ICC opens investigation into Israeli-Palestinian conflict

A plume of smoke rises from buildings after an Israeli airstrike in the eastern part of Gaza City on August 22, 2014.  (AFP/Roberto Schmidt)
A plume of smoke rises from buildings after an Israeli airstrike in the eastern part of Gaza City on August 22, 2014. (AFP/Roberto Schmidt)

Amsterdam, Reuters—The International Criminal Court (ICC) opened an inquiry into possible war crimes in the Palestinian territories, thrusting it into one of the world’s most chronic, heated conflicts and opening a path to possible charges against Israelis or Palestinians.

In a statement on Friday, prosecutors said they would examine “in full independence and impartiality” crimes that may have occurred since June 13 last year. This allows the court to delve into the war between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza in July-August 2014 during which more than 2,100 Palestinians and 73 Israelis were killed.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has confirmed the Palestinians—whose peace talks with Israel have collapsed—will formally become an ICC member on April 1 at their request, a move strongly opposed by Israel and the United States.

“The case is now in the hands of the court,” said Nabil Abuznaid, head of the Palestinian delegation in The Hague. “It is a legal matter now and we have faith in the court system.”

Prosecutors will assess evidence of alleged crimes and determine if they are of sufficient gravity and scale to warrant charges against individuals on either side.

The investigation was branded as “outrageous” by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. “The court, which after more than 200,000 killed in Syria did not see fit to intervene . . .finds it necessary to ‘examine’ the most moral army in the world,” Lieberman said in a statement. “We will act in the international arena in order to bring an end to this court.”

The ICC has been criticized for focusing on Africa while being unable to intervene in some of the world’s bloodiest and most intractable conflicts.

An initial inquiry could lead to war crimes charges against Israel, whether relating to the recent Gaza war or its 47-year-long occupation of the West Bank. It also occupied Gaza from 1967-2005. Palestinians seek statehood in the two territories.

ICC membership also exposes the Palestinians to prosecution, possibly for rocket attacks on Israel by militant groups operating out of Gaza.

The ICC, the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal, is the court of last resort for its 122 member states, aiming to hold the powerful accountable for the most heinous crimes when national authorities are unable or unwilling to act.

But the ICC has struggled over its first decade, completing just three cases and securing two convictions. Critics say it has been vulnerable to political pressure and opposition from non-members the United States, China and Russia.

Palestinians file Israeli war crime suit with ICC: official

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a meeting to sign more than 20 international treaties, including the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on December 31, 2014. (EPA)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a meeting to sign more than 20 international treaties, including the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on December 31, 2014. (EPA)

Tel Aviv, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Palestinians filed a request to the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate what it believes to be Israeli war crimes committed during the 50-day war in Gaza in July and August 2014, along with its letters of accession to the ICC, a Palestinian official said.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media, the senior Palestinian official confirmed that the Palestinians will immediately make use of the ICC’s judicial stature.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed the accession documents after a bid to pass a UN Security Council resolution demanding an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories by late 2017 failed. Abbas signed the Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding document, at a Ramallah meeting on Wednesday. Signing the Rome Statute is viewed as the first step to full membership of the ICC.

“We want to complain. There’s aggression against us, against our land. The UN Security Council disappointed us,” Abbas said.

The documents also include lawsuits related to illegal Israeli settlement building on Palestinian territory, particularly in eastern Jerusalem, the unnamed Palestinian official told Asharq Al-Awsat.

He stressed that all Palestinian factions support the bid to join the ICC, including Hamas which could find its own members brought to trial before the Hague court for war crimes. “Therefore, there is no reason for concern that this step will deepen the rift among the Palestinians, on the contrary, this is strengthening our unity,” the official added.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called on the ICC not to accept the Palestinians’ request for membership, saying that they do not rank as a state.

“We expect the ICC to reject the hypocritical request by the Palestinian Authority, which is not a state but an entity linked to a terrorist organization,” he said on Thursday. Israel is not a member of the ICC, and does not recognize its jurisdiction.

“We will take steps in response and we will defend the soldiers of the IDF, the most moral army in the world,” the Israeli prime minister added.

