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Interview: Abbas on Hamas, refugees and independence

On Tuesday, I had a unique opportunity to sit down with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during his visit to Amman, Jordan.  We discussed the peace process (or lack thereof), refugees, prisoners, Gilad Shalit, incitement and diplomacy. The interview aired on CCTV News (China Central Television English language).

Abbas: "am willing to go at any time to the Gaza strip" (photo: World Economic Forum / flickr)

Roee Ruttenberg: Mr. President, thank you for your joining us.  You have set a September deadline for a breakthrough in peace talks, or you will resign.  How do you define a breakthrough?

President Abbas: We, first, have not said that I will resign. I said I will not run for elections.  However, for September, we don’t believe that in this month there should be some sort of breakthrough regarding the Palestinian cause because of three entitlements.  The first one, Obama in last September, promised that Palestine will obtain full membership in the General Assembly of the United Nations.  The second is that the Quartet countries confirmed that the negotiations should start in September and end in September .  And the third entitlement is that we Palestinians have pledged that all the state institutions to announce the establishment of a state, from now until September, if nothing takes place, we will propose to the United Nations to discuss this issue.  Although our first option is negotiations.  If negotiations fail, we’ll go to what we call the September entitlements.

Roee Ruttenberg: Two states, living side-by-side, for two peoples.  What does that look like to you?

President Abbas:  This is the ideal solution.  This is the natural solution.  This is the agreed upon solution, internationally, that a state in Palestine…  There was Israel established, and a second state should be established on the pre-1967 line.  Both states should live together in peace and stability.  This is our requirement and this is what we also need.  Also, in quite a few number of international discussions this was mentioned. It was also mentioned in the road map as well as the Annapolis Treaty.  This was our requirement and this is what we are looking for.

Roee Ruttenberg:  Now under the United Nations resolution that essentially split the British Mandate of Palestine in a Jewish and Arab state … that was in 1947, Jerusalem and even Bethelem were indeed part of neither side.  The territory obviously of Jerusalem became a part of the West Bank because Jordan conquered it and ruled it until 1967.  Since it was never a part of the original Arab state, do you believe that the Israeli state has a right to negotiate over parts of East Jerusalem?

President Abbas: It is assumed that when we talk about 1967 borders, we talk about territories that were occupied in 1967.  Jordan did not conquer any territories.  That land was existing since 1948 and also Jerusalem.  They were under Jordan’s sponsorship and truce lines were drawn in 1948 and they continued until 1967.  Consequently, there will be no negotiations on our part.  You cannot negotiate over eastern, or East Jerusalem.  It is the capital of Palestine.  We also maintain that East Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine and West Jerusalem is the capital city of Israel.  And both of them – the city as a whole – will receive all of the heaven’s religious followers.  All of them can perform their religious rituals without any barriers.  But East Jerusalem will remain the capital of Palestine and West Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel.  If we want to go back to 19 … uh, (resolution) 181, we accept it.  But does Israel accept it?  At that time, the General Assembly decided to divide Palestine between Arabs and the Jews.  And they gave Jews 54% of Palestine and they gave Palestine 44%.  We are willing, if Israel accepts this.  But Israel does not accept.  We do negotiate 22%.  But also instead, we accept to negotiate these 22%.

Roee Ruttenberg:  Keeping Israel aside, for one second, and staying with East Jerusalem … do the Jewish people, not necessarily the Israelis, but the Jewish people have a connection to East Jerusalem?

President Abbas:  This issue…we do not want to go back in to history.  If we want to go back into history and discuss the current affairs and the future affairs from a historical perspective, the whole world, and the Jewish people, will say: to whom do the American territories belong to?  To whom do the African territories belong to?  So we should not go back to history. Nobody can accept this process.  We are talking about actual realities, the current status, the 20th century.  In this time, there have been so many wars launched, and so many settlements.  And these settlements gave the Palestinians East Jerusalem and gave the Palestinians West Jerusalem.  And we should not say and we did not say that Israelis were linked to this territory before 2,000 or 3,000 years.  This issue, and the settlement of international conflicts, we should not talk about history or religion.  Otherwise we will not find any solution.

Roee Ruttenberg:  I want to talk about Hamas a little bit here.  Your latest public effort at reconciliation with Hamas perhaps failed last month when your trip was cancelled, an announced possible trip to Gaza was cancelled.  Where do current efforts at reconciliation stand at the moment?

