Inter-Palestinian tensions are moving peace in the Middle East even further away. Will Israel and Palestine be locked in conflict forever? We asked Mohammed Ishtayeh, adviser to President Mahmoud Abbas.
SS: So, United States Vice-President Mike Pence has said that the Warsaw summit marked the beginning of “the new era”, with Benjamin Netanyahu breaking bread with the Arab leaders. Do you feel sort of betrayed by your Arab friends here?
MI: Well, look, the governing factor between us and the Arab countries is the Arab Peace Initiative. The Arab Peace Initiative is the guiding lines for the Arab-Israeli relations, which explicitly states that Israel should withdraw from occupied territories in return for Arabs normalizing relations with Israel. This has not happened, and therefore I think that Arabs should not betray not us, should not betray the Arab Peace Initiative. The Saudis were solid about it, Kuwait was solid about it, many Arab countries who didn’t attend, and those who attended, they said explicitly that this is not going to be at the expense of Palestine, this is handling other issues. For us, very simple. We said that we’re not going to go, we were hoping that Arab countries should not attend, but each of the Arab countries was actually basing its calculation on its personal interests within the regional context. But by all means, this is not the way to handle the Middle East issues, the way to handle it is that the Arab Peace Initiative is the guiding lines for everybody.
SS : The Palestinian leadership has no trust in US as fair mediators in the Middle-East peace process anymore. Now, Trump is promising to roll out the Middle-Eastern ‘deal of the century’ in April. What are your expectations of this deal?
MI: First of all, there will be no deal, because a deal needs a partner. The Palestinians are not partners to what President Trump is initiating, one. Secondly, this deal is going to be born dead, because we know the content of the deal that only talks about a state in Gaza, that doesn’t refer to 67 borders, that doesn’t refer to Jerusalem as occupied territory, that doesn’t deal with the Palestinian refugees, that moves the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the American embassy. That is using blackmail technique and methodology to try to push the Palestinians to surrender and to accept the peace initiative or the Trump ideas. That is not going to happen! So for us, we have spoken loud and clear, our voice was loud and clear, our President has explicitly stated that we are no going to be party to this deal, and until now, the United States has not found any partner, not in Europe, and not in the Arab countries.
SS : Ok, I see your point. But there are speculations in the press that the deal may include Washington’s recognition of East Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital. If that happens, will you trust the US with the mediator role again?
MI: Well, look, for us, it is very explicit that we need an international conference that is based on international law. The main issue for us is to respect the international law, to respect the United Nations resolutions, that is one. Secondly, our President has called for international conference. Thirdly, United States has always proven to be a biased broker, and fourth important issue, that what is needed from the United States is to build confidence with the Palestinians before United states is submitting its ideas. Confidence building measures, it means that they have to reconsider Jerusalem as capital of Israel, they have to go back on this issue, they have to open the Washington PLO office and to resume funding for UNRWA as well as other international organisations. So the Palestinians are waiting for confidence building measures from Washington. I know, we know, that is not going happen, that is not going to happen, therefore, we have said explicitly that we don’t consider Washinington as an honest broker, Washington is biased, it is not objective mediator, it is not an honest point.
SS : I see your point, yes, you started by saying this. Ok, so the United States has criticised Palestine many times for stalling the peace talks. Palestine’s chief negotiator Saeb Erekat says there have been 40 meetings with the US representatives in 2017 alone. Why do the Americans have an impression then that Palestinians are not interested in peace, are Palestinians actually stalling at all those meetings?
