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Abbas: the way out of current impasse is a six month settlement freeze and announcement that borders of 1967 are basis of negotiations

Asharq Al-Awsat interview with Palestinian President Abbas,



A Conversation with President Mahmud Abbas
Interview by Ali El-Saleh and Nazer Majli
Ramallah, Asharq Al-Awsat-
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You reached an agreement with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, but former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, as (former US Ambassador to Israel) Martin Indyk said at a lecture in Israel, convinced the former Palestinian Chief negotiator Ahmad Quray (Abu-Ala) not to sign with Olmert because he was accused in corruption cases?
[President Abbas] This did not happen. No intervention by Tzipi Livni took place. It is true that there is some sensitivity between them, and that they do not like each other, but I had nothing to do with this issue, and I did not intervene (in their disagreements). I used to see hints and insinuations, but I had nothing to do with this. I used to negotiate with Olmert, and there was no back channel. We used to sit down all together, and then I would sit with Olmert alone, and talk about the details.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Would it have been possible to reach an agreement with Olmert alone?
[President Abbas] I believe it would have been possible that I go up a little, and he comes down a little. It was possible to find a solution. He said that he would give me 100 percent.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] This is important and fundamental?
[President Abbas] He said 100 percent. He would take from this side, and I would take from that side. He presented maps to me. The maps included that he would take the settlements blocs (in the West Bank) in exchange for territories in the north, west, and south of the West Bank, in addition to territories to the east of Gaza.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] To the north and west of the West Bank?
[President Abbas] Yes.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In which region in the west?
[President Abbas] In a distant region (from the triangle region), because I explained from the beginning that I would not accept anyone (from the Palestinians of Israel). We were doing well. God is my witness, he was all right; he said to me: You will not find anyone other than me; and I said to him: But you will find someone other than me.
(The triangle region is at the border strip of the West Bank; it is a region that is populated by a majority of Palestinians within the green line.)
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Therefore, not reaching the agreement, and after that the stumbling of the negotiations, or rather their failure, were the main reason for your decision not to be a candidate in the upcoming presidential elections?
[President Abbas] A collection of events occurred during two months; these events made me feel that the situation is in an impasse. The first event is that the negotiations have stopped; they have stopped since the departure of Olmert. Here I remember that (US President George) Bush said to me: You have done everything you should have done, and I have done everything I should have done, but the problem is what has happened to Olmert, which has led to this setback. This took place in the White House in December 2008. (Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice said: I have a suggestion; why do we not make a last attempt, namely you send a representative to Washington on 3 January, and they send a representative to continue. We agreed to do so.
(It is worth noting that President Abbas's visit to Washington at that time was interpreted as a farewell visit to President Bush in his last days in the White House).
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What was the reason for going to Washington? Was it to put the final touches?
[President Abbas] A last attempt to complete the negotiations. This means that we did not stop the negotiations, we did not reject the negotiations, and they did not reject them. We went back to Washington, but the aggression on Gaza exploded. Nevertheless, Saeb Erekat (head of the PLO Negotiations Department) (Abu-Mazin interrupted his sentence and said: Call Saeb). Saeb contacted Shalom Turgeman (the Israeli negotiator) six or seven times, and said to him: Shalom, we agreed with Rice to go to Washington on 3 January. Shalom's answer was: The situation is as you can see. Saeb said to him: What can we do then? Turgeman answered: Wait a little. Saeb himself will tell you the details. Nothing happened, 3 January came, Bush left the White House, and the story ended. Therefore, until 3 January we were ready to continue the negotiations.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Despite the war?
[President Abbas] Yes, until the day of the war. As I said (in the opening address to the PLO Central Council) I am against aggression, violence, and terrorism, on your side (he said it jokingly). Naturally our stance toward the aggression against Gaza was clear from the beginning, and we went to the UN Security Council to stop it. However, this is not our subject now. Let me go back to answer your question. Thus the negotiations were not resumed. President Obama came, and said that the settlements have to stop completely, and the negotiations started immediately.
