Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Palestinian issue has been at the heart of the Arab League since the formation of the organization in 1945, though its members have frequently been distracted by other crises.
Today is no exception, with chaos in Libya and Yemen, war in Syria and Iraq, and violent insurgency in Egypt. However, the issue of Palestinian statehood is climbing back up the agenda following the latest war in Gaza earlier this year, and a growing push within European parliaments to recognize Palestine as a state.
In a wide-ranging interview with Asharq Al-Awsat in Cairo earlier this week, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby discussed the impact of changing attitudes in Europe and the Arab world on the issue of Palestinian statehood, and what this means for the Arab League’s attempts to secure it. As well as the Syrian crisis, Elaraby also discussed the struggle against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the general situation in the Arab world.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Will the Palestinian plan for statehood succeed, or will Israel quash this once again?
Nabil Elaraby: We must look at the framework through which any plan is proposed, and we are now in a much better situation in a number of different ways. Firstly, the events of Gaza and the brutal Israeli aggression . . . created a conviction among governments and the entire international community that the situation needs to change and that it is unreasonable for states to contribute to the reconstruction of Gaza, only for Israel to destroy what was built. Then there is the issue of the airport and seaport . . . Israel opened these before, and then they destroyed them. More than this, they refused to negotiate over the reconstruction of the airport and seaport. Everybody knows that former US President Bill Clinton opened the airport, while the foundation stone of the seaport was laid by former French president Jacques Chirac. Therefore, the view among all the countries that participated in the Gaza donors’ conference held in Cairo in October last year is that what happened must not happen again.
Secondly, there is European and international interest in Israel’s serious violations of human rights and international law. Countries are calling for real change on the ground. Switzerland has recognized the state of Palestine, as have the British and Spanish parliaments. I also met with the French ambassador, who informed me that the French parliament is set to vote on recognizing the state of Palestine [France’s parliament voted to recognize the state of Palestine after this interview was concluded].
Thirdly, there is an Arab agreement on the importance of changing the track that we have been following since 2012 and working to arrange the situation so that we can end the conflict. This agreement is about ending, not managing, the conflict. Many states are now convinced that we can achieve this.
Therefore, I believe that in light of all of these positive developments, and in light of US interest in ending the conflict, we will see developments within the next few weeks over a draft resolution to be submitted by the Palestinian leadership.
Q: Where and when will the consultation on this draft resolution take place?
This will take place at the UN. In the past, the draft resolution would begin at the UN Security Council level and there would be consultations over this and then voting and vetoes and so on. The UN Security Council changed the way it worked in the early 1980s and it has become the kitchen for the drafting of resolutions, with consultations over this taking place in an unofficial manner and behind closed doors. This is why we find that draft resolutions take a lot of time. Arab ambassadors in New York have said that they believe the best time to vote on the draft resolution would be during 2015, because after January the new composition of the UN Security Council will be better [for us] than it is today.
Q: What about the Arab League’s action plan?
There is an Arab League ministerial delegation, led by Kuwait [host of the last Arab League summit and president of the Peace Initiative Committee]. This delegation will include representatives from Mauritania [president of the Arab League council], Jordan [the only Arab UN Security Council member], the state of Palestine, and myself as Arab League secretary-general. This delegation has been tasked with carrying out necessary contacts and visits to mobilize international support for the Arab draft resolution before the UN Security Council.
Q: How do you think Israel will respond to this Arab and international mobilization, particularly following the approval of a controversial “Jewish state bill”?
This is something that ultimately had a positive effect on the Palestinian cause, prompting the international community to accept the inevitability of change and the solution that we are calling for. I personally monitored the strong criticisms of Israel’s decision in this regard, as this is something that contravenes the country’s own declaration of independence, namely that all citizens are treated as equals. Therefore, there has been an attack on Israel over the issue of the “Judaization” of the state, and this is something that is only increasing pressure on Tel Aviv. Of course, Israel will not respond unless it is under pressure, particularly given what the US can exert in order to convince it of the inevitability of taking steps leading to the end of the conflict and its committing to the two-state solution.
Q: France has proposed holding an international peace conference for the Palestinian peace process. Do you think the time is right for such a move?
Firstly, France has yet to actually propose a peace conference, but it is thinking in this direction. I believe that this is the only way [to achieve peace] because negotiations require two things. First, this must take place in front of the eyes of the entire world. Israel always wants to negotiate behind closed doors so that it can implement its stall tactics and obstruct everything. Second, these negotiations must take place at a high-level.
Therefore, such a peace conference is needed. For example, if it takes place along the lines of the Geneva Conference in 1973, during which we could have achieved everything that we needed had the Syrian delegation been present. I participated in a preparatory meeting in Egypt, during which we agreed on all issues, and then we went to Geneva, but the Syrian seat remained unoccupied and this absence gave then-US secretary of state Henry Kissinger the opportunity to say that nothing could be achieved and that this would only lead to more conflict.
What is important is that if an international conference is held at this level then it can achieve something, and by this I mean that the negotiations must be public and include participation at the highest level. I have said, on more than one occasion, that the continuation of negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli officials mediated by the US envoy [for Palestinian–Israeli ngotiations], Martin Indyk, will not lead to anything. The time has come for decisions to be taken at the highest level, at the level of heads of state and ministers.
Q: Do you believe that inter-Palestinian division could disrupt the peace process, particularly if it looks like progress is being made?
What do you mean by that?