MI: I mean, this is very unfair accusations. We have been in this peace process since October 30th 1991, since Madrid conference. The peace process that we have engaged in, it was up and down, and all the time, we’re engaged. We had meetings, three meetings with President Obama, 47 meetings with John Kerry, we were engaging with President Clinton, we were engaging with President Bush the son, and the father, and so on and so forth. On the contrary, Palestinians, they never shunned away their faces from any serious negotiations. And now, they are accusing us of staying away from the negotiations table at a time when they are dictating the shots! The United States is taking unilateral measures against things that have been agreed between us and the Israelis. Let me give you an example: Jerusalem is a negotiation issue between us and Israel with the signature of the Israelis, the Israelis accepted that Jerusalem is a negotiation issue. The Israelis have accepted that refugees are a negotiation issue. The Israelis have accepted that 67 border is on the table, so the Israelis, us and the Israelis, they have accepted all of these things, and now, President Trump is saying that Jerusalem is off the table, the refugees are off the table, no reference to 67 borders, settlements are there to stay… They are taking positions even far ahead than the very right-wing government in Israel. So therefore, it is not we who are staying away from the table, it is United States that is, that wants the Palestinians to surrender, and that wants the Palestinians to only sign the deal which will not happen.
SS : Ok, so your President, President Abbas called for establishing a multilateral mechanism for reconciliation – this time, not led by the US. However, it didn’t look like Europe was too excited about a concerted effort in mediation. Why, do you think? I mean, can Palestine hope to get more traction for this idea?
MI: Yes. Simply yes. Because in Annapolis conference, 2003, it was agreed that the international conference should take place in Moscow. It didn’t happen. The French tried to have an international conference, the United States attended, John Kerry was there, but Netanyahu didn’t come, the Israelis didn’t come. Now, for us, the most important side of the story is that the international conference that President Abbas has spoken about is there on the table. There are some European countries who are saying: let’s wait for Trump initiative, the moment it is dead, then we will make the other move. And I think there are certain European countries that are really preparing some ideas to call it the post-Trump failure ideas that might emerge from Europe. And here, I call upon the Russian Federation to really take the lead on this issue with China, with some European countries, because we have to have a fallback position the moment the Trump initiative is declared dead. And it will be born dead, and therefore I think that the international community will not leave any political vacuum after this.
SS : So Palestine has long insisted on a two-state solution, but in September 2018, President Abbas reportedly brought up the idea of a tripartite confederation with Palestine, Israel and Jordan. Is this a sign of things to come, of the direction that the debate is about to take? Is it time to look for outside the box solutions?
MI: Israel is systematically destroying the possibility of a Palestinian state, which means systematically destroying the two-state solution, which does enjoy an international consensus, one. Secondly, it is the state of Israel that is pushing things into a total deterioration. What does it mean? The Palestinians and israelis, and Palestinian Muslims and Christians, there are now about 6.6 million Palestinians. And there are about 6.5 million Jews in historical Palestine. Next year, 2020, the Palestinians will be 51.6% of the total population of Palestine. So either today Israel will accept the idea of a two-state solution, with the Palestinian state on the borders of the 67, with Jerusalem as its capital, or we are going to be slipping, I underline, slipping into a one-state reality, I underline, reality, which means that we will be living in a de-facto one-state situation. Therefore, Israel will find itself neither Jewish, as they claim, nor democratic, as they claim. And therefore, what does this mean? It means that Israel will become by de-facto apartheid state, and by de-jure, an apartheid state, simply because Israel now is legislating, let me finish this point, Israel is legislating an apartheid laws that does not give the Palestinians the right to self-determination in their own territory and give the Jews all over the world the right of return to Palestine, and so on, and so forth. So this is where we’re heading.
SS : Benjamin Netanyahu is a hard line leader, whose base is to the right of centre, among the conservative, more militant Israelis. Do you think the ideology that his appeal rests on will let him actually give something up to Palestinians? Will his voters and ministers and army general friends allow him to do it?