(Saeb Erekat entered the office, and Abu-Mazin asked him to sit down) The negotiations (indirect negotiations through the US Peace Envoy George Mitchell) started since Obama came to office until we went to the United Nations in New York in September, and we met Obama (a tripartite meeting was held on the sidelines of the meetings of the UN General Assembly in which Abu-Mazin, Obama, and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took part, despite Abu-Mazin's previous objection to such meetings, and the fact that the conditions of the meeting, including the halt of settlements, were not satisfied).
During this period George Mitchell used to come to us and say that he had not yet finished. He would come again and say that no progress had been achieved, and so on. (Mitchell visited the region no less than eight times in nine months). One time I asked him to talk to us, and he replied by saying: What can I say to you; you agree, and you do not have a problem.
(Erekat intervened, and said that Mitchell said to us: You have implemented all your commitments according to the Road Map. We went to the United Nations, and they said to me: We are unable to convince the Israelis, come and let us find a solution. I said: How do you want me to find a solution for you. Erekat said that with some kind of hysteria).
As Saeb said, you put me on top of a tree, and now you ask me for a solution, and to climb down.
(Abu-Mazin asked Saeb to talk about his last meeting with Bush. Saeb said: I agreed with Turgeman to meet in Washington on 3 January; however, on the morning of 28 December, i.e. the morning of the war, while we were in Riyadh Airport in Saudi Arabia, I telephoned him, and he said: We have started to strike at Gaza, and we will not go to Washington).
[Asharq Al-Awsat] It was they who rejected the meeting in Washington?
[President Abbas] Yes.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us go back to the subject of the tree. How did you climb to the top?
[President Abbas] Obama laid down the condition of halting the settlements completely. What could I say to him? Should I say this is too much? Moreover, halting the settlements is the second article of the Road Map, and it is something I want. At the end they blame me, and they say that the condition of halting the settlements was not on offer during the negotiations with Olmert. Bear in mind that at every meeting with Olmert the issue of the settlements was discussed.
(Erekat: President Abu-Mazin refused to sign to the Annapolis understanding in November 2007 except after the formation of a tripartite committee led by US Gen (John) Frazier for the implementation of the Road Map including the settlements. The president said to Obama that the negotiations are over, and there is no need for negotiations, but we need resolutions. The Egyptians spoke in the same direction, so did the Jordanians and the Saudis).
(President Abbas continues :) We all (the Arabs) were there, and we coordinated our stances. Let us go back to the question about not becoming a candidate. In addition to the above, there was the issue of the Richard Goldstone report (the South African judge who investigated the Israeli war crimes in the Gaza Strip, and prepared a report; there was a major commotion about the agreement of the Palestinian Authority to postpone the voting on the report at the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva), in addition to the stumbling of the reconciliation and other issues. I found all the roads closed, and hence I decided not to become a presidential candidate again.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is not this decision tantamount to running away from the battle?
[President Abbas] Is the issue merely one of clinging to the chair? The chair does not matter to me.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] This is despite the fact that there is no alternative to you at this stage?
[President Abbas] It is wrong to say that there is no alternative. How can you say that there are 8 million Palestinians, but there is no alternative?
(Erekat: I believe that the president did not say I do not want to be a candidate because he was scheming, maneuvering, or fed up).
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Or he might be sulking as he used to sulk in the past?
[President Abbas] No it is not sulking.
(Erekat: The president is the owner of the negotiations with Israel, the owner of the Oslo Accord, and the owner of the peace camp in Romania and other issues. He is the one who educated us in the principle of the two states. Now there is Palestinian Authority, a government, and a Legislative Council. These have been established as institutions for the state. The president has reached the stage that says that Israel has imposed itself as a source of authority, and that he needs permission from it if he wanted to travel to Amman. This can continue for a hundred years. This is in addition to the continuation in Judaizing Jerusalem. All this has made him say that he does not want the presidency).
