‘We Are Open to All Possibilities’
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas spoke with The Wall Street Journal’s Charles Levinson at the Palestinian Authority embassy in Amman, Jordan, on Dec. 20. Read a transcript of the interview.
A recent opinion poll shows that 57% of Palestinians support you over Hamas, which got just 37% support, a big change over polls from just two months ago. The Fatah and PLO leaderships have similarly asked you to remain in office. So can you start by explaining why you decided not to run for reeelection?
The decision I took had a number of reasons. The main reason is the stopping of the peace process and [Benjamin] Netanyahu’s refusal to stop the settlements according to the road map and his refusal to recognize UN resolutions 242 and 338 as the framework of the negotiations. That is what was agreed in the road map. We negoatiated with [Ehud] Olmert on this basis under the supervision of the Americans. Then Netanyahu came and rejected all this, even though the American government, as we heard from [Barack] Obama himself, said that Israel must stop all its building in the settlements including natural growth. The moratorium on settlements Netanyahu did exempts Jerusalem, and 3,000 residential units and public buildings. So for this reason we felt the horizon for the political process that we promised our people wasn’t there.
There are also other reasons connected to the Palestinian reconciliation efforts. We signed this agreement and everybody agreed and then Hamas reneged on its agreement. They then asked to have the signing in Damascus, meaning Hamas was not against the contents of the agreement but it just wants to change the place of the signing from Egypt to Damascus, which we refused. The Goldstone issue I consider secondary, but it is also among the important issues. We felt there was an unjust campaign against us and the Palestinian Authority without any justification. For that I decided that I will not run in the elections. We are waiting for the new elections and someone other than me will run.
Who do you want to run after you? The same poll showed that Marwan Barghouti enjoyed the support of 67% of Palestinians. Do you think Marwan could be a good leader of the Palestinian people or would you prefer to see someone else succeed you?
I don’t have a candidate. It’s not for me to tell the Palestinian people to elect a specific person. It’s for the Palestinian people to decide. If Marwan runs, he is a man who has a good reputation and a good history of resistance, and it’s not out of the question that he will run. But the matter is in the hands of the voters, not in my hand, and the door is open for anyone to run. I don’t have a candidate.
It appears Mr. Netanyahu has not accepted your conditions for resuming direct negotiations. As long as there are no talks, then what is your strategy for advancing the Palestinians toward statehood?
First, let me say that these aren’t preconditions. We don’t have conditions to go to negotiations. There is a road map binding on all and that all agreed to. There are obligations to Israel and obligations for the Palestinians. There is a part [of the road map] that talks about an independent Palestinian state and ending the occupation of ’67. The Arab peace initiative also became a main part of the road map. It calls on Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian territories and 57 Arab and Islamic countries will normalize relations with Israel.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu says ‘I call on Abbas to negotiate, but he has to understand that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel, that’s not up for discussion. The refugees — there will be no talk about them at all. He has to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.’ So who is putting conditions. I’m not putting them. He is putting conditions. Now the ball is in the international community’s court and specifically in America’s court. It should see how Europe addressed the problem. Europe stressed that the Palestinians’ lands of 1967 are occupied lands, and east Jerusalem is occupied and at Annapolis all the states participating without exception called for stopping the expansion of settlements. The international community supports our position, and so it’s up to them to move to apply international law and not to take a position just to take a position.
So are you just waiting for the international community to step in and solve the problem for you or do you have your own strategy?
We have experience of direct negotiations with Israel. We had direct negotiations with Israel in January 1993, leading to the Oslo Agreement. Not a single other country had anything to do with that, not America, Russia, Europe or others. The Israeli administration at that time led by Yitzhak Rabin desired peace. If I see that Netanyahu is interested in peace, I would have no problem negotiating with him. The negotiations with Olmert were all direct between him and me. The Americans didn’t get involved. I am not against direct negotiations, but on what basis do we go to negotiations. I am not putting conditions.
So as long as you’re not negotiating for a Palestinian state, what is your plan?
Today it’s very important to understand the relations between us and the Israelis are continuing with all the arms of the Israeli government without exception, defense, security, water, health. With all the ministries, without exception, the contacts are ongoing. The only thing that isn’t continuing are the political negotiations. We are now waiting for what is the American position. [George] Mitchell will come in the beginning of next month and we will see what will happen. We are waiting for the Quartet meeting in Moscow and we will see what comes out of that. There is political movement, but the results of this haven’t yet come out.
We are open to all possibilities. Any party that wants to play a role in the peace process we are willing to hear them out. And then we’ll decide. But we want someone to move. When the Americans talk about indirect negotiations between us and the Israelis, we want to know what it is they mean exactly. I’ve heard this talk about indirect negotations, but until I hear something concrete from the American side, I can’t judge.
You have criticized the Obama administration’s role in the peace process recently. What is your opinion of the role Obama has played in the peace process thus far?
We still have hope that Obama can play a role in the political process. Maybe we don’t agree with him on the recent issue that we come to negotiations on the basis of the Israeli moratorium. We don’t agree with that. But that doesn’t mean we have lost hope in the American administration or President Obama. We are still seeing that President Obama can do something.
