Asharq Al-Awsat, Amman – In this in-depth interview, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas talks to Asharq Al-Awsat on a range of issues including the recent inter-Palestinian talks held in Cairo, Hamas, the Israeli blockade, the Bush administration and the future of the Arab-Israeli peace process.
Q) Let us begin with the inter-Palestinian talks in Cairo; did Hamas boycott the talks because some of its members were imprisoned in the West Bank?
A) No. The prisoners are not the reason. There were a number of reasons including where Khaled Meshal (leader of the Hamas politico-bureau) was due to sit as he was adamant that he should sit on a platform, and also because he objected to my departure from the summit after delivering the opening speech.
The Arab foreign ministers went back on their word one hundred per cent in condemning those who stand in the way of inter-Palestinian dialogue…but never mind. Even though in their statement they did say that they supported my work, and condemned any obstructions to the 9 November talks, they did so without actually condemning Hamas. As I said before I do not want to fight [I just want achieve the end result peacefully]. I asked [Saeb] Erakat not to delay because in the end, we want dialogue.
Q) Hamas continuously claims that you have fallen under American and Israeli influence and you respond by stating that foreign parties pressure Hamas. What is your comment in this regard?
A) We have been accused of falling under the sphere of American and Israeli influence but I can give you an example [to refute this]. If I succumb to such influence would I have called for legislative elections even though everybody opposed this? I said that democracy must continue. When the electoral commission announced the victory of Ismail Haniyeh and called for him to form a government, after constitutional talks and other factions refused to join them, they formed a government themselves. At that point, I advised them saying that the government cannot continue unless it complies with the presidential position, as it is [meant] to assist the president in implementing his program. But they refused and what happened, happened.
Later, in Mecca we formed a national unity government, of which both America and Israel did not approve and Israel imposed a blockade against us. Despite all this, I insisted on this unity government and promoted it. The proof of this is that during the Arab summit in Riyadh, I introduced Ismail Haniyeh to officials who were boycotting Hamas and even to the Secretary General of the United Nations, saying that this is our Prime Minister and you must work with him.
When most of the countries refused to provide financial assistance to the government I sought advice from the Secretary General [of the Arab League] as to what to do, and in the end I requested that the Secretary General transfer this aid to my account then I would phone Samir Abu Aisha the Finance Minister of the unity government and tell him here is the money, collect from the account of so-and-so. In other words I was sidestepping the blockade.
[Another example is] When the Arab Summit in Damascus came around, half of the Arab countries refused to attend for their own reasons. I was put under pressure not to attend even the day before the summit. [US Vice President] Dick Cheney was visiting me at the time and he asked me not to take part in the summit but I decided to attend anyway. He said to me, ‘You will upset us and others [if you do]’ but I replied that I had no choice but to take part.
Moreover, during the UN meetings in New York, it appeared that the US pressured some other parties not to take part in the meetings. They said to the Americans, ‘But Mahmoud Abbas is in New York,’ and I received 23 phone calls trying to convince me not to attend (last September) so that other Arabs would not attend…but I attended anyway. Therefore, you can see that I do not give in to pressure. It is Hamas that receives orders by telephone to do this or not to do that.
Q) Who is it that gives Hamas its orders?
A) I do not want to name names.
Q) Hamas is convinced that there can be no serious dialogue before the end of George W. Bush’s presidency. This is what [Hamas member] Mohamed Nazal told Asharq Al-Awsat. What is your opinion regarding this statement?
A) They are under the impression that President-elect Barack Obama might be better than Bush on the sole basis that his father’s name is Hussein. In my opinion, this is nonsense. He who wants dialogue does not wait for Obama or John McCain or anybody else.
Q) Let us talk about the issue of elections. There are those who say that your election as president of the Palestinian State was unconstitutional and is an attempt to avoid the forthcoming presidential elections, especially that you refused this position after the death of former president Yasser Arafat. This is the view shared by Farouk Kaddoumi, Secretary General of Fatah’s Central Committee and PLO political department.
A) I accepted the position because as president, I cannot leave a vacuum. To those people I would say come and let us agree to hold elections.
Q) I am talking about the presidency of the state, not the PLO. You rejected this position in the past so why have you chosen to accept it now when this election is considered unconstitutional by some?
A) When the state of Palestine was announced during the National Congress in Algeria in 1988, Yasser Arafat was elected as president at the beginning of 1989 during a session by the Central Council.