I said to Netanyahu at the tripartite meeting: I thought that what I achieved on the ground gives me the right to declare the state, because I have created the institutions, and achieved security and other things. The country is ready for the state, and he should not come back now to say I want this and I do not want that.
(Erekat: Brother, moreover Abu-Mazin out of modesty and politeness says that there are 8 million Palestinians. What do you mean by alternative? The man says that he is not capable of achieving a state. Do you want Saeb Erekat to come and say that he accepts less than a state? The use of the word alternative is a political mistake).
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is this an official recognition of the failure of the negotiations, or of the failure of the peace process as a whole?
[President Abbas] This is not correct. This is an official declaration that Israel refuses to be a partner in the process of negotiations.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The process of negotiations includes two partners. If one of the two sides refuses this means that there are no negotiations, and it means that the process has failed?
[President Abbas] Yesterday I read a report written by an Israeli journalist (Gidon Levy of Ha'aretz) in which he said the equivalent of: It would be better for you, Netanyahu, to say that you do not want peace. Thus, rather than us talking about this, here is one from Israel saying it.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But this has not been said by Netanyahu or any other Israeli Government?
[President Abbas] For this reason I said to him when I met him in New York: you have abolished the first part of the Road Map, and also the third part; what remains is the second part, which is related to a state of interim borders, and I will not accept it. Where do you want to take us? I will not go to violence again. Where are you taking us?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you said this to the United States?
[President Abbas] I said this today (in his address to the Central Council).
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is this addressed to the United States?
[President Abbas] It is addressed to the United States and to the Israelis.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What was the reply?
[President Abbas] The reply was the negotiations.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] This means that you acquiesce to the Israeli refusal by announcing that you will not be a candidate again?
[President Abbas] No, this is not correct. This is our stance, and the fact that I cannot continue, and that I cannot achieve my aspiration is the reason that I say I am withdrawing.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the way out of this situation in order to resume the negotiations?
[President Abbas] Settlements should be halted for six months without making this decision public. The United States or others should be informed about this matter, and we have the means to monitor the situation on the ground. Also it should be announced that the borders of 1967 are the basis of the negotiations (i.e. accepting the reference point).
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does this proposal have any relation to the expected visit by the US envoy to the region at the beginning of the year? It is said that Mitchell's visit aims at achieving this, and launching the negotiations?
[President Abbas] I presented this idea to the United States and to (Israeli Defense Minister Ehud) Baraq twice. I said to him: I propose to you to halt the settlements without announcement, i.e. practical halt on the ground; if you accept this, you can tell the United States alone.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Was there a response from Baraq?
[President Abbas] He did not give me an answer.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Has Baraq presented the idea to Netanyahu?
[President Abbas] We spoke two weeks ago. Definitely (he presented it).
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you met Baraq?
[President Abbas] No, we spoke over the telephone. I have not met him. However, this does not mean that I do not meet Israelis.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does this mean that Mitchell will come to the region?
[President Abbas] He said that he would come.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will this make you change your stance?
[President Abbas] Forget about the issue of whether or not I change. This makes the Palestinian situation open to the negotiations. I have said what I said, and this is not the important issue.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you optimistic?
[President Abbas] No, I am not optimistic.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is this because of the extremist government in Israel, or is it because you are not hopeful that the Obama Administration will take serious steps?
[President Abbas] I do not know, because I do not want to say that I hope or do not hope so that I do not build unfounded dreams. However, so far I still have hopes in Obama, who started well, that is if he continues with what he started. I do not want to say that because of a certain stance we have lost hope in him. Our hope remains that something might stem from him. I do not know.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is this stance acceptable to the Arabs?
[President Abbas] All the Arabs support our stance.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] By announcing that you will not be a candidate, you are throwing the burden on the shoulders of your possible alternative?
[President Abbas] I am not throwing the burden on anybody's shoulders. I say that this person - me - who has dedicated his life to peace considers that the road is blocked. I have sat in this chair as president of the Palestinian Authority in order to bring about the Palestinian State, and now I see that I cannot achieve this state; what can I do? Should I remain in the chair? Politics is my hobby, but this does not mean that I am immature in politics. It is my hobby because I work in politics because I want to do so. I do not want to be a political leader, and to scheme and maneuver; I say what is in my mind, and you know that many people have been upset because of what I say.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are the options, or the way out?