Do you stand by the comments you made to a South American newspaper during your visit there recently that President Obama has done nothing for Mideast Peace?
I didn’t say that. What I said was that what has happened we are not agreeing with, but he’s still in the first year of his presidency and we have to wait and judge him after. The difference between him and past U.S. presidents is that from the beginning of his term he started to take up the peace process and that’s a positive sign. We will not judge him from the beginning and say forget it, he’s hopeless.
What do you want from Obama?
I want him to put the peace process on the track. Until now, I don’t think they have succeeded. But the American administration says establishing a Palestinian state is an American strategic interest and also at the same time it will protect Israel. They have to convince the two sides to solve this. They have to come and say this is the end game and pressure the Israeli government to accept it. Why don’t they pressure the Israeli government. The Israeli government sometimes needs someone to come and help it see its own interests and the interests of its people.
I want him to declare the framework for negotiations and to ask Israel to stop the settlements along the lines of what I presented to the Israeli Minister of Defense. I told the Israeli Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, that he can do an undeclared but total moratorium for five months without announcing it, without publicity, just tell the Americans. But it must be a total freeze that includes East Jerusalem.
Obama tried to ask the Israelis for a complete freeze…
…and he couldn’t do that. He needs to be fair, meaning, based on international law ask both sides to implement their obligations. I’ll give you an example. When we began to implement the road map they were always asking me, do this, do that, do this. We have done everything that was required of us under the first stage of the road map. We said to the Americans, now tell the Israelis to do their parts. And they said we will ask them. And what happened in the end is we did everything that was asked of us and the Israelis didn’t do a single thing. As long as something clear is asked of me and I did it, then America should now ask Israel to do its part. That hasn’t happened and that’s why I’m not running for reelection.
And you’re serious about this. No way you’re going to reconsider?
This is, God willing, very serious.
And if there are no elections, will you remain in power or will you resign?
This is an important point. I said that I will not run in the elections. I will exert all possible efforts to make sure there are elections. In the Egyptian brokered accord there is total agreement with all the factions that there should be elections on June 28. If tomorrow, Hamas signs this agreement, then there will be elections on June 28. There is no problem with holding elections. If there is no hope for any sort of elections, then I have other options. What are those other options? I’m not talking about them yet.
Many people are talking about the possibility of a third intifada erupting. Is this just talk, or is this a real possibility and what would have to happen for this to happen?
I will not allow a new intifada. As long as I’m in office, I will not allow anybody to start a new intifada. Never never. But if I leave, it’s no longer my responsibility and I can’t make any guarantees. It could happen. It’s not my business to follow up. I promise and I can do. And I already promised and I did during the invasion of Gaza. At that time everybody asked me to go to a third intifada, but I prevented anybody from doing it.
The evidence is that in three years it hasn’t happened. The evidence is that every day there are provocations and there hasn’t been a violent response. So I have control of matters and I am confident that I can control things as long as I’m in office.
This means stepping down carries a big responsibility with it, that by stepping down you could be responsible for a new round of violence.
It could happen. It will pain me. I will be very angry if something happens in the future because it’s not the proper act to be done by the Palestinian people. But at that time it’s not my responsibility. I am responsible as long as I am in office. The moment I leave it’s not my responsibility.
You said this isn’t proper for the Palestinian people? Why are you against violence?
Since the 1970s, I believed in peace, and I worked for peace and for the relations and the contacts between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Until now I am convinced that peace is the only choice for both sides, for the Palestinians and the Israelis. The other choice is destructive.
From the first day of the intifada I said I am against this intifada. From the first day and I didn’t change my mind. When I ran in the elections I said publicly, I am against the armed intifada, I am against the futile rockets and I am for peace. If you want to elect me, okay, if you don’t, it doesn’t matter.
At the PLO conference last week and again tonight you seem more comfortable, more relaxed.
Now I am relaxed. I know what I will do. I told everybody about my intentions. And now I am relaxed.
We appear to be close to a prisoner swap deal for Gilad Shalit. How will this deal impact the domestic Palestinian political stage?
Shalit, the most famous soldier around the world. I am for this deal. We have to get rid of this fast. This man should return back to his family and at the same time at least 1,000 prisoners will be released and come back to their families. It’s not important whether Hamas concluded this deal or anybody else. At the end the result is there are some people who will go back to their families and this deal will give hope to the others to be released. I don’t think it will have a big effect on the Palestinian political stage. In the Palestinian society everybody will be happy with it. Maybe it will give Hamas some popularity. For me that doesn’t matter. Let them get whatever they want to get. But at the end some people will be happy with this deal.
There have been a number of reports lately, from human rights groups, and even from the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Interior, alleging that prisoners in Palestinian custody have been mistreated or tortured, and some have even died as a result. Another report has alleged the CIA is connected to these government bodies allegedly responsible for this. Is there truth to these complaints? What is the CIA’s exact relationship to the Palestinian intelligence apparatus?