Q) But the problem is that you refused the position at the time, which has raised some doubts…
A) I did not dismiss it and I did not accept it at the time; I said that it was possible to discuss it at a later stage.
Q) Is it within your capability to hold legislative or presidential elections without Hamas?
A) I say let us come to an agreement on [solving] this issue.
Q) What if it is too difficult to come to such an agreement?
A) I do not wish to hypothesise. Arab foreign ministers have said that there must be dialogue. The situation cannot remain the same forever.
Q) With regards to elections, is it possible that the people of the Gaza Strip would be able to stand in the elections but not to vote, similar to what happened in Jordan’s first elections following the Israeli occupation of the West Bank?
A) I do not want to think about that
Q) But in light of the current political developments, do you see the Gaza Strip as a rogue district in the same way that some close to you do?
A) Again, the right time will come for this issue and it will be studied within the institutions. We will refer to the Central Council and tell them [officials] that there are rebels controlling the Gaza strip and ask them their opinion on this matter. We will abide by the decision of the Council.
Q) Let us talk about the endless Israeli-Palestinian negotiations…
A) I must clarify that negotiations did not begin until November 2007 following the Annapolis Summit.
There were no negotiations between 2000 and 2007 until the Annapolis Summit as the Intifada was taking place and ties had been cut between the two sides. We should not hold ourselves responsible for these seven years [of no negotiations].
As for the negotiations that have taken place over the past twelve months, all issues have been discussed without exception. There is a big gap between the two positions. The Americans do not have to bridge the gap; we have asked them to observe. President Bush has recently said that no effort had been spared in this regard, and that we made an effort but we did not achieve what we aspired to achieve. We are sorry for this and we hope to accomplish the dream of a Palestinian state in the new era.
Q) Could you tell us about your recent meeting with President Bush?
A) Some people say that we should reach a declaration of principles or a temporary arrangement, and our response to this is that we cannot agree on anything until we have agreed on everything. This is what we have agreed upon with the Israelis…I will not do what Hamas has done and agree on temporary solutions. Delaying the issues of Jerusalem and the refugees for 25 years…this means destroying your cause forever. Firstly, I want to solve the six issues: Jerusalem, the borders, security, water, settlements, and the prisoners. We must solve these issues first and agree upon them…then we can say we have reached a solution.
Q) Have you reached any undeclared understanding in your meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with regards to the 1967 borders for example?
A) Up until two or three months ago, the Israelis did not recognize the 1967 borders, especially with regards to the West Bank until [US Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice came along and said that the 1967 borders include the West Bank, that is the Jordan River, the Dead Sea, and the buffer zones (no man’s land). This is the first step. The second step is the borders and we have not agreed on them. They are offering one thing, and we’re offering another.
Q) There have been leaks suggesting that [Israeli Vice-Premier] Haim Ramon and Olmert are working to reach a declaration of principles before Olmert leaves office?
A) We reject a declaration of principles just as we reject temporary solutions…as long as there is no agreement on all issues then we cannot move forward.
Q) How do you see the future of these negotiations after Olmert leaves office especially that he will probably be replaced by Tzipi Livni (Kadima) or Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud)? Can there be a future for negotiations with either of them?
A) Yes…we can negotiate with either of them. We must deal with the Israeli Prime Minister no matter what happens. Olmert, who is accused of many things, occupies the position of the Prime Minister. So long as he occupies this post, we will meet with him regularly. In the same way, we will deal with the new Israeli Prime Minister whether it is Livni or Netanyahu. I was asked who I preferred out of Obama and McCain and my answer was always the same; no matter who wins we will work with him.
Q) Was your objection to the Right to Return Conference in Damascus linked to the hostility between yourself and Farouk Kaddoumi?
A) We were against this summit and our position was very clear. The sole purpose of this summit was to eliminate the PLO. Unfortunately, Hamas has come to do what successive Israeli governments failed to do. Secondly, someone like Ahmed Jibreel (Secretary General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command) said in 1983 that he would work to destroy this camp i.e. the PLO, and Jibreel and others still think like this.
Q) Let us move on to the Israeli blockade…
A) Yes, the blockade that I am accused of supporting…
Q) Yes, there are some people who accuse you of participating in this blockade by refusing to open the Rafah Crossing. What is your response to this charge?