President Abbas:  The issue … let’s go back or step back a while.  When Hamas took of Gaza, the Arab states took over the reconciliation efforts and Egypt was mandated to do this.  And Egypt prepared documents.  And before one-year-and-a-half they submitted to Hamas and they verbally agreed on it.  And also it was submitted to us in October of last year.  We signed on it but Hamas declined.  Since that time, there have been so many dialogues that they have come to deadlock, fruitless, and we should come with initiative.  Then I took an initiative, and it is part of the Egyptian initiative and an agreement was reached between Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, and Ismail Haniya from Hamas.  And it consists of one point: that we go to Gaza and we establish a government of technocrats composed of independent Palestinians with two objectives.  The first objective is to rebuild the Gaza Strip and also, the second one, is to prepare for the elections that should be convened within six months.  The elections will be presidential as well as parliamentary.  Fortunately, all the Palestinian people have agreed to it and so many Arab and regional countries have agreed to this initiative, in addition to the United Nations and the European Union, and Russia.  But Hamas so far has been resistant to accept the idea. The go to Gaza or not to go to Gaza, I will not decline from this concept.  I think it is very fruitful.  I am willing to go at any time to the Gaza strip to implement this initiative.

Roee Ruttenberg: If the Palestinian Authority does reconcile with Hamas, how do you ensure that they will adopt the Quartet’s principles, including non-violence, including the recognition of the state of Israel.

President Abbas: We are now talking about a transitional government, a technocrat government.  And we are not talking about the participation of Hamas in this government.  This government does recognize the principles of the Quartet, the existence of Israel, the road map, and the non-violence or terrorism.  However, afterwards, who would succeed in the elections – be it Hamas or any other party – they should recognize these three principles of the Quartet, which you have just mentioned. Therefore it is not necessary that we now ask Hamas to accept these principles because they might not be, or they will not be at the moment a part of the government.  There are an independent people and they will be a part of the government.  But I believe in the future any Palestinian government should recognize Israel and it should stop violence and terrorism.  We do recognize Israel and we are committed to non-violence, and the Quartet’s principles.  How can we co-exist with the Israelis without that?  But also … this is on the one hand.  On the other hand, the Israelis should recognize the existence of the Palestinians and their international legitimate rights?

Roee Ruttenberg: Your government – the Palestinian Authority – has been accused by Israel of not only not combating incitement, but actually encouraging incitement.  How do you respond to that?

President Abbas:  I have requested the Israelis … and accidentally today, I was talking to the American partner regarding incitement.  But here, I would like to say something.  When Netanyahu was the head of the government, the former government eleven years ago and we were negotiating these points, we agreed at that time to establish a tripartite committee – an Israeli, Palestinian and American committee – in order to address incitement.  The committee convened actually and it made specific achievements.  But it stopped.  Always Israel talks about provocation or incitement – the liberation of Palestine, for instance.  And we say, as long as you accuse us of incitement, let’s go back and re-establish or reactivate the ad-hoc committee regarding incitement.  And what such a committee establishes as incitement should be removed from both sides – from the Israeli side and from also the Palestinian side.  The Israelis talk about Palestinian incitement, but we do not talk about incitement made by the Israelis.  If we would like to live together in the future, and if we’d like to have normalized relations, incitement should be stopped on either side – the Israeli and Palestinian side.  And today by chance the Americans asked me if we would accept the re-establishment of the non-incitement committee, and my answer was “yes” immediately.  Just to throw on the table all of the forms of incitement viewed by the Israelis and we will toss up on the table all of the incitements made by the Israelis.  And you, the elective, will be the judges, the referees.  So we have not to be blamed for this alone.

Roee Ruttenberg: Recently a Palestinian man, (Dirar) Abu Sisi, was abducted by Israel in the Ukraine.  Israel says he has information about the abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.  Are you working to secure Abu Sisi’s release?  Are also working to secure Gilad Shalit’s release?  Are you involved in either of those?

President Abbas: Right from the beginning, we had no relation with the Israeli soldier who was kidnapped, Gilad Shalit. But also from the beginning our stance was that Hamas should release this soldier.  Because the kidnapping or abducting is not permitted.  In contrast, there are thousands of Palestinians in Israeli detention and most of them have not been set to trial.  And some of them have already completed their term of prison, but they have not been released.  But the kidnapping of this person from the Ukraine, Abu-Sisi, this is an international hijacking.  Israel cannot or may not go to a European country and abduct a Palestinian from there in order to try him.  And the Ukrainian  government is also full responsible for the safety of this young man.  I do not believe the Israel excuse being given for abducting this person because he has information about Shalit or not.  This is a fabricated issue, and Israel should not be excused for that.  It is condemned because it has committed this act.

Roee Ruttenberg: Now you yourself were born in an area which now is situated in northern Israel.  I want to talk about the right of return to Israel proper.  Israel says it will never be able to accept Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state while it maintains a right of return of Palestinians to that state because demographically it would obviously mean the end of a Jewish state.  How do you respond to that?  Is that a condition you are willing to drop?  And if so, at what price?

