the same way I had to deal with him when he was prime minister for three years between 1996 and 1999. We have always dealt with him and even signed the Wye River agreement with him.
Did the Palestinian leadership give up the demand to resume talks from the point where they stopped during the Olmert term?
We say there were issues that were discussed and finalized during the Olmert term, like security. It was fully finalized. Perhaps, this is not known but I tell you exactly the following: We discussed security the day following the creation of the Palestinian state. General Jones was one of the American generals who worked with us on this file. Then, Mr. Olmert and I started to discuss how we see security on the day after. There was a suggestion to engage a third party, like the NATO for instance under American command. The period, the time frame, the number and the sites never were a problem. And I stated to them that this third party will be deployed here for the following reasons. First, it would help rebuild the security apparatuses, and secondly to soothe the worries of the Israeli side that there are forces that can deter whoever wants to harm Israel, until we become strong enough. This subject was discussed between me and Olmert. We agreed with the Jordanian government, as well as with Egypt, with the presence of General Jones. The file was sealed, pending finalization of the other core issues.
But Olmert said he never received the final Palestinian response to the proposals he submitted.
Let me tell you that we started with Olmert from A to Z. We held almost 35 sessions. We discussed all issues, without exception. We discussed borders, Jerusalem, refugees, water and everything else. When we started talking about the borders, the US Administration, represented by then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, sat with the Palestinian and Israeli delegations, with Tzippi Livni and Abu Alaa, and told them that the US understanding of the 1967 borders mean the following: Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, the Jordan River and the no manís land. And she asked if there was an agreement. And she was told yes there is an agreement. We accepted the idea and so did Tzippi Livni. Then we, Olmert and I, started talking about maps and land swap. We all know there should be and agreed upon qualitative and quantitative land swap between us.
Saeb Erekat, for instance, said that there wonít be an agreement with the settlements of Maaleh Adumim and Ariel remaining in Israelís hands.
We have not reached that point yet. We say that we agreed on the principle that the 1967 borders are the basis. Let us agree on the land swap that is equal in quality and quantity. As a matter of fact, at this point I submitted maps and Olmert submitted, or rather showed me, maps of his own. I suggested a certain land swap percentage. And all I demanded that the total area of the West Bank remains as it was originally. So that we adopt the land swap, allowing us to take a bit of land here and a bit land there in order to re demarcate the borders between us. We started to discuss details. Olmert submitted to me his maps twice and I did the same. At that moment, indictment was filed against Olmert. Then things came to a halt. Frankly speaking, on 25 December, I was in Washington. And we discussed all those results with President Bush who asked: why donít you continue? I said I was ready to continue. He asked if I was ready to send an envoy to Washington on 3 January and I said yes. Then came the war in Gaza. Nevertheless, Saeb Erekat called Shalom Turjeman (Olmertís aide) and told him he was ready to go with him to Washington. But Turjeman did not give any answer. That was because of the war in Gaza. At that point, all efforts came to a standstill. Answering your question, I would say we havenít wasted one moment since Annapolis until today in order to reach an agreement, with all positivity. When I submit maps and Olmert submits maps, isnít that serious and genuine?
I have one personal question: What do you feel today about the problems Olmert faces in Israel?
Frankly, there has been a personal relationship, somehow, with Olmert. We used to meet at his house. He was telling us, from time to time, that there were charges ďagainst me but I assure you I will get out of them clean.Ē We do not want to say if this correct or wrong. I do not want to interfere in this matter. Since you have a fair legal system, we think matters will be put on the right track.
Do you or do you not see a chance to finalize an agreement with Netanyahu and Lieberman, bearing in mind their known positions?
Frankly, we do differentiate between statements to the media and the realities. If you want a solution, we are ready for a solution on this basis. I do not care about what said here and there. Perhaps, their statements, as well as statements made on our side, are meant for domestic use. But when I sit on the negotiating table, I am backed by international legitimacy, by the agreements we signed, not minutes of discussions we had in the past. Let us put all of these in front of us and move forward. If there is a will to reach a solution, it serves both our peoples. Any resolution needs two parties. I used to hear that you pulled out of Gaza and Hamas took over. And you would also talk of the withdrawal from South Lebanon. But those two withdrawals were unilateral. You did not consult me when you pulled out of Gaza. You did not want to reach an agreement with me when peace needs two parties. Let us sit on the table and I will tell you candidly that we want a solution based on this principle.
Mr. President, you said an agreement needs two parties. But what do you mean with the right of return? What can you tell me, the Israeli sitting next to you, when I ask about the right of return? What does the right of return mean?
Do you accept the Road Map? Yes? The Road Map has a number of articles about withdrawals and many others. There is also the article that refers to the Arab Peace Initiative. What is the Arab Peace Initiative? Though I publicized the initiative in the Israeli press, on television and radio, you still do not grasp the spirit of the initiative. The Initiative tells you: People of Israel, make peace today and tomorrow you will have 57 Arab and Islamic countries that are ready to raise the Israeli flag in their capitals. I hope you appreciate this. Now back to the right of return. The Arab Peace Initiative speaks of a just and agreed upon solution to the question of refugees, based on Resolution 194. Can I impose on you a settlement you do not accept? Why do you try to put the cart before the horse? I speak openly of a just and agreed upon solution. I want to put the question of refugees on the negotiations table along with the other six issues we agreed upon in the Oslo Accord. The solution is what was written in the Road Map. The solution is what was written in the Arab Peace Initiative. It is a solution that is not imposed on you; a just and agreed upon solution. I donít think there is on earth any flexibility more than this one. I am not saying that I want to impose on you a settlement that you have to accept.
You mean most of the refugees are not going to return to their properties and homes?
