Q. You started a while ago to consolidate state institutions. How do you see the trend going?
A. State building did not start yesterday. It started from the first day that the PA (Palestinian Authority) was established in 1994, after the Cairo agreement. The very name, Palestinian Interim Authority meant that it was supposed to be for five years only, so for five years we had institutions without authority. However, from day one we were working so that the ‘I’ for Interim stood instead for Independence. All our focus was on building state institutions. We did not want the Israelis to come and claim, look, the Palestinians are not ready for independence: they don’t deserve it.
This type of process is cumulative. The institutions are here. They have been here for a hundred years. The municipality of Jerusalem was established in 1882 as a Palestinian municipality. The municipality of Nablus was established in 1872; those in Gaza and Hebron, for more than 120 years. The ministries are here, and the institutions are in the best shape possible. The performance of certain of these ministries is better than the performance of ministries that are older than ours in the region. This is partly because Palestinians enjoy the highest number of university graduates in the region.
Q. You have the human capital and the financial infusion from the outside. What is lacking?
A. The funding from outside does raise the question of the economic viability of the state. We had some viability before the second Intifada. In the year 2000 the Palestinian budget deficit was 0. Then we did not need the money. Now we need it because Israel is closing us down. International assistance is needed because while there is no political solution, we don’t have investments from outside.
Q. Aid has replaced investment?
A. The aid is actually recurrent aid. 80% goes to pay the salaries and a small amount goes to infrastructure. But infrastructure does not create employment. It does provide temporary jobs but is no replacement for a productive sector. For example, when you build a ministry-building or a road, this in itself is not productive. The important issue here is that investment is not present because of political uncertainty.
Before 2000 it was a different story. People were very hopeful. President Arafat was at Camp David and he told me to go to Jerusalem and recreate the Palestinian capital. So we had the maps and everything. We looked at where to have the presidential palace, the stadium, museum, ministries etc. Then it all collapsed when Sharon visited the Al Aqsa mosque.
I will give you an example. In 2010 about 3.5 million tourists visited Israel – that’s what the Israelis say. But where did they go? Most went to Bethlehem which is a Palestinian city, and the remaining part went to Jerusalem, in particular, East Jerusalem which is a Palestinian city. So for us, there is oil in Palestine, which is called ‘religious history’.
The most important sector is tourism and entertainment. We have borders on the Dead Sea. If it’s snowing in Jerusalem you need only drive 20 minutes to the east and you will walk in short sleeves in Jericho. There are pillars for economic development in Palestine, but all this is impossible without a political solution.
Q. How do you function then? Ministers can always sign papers but how do you implement any?
A. That is what is lacking – the control. If the Israelis do not allow it, it does not happen. Now, the institution-building and economic development work bottom up as well as vice versa. We work on both tracks – to secure our area, we have laws, regulations in place, and in parallel we work on negotiations and international involvement.
Q. This is the diplomacy flurry that you have of late, to add pressure before you go back to the negotiation table?
A. Having working institutions and economic progress is not designed to put pressure. It is just to send a message that we are ready. Even if we were not, it is not up to the Israelis to decide. When Africa was decolonized, was it the British or French who said out of the blue, “all right now, we will give them independence”? Rather, it took a whole international mood against colonization.
Q. What is the incentive for the Palestinian side to go back to the negotiation table? Some seem to think that what is needed is more pressure on the Palestinian side.
A. It is not we who boycott the negotiations: the Israelis stopped the process. We went into proximity talks and gave Mr. Mitchell (George Mitchell, special envoy for Middle East peace under the Obama administration) the chance to succeed. Mr. Mitchell has been appointed for 19 months now and his mission is not very successful, because every single day the Israelis wrongfoot him, or work hard to make him fail. We went into direct talks and again: it did not work. The Israelis decided to choose settlements at the expense of peace. The issue is not about putting pressure. The whole international community, US included, knows that the party that jeopardized the peace talks is not us. We are ready to go to negotiations tomorrow. Peace is a matter of intention. If you have an aggressive approach towards me, or I have an aggressive approach towards you, it does not work, because both sides can feel it.
In less than two weeks, ten Palestinians have been killed as a result of military incursions, where the Israeli army has gone into area A. Just today the Israelis announced the construction of settlements, 1600 units. They continue with these measures, building settlements, deporting people from Jerusalem to West Bank, as if this is a totally foreign country. And they have already deported three persons, killing people in cold blood. This shows their intentions.
You have to ask: Why are you building settlements at a time when we talk about dismantling them? Settlements are not a matter of negotiations but a confidence-building measure. We told them that this is not helping us: it discredits us. Let me give you an example. If they tell us, don’t say anything on TV about Zionism, racism etc. because it annoys us - so, fine, we will stop. But you have to reciprocate. But, what annoys us are not merely words but stones on the ground, something that is very difficult to remove.
Q. If this is the status quo then where are you going from this point?
A. It is certainly a good question. I think the Israelis are very wrong to choose a win-lose track and not a win-win one. The two-state solution is a historical compromise for the Palestinians. Let me show you something (Minister showing me a map). In 1947, we had the partition plan. We had the state of Israel and the state of Palestine. In 1948 Israel occupied 78% of the total area of Palestine, it took more than the partition plan allowed. In 1967 all Palestine was under occupation. In 1994, we ended by having these dots (pieces of land) for the Palestinians. West Bank and Gaza is only 22% of the historical area and we accepted a state on the 22%. If Israel is saying that Male Adumim (the biggest settlement) is as important as Tel Aviv, I will say that Jaffa for me is as important as Nablus and Ramallah. What does it mean?
