On July 13, I caught up with President Mahmoud Abbas in a villa in Bucharest where he was staying at the invitation of the Romanian President, Traian Basescu. There wasn't enough time to put all the questions I had, but the brief encounter provides some insight into the present state of affairs between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships as well as the relationship between Hamas and Fatah.
We often hear people speak about the ‘Palestinian problem’ and how divided the Palestinians are. While the latter is true the former is not one hundred percent accurate. The problem is not one which derives solely from the Palestinians themselves. It is a regional and international matter that has an impact primarily on the Palestinians and Israelis.
In May, after a hiatus, and under some pressure from the American administration, Israelis and Palestinians engaged in the so-called ‘proximity talks’. These talks which were designed to have a brief lifespan have failed so far to produce any tangible results.
With the region awash with rumours of imminent conflict - whether in Gaza, South Lebanon or Iran - the American administration nevertheless asked the Israelis and the Palestinians to resume direct talks, regardless of the fact that indirect dialogue has so far yielded no significant advances.
There are no preconditions, as Abbas makes plain, but there is an agreed framework on the part of the Palestinians, and backed by the Arab states.
The dialogue should recommence from where it left off in 2008 and it calls for the following:
- the discontinuation of settlement activities
- agreement on borders
- active pursuit of a solution for East Jerusalem
- answers to crucial, outstanding security matters
- discussion leading to political, social and economic agreements that could pave the way to peaceful coexistence
Evidently these are extremely difficult (not impossible) tasks to be achieved over a long period of time. The longer the failure to reach a resolution the more likely the danger to repeat past mistakes, including armed conflicts.
What is at stake?
A state for the Palestinians and a broader, comprehensive regional stability as it was envisaged in the Arab peace plan of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al Saud. This proposal is still on the table.The Arabs, in spite of the defiant image they appear to support when it comes to Israel, have not dismissed outright further negotiations on the terms of the agreement. Whatever response they have, why are they not putting that to the test?
Logic says that everyone stands to win from a calm environment, energy put into development, reforms and modernization, less violence and verbal bullying.
While the benefits of peace far outweigh the risks, leaders on all sides seem to be trapped in a time capsule where narrow mindedness and half-baked solutions are somehow more important than medium to long-term prosperity.
Maybe this is the time to really listen and engage not only with the regional and international political leadership but also to those who have to live with the consequences of their decisions.
While extremists exist in all societies they don't make for the majority and common sense may prevail.
In all fairness, to have an ongoing problem for more than six decades and to continue to postpone its resolution is a clear sign of incompetence, lack of vision and courage and utter disrespect for people on both sides of the standoff as well as for those in their vicinity.
Manuela Paraipan: President Abbas, what are the minimum conditions you asked of President Obama and Premier Nethanyhu in order to resume direct talks?
President Mahmoud Abbas: We don't have preconditions. We did not put any. We simply comply with the American position which said that we have to go to proximity talks, and if (he emphasized the if) we achieve any progress, any concrete progress, we go to direct talks. So, if the Americans tell us that there is some progress, we will go into direct talks. No preconditions from us.
Manuela Paraipan: In your perspective, is it an absolute must to have a national unity government that includes Hamas? That is, to have Hamas as a governing partner alongside Fatah?
President Mahmoud Abbas: Yes. Why not? They are part of the Palestinian people. They won the elections and we at any rate want them to be a partner in any eventuality. If we proceed to elections, and they win the elections, they will take the cabinet. If they do not win, there will be participation between the parties.
Manuela Paraipan: What is your relationship with Hamas right now?
President Mahmoud Abbas: Till now we have contacts with them at all levels. The issue is in Egyptian hands. If Hamas accepts the Egyptian document, and signs it, we will immediately proceed to parliamentary elections.
Manuela Paraipan: Would Fatah accept a different mediator, other than Egypt?
President Mahmoud Abbas: No. We don't expect any other mediator. Egypt is the mediator authorized by all Arab countries.
Manuela Paraipan: What is your opinion about the Iranian role in the region in terms of political and security affairs?
President Mahmoud Abbas: We don't talk about this issue. We're not part of it. When it comes to the nuclear weapons issue between Iran and others, we are only observers.
Manuela Paraipan: Thank you Mr. President.