An Israeli soldier shot an unarmed Palestinian man as he approached the Burin intersection south of Nablus in the West Bank on Thursday, Palestinian state Ma’an news agency reported. A day later, Israeli forces opened fire at Palestinians in the Al-Farrahin area east of Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip, nobody was hurt in the incident.

During the 50-day war that took place this summer, 2,131 Palestinians were killed, including 1,473 civilians, and 71 Israelis were killed, including four civilians, according to the United Nations.

Palestinians join International Criminal Court

In this file photo taken Tuesday, April 29, 2014, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting with Palestinian businessmen from East Jerusalem to set up a national fund to support the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AP Photos)
In this file photo taken Tuesday, April 29, 2014, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting with Palestinian businessmen from East Jerusalem to set up a national fund to support the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AP Photos)

Ramallah, AP—Stung by a resounding defeat in the UN Security Council, the Palestinians announced Wednesday that they joined the International Criminal Court to pursue war crimes charges against Israel.

The move by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas set the stage for a diplomatic showdown with the United States and was likely to draw an angry response from Israel.

Abbas has been under heavy domestic pressure to take action against Israel following months of tensions fueled by the collapse of US-brokered peace talks, a 50-day war between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, a spate of deadly Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets and Israeli restrictions on Palestinian access to a key Muslim holy site in Jerusalem. Tuesday’s defeat in the UN Security Council further raised pressure on Abbas to act.

“We want to complain. There’s aggression against us, against our land. The Security Council disappointed us,” Abbas said as he gathered a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank.

Abbas had threatened to join the international court if Tuesday’s Security Council resolution failed. The Palestinians had asked the council to set a three-year deadline for Israel to withdraw from all occupied lands claimed by the Palestinians.

After two decades of failed, on-again, off-again peace talks, the Palestinians have grown disillusioned and decided to seek international recognition of their independence in the absence in various global bodies. While the campaign does not change the situation on the ground, the Palestinians believe the strong international support will put pressure on Israel to allow the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.

Israel, which captured the three areas in 1967, says Palestinian independence can only be reached through negotiations. It opposes the Palestinian diplomatic campaign as an attempt to bypass negotiations.

The Palestinian campaign scored a major victory in 2012 when Palestine was admitted to the UN General Assembly as a nonmember observer state. This upgraded status gave the Palestinians the authority to join dozens of international treaties and agencies.

Still, turning to the International Criminal Court marks a major policy shift by transforming Abbas’ relations with Israel from tense to openly hostile. Abbas has been threatening to join the court since 2012, but held off under American and Israeli pressure. The Palestinians can use the court to challenge the legality of Israeli settlement construction on occupied lands and to pursue war crimes charges connected to military activity.

There was no immediate Israeli reaction.

Palestinian UN statehood resolution to be amended: sources

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 26, 2014. (EPA/Justin Lane)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 26, 2014. (EPA/Justin Lane)

Ramallah, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Palestinian leadership has agreed to make amendments to the statehood resolution it submitted to the UN Security Council on Wednesday before a vote by the Council due by the end of the year.

In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee member Wasel Abu Yousef said that the amendments “take into account reservations put forward by Palestinian factions towards the project,” as claims emerged that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas failed to present the draft resolution to PLO leaders before submitting it to the UN.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has said that the UN Security Council will vote on an amended version of the draft resolution before the end of the year.

Speaking to Russian media on Tuesday, Erekat said that amendments to the draft resolution—which was submitted “in blue” to the UN Security Council on Wednesday—have already been made and that a vote on it would take place “very soon.”

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki, meanwhile, confirmed that “basic and significant amendments” will be made to the draft resolution, according to the Palestinian state Ma’an news agency.

Submitting a draft resolution “in blue” means that the text of the resolution is printed in blue ink and officially distributed to the Security Council members and could be put to a vote as soon as 24 hours later. However, some drafts formally submitted in this manner have never been voted on and the Palestinians have since said that they are ready to negotiate on the text of the draft resolution.

