Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Amr Musa has held the position of Secretary-General of the Arab League since May 2001. During this time, Musa has led the regional organisation through a challenging period, marked by notable conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon and Darfur, as well as the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Upon assuming office, Amr Musa cited the Palestinian issue as being one of his top priorities, and recently in June 2010, he visited the Gaza strip in a bid to pressurize Israel to end its blockade. In doing so, he became the first Arab leader to visit Gaza since Hamas gained control of the region in 2007. The former Egyptian Foreign Minister has also recently placed Arab League reform highly on his agenda, as he approaches 10 years in office.
Asharq al-Awsat spoke with Amr Musa in order to discuss several recent developments relating to the Middle East. The Secretary-General gave his insight into the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, and alternatives to the current situation. He also spoke about efforts to reform the Arab League, as well as the recent political developments in Iraq, Sudan, and Yemen. The following is the text from the interview.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are the reasons behind the delay of the meeting of the Arab Peace Initiative Committee? Has the deadline [for resolving the issue over Israeli settlement building] been extended for another two weeks in order to give the US the opportunity to exert effort [on both parties]? Have there been any new developments with regards the issue of an Israeli settlement freeze?
[Musa] With regards to the [two week] extension, this was called for by all parties involved in the peace process – including the US and Israel – in the context of working towards putting a stop to [Israeli] settlement activity and creating the necessary atmosphere for the resumption of negotiations. This was also called for by the Arab countries, since the current situation is not conducive to progress being made on all issues; therefore there must be consultation over alternatives [to negotiations]. There has indeed been lengthy consultation and discussion over these [alternatives] and this remains ongoing; Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has talked about this recently, saying that there are seven alternatives [to negotiation]. To sum up the Arab consultation in this regards…there is an agreement between ourselves that if the US administration requires a reasonable amount of time to complete its effort, then it is wise to understand this whilst at the same time avoiding falling into the trap of procrastination and delay, whilst Israel continues to construct settlements. We are therefore now talking about a suitable date for the meeting of the Monitoring Committee or the Arab Peace Initiative Committee to take place within a short period of time to discuss the situation, especially as this meeting was agreed upon by a unanimous vote following a request by the Palestinian leadership. We will resume discussing the dates for this meeting and its agenda after Eid in order to discuss any possible US position and to develop alternatives [to negotiation].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the prospects of the UN Security Council meeting to discuss these negotiations, the recent developments with regards to this [Palestinian] file, and the current negative situation?
[Musa] Resorting to the UN Security Council is one of the primary alternatives [should negotiations fail], and this could take place in three different ways; firstly in order to address the issue of [Israeli] settlement building, and this is something that is ongoing with the Palestinian presidency currently involved in this, along with the Arab activity in New York.
Secondly, the [Palestinian] file could be returned to the United Nations and the Security Council in a particular manner…and this is an important strategic decision. It would mean putting forward a new Arab decision, acknowledging that the methods followed in managing the peace process since the Madrid Conference of 1991 have not achieved anything, and that the situation requires a search for different political methods, [acknowledging that] the UN Security Council is the best international body to deal with this dangerous situation. Here some of us would prefer to wait for some time, to give President Obama the necessary time to work and see if his determination and resolve can achieve anything, however this phrase “some time” will have a specific and short time frame which is around the end of this month. We must [also] note that this process of waiting means we are taking the US position into account and in return, we expect the US administration to understand the Arab position, and for there not to be an automatic veto against this.
The third way is going to the UN General Assembly and Security Council, and formally requesting the declaration of an independent Palestinian State and its recognition by UN members. This would be followed by detailed negotiations under the auspices of the UN Security Council, and the establishment of a political process that achieves mutual understanding between the two countries that share the historic territory of Palestine, i.e. Palestine and Israel, with negotiations taking place between the two from here.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] We have noticed that the US – along with Europe – has announced its opposition to Israel’s settlement building policies. Does this constitute a positive factor with regards to dealing with this issue?
