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Recognizing Two-State Principle Condition for Negotiating With Netanyahu

By: Huda al Husseini, Asharq Alawsat

Date: 8.3.2009


The Gaza aid conference will not divert attention from the internal problems that the Palestinians are facing. PNA head Mahmud Abbas wants a national unity government that accepts the two-state solution and previously signed agreements. As for Hamas, it responds by saying that the required government should be one that embraces the resistance. Accordingly, Hamas refuses to differentiate between its position as a movement and the obligations that a Palestinian government is required to meet. It continues to cling to its victory in the parliamentary election.

Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat, who enjoys a very close relationship with the Palestinian president, responded to all this by saying: "Never before in history has a political party won the election then announced later its intention to cancel UN resolutions, the Arab initiative, and previously signed agreements." He added: "Throughout history, contractual obligations upheld by political societies have always been binding to the governments that come to power through coups, elections, or hereditary rule." He holds the view that "Hamas must understand that any Palestinian government to be formed will be a responsible component of the international community that will have political, financial, and economic obligations."

I reminded Erekat that when former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein cancelled the "Algiers Accord" with Iran, this led to war. I asked him: By cancelling previous agreements, will Hamas give Israel the pretext to wage a war? Erekat said: "Hamas cannot cancel agreements or the commitments imposed on the Palestinian Government and people under these agreements." He stressed: "As the people of Palestine and as the PLO, we say that we respect our obligations towards international, Arab, and Palestinian legitimacy." He considered this point a "substantial point" and linked it to what could happen in Israel after the victory of the right wing. He noted that "Mahmud Abbas wrote a letter to the US Administration, the European Union, and Russia telling them that if the upcoming Israeli Government rejects the agreements that were previously signed with the Palestinians and the two-state principle and if it continues to pursue its settlement policy, then it should no longer be their partner." He added: "This is why the PNA insists on its position of relying on international legitimacy as a basis for any action - that is, if we want the world to support us in dismissing an Israeli government that rejects international legitimacy."

Some observers hold the view that Netanyahu will not refuse to adopt a diplomatic approach and will not rush into building and expanding settlements, particularly if he ends up forming a government that is strictly rightwing. This is because a government that includes Tzipi Livni or Ehud Baraq will justify for Netanyahu his insistence on adopting hard-line positions and on preserving the status quo. Those who claim to be "moderates" in Israel have always provided the cover or the justifications for hardliners. Overbidding on hardliners has pushed moderates to wage wars.

Another factor that has emerged is new US President Barack Obama, who is not former President George W. Bush. This means that in order for Netanyahu to succeed in prolonging his government's term of office he must freeze settlement activity, allow the flow of aid into Gaza, and negotiate with the Palestinians without any tricks. Netanyahu has no choice in front of a resolute administration that is speaking with one voice, beginning with its president; then its Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has committed to offer $900 million in aid to help reconstruct what Israel has destroyed in Gaza; all the way to its National Security Adviser James Jones, who is closely acquainted with the Palestinian situation. Even the Israeli rightwing has become aware that Netanyahu has to choose between two options: Either continue to build settlements and lose the US Administration's friendship, or freeze such activity. Moreover, there is no "Elliott Abrams" in this administration to tell the concerned parties that this is not what the president meant or that the secretary of state's opinion is not important.

I asked Erekat as to whether or not he feels that Elliott Abrams had deceived them. He responded by saying: "I cannot say that he deceived us. I say that there was a US administration that was working to achieve its interests and that we dealt with it in accordance with our own interests." He added: "It is no secret that Netanyahu's government rejects international legitimacy. If this government rejects previously signed agreements and the two-state principle and refuses to renounce settlement activity and lift the siege, then it should not be a partner and we will not negotiate with it." He went on: "In this case, we want the world to announce that this government is not a partner." The chief Palestinian negotiator grounded this position on the outcome of the meeting that was held between Netanyahu and Livni, head of Kadima. Livni set as a condition for joining Netanyahu's government that he includes the principle of two states for two peoples within the government agreement and agrees to engage in talks with the Palestinians over major issues, including the issues of Jerusalem, borders, settlements, refugees, and security. Netanyahu rejected Livni's request, and as a result, Livni refused to join his government.