MI: No. The issue is not whether they will allow him or not, the issue is that he himself is not ready to give anything. And he is not giving! This is our right, this is our territory that is occupied. Netanyahu has been given a chance. In 2010, he had meetings with our President, the State Department in the presence of Secretary Hillary Clinton, and he had meetings with our President in Sharm el Sheikh in the presence of Hosni Mubarak. And then, he had the third meeting with our President at his house in West Jerusalem. So all in all, he had all the opportunity to really proceed and make progress with peace, he never did. And I think Netanyahu is an ideologist, and he is a reflection of a right-wing society that is breeding a very right-wing government, and there is no partner in Israel for us with the presence of Mr. Netanyahu.
SS : So do you think Palestine should just wait for a change of leadership before any peace hopes can be realised?
MI: Not necessarily, because we don’t have to wait for somebody who’s going to be a de Klerk in South Africa. I think the international community should put pressure on Israel to move, we should not wait for an occupier to end its occupation. There has to be a serious international pressure in order for Netanyahu to submit to the international will that this occupation should end, and it cannot continue. And mechanisms to do pressure is economic, political, and there are so many means in which the international community has put apartheid system in South Africa on its knees, and it was ended with international pressure. Netanyahu should face the same thing.
SS : Talks between Fatah, Hamas and other Palestinian factions brought no tangible results in bringing all sides to consensus. Can any agreement be reached with Israel while there’s no unity in the Palestinian ranks?
MI: Well, the issue is not really related to unity, because the split among Palestinians has been there since 2007. So what about the situation in which there was no split, between 1993 and 2007, there was no split, and there was no progress! And so, therefore, I don’t think that… Of course, the split does harm the Palestinian cause, and people will come and claim, look, you know, Palestinians are divided, with whom are we going to talk? But the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the PLO, is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, whether in Gaza, in the West Bank, in diaspora – everywhere. And Abu Mazen, our President, he talks on behalf of the PLO with Israel, and all the agreements have been signed with the PLO. So if the Israelis are ready for peace, we are ready. The problem is that they find justification and excuses for really not ending the occupation that has occurred on our territory in 1967.
SS : Mahmoud Abbas has been tightening screws on Gaza, cutting salaries to former government workers in the Strip and slashing funds for electricity supplied from Israel to Gaza. Netanyahu has even accused Abbas of “choking” Gaza. I understand that his measures are aimed at pressuring Hamas to disarm, but people’s support for the group is as strong as ever. Does this mean Mahmoud Abbas’s measures are ineffective?
MI: It’s very unfair to say that the Palestinian Authority is actually putting all these sort of things. The real fact is that it is Israel who is putting Gaza under siege. It is Israel that has been, since 2007 until today, that has been really closing off Gaza fully and totally. There is no movement of people. If Israel is going to allow Palestinians out of the Gaza Strip, even to come to the West Bank, we welcome that! If Israel is going to allow trade between the West Bank and Gaza – we want that! The Palestinians in Gaza are our people. There are certain measures that have been taken, and now these measures are reversed, salaries have gone from 50% to 75%, and now it’s going to be a totally different story. So we should not really shift focus from who is putting Gaza under siege, it is the Israeli measures that have been there since 2007. And all Gaza is sieged! The Palestinian Authority is not really encircling Gaza or putting Gaza under siege, because at the end of the day we know: the conflict with Hamas is political, we will not put measures that is going to cause harm to our people. These are our people, collective punishment is not something that we do. We, of course, we want reconciliation to happen, because the split is not in our favour, and we try… The only way for us to end this split is by dialogue and by agreement. Unfortunately, many agreement that have been signed, it has not been yielding, simply because of regional factors and regional players who don’t want to see this Palestinian unity happening, including Israel.
SS : Senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Zahar has accused people linked to Fatah of trying to drag Gaza into another war with Israel by firing rockets from the Strip. How can you respond to these accusations?