In the year 2020, 55% of those who are living between River Jordan and the Mediterranean will be Palestinians. That means that the Jews will only make up 45%. We live in one state, an apartheid state. The question of Palestine will be based on the case of South Africa, or if you wish, we will see a South Africanization of the Palestinian issue. By then the two-state alternative will be dead, and you can only fight for one state. Israel can be a racist state for another 10, 15 years and then what?
If Israel does not seize the opportunity of today, when I accept the two-state solution, then tomorrow I will not accept it. Furthermore, what Israel is doing through the wall (separation wall), and the settlements near Jerusalem, is to link Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, so that there will be no geographical continuity of the Palestinian territory. So, you have three cantons, of Hebron, Ramallah and Nablus, in West Bank.
Q. What if demography isn’t an issue any more? The Israelis may catch up and establish a balance.
A. But, it is an issue. The Likud mentality is the mentality of a party that is ideological and not political. They believe the whole land is their – Eretz Israel – so they don’t accept any division. The Labor party believes in the unity of the people of Israel, to put them in one state, a Jewish one. But today Likud is in power, not Labor. You know who had the idea of the wall? Haim Ramon, who is the most doveish figure in the Labor party. Sharon totally opposed the wall, because it divides the land.
Q. Assuming you will be the majority, and the Israelis refuse to give you any political rights what is next? A third Intifada?
A. If we are the majority and they don’t allow any political solutions to take place, it will be worse for us. As for a third or fourth Intifada, I really don’t know, but people are very frustrated. In Tunisia one person burned himself and the regime collapsed. It has put in motion a string of events. In 2000, Sharon visited Al Aqsa mosque and the whole country went up in flames. In 1987, the first Intifada started with an Israeli military car that killed four persons. It lasted fifteen years. The lesson here is that you don’t put more pressure on people already under occupation.
Q. Would economic prosperity be enough for the Palestinians?
A. We’re not looking for a better life in these circumstances. A slave can have food, a roof above his head. We are people looking for dignity and freedom.
Q. In 2006 elections, Hamas won the majority of votes. In the bigger picture of institutional consolidation how do you explain that the PLC (Parliament Legislative Council) is frozen. Is it because the Speaker and the majority of MP’s are from Hamas?
A. Hamas won the elections, it is true. In 2005 I was a minister for housing and public work and a caretaker for two other briefs, social affairs and labour. So I handed the three keys to three Hamas ministers. We accepted that we lost. But, the international community does not want to deal with Hamas. What happened to Hamas is that you buy a lottery ticket. The numbers are correct, official stamp is there, you won. It was on TV, everyone saw. Hamas won and Khaled Meshal has the ticket. Fine. Let’s go to the bank. The bank said, Mr. Meshal you won but you have to sign this piece of paper in order for us to hand over the money. That paper is the Quartet conditions.
Meshal said no. So, we went to Meshal and said, look, we know the game well and the bank. Give us the ticket and we will share it with you. He refused. He kept the ticket in his hand. And, you know, Gaza is hot and his hands started to sweat. The numbers began to disappear gradually. So he went from one bank to the other and each said that it is not very clear. Then, he decides that he wants to share. We went to Mecca. Hamas thought that Fatah had bad intentions. They had the military coup and things deteriorated.
So, what we are saying is that Hamas won, but it won’t work. Either you accept the paper or you go for another election. They don’t want either, so we are stuck.
Q. Isn’t there a priority to have intra-Palestinian reconciliation?
A. It is, and we are working to have that. We lost the elections because of Israel. They destroyed the peace process and Hamas won because people cast a protest vote to punish Fatah for this. Reconciliation with Hamas means that we must go to elections, then sit down and work on a political agreement. Why is Hamas telling Putin what they don’t tell us - that they are ready to accept the two-state solution? They told the Swiss Foreign Affairs Minister that they are ready to accept a state with provisional borders. This is a disaster. It will take us back decades. Hamas should tell us the things they say to Qatar and others. They still believe they have the ticket. But it is not there anymore.
Q. Is it possible to rule Gaza from West Bank?
A. No, we don’t want that. Fatah continues to be the strongest party but we don’t intend to have one party ruling the country. Fatah was the guarantor of the Palestinian democracy. We gave the small groups that made up the PLO money, kept them in shape and so on. So, Fatah is a real democratic phenomenon. We created democracy in a jungle of weapons. And we say, let all the flowers bloom but in our garden, not in Iran, Syria, Israel or elsewhere. Fatah can’t make peace by itself and Hamas cannot make war by itself.
Q. There were reports of a draft law that bans Palestinians from working in the settlements.
A. There is no ban, as there is no law. But, we encourage people not to, while working on a solution. You can’t tell people, don’t go there, if you don’t have alternatives. There are approximately 25,000 Palestinians working in settlements and we cannot offer them jobs. The industrial park in Bethlehem is part of the package of international assistance, and we also have the industrial zone in Jenin, both aimed at doing something about the high unemployment and poverty.
Q. Is there a gap between the ways of life available to the leadership and those available for the average Palestinian?
A. This is not about the leadership. Unemployment is present in any society and we have declared a comprehensive war on corruption. The Palestinian leadership did not come in by parachute: they are a group of fighters from this place. When we speak of unemployment this is not because someone is taking the money, but because of the occupation. In 2000 the budget deficit was zero and per capita income was high, unemployment was only 5%. Today it is 19% and in Gaza it is 47% and Gaza is under siege. So the issue here is political, not a wrong economic policy. The only rich stratum in the society is the private sector, no-one else.