The amendments revolve around articles relating to East Jerusalem as capital of the future state of Palestine, Israeli settlement building, and Palestinian refugees’ right of return, Abu Yousef told Asharq Al-Awsat.

The new draft resolution will stipulate East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, specifying particularly that this will be based on 1967 borders. Any Israeli settlements built after this date will be considered illegal. Amendments will also call for a complete halt of Israeli settlement building, with renewed emphasis being placed on Palestinian refugees’ right of return, Abu Yousef said.

The current draft of the resolution says that Jerusalem will be the capital of both states, but does not specify East Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Palestine.

“International legitimacy is our ceiling on this issue, and we cannot drop below this ceiling,” Abu Yousef told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti criticized the text of the draft resolution, calling on the Palestinian leadership to conduct an immediate and comprehensive revision of the resolution’s wording.

Barghouti particularly criticized Palestinian land swaps with Israel, saying that Tel Aviv could seek to use this to legalize settlements.

However, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine—part of the PLO—on Tuesday urged the Palestinian leadership to “immediately withdraw” the draft resolution, arguing that the lack of consensus over the wording of the resolution’s text was presenting a confusing picture to the international community.

A statement issued by the group on Tuesday said: “They [the Palestinian leadership] have been presenting it before the political bazaar at international level for bids, then they claim they are making amendments as if it has been submitted by others.”

“Both the original version and the amended version, including the French and British remarks, are beyond repair and reform, and should be withdrawn immediately without delay,” the statement added.

Palestinians ready for further negotiations on UN resolution

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 26, 2014. (EPA/Justin Lane)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 26, 2014. (EPA/Justin Lane)

Washington and Ramallah, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Palestinians are ready for further negotiations on the draft resolution that they submitted to the UN Security Council on Wednesday in order to secure 9 out of the 15 votes required to meet a 2017 deadline for the end of Israeli occupation.

Speaking on Thursday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that he supports further negotiations over the proposed UN Security Council resolution amid fears that Washington could seek to use its veto and prevent a vote, in line with its years-long policy of rejecting any unilateral action in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

“We will continue in our consultations with the brothers and friends through deliberations, which will take place in the United Nations,” Abbas said.

Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, Saudi envoy to the UN, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Palestinian delegation submitting the draft resolution “in blue,” does not prohibit further negotiations.

A draft resolution submitted “in blue” means that the text of the resolution is printed in blue ink and officially distributed to the Security Council members and could be put to a vote as soon as 24 hours later. However, some drafts formally submitted in this manner have never been voted on and the Palestinians have said that they are ready to negotiate on the text of the draft resolution.

“I believe that the next phase will see further negotiations, particularly with the French side and the Europeans generally, as well as with the Americans,” Mouallimi said.

“The Palestinians’ draft resolution is balanced and modest, and if the Western diplomats, and particularly the Americans, have comments then the Palestinian officials will take this into account,” he added.

Mouallimi affirmed Riyadh’s backing for the Palestinian project and called for all countries to stand “in one line” with the Palestinians.

Speaking earlier this week, Palestine’s own envoy to the UN, Riyad Mansour said: “The draft in blue is not closing the door to the continuation of the negotiations with all our partners. We are willing to work with those who want to work with us in the Security Council in a positive and constructive way.”

Jordan’s envoy to the UN, Dina Kawar, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the draft resolution remains under discussion between UN Security Council members, and that a date for a vote has yet to be determined. Jordan, which is strongly backing the Palestinian resolution, currently holds a seat as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.

A Western diplomat, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity said: “There is no consensus on the current text of the resolution in this form, and that is why we need to do some more work.”

“It now depends on our ability to reach a text that can truly reach consensus of views. Our goal is to achieve this consensus in views, and that means that we have to have a text that everybody agrees on,” the diplomat added.

Additional reporting from Ramallah by Kifah Ziboun.

Erekat: Palestinian Authority will pursue UN statehood bid alone if necessary

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, listens to Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat make a statement to the press after meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the presidential compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014 (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, listens to Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat make a statement to the press after meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the presidential compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014 (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)

Ramallah, Asharq Al-Awsat—The chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said on Sunday that the Palestinian Authority would unilaterally propose a UN resolution to create a Palestinian state if it was unable to win European or American backing.

