Ramallah, Asharq Al-Awsat- Ahmed Qurei, who is also known by his Arabic Kunya Abu Alaa, is a former Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, and a veteran negotiator. In 1968 he joined the Fatah political party, and lived in exile with its founder, Yasser Arafat. After improving the economic fortunes of the party, he became a member of the Fatah central committee in 1989, and subsequently went on to play a prominent role in peace negotiations. He is highly regarded for the instrumental role he played in negotiating the Oslo accords of 1993. A decade later, he became emergency Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, a position he held until the 2006 elections, when Hamas formed a majority government.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with the former Palestinian Prime Minister in his office in Jerusalem discussing several issues relating to his political career and the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Ahmed Qurei was asked about the history of Palestinian-Israeli talks, the current options available, his conditions for successful negotiations, and his relationship with Fatah.
The following is the text of the interview.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us start by talking about the negotiations; there is real debate about going straight to direct negotiations with Israel. Why is this?
[Qurei] Firstly, the problem is not about direct or indirect negotiations. The issue is that we should have been involved in the last lap to solve the Palestinian cause in a fair and comprehensive manner. The question here is, does the Israeli government really want to resolve this, or does it want to manage the crisis and to ease some of the isolation that we are beginning to suffer from? Otherwise, what is the situation now? The issues being negotiated are well known, land, borders, Jerusalem, the refugees, the settlement, security, and water rights. But what is the Israeli position? The Israeli position is clear to us, the latest of which is what was put forward by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is an important member of the government. He said that the solution will be through the inclusion of settlement blocs and Israeli security control along the Jordanian border, rejecting the refugees’ right to return, and postponing the decision over Jerusalem. Our experiences with [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu are no better, we asked about major issues, which is, what is the reference – is this the 1967 borders? Is Jerusalem part of the occupied territories? Are the refugees a primary issue? Are the settlements [built upon occupied territory] illegal? These are the issues that the US envoy must resolve.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you receive any answers to these questions?
[Qurei] There were no answers; they told us to sit at the negotiating tables and start [negotiations] and see what happens.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will you go to the negotiating table?
[Qurei] No…what Mahmoud Abbas said during his meeting with the US envoys is that unless I know the reference, and unless all settlement building ceases, any meeting would be nothing more than a waste of time and an operation to give Israel more time improve its image.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] And what happens if you don’t receive a positive answer to these demands?
[Qurei] Nobody will go [to the negotiations].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] So you will just keep waiting?
[Qurei] We are under occupation, and we must perform our duty.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will you be able to cope with the US pressure?
[Qurei] Anybody who has a cause can cope. Anybody who is in the right can cope. We are coping, and our people have been coping since the beginning of the last century, the aggression still exists. It is now time for the international community and the US to be aware of the reality of the situation. If you want to legitimize the occupation, this is not our game. If you want to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, we are the most ready to negotiate.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did the US pressure or threaten the Palestinian side?
[Qurei] There is nothing called threat. The Americans mediate by asking us to sit at the negotiating table, however, according to our experience with 8 former Israeli prime ministers, the only achievement we made was opening all files with former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, but we failed to resolve any of these. Today, Netanyahu is seeking to negotiate for the sake of negotiating and in order to end the [Israeli] isolation, rather than in order to reach an agreement.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] So how would you describe 19 years of negotiations?
[Qurei] There were not 19 years of negotiations. This was a long experience; we negotiated with [Yitzhak] Rabin and signed the Oslo Peace Accords and they killed him. We negotiated with Netanyahu and signed the Wye River memorandum and this was not implemented. We negotiated with [Ehud] Barak over the ongoing issue, but he escaped, and we did not reach any agreement. We did not negotiate with [Ariel] Sharon, but we negotiated with Olmert but again were unable to reach an agreement, and now we are in a new stage [of negotiations]. This should serve as a lesson – both for us and for Israel – and for the US mediator who must bear all of this experience in mind. We are not holding up the negotiations. I do not want the US, the Arabs, or the international community to have the impression that a strong party is giving in to a weaker party, for if the occupation is going to continue, then so too must the resistance. If you could make this decision today, what would you do, bearing all of this in mind?