A) From the start of the blockade on the Gaza Strip, we were the first to call for calm, and today we still call for calm. Secondly with regards to our annual budget, 58 percent is allocated to the Gaza Strip, including the salaries of 77,000 citizens. Recently, a leading figure in Hamas said on Aljazeera [television channel] that Israel prevented 240 million Shekels of government money from entering Gaza. We say to them that there are the Kerem Shalom, Karni, Erez, and Sofer crossings as well. We are working towards opening them and keeping them open. As for the Rafah crossing, we will try to open it after reaching an agreement with all parties. In response they say that either the Rafah crossing is opened or all crossings remain closed. For instance, this is what happened with regards to the Hajj pilgrims…their logic is that either we go to Hajj without visas or nobody will go anywhere even if they do have a visa.
Q) What is the truth behind the issue of the Hajj pilgrims? There were claims that the government chose who visas would be given to, excluding members of the Hamas movement.
A) The Saudi government deals with one authority only…we conducted a draw for the selection of Hajj pilgrims and the Gaza allocation stood at 3221 in addition to another 200 to be given to administration [figures]. They were selected at random regardless of their affiliations, and all necessary procedures were taken for their journey. But Hamas said either our group is going to go with them or nobody will go at all. They actually prevented the pilgrims from leaving, and this has only happened twice before in the history of Islam; once when the Quraish prevented Prophet Mohammed, may God’s peace and blessings be upon him, and once by the Qarmatians. This third occasion was at the hands of modern-day Qarmatians in Gaza.
Q) What do you think about the boats that broke the Israeli-imposed blockade to reach Gaza?
A) This is a ridiculous game. The boats leave the port of Larnaca in Cyprus; this is true. Firstly, the Israeli embassy takes the passports of all passengers to ensure their identity, and then they examine what kind of aid is on the boat. Secondly, a section of the Israeli navy blocks the route of these boats and checks the passengers and the cargo before it allows them to continue their trip to Gaza…so how are they breaking the Israeli-imposed blockade? Some states said that they would send ships…where are these ships? This is continuous, false, cheap publicity. All boats that arrive from Laranca have been approved.
Q) Let us move on to the US government. Are you frustrated that the Bush administration failed to fulfil its pledge to establish a Palestinian state?
A) Of course there is the feeling of frustration. We hoped that we would reach an agreement and solve the problem. Do you think we’re happy that our people are suffering? Are we happy with the situation that we are in? Are we happy with the continuous aggression in Hebron? No, we are not happy but does this mean that we will accept any solution? Of course not. If there is a solution that I, and the leadership, and the people as a whole, are convinced of, then we will accept it. But there is not one. I agreed to the Oslo Accords and at the time, they said that it was a secret agreement, but it was not, the agreement was public, but the negotiations that led to it were secret. The agreement was presented to Fatah’s Central Committee and the PLO’s Executive Committee as well as Fatah’s Revolutionary Council and the PLO’s Central Committee. They agreed to it.
Q) Why is there no peace agreement today in your opinion?
A) Because the two parties do not agree…
Q) What are Bush’s justifications for failing to reach a peace agreement? Did he put in the required effort or was there a failing on his part in not putting enough pressure on Israel?
A) There is no doubt that President Bush spared no effort, as did the [Middle East] Quartet, and especially Condoleezza Rice who I thanked on two occasions for her focus and attention, once when she visited me and once at the Quartet meeting. I cannot hold President Bush responsible for the failure…he did not fail, nor did his administration or the Quartet. The problem was simply that we could not reach an agreement.
Q) Condoleezza Rice recently revealed that it was the internal political situation in Israel that prevented an agreement from being reached.
A) That was said, yes. The internal [political] situation in Israel is what caused obstructions. When a Prime Minister is the subject of an investigation and is being forced to resign, and then is being asked to stay at home, how can he work and how are we supposed to work with him? I am not saying that he is the reason for this; rather the internal situation in Israel is the reason.
Q) Do you hope to achieve in 2009 what you failed to achieve in 2008?
A) Barack Obama promised twice – once when he was campaigning [for the Democratic candidacy for the US presidential election] and once as part of his program – that the peace process would be one of his main priorities. He said that he would not delay the peace process in the Middle East as the case has been and that it would begin immediately. When we spoke (after the elections) he said, ‘I am still committed to what I said to you’.
Q) Do you think the appointment of Hilary Clinton as US Secretary of State will give you more hope in reaching a peace agreement?
A) Firstly, Hilary Clinton is close to the Palestinian issue. She was First Lady in the White House for eight years, she knew about everything. Then she became a member of the Senate. She is not new to the politics of the Middle East.