“If we can reach an agreement with Europe or the US on this [draft resolution], then great, otherwise we will propose our unilateral draft resolution which confirms the principle of the state [of Palestine] and puts an end to the occupation,” Erekat told Asharq Al-Awsat.

“There is a joint Arab draft resolution today, and there are French proposals that we are engaging with seriously, but the most important thing for us is the content which is to confirm the principle of the state of Palestine along the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital and resolve the rest of the final status issues,” he added.

His comments came a day before US Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are set to meet in Rome to discuss the Palestinian draft resolution.

Erekat and a delegation from the Arab League will meet with the US Secretary of State later on Monday to discuss the latest developments, including a draft joint Arab resolution that the Palestinian leadership has said it will present to the UN Security Council on Wednesday.

The draft resolution outlines a specific timetable for a peace deal with Israel, setting a November 2016 deadline for Israel to withdraw from land sought for a Palestinian state.

Erekat said that the most important issues that must be dealt with include refugees’ right of return and illegal Israeli settlement building in the occupied territories. “We [also] want to put a deadline for ending the occupation,” he added.

During his meeting with Kerry, Netanyahu is expected to call on Washington to continue its longstanding policy of vetoing resolutions relating to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at the UN Security Council. “Israel won’t accept any unilateral, time-defined measures,” Netanyahu told reporters before boarding his plane to Rome.

Erekat told Asharq Al-Awsat that he will inform US Secretary of State of the Palestinian position, and will wait and see what position Washington intends to take towards the draft resolution.

The latest movement over Palestinian-Israeli negotiations follows a number of votes in several European parliaments calling on governments to recognize a Palestinian states, bolstering hopes within the Palestinian Authority that this will be enough to pressure Washington not to veto the joint Arab draft resolution.

Opinion: The Illusion of American Naivety

In my youth I sometimes heard and read somewhat racist jokes, and watched movies and TV series that created and underlined certain stereotypes about the peoples of the world, all the while being well aware of how Arabs were themselves being stereotyped, especially in the West. In those days the most widespread stereotype of Americans was that they were naive and spontaneous, the French moody and short-tempered, the British sly, polite, and coldly reserved, the Germans serious, rigidly disciplined and over-efficient, and the Russians crude and strictly obedient.

Sure enough, I later discovered these were often nothing but caricatures, and that it was absolutely wrong to generalize about people in this way. For example, in Germany I have met men and women whose warmth and kindness have made them close friends. In the UK, where I have lived for more than 36 years, I have met many who are neither sly nor cold.

Well what about the Americans? Of course, as the old saying goes, “there is no smoke without fire,” but Americans’ alleged naivety has not prevented public figures generally accused of being naïve from reaching the highest office, like Presidents George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, to name a few. Those who understand how sophisticated the American political system truly is realize that it would be impossible for someone with limited intelligence to reach the top. Even when a less than formidable talent does succeed, he or she would have been deemed the best representative or spokesperson for powerful behind the scenes players. This, in fact, is further proof the institutions are far more powerful than individuals.

Last Sunday, US Secretary of State John Kerry was a guest of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. Kerry gave an interesting speech in which he pointed out to the growing possibilities of wide ranging regional co-operation in the Middle East in the fight against extremism and terrorism, cooperation that includes Israel and several Arab countries.

Kerry said: “We are seeing the potential of the emergence of a new regional alignment, with little in common but a shared aversion to extremists,” alluding really to only to Sunni Muslim extremists. He specifically named some GCC states, and hoped that sometime soon the above-mentioned alignment would also include Israel, the Palestinians, Jordan, and Egypt. He also expressed his happiness about the advances the “international coalition” is making against ISIS militarily, financially, and theologically, with its religious claims facing growing criticism.

The Saban Center was founded by Haim Saban, an Egypt-born Israeli-American businessman, and most of Kerry’s audience last Sunday was pro-Israel. Thus, in his speech Kerry was trying to reassure his audience about the future, underline the Obama administration’s prudence and its full commitment to confronting extremism and terrorism, and subsequently inform Israel’s supporters that there were indeed “moderate” Arab and Muslim partners willing to make peace with Israel.

