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Asharq Al-Awsat Interviews Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Q: To start off, what are your options regarding resolving the current government’s standoff and the international conditions needed to lift the economic and financial blockade?

A: We initiated dialogue six months ago because we are living a crisis. However, there was a lack of seriousness for us to achieve any results, because sometimes we initiate and seek dialogue for the sake of dialogue. Here [in Ramallah] nothing was achieved and they [Hamas leaders] insisted that we go to Gaza, and so we did. The result was also more time. Back then I said that the discussions should end within 10 days; or else we would hold a public referendum. When the [referendum] decree was issued, a national accord document [prisoners’ document] was agreed on. The document needed interpretation, that is, there were political outlooks that needed to be discussed. When we started to discuss them, the war began in Gaza and Lebanon. Discussions were suspended until the war ended in Lebanon and subsided here. There was an eight-point agreement that we called the determinants of political action. They backed away from the agreement. [He produced a document signed by Hamas and others, of which Asharq Al-Awsat obtained a copy] One of these points is the Arab initiative and their unwillingness to participate in negotiations.

Q: Why did Hamas reject the Arab initiative?

A: The first pretext was that it made no mention of the refugee issue, and the second was its recognition of Israel. I made it clear that this was included in the initiative, not because I remembered it or because I had read it, but because I took part in drafting it. Before the Arab initiative came into existence, there had been consultations with those who launched it – the Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians. They said they had to find a formula for the refugee issue because it was difficult to stipulate Resolution 194. We said we would find solution to be agreed upon regarding this issue that follows Resolution 194. I accepted the initiative. Even the Israelis accepted it (70 percent of it), and so did the Americans. It is true that the initiative has shrunk, but it has not died. It has become a part of the Road Map, which in turn has become part of the UN Resolution 1515.

Q: So Hamas approved the Arab initiative then withdrew their approval?

A: We discussed international legitimacy and the Arab initiative.

Q: In the agreement?

A: No, in the [above-mentioned] determinants, that is, the government program. Following the agreement, we set up a government program of 8 pointes, not 18, as the basis for a national unity government. I had hoped that the program would be useful in promoting the government on the international level. The problem does not lie amongst us as Palestinians; rather it is what we, the two parties, want in order for the third party to accept [us]. We are under blockade, and it is clear who imposed it. We aim at lifting the blockade and we all agree on this. Many people say I demand of them to recognize Israel. That is not the case. These are the conditions made by the Quartet.

Another point is that the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), has had international, Arab and Palestinian commitments for 42 years, and I cannot evade them. Therefore, the problem lies between those who disagree with the PLO and its commitments and those who do not. However, upon the formation of the government, I said, “Alright, please go ahead”. The result was imposing a blockade on us. The Arab initiative calls for recognizing Israel… The Arab initiative literally states that if Israel withdrew from the Arab territories, if Israel withdrew from the Palestinian territories, and if a Palestinian state was created, then we would normalize relations with Israel. Also, the initiative was presented to- and adopted by- the Islamic Summit, rendering it both an Arab and Islamic one. The initiative is conditional; it starts with the word ‘if’ which is a conditional clause, and it has four stipulations. Thus one can say the initiative calls for normalization. If a Palestinian state was created we would have a lasting peace. By the way, we [the Palestinians] and Israel do not have a peace treaty like the one signed with Egypt and Jordan; we only have a declaration of principles and protocols.

Q: You say that Hamas withdrew approval of the ‘determinants’. How much time elapsed between its approval and the withdrawal, and was the withdrawal related to the war on Lebanon?

A: No, the war on Lebanon was already over. They signed the document of loyalty one day after the abduction of the soldier [June 26, 2006]. When the war on Lebanon ended, we consulted with the powers and factions and reached these ‘determinants’. I then headed to New York bearing two points; the agreement was based on two fundamental points: respect for all PLO commitments, and the political basis, that is, recognizing the international legitimacy and the Arab initiative.

Q: Based on what had already been signed?