[Musa] It is logical to accept and appreciate this position, especially as the settlement issue leads to the death of the [establishment] of a [Palestinian] state, as it calls into question the necessary amount of land required to build a Palestinian state. From here, statements are not enough, for we need practical positions on the ground that go beyond the US and European statements in which they announce their rejection of settlement. Here I would like to refer to what some Palestinian leaders recently said, and I think Dr. Salam Fayyad spoke rightly when he pointed out that the package of incentives that the US government promised Israel in return for a partial suspension of settlement activity represents another step back to the establishment of a state for the people of Palestine. This adds to the settlements (which will continue being built at a slower power in the event that they do announce a settlement moratorium, with this not including East Jerusalem)…as well as adding other dangerous and counterproductive commitments, which only serves to further strengthen the Israeli position.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is this why you believe it is so essential that the Arab Peace Initiative Committee meet as soon as possible?
[Musa] Yes, and after Eid we will begin consultation on a suitable and close timeframe for this meeting to be convened to assess the situation, and there has already been a call for this meeting to take place soon, as mentioned above, i.e. with no further prolonging of the time extension asked for by the US administration. This is because it is clear that more time serves Israeli interests to build more settlements on the ground, and we would be suspicious of reasons to postpone the meeting any longer than this, as this delays the Arab side’s ability to take a position, whilst allowing Israel to change the composition of the occupied territories, which is what we are currently seeing. I do not think that any Arab countries can participate in, or accept, granting Israeli intransigence time and a mechanism to implement policies that eradicate the opportunity to establish a Palestinian state.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you received any messages from Washington that would reassure the Arabs that the US is playing a positive role, with regards to the resumption of negotiations after an agreement was reached with Tel Aviv over a settlement freeze?
[Musa] We are waiting to find out the approach of the American effort, and its content, and we appreciate the effort undertaken by Senator George Mitchell, President Obama, and US diplomacy [in general]. However, we are also monitoring the situation on the ground and comparing the promises that we receive with the Israeli actions that we see, and this – identifying the manner of the US position – does not take long.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Returning to the alternatives to negotiations, are there other options on the table?
[Musa] Yes, and some of those were referred to by Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, who proposed that the US administration – as the current mediator – express its own opinions on elements of the settlement. The [Egyptian Foreign] Minister’s proposal pointed to the Clinton administration that did much the same thing, putting forward a settlement in 2000, to serve as the basis of negotiations. However, unfortunately the U.S. put this forward at a time when its president [Clinton] was close to leaving the White House, and he was succeeded by a Republican administration, which later retracted this. As for President Obama, he has two years left in office, and many months until next September, the deadline which he told the UN General Assembly that he would like to see a Palestinian state, as a member at the next UN General Assembly. Therefore President Obama has time for his administration to put forward a settlement for a just solution to the Arab – Israeli conflict, and the Palestinian issue in particular, and I invite President Obama, in this regard, to look at the Arab Peace Initiative once more.
Another option is the withdrawal of Israeli occupation forces from areas A and B, enabling the Palestinian administration to expand its sphere of operation and its authority, with Israel [also] withdrawing its settlers from this area. There are other options that will be announced and activated at the right time.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] It is clear that Washington is concerned with combating terrorism and Al Qaeda as much as Israel is primarily concerned with its own security, and therefore there is no clear agenda on the horizon for peace. What is your assessment of this situation?