In short, Kerry was talking to his home crowd. The problem with what he said, however, was that it ignored several important points.

First, the majority of the Arab countries have supported the Oslo Agreement reached by the late Yasser Arafat with the then Israeli leadership while stressing that such peace must be genuine and comprehensive, not just the submission sought by Israeli hawks like those in Likud. The only regional countries that have outbid Arafat and accused the Palestinian Authority of treason are Iran and Syria, i.e. the same countries Washington have always accused of promoting and supporting terrorism.

Second, the regional player which continues to insist on establishing “Eretz Yisrael” is the Likud leadership in Israel. The Likud Party’s leader, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, is now exploiting the “extremist” Sunni Muslim and Iran-backed Hamas and Islamic Jihad by putting the issue of the establishing Israel as an exclusively Jewish state at the heart of his campaign for the upcoming elections, while Washington remains curiously silent.

Thirdly, in spite of the fact that Washington knows all about Iran’s long history of involvement in acts of terrorism in the Middle East, the Obama administration has chosen Iran as an ally, betrayed the popular uprising of the Syrian people, and turned against its former “moderate” allies such as ex-presidents Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, who have paid a heavy price for being America’s friends.

Fourth, Kerry’s speech may be in line with America’s previous well-intentioned policies in the Middle East since Camp David, but this is not enough by itself. Many of these policies were indeed well-intentioned; certainly Jimmy Carter’s were. However, Kerry’s speech ignored that peace can only be built on a solid foundation of trust. In the absence of trust, there is no chance of peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, any talk of alignments or common visions between Arabs, Israelis, and Iranians becomes a travesty, while the notion of “friendship” between the US and the Arabs is nothing but a myth.

This week, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) annual summit was attended by representatives of countries that have long thought of themselves as friends of America. It was held against a background of strong belief in the Arab world, particularly in the GCC countries, that President Obama has found new friends. Just as Washington disregarded the interests and credibility of Arab “moderates” through its unconditional support of whoever governs Israel, the present administration is now pushing the whole region to accept Iranian hegemony under the pretext of fighting extremist and takfirist terrorists.

I will stick my neck out and say that Obama’s strategy is not naive at all, but rather the product of major miscalculations, because the only credible force capable of confronting and defeating ISIS and similar organizations are the moderate Sunni Arabs who have never felt the need to take up arms against the rest of the world. Today, these miscalculations may however push the moderate Sunni Arabs to kill or be killed.

Nabil Elaraby: Attitudes to Palestinian statehood are changing

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

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.

Israeli cabinet approves controversial “Jewish state” bill

The daughters of Fadel Mohammed Halawa, 32, who was shot dead by Israeli forces near the border in northern Gaza, react upon hearing the news of their father's death as they return home from school in Gaza City on November 23, 2014. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)
The daughters of Fadel Mohammed Halawa, 32, who was shot dead by Israeli forces near the border in northern Gaza, react upon hearing the news of their father’s death as they return home from school in Gaza City on November 23, 2014. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

Tel Aviv and Ramallah, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Israeli cabinet approved a draft bill on Sunday to officially recognize the country as a “Jewish state,” amid criticisms regarding the law discriminating against Arab residents in Israel, from both Israeli politicians and the Palestinian Authority, who labeled the move an example of “apartheid.”

The cabinet passed the bill by a majority of 14 votes to five, and the law will now go to the Israeli Knesset for approval on Wednesday.

If passed it will allow Israel to carry out a number of controversial measures including delisting Arabic as an official language, stripping Arab residents of their citizenship if they are involved in violent acts—including throwing stones against Israeli security forces—and utilizing Jewish law as the main source of legislation in the country.

Addressing cabinet members on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “Israel is the . . . state of the Jewish people, and their only state. Israel safeguards equality of personal rights for all citizens. But national rights [in Israel] are for the Jewish people only.”