A: Based on this document of determinants, the second clause of which states that the “government shall assist the Authority’s president in laying down a plan for political maneuvering to achieve political goals based on the Arab initiative and the international legitimacy resolutions related to the Palestinian issue, without compromising the rights of the Palestinian people”. Another clause states that the “government shall respect the agreements signed by the PLO as the political reference for the Palestinian Authority in a way that protects the supreme interests of the Palestinian people”. I headed for the United Nations, and there was a flexible European stance. However, that was thwarted by the frequent declarations of rejection to these principles, which made the Americans and the Europeans inflexible, insisting upon the Quartet Committee’s resolutions.

Q: Did the committee show some flexibility in its New York meeting?

A: Not so much. Hamas welcomed it but did not accept it. The conditions of the Quartet remained unchanged.

Q: If Hamas had accepted the terms, would there have been progress?

A: There was some hope. I told Hamas I had no US guarantees. I try to promote such ideas so that they may accept it. Just as I earlier promoted the idea of Hamas’s participation in the elections, I said allow me some flexibility and ambiguity and sleep on it and then we can [move forward]. I returned from New York disappointed. At the time I said we were back to zero. Meanwhile, I was invited to Qatar, where we had extensive talks to arrive at the six points. The points were straightforward since I do not like rhetoric or verbosity. These are the recognition of the international legitimacy resolutions, the recognition of two coexistent Israeli and Palestinian states as per the vision of President George Bush, the recognition of agreements signed by the Authority and the PLO, the mutual rejection of violence, authorizing the president to hold negotiations for two years following the international legitimacy resolutions and, finally, the government’s and the PLO’s commitment to these principles. We presented these points to [Qatari Foreign Minister] Sheikh Hamad. I was convinced they would be accepted. I presented them to Khalid Mishal [the Damascus-based head of Hamas Political Office], who requested five days to look them over, at the end of which Sheikh Hamad met with him in Damascus and came back with an inverted draft.

The first proposed point states that a government should be formed on the basis of the accord document and that the presidency should engage in negotiations for two years based on the following principles: respect for the UN legal provisions, respect for agreements and arrangements, recognition of a national unity government etc., and that he should respect international agreements and international legitimacy – as if I was the one who posed a problem. I approve of any agreement that would lift the blockade and have no conditions. This was the first amendment. As the Americans have gotten used to our rhetoric, they said that we mention the word ‘respect’ in a way that guarantees the interests of the Palestinian people, which contradicts earlier statements… One can say so-and-so guarantees this and so-and-so does not, which means clarity of expression. In other words, I recognize this and do not recognize that. The Americans had previously shown some flexibility and accepted our conditions. They no longer accept such statements. We said we accepted the creation of a Palestinian state using a just and comprehensive solution… Their response meant that there was something else.

In brief, I said [to Sheikh Hamad] that I was ready to sign a blank paper and he could write whatever he deemed appropriate to solve the problem. Discussions came to an end. Then came the private sector’s initiative, “A call for the sake of Palestine”, which called for the formation of a technocratic government through accord, that is, a national unity, national accord and technocratic government…

Q: What if the Americans reject the solution reached?

A: If the Americans and the Europeans object to it then we should find another one. I will not talk about such a solution. Why? Because this solution should be reached through an understanding. Before we can talk about what could be done, we have to exhaust this last step and if it fails, we would look into what can be done.

Q: You were reported as saying you would use your constitutional authority in the case of no agreement. Would you?

A: The basic statute authorizes me to dismiss the government, or accept the government’s resignation…

Q: And the Legislative Assembly?

A: I cannot dismiss the Legislative Assembly.

Q: Does this mean that if no agreement is reached that the dismissal of the government would be an alternative?

A: I’m talking about my constitutional right, but exercising, or not exercising this right will be decided in the future… Moreover, this is not an absolute right and I cannot abuse it.

Q: If the government was dismissed and another was formed, the Legislative Assembly…

A: You asked me about my powers. These are my powers. What is beyond these powers I will not discuss.

Q: Have you considered taking specific measures in the case of non-agreement?