President Abbas:  Israel always and forever always invents causes or issues that are not on the table for discussion.  The issue for “Jewish state,” we have never heard of except for (in the last) one year.  But when we discuss this issue of refugees, it has been existing since 1948.  In Oslo, we agreed that both parties – the Israelis and the Palestinians – that the fundamental issues are Jerusalem, borders, water and refugees.  What does this mean?  This means that the refugees issue is a fundamental issue that Israel and us should discuss.  In other words, there are five million Palestinians who are refugees.  All of them who were exiled from the present Israeli state.  We should find a solution.  The Arab Peace Initiative addressed this issue very wisely when they said there should be a fair and agreed upon solution.  Agreed upon solution between whom?  Between the two parties, based on (UN) resolution 194.  So what would prevent us to discuss this issue or to throw it on the table for discussion?  I cannot impose anything on Israel and Israel cannot either impose anything on me.  What we agree upon, we will apply it, otherwise we will continue discussing to find solutions.  And we do not want to impose anything on Israel.  The other point which is Jewish state, I have been asked about this issue many times, and I say: we do recognize the state of Israel since Oslo.  Yasser Arafat and (Yitzhak) Rabin … they had mutual recognition.  Rabin recognized the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the PLO, and Yasser Arafat recognized the State of Israel.  And since then, we have been recognizing Israel.  But if they want to call it a Jewish state or Zionist state or Hebrew state, then they can go to the United Nations and change their name there.

Roee Ruttenberg: You said you will not impose a solution on Israel.  It seems that going to the United Nations General Assembly for a declaration of an independent Palestinian state is quite a unilateral move.  If that state is recognized by everyone but Israel, what are the consequences of that?

President Abbas: When Israel is the country that stands against the international (consensus), and when Israel does not want to find a solution together with me, as I am a party and they are a party under the sponsorship of the Americans, what should I do?  Should I keep silent and eat that Israel is constructing new settlements?  To whom should I resort in order to ask for a decision?  We should ask for such a decision from the United Nations.  Any issue across the world, when it is controversial, people go to the United Nations.  But whether Israel agrees or not, this means that Israel is standing against the international (consensus).  I do not want to go the United Nations in September if there are negotiations.  But if there aren’t negotiations and if Israel continues the construction of settlements and continues to ignore international legitimacy, what should I do as a person responsible for the Palestinian people?  To whom should I lodge my complaints?  It is at the UN.

Roee Ruttenberg: Has the Quartet disappointed you?  Has President Obama let you down?

President Abbas: I would not say that President Obama has let me down, or that the Quartet has let me down.  But we had wished that President Obama would implement what he is convinced of.  He is convinced that Israel should freeze settlements, but Israel does not freeze it and he could not do anything.  He asked…he wanted us to start negotiations on this basis, and he could not convince Israel.  From the Quartet, we are awaiting their decision and what would they say regarding the negotiations and regarding the international’s term of reference.  By the way, we are not asking for more than stipulated by international legitimacy and also by statements made by the European countries.  The European countries are not our allies – they are allies of Israel.  And after the veto that was issued by the Security Council, the British representative delivered a speech in Britain’s name as well as in France’s (name), Germany, and later on in the name of Spain and Italy.  In this letter, in this speech, I do adopt it from A to Z.  And if it is the decision of the Quartet, then we will be participating in the negotiations.

Roee Ruttenberg:  What is your own message to your people, to the Palestinian people, many of whom are growing disillusioned perhaps growing  frustrated with the process?  What is your direct message to them?

President Abbas:  The Palestinian culture is getting to be different; it is transitioning from the culture of violence to the culture of peace.  If you visit the Palestinian territory in the West Bank and ask the people on the streets, all of them will say that “we need peace.”  They, the Palestinian people, are well-prepared mentally and all the generations from the older generations to the younger generations, that they want peace.  But until when should they wait?  If they wait long for peace, I’m afraid that such a culture would revert and go back to violence.  This is what my people want.  They want peace and they do want to establish a state on the pre-1967 line, to live side by side with Israel.

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    1. Ben Israel

      Note how he elegantly avoided saying anything meaningful about the “Right of Return” of the Palestinian refugees. True, he said neither side can impose anything on the other, which, of course is obvious, and which, of course means that the Palestinians can continue to maintain their demand for an unlimited right of return which is, of course completely unacceptable to Israel. Voila!….no peace agreement.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Ben Israel, actually he said that Israel avoids discussing the refugee issues and keeps putting conditions and flat-out rejections of a central issue on the Palestinian side.