[President Abbas] The people are the ones to decide, and not me.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are the other alternatives you talked about?
[President Abbas] I will not tell you.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why not?
[President Abbas] These are alternatives that I will not squander. It is up to me to decide when I want. I have said that I will not be a candidate; however, I have options or measures - not alternatives - which I will adopt when the time is right?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When is the right time?
[President Abbas] Perhaps in a month or two. It might occur to me suddenly, and I announce them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Such measures, will they be a source of apprehension or of comfort for the Palestinians?
[President Abbas] I do not know. I do not know; perhaps the Palestinian people do not want me.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] This means that you are practically hinting at resignation?
[President Abbas] I am not hinting at anything.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can we say that someone like Erekat will be comfortable with these measures?
[President Abbas] Yes. Yes.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does this mean that you, as it is rumored, will propose him as alternative?
[President Abbas] I am not saying this. The fact that I propose an alternative does not mean that the people will accept it.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Fayyad's project is aimed at building institutions so that the Palestinians will be ready for the declaration of the state?
[President Abbas] At the tripartite meeting I said to Netanyahu that I consider myself ready to declare the state. This does not mean that I will stop building. Everyday we build and reconstruct. You know the West Bank well; it is witnessing changes every month, and even every day.
(Erekat: There is an opinion poll that shows that 67 percent of the Palestinian people in the West Bank consider that there is personal security and public security; this is compared to 34 percent a year ago).
Let us consider Bethlehem as an example. Last year we received 1,400,000 tourists, and this year there are 2 million tourists. There are no empty beds at any hotel in the city; therefore there are preparations to introduce one thousand, perhaps two or three thousand, beds. Yesterday, I opened the headquarters of the Monetary Authority, and before that the Central Bank project. There are projects in all cities.
(Al-Ahmad: All the projects have been initiated by the Palestinian authority a long time ago, including the housing projects. The PLO started to build the state ten years before the establishment of the Palestinian Authority).
PACDAR [Palestinian Council for Development and Reconstruction] (established before the Palestinian authority in order to build institutions) undertakes this work. It works in parallel and in coordination with the government, and its work includes building roads and other things.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How does the progress in the West Bank compare to that in the besieged Gaza Strip?
[President Abbas] The Gaza Strip is in ruins, while the West Bank is prospering. Gaza is our country, the same as the West Bank, and it grieves me to see one part of the country collapse, while the other prospers.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does this mean that the government program is compatible with your program?
[President Abbas] Naturally.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why do you oppose a state with interim borders as long as this is what is available now? This means returning to the policy of "take and demand more?"
[President Abbas] The state with interim borders is the state with permanent borders. This is what Hamas accepted, and what it offered in Geneva once upon a time. Until today they are talking about it. It was offered to them by Shaul Mufaz (one of the leaders of Kadima Party). This will not be a state of take and demand more, but it will be a state on 40 or 50 percent of the West Bank, and they give us the rest 15 years later. What guarantees do I have about what will happen in 15 years? I demand a final solution.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] A final solution that includes an end of the conflict?
[President Abbas] I will announce the end of the conflict. This exists in the Oslo Accord.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] It is said that late President Yasser Arafat at Camp David refused to announce the end of the conflict?
[President Abbas] This is not true (he repeated it twice). I say: If we reach an agreement on a final solution for Jerusalem, the refugees, the borders, the security, the prisoners, the water, and other issues, we will announce the end of all historical claims.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The world, especially the west, considers Israel a democratic and civilized state that has equality?
[President Abbas] This is questionable.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What can a Palestinian State offer?