He said the new law would act as a counter to the Palestinian right of return as it gave further gravitas to “Jewish symbols such as the country’s flag and its national anthem,” and secured “the right of Jews, and only Jews,” to come and reside in the country.

But the controversial law was opposed by several prominent members of Netanyahu’s cabinet, including former prime minister and current justice minister Tzipi Livni. Israel’s attorney-general, Yehuda Weinstein, was also critical of the bill.

Several rights groups both in Israel and abroad have also condemned the bill for its discrimination against Arab residents in Israel, and non-Jewish residents in general.

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, described the law as another example of Israeli “apartheid” measures against Palestinians and called on the international community to strongly oppose the move.

Kifah Ziboun contributed additional reporting from Ramallah.

British Parliament to debate motion to recognize Palestine

Members of the UK's Parliament are seen attending a session of Parliament in the House of Commons, called to discuss the Syria crisis, in this still image taken from video, in London, on August 29, 2013 (Reuters/UK Parliament via Reuters TV)
Members of the UK’s Parliament are seen attending a session of Parliament in the House of Commons, called to discuss the Syria crisis, in this still image taken from video, in London, on August 29, 2013 (Reuters/UK Parliament via Reuters TV)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The British parliament’s House of Commons will debate a motion to recognize Palestine as an independent state on Monday, in a move that is already controversial both at home and abroad.

The motion, which reads: “This House believes that the Government should recognize the state of Palestine alongside the State of Israel,” will be introduced by a backbench opposition MP, Grahame Morris, of the Labour Party.

“We just feel that now’s the time to shout out loud that this should be done,” he told Reuters news agency. “Not only is statehood the inalienable right of the Palestinian people, but recognizing Palestine will breathe new life into a peace process that is at an impasse.”

The motion is largely symbolic and will not change official UK policy if it passes. In a reiteration of official British policy, a Foreign Office spokesman said: “We continue to believe that negotiations toward a two-state solution are the best route to meeting Palestinian aspirations in reality and on the ground.”

However, the motion is another sign of increasing disenchantment with Israeli policy in the UK and Europe, and is likely to infuriate the Israeli government, as well as causing disquiet in Washington.

Two weeks ago, the new Swedish government became the first Western European state to officially recognize Palestine, leading the Israeli Foreign Ministry to summon the Swedish ambassador to deliver an official reprimand.

A spokesman for the US State Department described the move as “premature,” and said that while the US was not opposed to Palestinian statehood in principle, it believed this could only come about “through a negotiated outcome, a resolution of final status issues, and a mutual recognition by both parties.”

The motion is also likely to prove divisive within the ranks of the UK’s two largest parties, the Conservatives, the senior partner in the ruling coalition, and the Labour Party, the official opposition.

A number of members of the Labour shadow cabinet have been given permission not to attend parliament on Monday, according to press reports, despite other Labour MPs being instructed to vote for the motion if present.

Two members of the shadow cabinet are among members of the party’s Labour Friends of Israel group. One backbench member of the group, Louise Ellman MP, said she opposed the motion on the grounds that recognition should only come after direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian leadership.

Conservative cabinet ministers will abstain, while rank-and-file MPs from the party have been given a free vote on the issue.

Thanks to Labour votes and support from several Conservative MPs and most members of the Liberal Democrats—the junior partner in the ruling coalition—the motion is expected to pass.

More are expected to vote for the motion if an amendment sponsored by a number of MPs from across the different parties is adopted.

The amendment adds the phrase, “as a contribution to securing a negotiated two-state solution” to the motion.

Although also favored by the Labour Party’s leadership, it is not yet known if the amendment will be adopted at time of writing.

One former Conservative minister, Baroness Warsi, called on her colleagues to back the motion in an interview with the Observer newspaper on Sunday.

Lady Warsi, a former junior foreign affairs minister, resigned in protest at the British government’s decision not to condemn Israel’s actions in the recent conflict in Gaza in August.

In remarks published on Sunday, she said more pressure needed to be put on Israel to resume negotiations with the Palestinians.

“There are no negotiations, there is no show in town. Somehow we have to breathe new life into these negotiations, and one of the ways we can do that is by recognizing the state of Palestine,” she said.