Tel Aviv, Asharq Al-Awsat- Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intelligence Dan Meridor has appealled to Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas (Abu-Mazin) not to withdraw from the direct negotiations because of the issue of settlement construction activity.
In An exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat Meridor said that the negotiations are over something that is more important than the settlement activities; they are over the establishment of a Palestinian State that will provide the Palestinian people with stability and put an end to their suffering.
Meridor added that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has introduced a major and fundamental change in the policy of the right-wing camp he leads. He is serious and sincere in his efforts to reach a peace agreement. Meridor says that the failure of the current negotiations would inflict damage not only on Israel, “because they are negotiations aimed at establishing the independent Palestinian State, and their failure does not only delay the establishment of the Palestinian State, but also will lead to the failure of the PLO, and cause the Palestinian national tendency to lose for the benefit of the political Islamic power. This political Islamic power is led from Damascus by Khalid Mishal, who serves the Iranian goals, and who is the only beneficiary of the failure of the negotiations.”
In this context, Meridor rejects the ideas circulating within the Israeli right-wing circles that it is in the interest of Israel for Hamas to control the West Bank, because this would keep Jerusalem and the Al-Ghawr region in the Jordan Rift Valley in the hands of Israel. Meridor says that the interest of Israel is in achieving peace and not in delaying the settlement. He also rejects the idea prevailing in the Arab world that Netanyahu is directing a process whose aim is to push the Palestinian Authority [PA] into positions of rejection so that the United States and the world would accuse it of thwarting the peace negotiations.
The Following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How is it possible to sacrifice the successful efforts that have been exerted to resume the peace negotiations because of the intransigence in the Israeli stance through the resumption of the construction in the settlements?
[Meridor] Let me start from the end. Ultimately we go to the negotiations with the aim of reaching an agreement between the two sides. There are disagreements between us over the fundamental issues. Each side has its viewpoints and stances, which it believes to be correct. This is the right of each side, and it is not natural that one side will be subjugated to the other. There has to be a compromise. Without compromises it will be impossible to reach any agreement. Therefore, both sides ought to abandon unilateral stances, and accept compromises.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But what is the harm in extending the freeze for a few months more?
[Meridor] We have not started the discussions of this issue just today. Ten months ago we froze the construction in the settlements for 10 months, but the Palestinians rejected this decision, and said that it did not include a real freeze; now they want to extend it. Why did they not accept then? Why have they not exploited this period to launch the negotiations? Why have they wasted that time? What is the logic of their behavior?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What compromise are you talking about with regard to the construction in settlements? Is it the proposal you suggested nearly a month ago, which stipulates halting the construction in the settlements in the depth of the West Bank, and resuming the construction in the settlement blocs?
[Meridor] Yes, this is one of the solutions. Some proposed another solution stipulating that there should be an agreement to build a specific number of housing units. The logic dictates that the negotiations over the major issues prevail over the minor issues.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You are talking about the Israeli logic. Why do you not understand the Arab logic that says if your government cannot or does not wish to freeze the settlement activity construction, how will it deal at the negotiations with the establishment of the Palestinian State, the borders, Jerusalem, and the refugees?
[Meridor] You know that this government has introduced a major change when it accepted the principle of two states for two peoples. This has not been easy for us; on the contrary, it needed sharp and major discussions, because it means that we have abandoned historical stances related to the land.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Ehud Olmert has gone there before you?
[Meridor] Olmert and Baraq before him did. We have been negotiating for more than 17 years. However, the Palestinians have never proposed freezing the settlement activity construction as a condition for negotiations. Nevertheless, we are the only government that agreed to this. Why do they not respect this direction of ours? Why have not the Palestinians accepted the compromise I proposed?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will the Israeli Government or its Prime Minister Netanyahu accept your proposal?
[Meridor] No, the government has not taken a decision on this proposal. It is a personal proposal. I submitted it to four or five individuals because of my worry that the negotiations might blow up. These negotiations, as I pointed out, are too important to collapse because of the issue of the settlements. We are talking about negotiations over the establishment of a Palestinian State. The failure of the negotiations will delay the establishment of this state. It might harm all, and not only Israel, but also the PLO. Listen how Khalid Mishal makes speeches from Damascus to serve his masters in Tehran. Mishal is the first beneficiary from the failure of the negotiations. The rigid religious tendency builds its strength at the expense of the national tendency in the Arab world because of these hesitant stances, and because of the clinging to the trivia. The religious tendency wants an Islamic state in which there is no place either for Israel or for the Arab national tendency. Therefore we have to know how to adopt the suitable decisions for the interests of our peoples, and not to leave them an easy prey for the hard-line religious tendency whatever it might be.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The same also applies to Israel?
[Meridor] Yes, but look how the Israeli right-wing has developed, when the direct negotiations stemming from good intentions became available. Menachem Begin offered Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat the entire Sinai, and also offered Al-Sadat a plan for Palestinian autonomy in 1977, when there were no great settlement activities. Imagine if the Palestinians had accepted the offer at the time, where would we be now. Rabin offered Oslo. Olmert offered a generous proposal over the borders, Jerusalem, and the refugees. Here is Netanyahu making offers.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What has Netanyahu offered?
[Meridor] Netanyahu has agreed to the principle of two states for the two peoples, which is contrary to the concepts of his camp. Netanyahu initiated the freezing of the settlement construction activity. He removed many military barriers; the Palestinians themselves testify that this has contributed to the improvement of their life and economy. He has taken a number of important steps forward. It is a test which he really passed. Now it is the turn of the Palestinians. We do not ask them for anything extraordinary; we merely ask them to continue with the negotiations, because the negotiations are the foundations without which nothing will be achieved.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you not have anything that consolidates the hope for salvaging the negotiations? The Arabs have exerted huge efforts until they have gone to the negotiations, and despite the Israeli stance that ignores it, the Arab world still insists on the Arab peace initiative?