MI: Look, I mean, Hamas is in full control in all of Gaza, and Fatah has not armed in Gaza. Hamas is responsible for the security situation in Gaza. This is something which is ridiculous, because when the Palestinian Authority was in Gaza, these people, they were firing rockets on Israel and saying that this was in the name of resistance! Why is it now that if somebody else is throwing rockets at Israel, it becomes trying to put Israel and Hamas and Gaza into conflict? This is really something not understandable, and it is not correct. The most important thing is not who is going to push Gaza, the people in Gaza are our people. We want this conflict to end, we want this split to end, and therefore, there is only one way out of this misery of Gaza, which is the Palestinian unity, one authority, one man, one machine gun, one law. And that’s the only way out. If not, then we go to elections! We have said: if our model for reconciliation is not acceptable to Hamas, and if Hamas’s model of reconciliation is not acceptable to us, then let’s go to the people! Let’s refer the whole issue to the people, let the Palestinian people decide through elections, and decide who is going to run the affairs of the Palestinian people! We are ready for that, we are ready for elections, and we are ready to go tomorrow for elections, the moment Israel allows us to have elections in Jerusalem, and Hamas allows us to have elections in the Gaza Strip.
SS : So won’t those moves only make things worse? I mean, the logical question here is how can Fatah hope to gain any foothold in Gaza if it’s willing to treat its residents this way? I mean, according to the December poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, if snap elections were to be held, Hamas leader would have left President Abbas way behind…
MI: Well look, I mean, opinion polls… We know what opinion polls are about. It does show that Fatah is in the lead. It does show, all the opinion polls that I consult, and see, and so on, I am on board of this organisation that you are referring to, and at the end of the day, as I said, the issue is not about opinion polls. The issue is that if there’s a will, there’s a way. We want elections to take place, we are also asking European capitals to put pressure on Israel to allow us to have elections in Jerusalem, and I hope that the issue with Hamas will be settled, and that Hamas would really come to the ground and accept the idea of going to elections very soon.
SS: So according to some reports flowing in after the US-led conference in Warsaw, under Trump’s so-called deal of the century, the Gulf states would bear the brunt of the costs of Gaza’s restoration. Would you welcome their involvement? Would Hamas welcome them, given how close it wants to become with Iran now?
MI: Any assistance for Gaza is welcome by us as long as it goes through the legitimate leadership of the Palestinian people, of the Palestinian Authority. As long as it goes through the official channels, we welcome that, because, at the end of the day, as I said earlier, these people are our people, but if this assistance is going to be enclaved with a political umbrella, with hidden agendas for certain countries, then it’s a totally different story. Then it becomes a manifestation of the split rather than really helping the reconciliation.
SS : You know, a recent report by the Middle East Media Research Institute says the relations between the two Palestinian parties are now at the point, quote, where each side is saying that the other no longer represents the Palestinian people. That’s a direct quote. How do Palestinians feel about this, in your opinion, do they feel represented by any of the parties at the table? Can the whole affair result in an intifada against Hamas
MI: Well, the testing field for this assumption is the opinion polls, is the ballot boxes. So instead of claiming this and that, I think that we challenge Hamas to accept the idea of elections. We are ready for it, we are ready to go to that, and we will bring democracy back into action for the Palestinian political arena, which is very important to us to really keep this sort of embryonic democracy that we started with, it should not die down, one. The second important issue is that these sort of claims, claim and counterclaim, it does harm Palestine, it doesn’t really help Hamas, it doesn’t help anybody to say that, you know, this government is legitimate, this government is not legitimate. At the end of the day, the international community will say: to hell with both of them! And we should avoid that, and I think we should be responsible and say that this split is harming our people. The way out, to reconciliation, is not to discredit each other on this issue. But we know also that there is a legitimate leadership. President Abbas has been elected by the people. The PLO, which President Abbas is also the chairman of, is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, which is recognized by all Palestinians, which is recognized by all Arab countries, which is recognized by the international community and the United Nations! So if there is a split in the authority, there is a unity in the PLO.
SS: Alright, thank you very much for this interview. We were talking to Mohammed Ishtayeh, adviser to President Mahmoud Abbas, discussing tensions between Israel and Palestine and ways to defuse them.
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