[President Abbas] It can offer a democratic state that has equality and transparency. I challenge anyone to say that there was a single case of corruption in the Palestinian Authority in the past two or three years. I mean a single case of corruption.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] With regard to the UN Security Council, is there international readiness to recognize the borders of the state on the basis of 1967, i.e. do you have sides that are prepared to stand by you, bearing in mind that the United States opposes, so does the Soviet Union [Russia]?
[President Abbas] We would like to ask the world. There are those who say that this is a unilateral step. No, we do not want to take a unilateral step. We say: We want the UN Security Council to specify the borders of the state on the basis of international legitimacy, and on the basis of the Road Map that specifies the two-state solution, and the end of the occupation on the basis of the 1967 borders.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But there is no international readiness to do so?
[President Abbas] This is not true. The EU countries have agreed that all the 1967 territories are occupied territories.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But the European Union has amended the Swedish draft resolution?
[President Abbas] Yes they amended it, especially with regard to East Jerusalem, which is a negative point. However, as a whole I accept what has been issued by the European Union.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Peace is a strategic option; this is a phrase that is being repeated. However, are there any other options?
[President Abbas] Yes, the strategic option means a Palestinian State that coexists with the State of Israel in safety and stability. What do the Israelis want? They want security for their people within the borders of their state. What do the Palestinians want? They want an independent state within the 1967 borders. I have visited South Africa and met the leaders of the Jews there. I said to them: I want to speak to you in simple terms. I said: Put yourselves in my place, and let us exchange roles; now I am Israeli, and you are Palestinians; I want guarantees for my state and my people, is this correct? They said: This is correct. I said: Now you as Palestinians, what do you say? They kept silent. I continued: Shall I speak for you, and you either agree or disagree with what I say? They said: Yes. I said: The Palestinians have been dispersed for 60 years without a state, and without security; I demand a state to be established on 22 percent of Palestine, which will live side by side with Israel. They said: We agree. The meeting ended and we departed.
During my last visit to Brazil, we were having dinner in the house of President Lula; the president whispered to me: Would you like to meet the Jewish community? I said: Why do you whisper? He said: I do not want any embarrassment, on the basis that we are rejectionists (he said sarcastically). I said: yes, I would like to meet them. The leader of the Jewish community together with two senior members of the community and a mayor of Salvador da Bahia visited me at the hotel. I said the same thing to them, and they wept. I have not said anything different from what I say to you and at all meetings.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are those who call for a single state?
[President Abbas] We are not the ones calling for a single state. This is not our option. The Road Map includes three parts. The first part is commitments, and I have fulfilled all my commitments, but Israel has not fulfilled any of them. I am sure that they have not fulfilled anything at all. Therefore, the Israelis have abolished the first part of the Road Map. The third part talks about two states, and the end of occupation. They refuse. This means that the third part has disappeared. As for the second part, it talks about a state with interim borders as an option. I do not accept this. Therefore, what is the solution? Where do they want to take us? I will not take the road of violence. Drag us to where you want, but I will not return to violence.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What if violence imposes itself?
[President Abbas] It cannot impose itself on me. I do not accept. I do not accept violence, terrorism, shooting bullets, or military uprising. I will never accept them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But you are in favor of peaceful popular struggle?
[President Abbas] Of course, the masses have the right to stage demonstrations. They have the right to go to the street and to chant slogans against the wall. The people of Jerusalem have the right to protest against the occupation and destruction of their houses. However, I reiterate that I do not want military violence because it will destroy us. I am not prepared to see the country destroyed again after it has been reconstructed.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are there fears of a third intifadah?
[President Abbas] I hope this will not happen, and I will not accept it. However, at the same time I hope that they will not push the people to the wall, to an impasse.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But if the people see their president facing a wall, what will they do?
[President Abbas] When this happens it will be up to the people, and not up to me. As for me, I will not call on them to fire bullets; this will not happen.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] They do not necessarily have to resort to armed resistance, but they can stage an uprising similar to the first intifadah of 1987?
[President Abbas] Even the intifadah of 2000 was not like this. It started because of provocations by Ariel Sharon. People were killed, and the intifadah exploded for five years. Look what it did to us.

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