For me, all options are open; negotiations, political and public operation, and the resistance.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are the options today?
[Qurei] All of the above.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Including the resistance?
[Qurei] I can see and analyze, if they are prepared to give without taking…then I would say yes.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Those close to Netanyahu are saying he’s willing to relinquish up 90 percent of the West Bank?
[Qurei] So his relinquishing [this], will this return their rights to the Palestinian people?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Meaning that this isn’t enough?
[Qurei] No, we do not bargain on the state. Those who are willing to give up 10 percent will be willing to give up 20 percent or 30 percent.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In that case, during what stage of the negotiations did the Israelis agree upon the 1967 borders?
[Qurei] Nobody said they would give us [a Palestinian state] according to the 1967 borders, but in 2000 in Stockholm we agreed with [former] Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami that the border with Jordan would be from the first point south of Bisan to the last point at the Dead Sea. They asked to install an [Israeli] security checkpoint here, but we did not agree. In the final round of negotiations in Jerusalem, Olmert and [Tzipi] Livni and I were present, along with [Condoleezza] Rice. Rice said, in Livni’s presence that “The Palestinian territory is the West Bank and the Gaza Strop, including the parts of Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and the Jordan Valley [that these include] and I don’t want to say No Man’s Land…you should decide on that.” Rice asked me “Do you agree with this, Abu Alaa?” and I said yes. She then asked Livni, “Do you accept this?” and she said yes. She said the same thing to Mahmoud Abbas, and this was the first agreed recognition of Palestinian territory.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] And this is the most that you ever reached with the Israels?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you sign this agreement?
[Qurei] No, it was a verbal [agreement]. And I want to say that she [Rice] left the issue of [territory] exchange with regards to holy sites for us to agree upon.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] And did you come to an agreement about this?
[Qurei] No, we spoke about a small percentage [of holy sites] but we put in place conditions that no exchange should take place without Palestinian agreement, and that this should not harm the population, the territory’s natural or cultural resources, or the holy sites in question. We told them the exchange was not for settlement blocs, but rather two ensure security for the two states.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] This means that you did not agree upon the issue of settlement blocs, as claimed?
[Qurei] No, this was a claim made by [Ehud] Barak.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] After all of this experience with negotiations, do you still believe that an independent state can be obtained through negotiations?
[Qurei] Look, firstly I am concerned about the slogan of the two-state solution. If a state is not recognized, it will give us no pleasure for this to be called a state. Tomorrow I could announce a state in Ramallah; however this would be a slogan with nothing to back it up unless the state is defined. Tomorrow they may tell you, here take this state with provisional borders, and in fact there are three semi-official Israeli projects that are trying to do this, the one put forward by [Israeli politician] Shaul Mofaz, the project planned by [Ehud] Barack and [Shimon] Perez, and a third project that talks about moving area B into area A, and so on. All of these projects stipulate that the Palestinians take 65 percent [of their territory] upon the declaration of the state, with the rest to be negotiated on later. [Israeli Foreign Minister] Avigdor Lieberman defined all of this when speaking of a solution in the Cypriot manner, this is what is in the Israeli mind; a provisional state, and this is a ticking time bomb that will explode in our faces. Well, after experiencing all of this, what are we negotiating about? George Mitchell came and we called these proximity negotiations, and I do not know why these were indirect. Indirect negotiations could be applied with Syria [and Israel] but not here! I am calling for negotiations, but with a reference!
[Asharq Al-Awsat] So the indirect negotiations were a waste of time?
[Qurei] I do not want to say that they were a waste of time, but did they produce anything? If they bridged the gap [between the Palestinians and Israelis] we could begin [negotiations] but if they did not, why should we? I do not want to put myself in a predicament and solve the problems of others, whether this is the Americans, the Europeans, or the Israelis. Netanyahu says he wants to negotiate, very well, but what about? When we ask him to give us an answer about Jerusalem [being capital of new Palestinian state] he says later. All the while Jerusalem is in genuine danger.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some people believe that you have already lost Jerusalem, or are on the verge of losing this. What do you think about this?