I asked the Palestinian official: Why did you continue talks with Ehud Olmert despite the sharp increase in settlement activity during his term in office? He said: "The PNA engaged in negotiations with Olmert when the US Administration formed a tripartite committee under the chairmanship of General Fraser and pledged in writing to put an end to settlement activity." He added: "Unfortunately, the US Administration failed us, because settlement activity continued." He said: "I do not want to change facts or history, but talks were disrupted several times."

Concerning his reaction to Yisra'el Beytenu's [Israel is our Home] call for a two-state solution, the chief Palestinian negotiator said that he prefers to wait until after he reads the government platform. He added: "If the government platform does not include [previously signed] agreements, the two-state principle, and an end to settlement activity then this government will not be our partner and we will not hold talks with it."

On Sunday [1 March], the Observer newspaper revealed that Hamas and Ehud Olmert's government had held three phases of indirect contacts. The newspaper added that messages were passed [from Hamas] through a member of Olmert's family. The Observer also said that Hamas leaders in Damascus and Gaza were aware of and approved such contacts.

When President Obama appointed George Mitchell as Middle East envoy, the latter stressed that "the peace that he successfully brought to fruition in Northern Ireland was not achieved at the hands of the moderates; rather, it was realized when the extremists took part in the negotiations." Given the fact that the PNA describes Netanyahu's government as an extremist government, and that Israel and the Western world consider Hamas an extremist movement, then perhaps a peaceful agreement might be reached through them - that is, if Mitchell sees at a later stage that the methods used in Northern Ireland should be applied to the talks that he will be holding between the Palestinians and the Israelis, particularly that there are calls demanding Hamas to amend its charter, recognize the right of Israel to exist, and put an end to violence.

Saeb Erekat denied having any knowledge of the information published by the Observer. However, he said that he did not find this strange because he "believes that indirect talks between Hamas and Israel are underway, despite the latter not informing the PNA of the existence of such negotiations." He added: "If this information is true, it is not something about which I would boast."

I asked: Given that the Obama factor will definitely have an effect on Israeli policy, then how will it affect the Palestinian position, and will the Palestinians be united or divided in dealing with President Obama, particularly that Hamas sent him a letter through the UN headquarters in Gaza, which delivered it to Senator John Kelly during his visit to Gaza? Erekat said: "We tell President Obama: as Americans, your interests in the region impose on you the need to end the Israeli occupation and stop dealing with Israel as if it is a state above the law." He added: "The borders of the United States are no longer limited to Canada and Mexico. Some 200,000 US soldiers are deployed [in the Middle East] and this deployment has changed the United States' functional role in the region. Accordingly, the United States must realize that the only way to achieve stability and security is by draining the Israeli occupation quagmire."

The chief Palestinian negotiator also said: "The Palestinians rely on their own will in adopting cautionary positions [such as] 'we will not allow this, and the United States must do that.'" He continued to send messages to Washington by saying: "If Washington wants to hold talks with the Arab and Islamic worlds then it must renounce its policy of double standards." He added: "If the new Israeli Government rejects previously signed agreements, the two-state solution, and an end to settlement activity, then the United States must announce that this government is not a partner."

Concerning the Iranian role, Erekat said: "The Palestine question and the issue of Jerusalem are more important than all Arab and Islamic capitals. Palestine shall not serve as a bargaining card. Moreover, the Palestinians have the power to make their own independent and national decisions, which everyone must respect." He added: "The Gaza aid conference in Sharm al-Sheikh will put all the Palestinian parties to the test." He went on: "The world has announced its support for the Palestinian people." He said: "The war on Gaza did not solve the problem of Hamas; rather, it negatively affected the reputation of Israel in the world." He added: "For their part, Palestinian leaders have not come out of the Gaza war experience chaste persons." He said: "It is rumored that Hamas is working actively towards shaking the PNA's credibility in the West Bank, because it seeks to control Gaza, the West Bank, and Palestinian decision-making."

Today, it is opportune for the PNA to learn from its many previous mistakes, regain some of its credibility, and benefit from the world's recognition of Mahmud Abbas's authority. It should start scoring points against Hamas by working towards lifting the siege on Gaza and adhering to transparency in dealing with financial "accounts." This is because Gaza might be the road to an independent Palestinian state.