Q: I am talking about differences between Fatah and Hamas . . .
All of these differences are being settled. When they find that there will be an international peace conference . . . This, in itself, will end the problems.
Q: What will happen after the Arab League’s ministerial meeting? What role will the Arab League play?
There will be visits to important states. I have already met with all European Union ambassadors and stressed to them the importance of recognizing the state of Palestine.
Q: What if a majority of international states recognize Palestine? What would happen then?
This would represent a major form of pressure on Israel. There are things that may not seem important, but they carry great symbolism . . . such as the position taken by the EU last January to ban the import of products from Israeli settlements on occupied territory. This automatically sends a clear message from all EU states that the 1967 border is the dividing line between Palestine and Israel—whether they have all officially recognized the state of Palestine or not. This is important.
Q: It is clear that some parties in the region are opposing the peace plans and would even like to see a new conflict with Israel. Will this undermine the move to achieve the two-state solution?
I have said that the Palestinian cause is the primary and central issue for all Arab states.
Q: How is the Arab League dealing with the war on terror?
This is being addressed in a different way, namely through ideological means, as well as coordination with the international forces and joint efforts to dry up the sources of financing terrorism. But this is not being addressed through military means because the Arab League does not have this capability. We do not have the capabilities of NATO to launch wars and military operations. All Arab states have taken what I view to be an important and historic decision regarding the necessity of confronting these [terrorist] organizations in a comprehensive manner. The issue is not a question of war . . . even if we fought this war and destroyed these terrorist groups today, other groups will emerge later. In the past we had Al-Qaeda, and today ISIS is the second generation, therefore we must address terrorism comprehensively—through ideology, culture, religious discourse and education. All of the Arab states have agreed to this, and the Arab League has been tasked with preparing a study in this regard. I hope that this study will be ready by the end of the week, and it will [then] be presented to all [Arab League] member states. Following this, we will hold a joint meeting of Arab interior and justice ministers to discuss ways of confronting terrorism.
As for the issue of religious discourse in particular, I recently met with Azhar Grand Sheikh Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb and spoke with him on this issue, and we reached an agreement on mutual cooperation and participation in meetings on how to confront terrorism, particularly as Al-Azhar is playing a very important role in this issue.
Q: What can you tell us about the general situation in the Arab world today and the “clearing the air” policy following diplomatic feuds between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states? What role has the Arab League played in this?
The “clearing the air” policy in the Arab world today is related to the GCC, and we are well aware of all the efforts that it is exerting in this regard, particularly the important role being carried out by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz and Emir [of Kuwait) Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed [Al-Jabir Al-Sabah]. What I can say at this point is that I have received an invitation to attend the GCC summit for the first time since I took up the post of Arab League secretary-general.
Q: What is the significance of this invitation?
When I know, I will let you know . . . I believe that something important is set to take place at this summit, namely the consolidation of this “clearing the air” policy. Therefore, there must be a strong witness to this from outside the GCC, in addition to coordination between the Arab League and the GCC on a number of other regional issues.
Q: What can you tell us about the Arab–Russian Cooperation Forum set to be held in Khartoum on December 6?
This forum’s objectives are economic, and this is the first time that the forum is being held in an Arab capital. This will be a good opportunity for me to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss two major issues. Firstly, the Palestinian issue and the broad lines that are forming over this, including EU and US moves to deal with this utilizing a new approach in order to reach a solution. This is something that depends on the Palestinian draft resolution and the UN Security Council’s approval of Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and an end to the conflict.
Secondly, the Syrian issue, because it is Russia and Iran that are influencing this issue. I believe that Russia’s role is very important because it provides what can be described as a protective umbrella for the [Assad] regime; therefore, I intend to hold intense talks with him [Lavrov] over these two issues.
Q: Are we on the verge of witnessing a Russian peace initiative for Syria?
There are Russian ideas [being put forward] . . . and I met with the Russian deputy foreign minister two weeks ago.
Q: Do these “ideas” relate to a Geneva III meeting?
This idea has been proposed, but it must take place under different circumstances. Before both sides meet, we must confirm the implementation of Geneva I, and that any invitations for new talks are based on this. We must also see real change beginning with the establishment of a transitional body that has complete powers, and not talk about confronting terrorism.
Q: We have heard talk recently about reforming the Arab League, including establishment an Arab peacekeeping force. Are we moving closer to this?
There was a meeting of leaders of Arab armed forces training bodies and I spoke with them, as I mentioned recently in a ministerial meeting. I said that there have been joint Arab defense and economic cooperation agreements in place since 1950, and I called for the activation of these treaties, and until now I have not received an answer. So I am calling for this to be implemented because this includes the establishment of an Arab peacekeeping force. We have a previous example in Syria when we sent observers . . . this was a form of peacekeeping. Therefore, I am calling for the Arabs to have an organized force such as this today.
Q: How do you view the current situation in the Arab world today? What would you say to Arab states?
I say that [they] must consult [with each other] and take real decisions to confront the challenges and threats that are surrounding us.
Q: Do you think the Arab League should hold a summit biannually in order to deal with this?
I am not talking about summits, but communication that takes place when necessary, and raising our level of alert and ongoing consultations, until the region overcomes the dangers it is facing.
Q: Are you worried about the Arab world?
Very much so.
Q: Of what in particular?
[I am worried about] the size of the challenges that we are facing. This concern is present and legitimate, and we must work together to reach a better stage.
This interview was originally conducted in Arabic.