A: I’m ultimately responsible for the [Palestinian] people. It is I, not the government, who is responsible for their suffering. The government assists the president in outlining the policy. The government is concerned with the internal affairs, which raises the question: Is this government concerned with the internal affairs? And why all that? The answer lies on who the government will deal with … with Israel. There are deficiency problems of water, electricity and fuel. Well, forget about that. There is a problem in movement… When I want to move from one place to another I need a permit, or rather, coordination. These issues should be resolved on a daily basis. Moreover, there is the problem of the prisoners, and how to handle this issue… Not only should we be concerned with their release, but also with how to provide them with food and lawyers etc.

Q: It been said that you …

A: (Interrupts) It is true that the government’s business has to do with the internal affairs, but there are many other things involved as well. The Egyptian and Jordanian governments do not have to deal with the Israelis on a daily basis [due to their peace treaties with the Israelis]. But we have to. If we want to breathe clean air, we have to coordinate or, otherwise, they will withhold it.

Q: During foreign visits your entourage never includes the prime minister or any members of Hamas. Why is that the case?

A: Let’s go back in time for a moment. The election they won was not imposed on me… Can anyone else say otherwise? The Fatah Movement even calls me an undercover Hamas member. Elections were held and the Assembly was formed. I demanded that the majority should designate a person, and they did. I did not discuss whether or not he was the right person. They formed a 24-member cabinet and I did not consult with anyone at all. They embarked on world tours that lasted a month or two without any consultation with me. However, there are some countries that make stipulations and I will not elaborate. Moreover, they are supposed to seek my permission to appoint any officer, yet they appointed hundreds of them without this permission – and I expressed no objection. Everywhere I visited I tell people this was a government that came to power democratically… Give it a chance. Then the world stopped dealing with it. So what was my mistake in all of this? Fatah says I favor Hamas, and Hamas says I’m the Fatah leader, which is not true. I’m the president of all Palestinians. There is a misunderstanding that this is a democratically elected government, which is not true. I have appointed the government… Let’s not say it is an elected government and cannot be dismissed… It is an appointed government and can be dismissed.

Q: Is the president constitutionally empowered to designate who he deems appropriate to form a government without necessarily being constituted from the majority in the assembly?

A: Yes, but such a government must be proposed to the assembly, by virtue of confidence in their assessment.

Q: You disregarded the prime minister for over three months during which time you did not meet with him… as if there was some personal rift… You called off scheduled meetings and ignored him on more than one visit to Gaza, even…

A: No, there was no such personal rift at all. There were some other reasons that I will not elaborate on.

Q: Regarding Khalid Mishal, why did you refuse to meet with him during your visit to Qatar?

A: This is not true. There was no scheduled meeting.

Q: This means neither Hamas nor Mishal sought a meeting…

A: Neither of them did.

Q: And you yourself never refused to hold a meeting?

A: Never… Once there was the idea of holding a meeting, but he [Mishal] issued statements that I did not like so I cancelled it… It is not personal. During the elections I was a worldwide man of democracy [from Hamas’s point of view]. A month later, I became a person who dealt with the US, Israel and imperialism… Everyday they make unacceptable statements… I have never uttered a word against any of them. Some people answer them back; this is true. However, I never have and never will do, because the exchange of insults is shameful and I’m not that kind of person.

Q: Have you ever considered resigning one day?

A: Resignation… No, this has never occurred to me despite the heaviness of the burden.

Q: Nor dissolving the Authority…

A: Nor dissolving the Authority… But the one who claimed that – you know who – [Fatah member Abu Lutf recently called for its dissolution] made that statement independently.

Q: There are voices that say there is practically no real Authority and its dissolution will result in returning the ball to Israel’s court and make it responsible, as an occupying power, for the Palestinian people. What do you think?

A: I’m opposed to dissolving the Authority.

Q: At the present stage?

A: And at any other stage… I’m the Authority’s President, and such talk means dissolving myself.

Q: And the Israeli practices?

A: We have to find solutions, not break up the Authority.