I say clearly that it has to be a just solution that we both agree on. Once we have this agreement, it is my duty to take it back to my people using my way. The outcome of the solution is what I take back to my people and tell them it is what I achieved.
You have lately spoken highly of the popular resistance but we all know that it starts with slogans, then stone throwing, followed by violence and wounded and, God forbid, killings.
Well. I urged my people in my speech yesterday [on 24 April 2010 before FATAH Revolutionary Council] not to be dragged into the trap of reaching to stones and bullets. I do not want anyone to hold a demonstration and confront the Israelis with violence. These instructions have been given to the security apparatuses that were told to prevent any friction between the demonstrators and the Israeli army. Why donít you prevent the settlers from carrying out daily attacks on our people? Why do you carry out actions that are liable to push the people to demonstrate? You go to Jerusalem; to Karm Al Mufti (in the Sheikh Jarrah area) and kick people out of their houses and yet you expect them not to do anything. Is this fair? Why donít you prevent this kind of actions so you see no demonstrations or people protesting? We should address the problems by dealing with their roots. The main reason is attacks by settlers who burn houses and fields, kill livestock and even torch mosques. Why donít you respect our feelings? The army does not try to prevent them and this is the problem. The second point is you should stop all actions on your side so we can negotiate freely. Let me sit with Netanyahu to talk without hearing a statement from this direction and another one from the other direction.
With regard to the statements, there are also statements by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad that next year, 2011, the Palestinian state will be declared even without an agreement with Israel.
No. We respect the agreements. We do not carry out any unilateral action and you should not carry out any unilateral action. Therefore, declaring the Palestinian state should be the outcome, the fruit, of a Palestinian-Israeli agreement backed by the international community.
There has been talk of an alliance between Salam Fayyad and Marwan Barghouti.
First of all, Marwan is a member of FATAH Central Committee. You know Marwan Barghouti but you ignore this fact. Believe me, Marwan is one of the most believers in peace among the leaders of the Palestinian people. This is my view of him and that is how I know him. When we were in Tunis, he used to dispatch every word I said at the time as if it was FATAH message to movement members. Do not err when you think of Marwan. He is actually a man of peace. And if there is any alliance with Salam, he too belongs to the peace camp. And I am a man of peace. Then who needs an alliance? Against whom? We all believe in peace. This is an opportunity for you. Grasp it.
You said you are not going to run for presidential elections again. So who is going to be your successor?
I have declared that I do not want to run in the upcoming elections. My decision is still valid. If you, people of Israel, believe that peace depends on me personally, and if I go peace goes with me, they you are wrong. If you think that I am a man of peace, then help me to achieve peace with you. Let us sign a peace agreement. But if you think that OK if Abu Mazen is going, then we should not work to achieve peace, you are wrong Why bother about what may happen to me? In Israel, Olmert was the prime minister, then came Netanyahu and nobody knows who will come tomorrow. Before them there were Rabin, Barak, Peres and Ben Gurion. The world has not changed. There is politics in the world. There are institutions. We have apparatuses, institutions and councils that take decisions. It is not an individual decision. Believe me, if it were a personal decision, and the people are against me, I would have not stayed in my position even for one day. We have no dictatorship. You know that we have democracy just like you.
Last question Mr. President. With regard to the kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, do you have any role or information about when will he be back?
As a matter of fact, we have no role to play. Hamas kidnapped and hid him. I suggested to hand him over to me and I would bring a deal for all. I told them a hundred times that I was ready to negotiate Shalitís release in a good deal. But they did not hand him over to me. Nevertheless, I am against holding Shalit for all this long period in captivity. I am also against keeping over 8,000 Palestinians in jail. Shalit has a family, relatives and friends who care for him. Likewise, there are families and relatives to those 8,000 prisoners who have children, wives and friends. Some of them have already spent almost 30 years in jail. Why do you need to keep someone for more than 30 years in jail? What good does it make you keeping a blind man or a 10-year old boy in prison, or a pregnant woman? I plead to you to think. I wanted Shalit to be released even three years ago and not today. But you also need to feel that we are people just like you. What do the Israeli people want? Peace and security? And what do I want? I want sovereignty and security with you, to live along your side in peace and security, while bringing on board 57 states more. I expect you to sympathize with us the way we sympathize with you. I have sent my ambassador to Poland to the Holocaust memorial in order to express my sympathy to the Jewish people over their plight in WWII. I also instructed my ambassador in Moscow to attend the grand event organized by the chief Rabbi of Russia on the Holocaust Memorial Day. We feel with you. You need you to feel with us. You too need to feel with us and understand that we are victims of injustice. We are human beings like you and we want a state. Since you want security and I want a state, then what is the difference? Borders? We can solve that. I said that I submitted my map so let us discuss it?
We differ on the lack of Palestinian recognition of the spiritual and religious bond between the Jewish people and the city of Jerusalem.
We consider East Jerusalem part of the occupied territories. We suggested that Jerusalem stays united. East Jerusalem belongs to us and West Jerusalem to you. The whole city would remain open for all. A municipality is on this side and another one on the western side and above both a special body that coordinates between them. We can find an international solution for the holy sites to sponsor them. So where is the problem? With regard to sovereignty, East Jerusalem is mine and you cannot say that East Jerusalem that was occupied in 1967 does not belong to us. In Jerusalem, I can practice all my religious rights, the same way you can practice yours and the Christian practices his. All guests from around the world can practice theirs too. That is the genuine peace that we speak about, if we really want a genuine peace. If we do not want a genuine peace, I wonít be there tomorrow or the day after. I will go away and all of us will lose. We have not lost our hope and we do not want to lose hope. By the way, there was talk among the Palestinians that the two-state solution is not doable anymore. Those have started talking of a one-state solution. I am against this solution. But you should not force people right into frustration that takes them to conclusions we do not want them to reach.