      But at the same time, one can see his hesitation; he doesn’t know for sure whehter or not he’ll go to the UN. He is still pinning hopes on the Quartet and the USA.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Ben Israel

      That is exactly my point. No Israeli gov’t is going to agree to the “Right of Return”. A foolish one might end up agreeing to pay an astronomical indemnity to the refugees by saying that they accept that the creation of Israel was a “crime” and the refugees thus should be paid off, but NO Israeli gov’t will agree to accept them back into Israel. Since, as you say, it is a CENTRAL issue to the Palestinians, meaning they can’t give up the demand, then there is no possibility of there being a compromise peace agreement between the two sides.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Gahgeer

      Ben Israel, the Palestinian leadership, at the moment, does not beleive the return of all the refugees and their descendants to Israel is feasible. But the issue must be discussed – the refugee problem is Israel’s creation so it has to be discussed – that’s a foundation of negotiations.

      The Palestinians cannot give up the demand since it’s a legitimate demand. All the refugees from many wars were allowed to return: Darfur, Bosnia..etc

      If the Palestinian refugees cannot return, then a solution must be found, and Abbas is always calling for discussing this “creative” and “just” solution.

      Needless to say that Israel has not still taken the strategic decision of ending the occupation – that covers settlements, security and the fact that the West Bank is used as a testing ground for Israel’s arms and a trainig ground for its troops. So the refuggees is not really the biggest of problems here.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Anthony

      Ben Ali: I didn’t find his diplomatic answer on refugees overly problematic. Politically it is very hard for him to concede this point and he may hope that if he can at least get a token concession (10,000 refugees were mentioned in the Wikileaks) as part of a peace solution that this be much easier to sell to his people.

      I’m less convinced by his answer on recognising Israel as a Jewish state. Why not just say yes?

      Reply to Comment
    6. max

      @Gahgeer, your logic is sound but based on false statements.
      1. All refugees in the world didn’t return to their original land. In fact, only a tiny minority did.
      2. Most refugees in the world managed to integrate into and with their adoptive countries.
      In fact, the Palestinians are the only ones I’m aware of that have been coerced by their leaders – and similarly by most of their hosting countries – not to integrate.
      They’re the only such group with a dedicated UN agency;
      They’re the only group where the status of refugee is inherited.
      They also get higher payments from the UN than other refugees.
      I’m convinced that the first 2 points contribute to their lack of willingness no compromise.
      3. Are you aware of any conqueror that returned land for peace? I think that the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt is unique.
      I agree that the Palestinians’ demand is legitimate, and impossible in reality. I disagree that there’s any precedence to such a demand being fulfilled. Legitimate doesn’t acceptable or right; in this particular case, it’s the core of the problem and seen by most Israelis as reflecting a dishonest discourse.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Waleed

      @ Max , the only refugees that arent allowed to return back are the Palestinians , not even visit their homeland .If you want to start a comparison , then Israel is the only …….I dunno where to start from ,for example the only state that gives the citizenship according to the religious belief of the human being.Israelis are the only people that inherit their right to live in Palestine .If a Jew has never been there , he/she can take the first flight to Ben Gurion and become a citizen within minutes .Seriously I dunno you guys how you dare defend Israel and its unique bloody history of discrimination and terror

      Reply to Comment
    8. max

      Waleed, sorry, your claims are blatantly false: Palestinians with nationalities from countries that recognize Israel are allowed to visit the country, and many countries, for example France and Hungary, provide automatic nationality based on parents / grandparents – it’s not an Israeli invention. Actually, they don’t even require the person to live in the country.
      1. Tibetans aren’t allowed back into China; the Jews who fled Syria aren’t allowed back.
      2. For most refugees in the world, the problem isn’t whether or not they’re allowed back, the problem is that if they did come they risk being jailed or killed
      3. Israel doesn’t provide nationality based on religious belief but “Jewishness”. Jewishness is a combination of religion and ethnicity – quite a tribal concept: religion plays a role for entering and exiting the “people”, quasi-ethnicity for keeping it
      I don’t see the problem with it, as this was part of the reason the Nations / World decided to create the Jewish state in (part of) Palestine.
      I do not think that Israel – through its governments – is a blameless country; I do think that the treatment of Palestinians in Israel is often outrageous and sometimes criminal. But I also think that with the benchmark of the world’s more advanced countries, it still fares quite well. And I think that judging – or even assessing – without a benchmark is ridiculous.
      Are you familiar with many countries – especially those with what they perceive as existential (or even cultural) threat – behaving much better?
      I understand and sympathize with your pain. However, the plight of the Palestinian people doesn’t make Israel a wrongdoer. It isn’t a zero-sum situation.

      Reply to Comment