Q: Have you not ever regretted running for president?

A: When I stood… I do not like to say they couldn’t find anyone else, but they relied on me.

[Azzam al Ahmad, the head of the Fatah parliamentary bloc, interposed to say that they considered only Abu Mazen for president.]

But they said I had to run. That had never occurred to me. I was totally cut-off from these things after I had resigned. Yasser Arafat’s death, however, was a national disaster and I had to run for office. I wished that someone else would say he was up to the responsibility. If someone had said he was ready for it, I would have supported and stood by them with all my might. Even when I was prime minister and before that, I used to tell Arafat “name anyone as vice president and I will support you”.

Q: Under the current blockade, what are the main signs of Palestinian suffering?

A: The people are suffering in all aspects of life… No food, no funds, nothing at all.

Q: Do you feel this suffering?

A: Of course, I know it and feel it… Of course, I go to the market and walk on streets. You must have seen me meeting with people and talking to them. They visit me. I meet with unions, and with the families of martyrs and prisoners. There is huge suffering, and if our people were not noble they would not have been able to endure what they have.

Q: Is the other party aware of that? Is the magnitude of the suffering conveyed?

A: The situation is conveyed in full detail… It is fully aware of it but it is not concerned.

Q: What are the conclusions that people have come to regarding their situation?

A: People have reached a very dire state.

Q: And yet they hold both parties responsible for what’s going on, especially Fatah. What do you think?

A: The Fatah Movement was once in charge and it left office with its pros and cons. Now there is a new power in charge which is responsible for feeding the people and managing their everyday affairs. At this point in time, half the government is in prison and the other is being chased. This is why I stipulated that for a new government to be possible, it was essential to release the captured soldier [Gilad Shalit].

Q: For nothing in return?

A: No, for something in return, but not the way it wanted [Hamas]. Give me the prisoner and I will negotiate with the Israelis [regarding our prisoners]. They are ready to give me more than the prisoners. This is one point; the second is that the ministers and MPs should be released. Third, there should be a truce that rids us of these ridiculous missiles that are fired without reason, result of justification. If these three conditions are fulfilled, it will clean the slate and pave way for a new government that can function properly.

Q: Are you talking about a mutual truce?

A: Yes, a mutual truce. This would be the first time to have a mutual truce. In the past we achieved it twice but it was amongst ourselves as Palestinians. This time, as stated in the six points, it would be a mutual truce.

Q: Does the Israeli side approve of this?

A: Yes, they do.

Q: At what stage will the Palestinian prisoners be released?

A: First, we would lay down a schedule for his [the captured soldier’s] release, and the prisoners’ committee will set the criteria. By the way, they told me that if we [Abu Mazen and Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister] had met that they would have released an unimaginable number of prisoners.

Q: You refer to the time before the capture…

A: Yes, before the soldier’s capture and the number would have been even greater after his capture.

Q: Were they serious about releasing the prisoners before the soldier was captured?

A: Yes, yes. This was one of the points to be discussed in the meeting with Olmert before the prisoner’s issue happened.

Q: Are there any Israeli guarantees to release prisoners after Shalit’s release?

A: I’m no longer following-up on this issue and unfortunately it is one they have been updating with the whole world, except us. This is a point against them.

Q: Do you mean Israel?

A: No, I mean Hamas.

Q: You describe the missiles as ridiculous, whether al Qassam, al Aqsa, al Quds or others, which is provocative especially since many believe that these missiles were responsible for driving the Israeli forces out from the Gaza Strip.

A: I reiterate; these are ridiculous missiles that serve no purpose. Had Sharon not made the decision to withdraw it would not have happened.

One should not say that it was the missiles that drove them out. Three hundred Palestinians were killed [the current toll is above 350] as opposed to one soldier. I want to talk in terms of profits and losses. When the missiles are fired, they come back to harm the Palestinians, so what is their value? Or they backfire into the young men who launch them. Do you know that one of these missiles landed on the house of former Minister of Prisoners’ Affairs [Hisham Abdul Raziq], blowing off the hand and leg of his only son, a five-year-old whom he had had after 25 years in prison? It also killed his uncle and his uncle’s wife. What can you say to this man? Now you are talking of these missiles. I say it publicly: they are ridiculous.