[Musa] Combating terrorism is one thing, and the Palestinian issue is something else. Terrorism has its own circumstances and causes, but there is nothing to justify this, and it must be stopped and rejected, and its serious and negative repercussions must be brought to a halt. Terrorism is related to the grand political instability in the region, and this is something that must be dealt with. We see that combating terrorism does not only take place via exchanging bullets, but via genuine action to ease the tensions in the region and the world. Many people around the world, including people from Europe, South America, and elsewhere, have talked to me in a state of great anger about the Palestinian issue and its repercussions, and we are closely monitoring the Israeli policy of trying to confuse and mix together three particular issues, and they are the Palestinian Cause, terrorism, and Iran. By doing so, Israel aims to create a state of turmoil and confusion that prevents these issues being handled properly, particularly the Palestinian issue and the Arab – Israeli conflict. From a different point of view, the problem of terrorism in the current global security situation, and the way in which it is being represented, means that it is vital that we examine the issue of regional security, that is to say the security of the Middle East, and define and adopt this. This will include reviewing Israeli security and defining this, and not taking all information about Israeli security at face value, because this includes overstatement, exaggeration, and undermines what is required, which is adopting regional security. Therefore we cannot talk about regional security and its problems, and condense all of this into the security of one nation, as this would mean unbalanced security, and a volatile region.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will some of the new proposals also – as is rumoured – push the peace process forward, such as holding a new summit?
[Musa] We have all had our fill of summits, initiatives, meetings, and other superficial images, which are held for peace, with their welcomes and smiles. There is no value to these, and they no longer convince public opinion, or benefit anybody. What is important is the position on the ground, by which I mean that there are specific points that must be dealt with before anybody can think about conferences and smiles. Have you stopped settlement construction or not? Has the explicit Israeli colonization of Jerusalem completely stopped or not? Therefore we support the demands of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, for direct negotiations to be tied to a settlement freeze, for the two are mutually exclusive, unless the objective is to serve the interests of Israel, and what is required from the Arabs is to go along with this. In our opinion this is suspicious, for it has always been far away from facilitating a balanced peace. We also support the Palestinian demand for a UN Security Council meeting to be held, in order to discuss the settlement issue, and this is a sound political move that I hope the Palestinian side remains insistent on.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What were the results of your visit to Libya? Was this related to developing the Arab League?
[Musa] The visit was related to the development, and the importance of creating a consensus surrounding this, and it is normal for the Arab League Secretary-General to speak with the current Arab League president on this issue, as it was [also] natural for us to discuss the situation in the Middle East, the recent development in the Arab – Israel conflict, as well as the situation in Sudan and the recent developments in Iraq. I spoke with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on many issues as part of a consultative framework, in order to establish an understanding on all of these issues, and at this point I would like to point out that there are promising possibilities with regards to easing tensions between some Arab parties.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did your meeting with Gaddafi touch upon the results of the Sirte Summit, and the issue of developing and reforming the Arab League operations? What are the most recent developments with regards to this?
[Musa] We discussed this issue and agreed upon communicating [with other parties] on this, with this being undertaken by the Arab League president and Secretary-General. This is in relation to the different opinions held by some – and not all – over the talking points. In reality there is already a genuine consensus, whilst there are differences on only specific points, and we are accordingly searching for a means to achieve consensus in a progressive manner. In other words [through] implementing what is agreed upon today, and preparing for what can be agreed upon in the future, whilst also postponing what has not been agreed upon for some time, this may allow for review. You must also not forget that a period of 5 years was proposed to achieve and complete the development process.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you discuss the forthcoming Arab League summit, and where this will be hosted?
[Musa] We only talked about the preparations for the Arab Economic, Social and Development Summit that will be held in Sharm el-Sheikh in January. As for the issue of holding an Arab League summit in Baghdad, we will talk about this after the Economics Summit, however as you know, the decision of the last summit was to hold this in Baghdad.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think the Arab political disputes and differences will affect the level of representation at the Arab League Economic Summit?
[Musa] I expect strong participation at the Economic Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh in light of its agenda, which is in the interests of all Arab countries. The summit will discuss topics relating to economics and development, something that is no less important than discussing political issues, and this is a testament to Arab political maturity. Therefore I believe that the level of representation will [also] be good at the next general Arab Summit, especially after the end of the political crisis in Iraq which I hope is followed by political and security stability, which will be felt by all.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will you visit Iraq soon?
[Musa] After the Eid holiday I will resume communications to determine a date for the visit. Particularly after such an agreement on the formation of government, it may take some time before there is an understanding between the different Iraqi forces.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is this significant agenda being implemented by the Arab League during the next phase?