We have no relationship with the CIA at all. We have a relationship with the State Department. The State Department sends us some Americans to train and rebuild the Palestinian security apparatuses. That’s it. There is not any kind of cooperation with the CIA. We have no connection to the CIA. There is U.S. training of our forces. We don’t deny that at all. But not just American. Russia, and Jordan and France and many countries help in training us. And Dayton’s team is from a number of countries, not just America. America gives us nothing but training. If we want weapons we have to buy it or bring it as grants from other countries to Jordan and we keep it in Jordan until we have the permission from the Israeli side to import it. If we do not have this permission we cannot bring even one single bullet. In other words, we are not smuggling anything.
What is the message you want to direct to the Israeli people?
If we reach a final solution, we will drop all kinds of other demands. The second point is, there will be a third party on our territories agreed upon by the Israelis and the Palestinians. From where? Maybe NATO, the Americans, the Europeans, whatever they want. They will be there for a while to preserve the borders and keep it under control so the Israelis will be safe.
Beside that, they tried us and we are working very hard to preserve our own security and also to prevent anybody from committing any acts against the Israelis. On the other hand, every day there is an invasion in one of our cities from the Israeli army and from the settlers themselves. Last time they burned a mosque in one of our villages. Every day they go to Jerusalem either to occupy some of our houses or to demolish houses. There is no cooperation between the Israelis and us in this area. They do not help us.
We are saying to the Israelis: We are serious in building peace with you, in building a Palestinian state that lives side by side with Israel on the ’67 borders in peace and stability. And we also, through the Arab peace initiative, will bring 57 Arab and Islamic countries to recognize you. I think this is an historic opportunity for the Israeli people to live in peace. I know that 70 percent of the Israeli population are for peace, but if your government doesn’t want peace, nobody knows what will happen, and how the situation will get worse. And we don’t want this. This is an opportunity to be seized. This is my message for the Israeli people.
What do you want to say in response to those who criticized you for agreeing to delay a vote on the Goldstone report?
Goldstone, when he came to investigate, Hamas attacked him, saying he was a Zionist Jew and that he was biased against the Palestinian people. We welcomed him because we wanted the world to know who attacked the Palestinian people so they could be held accountable. Goldstone put out a 575-page report and it went to Geneva to the human rights council and the matter was discussed there. The council didn’t reach a decision so it was decided to refer it to the next session, so I agreed. And the world turned upside down saying I had sold the Palestinian cause, and the world and the media, and the satellite channels all attacked us. Even the Israelis attacked us. After these attacks, I decided to return the matter to the human rights council and that’s what I did. Now it is at the general assembly. The accusation that I am the one who alone agreed to delay it is not true.
You have encouraged recently Palestinians to boycott products made in the settlements, but many of your Palestinian critics would like to see you go further in leading a non-violent resistance movement against Israel. Do you support those who are calling for a broader boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel?
This is our right to boycott the settlements. The settlements are taking our land and selling the products to the world so we ask the world not to buy these products. These are our rights. The people of Bilin and Nilin go out and protest peacefully against the wall. I am with any peaceful protest that expresses the opinion of the people. I support this. But I am against the bullets and the rockets. We are asking every day the European countries and the world to stop buying these products and not to buy these products. But we never said boycott Israel. We never boycotted Israel. We have contacts with them every day. We buy from them electricity, water, and even the air. We buy air! They sell us air! Truly, the air. Cell phone frequencies. And they haggle with us over the air. ‘We’ll give 3.1 of air’ they say, and we say ‘no we want 3.8,’ and they say ‘no way you’ll get .8 of air.’ AIR!
People say you aren’t prepared to make concessions for peace and they say that if you were, you wouldn’t have rejected the Olmert peace offer. Is this true?
Never. Not true. We were negotiating, and remained negotiating until the last day of the Bush administration. Condoleezza Rice suggested we meet again on January 3 in Washington to seize the last chance, and we agreed to that, but in that time, there was the attack on Gaza, and still I agreed to go, but the Israeli administration said it can’t do it in these circumstances.
Do you think Benjamin Netanyahu wants to make peace with you?
I can’t say Netanyahu doesn’t want peace, I can’t see what’s inside him, but his policy suggests he doesn’t. We have to keep hope. If we say there is no hope then we put our people in a corner. I’m prepared to wait.
If and when you step down as president, how do you think people will remember your term? What accomplishments are you proud of, and what do you regret not having accomplished?
The people will decide what I did and what I didn’t do. They will decide if I succeeded or if I failed. I am proud of my role in the Oslo accords and for sticking to peace and maintaining law and order in the West Bank. I am proud the economy is developing, and the social situation is improving. I reached an agreement to reconcile with Hamas but Hamas backed out. I did all that I can do. What I couldn’t do is conclude a peace treaty with the Israelis. But that’s not due to my mistake. Maybe it’s the other side’s mistake. I want people to know that I have held to the core values the PLO adopted in 1988 and never compromised them. I never conceded on ’67 borders, or on East Jerusalem as the capital, and have always insisted on the rights of refugees, and that the problem be solved in accordance with the Arab peace initaitve. But, peace with Israel. I couldn’t reach this. It’s not my fault.