Q: Let’s go back to your substitute, it was said that had there been a substitute you would not have been president. Your term is due to expire in about two years, so can you withdraw your decision to not run for a second term?

A: My stance is clear; I would support anyone who is able to fulfill this task.

Q: Again, you declared you would not run?

A: Yes, again.

Q: Does the Fatah Movement have a substitute for you?

A: They should. Even so; the Palestinian people are not sterile. I have been president for two years, and my term will end in another two. The only thing that would make me quit is if I die. When the new elections are held, I will not seek reelection.

Q: And what about Tariq or Yasser [Abu Mazen’s sons]?

A: My children have nothing to do with power. Yasser works in Dubai and Tariq is in the advertising business here. I do not want to seem like I’m criticizing others.

Q: What can you say you have achieved of electoral promises over the past two years?

A: Unfortunately, many things have not been accomplished. Most important are security and economic prosperity. Gaza, which the occupation has fully evacuated, has the potential to be a paradise on earth. We set up dozens of projects, among them the Sheikh Zayed project [a housing project in northern Gaza], a Saudi project, a German water project and a joint Chinese-US-Japanese port project. These projects would have employed workers in Gaza and the West Bank, too. The fact remains that Gaza has become more of a ruin than it had been. This is unfortunate. Secondly, is the slip in security. I can’t lie and say I have achieved. Also, there is the decline in revenues. The Israelis denied us about $500 million. We receive little Arab funds while the Europeans and the Americans stopped paying, and so did the World Bank. Add to that our lack resources, so how can we survive?

Q: There is the issue of those individuals wanted by Israeli authorities, which you also promised to resolve, but you haven’t.

A: These are all issues that were agreed upon with Ariel Sharon. This issue, however, was not resolved due to the mistakes on both our parts, but we managed to return some Gaza’s deportees back to the West Bank.

Q: What are your demands from the Arab countries?

A: In general, the Arab countries support us. But the problem is beyond their capabilities and they cannot be held responsible. If asked, the Arabs would say that there are basic international requirements to be met. What are these requirements? Commitment to the agreements we signed. Even in case of a coup, the revolutionaries do not disclaim commitments to the former governments. Those who respect themselves do not dishonor their commitments.

Q: What about the reinstatement of figures that you had removed from power as part of the reforms and crackdown on corruption? Ismail Jabr [Haj Ismail, the former Palestinian Security Chief for the West Bank] is an example.

A: First, Haj Ismail left office due to a crisis which is now over. He has not been removed because of corruption or as a result of reforms. I am in need of him now, which is why I appointed him as my aide, not in a security position.

Q: What about the sale of the Orthodox Church’s properties and the new patriarch’s involvement in the matter?

A: We are following up this issue seriously.

Q: Jerusalem is really endangered…

A: We are following up the issue of the two patriarchs. It is being discussed by specialized committees. But Jerusalem is in real danger; there is a danger of expansion, isolation and of the creation of settlements, which are drawing closer to the city center. If they continue to build settlements, it means that they don’t want peace. Settlements – I refer to all West Bank settlements – are illegal. Perhaps some [Israeli] people still hold it against me because I said in Camp David that settlements were illegal.

Q: What are the reasons behind not holding Fatah Central Committee’s meeting? Is it true that the real reason is differences between you and Fatah Central Committee’s Secretary-General Farouq al Qaddumi [Abu Lutf], who was presiding over the meeting – or is it about more sensitive issues and deeper differences?

A: In brief, the central committee’s meeting abroad is supposed to be attended by all members because the aim behind holding it abroad is to involve everyone. In Amman we found out that four members were absent.

Q: Locally or abroad?

A: Both.

Q: You say there was no difference over chairing the meeting…

A: Furthermore, Abu Lutf is not the leader of the Fatah Movement. He is not the leader of the Fatah Movement.

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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