[Musa] The work is connected to several axes: political, economic, youth and women. We have a number of meetings to be held, respectively, and during these meetings I will visit each of Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon, and possibly Yemen, in order to provide full support at this sensitive stage to this country, which has a special status within the Arab and regional community.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you expect Iraqi leaders to go to Mecca, in accordance with the Saudi invitation?
[Musa] After the cabinet is formed, and the disputed topics are addressed, we will see in which direction things are moving. The Saudi initiative was a commendable one, and it is still worthy of communication between Riyadh and all our brothers in Baghdad, for the benefit of everyone.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the risks that currently surround Yemen, after the parcel bombs, and the concerns raised by some that Yemen will transform into the new Afghanistan?
[Musa] I hope that the Afghanistan experience will not reoccur in any Arab country, and I do not think it will be repeated in Yemen, in particular. Yemen is different from Afghanistan, which has suffered from different conditions, numerous coup d’etats, then the Russian occupation and the international war against it. There has also been a religious war, the negative role played by the Taliban, as well as ethnic divisions and sectarianism. This is not the situation in Yemen, and I hope Yemen is able, through a process of national dialogue, addressing the crisis, and comprehensive reconciliation, to quickly achieve a positive result. It is well known that Yemen is suffering a major economic crisis, and needs to be provided with support, in particular Arab support along with international economic support, to assist the country in coping with its economic conditions, and developmental needs.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you have any concerns about Yemen?
[Musa] Of course, but I have serious concerns about risks in the entire Arab world, particularly in hotspots, including Yemen, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and Somalia. The fragility of the situation in these parts, conflicting policies in the region, and overlapping interests, all feed these fears. This necessitates a bold Arab policy, beginning with an assembly of the neighbouring countries, and the enactment of economic and political reforms, and solving the major and fundamental problems that cause tension in the region. It necessitates a sincere Arab contribution, and a bold Arab stance, which is not afraid, hesitant, or confined in the corner of narrow interests.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there specific support being provided by the Arab world to Yemen at this stage?
[Musa] Economic support is required, and I think that the Gulf Cooperation Council is taking the hand of Yemen in a promising way, in addition to political support from all Arab countries. Everyone must be concerned with Yemen, as the Arab country is of central strategic interest to the Arabs, in order for them to be secure and capable.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Lets talk about a specific hotspot in the Arab world, namely Sudan. Do you not see unprecedented support from the United States, in favour of southern secession?
[Musa] The only solution to the problem in Sudan is through a transparent referendum, under effective international observation, ending with a result that reflects the decision and stance of the people of the South, in accordance with their true desires. If this happens, the credibility of matters will improve. It is important that we prepare now for the repercussions of the referendum results. The people of the south are our brothers in all situations, and must remain so, united or separated. Cooperation between the North and the South must continue, and they must proceed with confidence, to maximize their joint interests, and not destroy or neglect this cooperation, whether the result is unity or separation. In the end it’s about the will of the people, be it in the direction of unity or separation. The North and South must not turn their backs on one another if the outcome of the referendum is secession.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you explain the attack on the Egyptian proposal, which spoke of a confederacy, which was criticized especially by Dr. al-Turabi, as well as America?
[Musa] Indeed, the idea of a confederation is important, and should have been one of the options involved in the peace agreement, signed in Naivasha in 2005. There should have been three options, not just unity or separation. Unfortunately this [third] option was not negotiated, and now the political arena, whether in the North or the South, is not ready for it. At this stage it would only provoke tension, so it is best to keep the idea as a possibility, which could be proposed in the near or medium-term future. I hope it will not be ruled out.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What will you say to Sudan during your upcoming visit?
[Musa] I will emphasize the importance of transparency in the referendum, the need to avoid any problems, and ensure that the referendum is on schedule. I will also emphasize that the Sudanese must not to impose conditions, views, stances, or results from foreign powers, but instead from the people…of our people in southern Sudan. We will respect whatever they decide in this context.