[Meridor] The hope should stem from both sides, and not just from one side. You know the magnitude of the problems and conflicts that were triggered, and still are being triggered within our right-wing camp as a result of Netanyahu’s steps . As for the Arab peace initiative, we respect and appreciate it very much. I consider it as a major and significant change in the Arab stances. My only reproach is that it changed at the Beirut summit, as they added to it Resolution 194, which stipulates the right to return.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The change was accompanied with an article that stipulates that the resolution to the issue of the refugees should be through agreement between the two sides. What is the objection to this?
[Meridor] Everything is through agreement. This is clear. However, this does not mean that they understand our demands about the issue of the refugees.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Your stance does not indicate understanding of the issue of the refugees, not to mention the suffering of the refugees?
[Meridor] I sympathize with the pains of the Palestinian refugees; they are human beings, and they are suffering. Their issue should be resolved. However, we should not forget that Israel is not the only one responsible and not even the main responsible for their tragedy.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How is that?
[Meridor] In 1947 the United Nations issued a resolution known as the partition resolution. Had the Arabs agreed to it, there would not have been a refugee issue; moreover, the Arabs and Jews today would have been living in two neighboring countries. At that time, the Arabs opted for war. They were defeated. Rather than leaning toward peace, the Arabs waged a war aimed at annihilating Israel. This is how the issue of the refugees began. I remember the article written by Thomas Friedman in 2000 commenting on the Camp David conference. In his article he opted to write a fictitious letter to US President Bill Clinton in which Friedman said that Clinton could ask anything he wants from Baraq, but he should not approach the issue of the return of the refugees, because this would be more than Israel could bear.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] This is the principle of imposing a fait accompli. According to this logic, the Palestinians have to accept everything that Israel has imposed on the ground?
[Meridor] No, my logic says that each side presents what it has at the negotiations. The negotiations’ aim is to reach compromises. There is an opportunity here, namely that Israel has a strong and concerned government, in the United States there is strong and concerned will, and the PA has a serious and concerned leadership. I have known Abu-Mazin (Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas) for many years. He has visited me and my house, we met dozens of times, and I have spent with him long hours in Camp David and other places. I cannot say that he is not serious or not concerned. The same applies to his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. What I am saying is that we ought not to waste the opportunity. I am very worried about the course of the negotiations until today. We have tried with Arafat. The Oslo Accord was blown away. Camp David failed. After Baraq offered major concessions, the Palestinians replied by armed intifadah. After Sharon withdrew from Gaza Strip, and evicted and demolished the settlements, they replied by firing thousands of rockets at our southern towns. Olmert was on the verge of reaching an agreement with the PA, but they retreated at the last moment. Today, they raise Cain over the issue of the settlement activities. All this worries me, and arouses questions about the seriousness of the Palestinian stance.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Through your precise knowledge of the developments, your participation in the seven-man ministerial committee, and being very close to Netanyahu, can you say that there is hope in salvaging the negotiations, or are you pessimistic?
[Meridor] I hope that the negotiations will be salvaged.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Leave the hope aside. I am asking about the climate in Netanyahu’s office, and you do understand my question well?
[Meridor] The question is clear. The fact is that I do not know the answer. What I know is that huge efforts are being exerted in Washington, New York, Jerusalem, an d Ramallah to overcome the problems, and to protect the continuation of the negotiations. I hope that these efforts will succeed.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are two ideas that are circulating, one in the Arab street, and another in the Jewish street. I would like to hear your opinion of them. The first: Many in the Arab world are convinced that Netanyahu is not sincere about the peace process, all his concern is to impose provocative conditions and statements on the Palestinians so that they would withdraw from the negotiations, and hence he would accuse them of being responsible for the failure of these negotiations?
[Meridor] I know this claim, and there are those who repeat it in Israel. However, I stress to you, through knowledge and not guessing, that the man is sincere and serious. I call on the Arabs to try him. Leave aside the issue of the settlement activities, and try him in the major issues. He wants to reach an agreement with Abbas. I call on Abbas to go through the experiment, and this effort will not be in vain.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The second idea is promoted by the Israeli orientalist Jau Bikur, and recently others are promoting it. The idea stipulates that Israel should abandon Abbas and the PA because Hamas is better [for Israel]. It says that the failure of the negotiations will lead to a victory for Hamas in the West Bank, and this will be good. This is because with such a rule by Hamas, Israel keeps Jerusalem and the Jordan Rift Valley, and if Hamas raises its head, Israel can address a blow to it as it did in Gaza Strip. What do you think of this?
[Meridor] The only partner for Israel in the peace process is the PA, Palestinian President Abbas, and his Prime Minister Fayyad, and not Hamas. Hamas is an organization that is hostile to Israel, and wants to build an Islamic state in the Middle East and in the world in which there is no place for the State of Israel, and perhaps also for others. Relying on Hamas is neither beneficial nor feasible. Hamas is a tool for wars that know how to start, but not how to end. Hamas is establishing a Taliban state for religious coercion, a state of poverty and suffering, as we currently see in Gaza. This does not help Israel in any way. Therefore, the proposal of Bikur or others adds more problems to the existing ones. We want a Palestinian leadership that cooperates with us in putting an end to the conflict, and not a leadership that delays or immortalizes the conflict. We want economic and scientific cooperation, and good neighborliness.