[Qurei] We have a right to Jerusalem, and we will not give this up. However Israel took up an Israelization or Judaization operation there; and there are genuine efforts to cause the [Palestinian] population of Jerusalem to leave. They withdraw 10,000 identification cards, and destroyed homes [of Palestinians living in Jerusalem], and I have noticed that they have begun to change the names of streets and places, and soon they will change the names of people; they will say that whoever is called Mohamed, his name should be David. They have appropriated lands and houses, and in just one square kilometre in Old Town, you will find 3,000 Israeli settlers.
They expanded one of the municipalities of Jerusalem from 6.5 kilometres during the Jordan era to 72 kilometres today, and there are 12 large settlements there, meaning that there are 12 cities within the Jerusalem city limits. It is planned that by the year 2030, Jerusalem will start from the Shiloh settlement in the north to…Bethlehem in the south, and east as far as the Dead Sea. They are even excavating under the Al-Aqsa Mosque!
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does this excavation represent a threat to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, in your opinion?
[Qurei] Yes, they went to gradually destroy it! They have caused the Arabs to give up on Jerusalem, nobody speaks about Jerusalem today…but God said “Glory to (Allah) who did take His servant for a Journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the farthest Mosque.” [Surat al-Isra; Versa 1]. And so there is an important religious affiliated with this mosque, and the silence over Jerusalem…is truly terrible.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you mean to say that the Palestinian and Arab leadership have contributed to this silence over Jerusalem?
[Qurei] No. I am not saying this, but I would like to say that we should not play down these issues…they are speaking about keeping Israeli control over all Jerusalem…so we ask the Americans, what do you have to say about this issue? Will you tell us to come to an agreement? [If the situation remains the same] we will never reach an agreement.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] So what is required?
[Qurei] For the Americans to put in place a clear set of rules with regards to their position on Eastern Jerusalem.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you define Eastern Jerusalem?
[Qurei] It is Jerusalem that was occupied in 1967. Not only this; the Israelis claim to have properties in Eastern Jerusalem, and we also had properties in Western Jerusalem, and their original owners want these properties returned to them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You mean you want the Israeli government to pay the price of these properties to the families of those who owned them in 1967?
[Qurei] No, we want them back. Everyone has the right to what he owns, for example, can’t a Palestinian own a flat in London?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Very well, until a written agreement is reached, how will the Palestinians act on the ground?
[Qurei] It is the Palestinian Authority’s responsibility, and I said there are numerous options, including international law. We have the right to file suites in international courts.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Turning to a different issue, what is your opinion of Fatah now that you are no longer part of the Fatah leadership?
[Qurei] I am not outside of Fatah.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] I mean, now that you are no longer a member of the Fatah Central Committee.
[Qurei] Fatah is not a Central Committee. Look at how the Fatah movement has endeavoured to establish an independent Palestinian state. Fatah was always knows for its faithfulness of its cadres and leaders. If this is over, this will affect Fatah’s direction.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] And is this over?
[Qurei] It may have been affected. One of the results is the lack of faithfulness to the pledge [to Fatah]. Secondly, Fatah grew up on its victories, rather than slogans, however there are no victories in this stage, a real victory is only that which has been achieved for the Palestinian Cause, and people can only judge what they see. I remain faithful and I will never harm my Fatah brothers. However, I will say that Fatah needs to re-assess itself once again in a more comprehensive manner.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did any of these reasons result in the Fatah movement’s defeat at the legislative elections?
[Qurei] There were a number of reasons of this, we wanted to play the game of democracy at an undemocratic time, and this was a political mistake. The democratic battle is not the required battle while we are fighting to liberate ourselves. I understand that democracy in liberation movements, not during interim stages. We made a mistake by turning an interim situation into a permanent one.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is this why you postponed the municipality elections?
[Qurei] It was a mistake not to judge the situation correctly, and it was a mistake to postpone these elections just hours before they were to begin.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you miss Yasser Arafat?
[Qurei] Yes, without a doubt I miss him every day and I weep over his death. The entire population, and every official and leader in Fatah misses him. Yasser Arafat used to work 24 hours a day for the sake of the Palestinian cause, and his door was always open to every one, and he was always ready to listen to all viewpoints and take them into consideration. He never renounced anybody and was faithful in all aspects of his life.