Felice Friedson
The Media Line (Interview)
February 23, 2009 - 1:00am

The Media Line’s Felice Friedson conducted an exclusive interview with Prime Minister Faya’d in his Ramallah office on February 19, 2009. Among the issues they discussed were the current state of the Palestinian Authority, the crisis in Gaza, Fatah vs. Hamas, and the future of relations with Israel.

TML: Mr. Prime Minister, what is the most serious problem caused by the division of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank: in effect the creation of two Palestinian states?

Faya’d: You just mentioned one key dimension to the problem. It’s a political dimension, associated with continued separation or apartness, which was set in June 2007 and since then unfortunately, became deeper. The political dimension, simply put, is as follows: with the separation in place, it is very difficult for me to see how our dreams can be realized in terms of getting to the point where we can enjoy that which is an absolute right for people all over the world: to live as free people in a country of our own, that’s Palestine. In fact, with Gaza continuing to be the way it is, and viewed as a different Palestinian entity, I think the biggest risk that entails in my view politically, and given our national aspirations, is that the entire Palestinian cause, after decades of struggle to get to the point of freedom, would be put unfortunately on the path of liquidation. What has happened over the past year and a half, and more so now, there is extreme suffering to which our people in Gaza have been exposed. But in addition, while that was going on, the situation in the West Bank – in terms of settlement activity, expansion, confiscation of land and what have you – activity totally inconsistent with the prospect of an emergence of an independent, viable Palestinian state of which the West Bank including East Jerusalem would form an integral component, that prospect diminished even more. That situation is clearly not sustainable from our point of view. That’s one dimension to it. The other dimension, of course, relates to the practicality associated with managing. We at the Palestinian Authority are in charge of the welfare of the Palestinian people residing both in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and with the division in place, and with it having become deeper, our task of providing for the welfare of our people in Gaza has become very, very difficult. You can easily include there the issue of crossings and management. You can include, of course, the task of reconstruction, which has to take place in the immediate aftermath of the Israeli offensive there. But even before reconstruction, [there is] the act of having to deal with the urgent need for humanitarian relief and intervention. None of these practical issues can be handled with efficacy and the efficiency that is required given the apartness, given the separation.

TML: What is your assessment of the recent Israeli operation in Gaza? Was the failure to topple Hamas an opportunity that was missed?

Faya’d: I think if we look at what has happened, all that it has been accomplished, actually reinforces that which we want to avoid and want to end: that state of apartness and separation. Clearly, this is a situation that has brought nothing but disaster to us Palestinians; first and foremost in terms of the human suffering it entailed, the unprecedented massive loss of life, but also the massive damage to infrastructure and the possibility for livelihood in Gaza. So, insofar as Hamas is concerned, Hamas is a faction with a program with which I do not agree, and people, particularly in the international community, are focused on the political platform of Hamas. But Hamas is not only about that political platform, but its other components of the platform with which I disagree. This is not unusual. Parties all over the world have their platforms that not everybody agrees with. But that is something that I view as a political phenomenon. It has to be dealt with politically. In the course of a political process that is allowed to run its course, people choose this party, that party, a combination of parties to govern, and that’s up to the people. To think that one is going to deal with a party with whose platform one does not agree by just doing away with that party is not thinking about things right. We are in the realm of politics. Parties with different and competing ideologies coexist and form coalition governments – that is what happens in many parliamentary democracies in the world, including by the way, in Israel. But the fact that you disagree with a certain platform does not mean you can’t think beyond that which is normally thought of and pursued all over, which is to pursue a political process leading to changing facts on the ground.

But the problem actually has a hugely significant domestic component for us, even setting aside what you said about Israel and the interest that the strong international community has in all of this. We ourselves, first and foremost, in dealing with the challenge that is before us, have not handled our differences right. And the mere fact that there is discord amongst factions and parties does not mean that those disagreements can and should be settled by recourse to weapons and arms, and fighting it out. That is something that was damaging to us.

TML: Prime Minister, you’ve been saddled with this internal political problem between Fatah and Hamas for several years now. Your goal is a Palestinian state; you cannot have two contiguous states, so how, with these great challenges, do you move forward?

Faya’d: I think there are ways in which those differences can, if not reconciled, be dealt with in a manner that would make it possible for us to govern ourselves while keeping to our obligations insofar as the peace process is concerned, and all the [other] obligations we have entered into and the commitments we have made. We remain firmly committed to all the obligations we have entered into. Our vision is one of peaceful coexistence and pursuing that as a path to the ultimate goal of freedom and statehood. We are saddled with these difficulties of having these vast and sharp differences in political views, but I do not know if there are two Palestinians who disagree on the need to end the occupation to have statehood. And beginning with that, I believe the issue then should not be of how to exclude a certain faction from being a political player, but how to manage in a manner that would make it possible for us to deal with all these obligations, to deal with the international community, to interact with it, while at the same time being able to manage our own internal differences. There are many different approaches to this. There are several ways in which this can be done. It is conceivable for example, for the factions to agree to a non-factional government, what I would call a national consensus government. A government like that would not have the problem of a platform that is problematic given the international obligations we have entered into, for instance, a government that is not objected to by anybody. This is a way in which this can be handled. But to lump everything together and call it one big problem is definitely a recipe for inaction, for gridlock and worse, in our case, a recipe for sliding into chaos and for settling things in a violent way, which is something we should move away from completely.

TML: Are you talking internally about Fatah and Hamas, or about Fatah and Hamas as an entity together in terms of the greater picture with Israel?

Faya’d: I am talking about old factions, independence, all elements of the Palestinian political system. I do not happen to have party affiliation [and] I have been in government on and off since 2002, first as finance minister. This is not unusual. If you look, for example, at our next-door neighbors – the Israeli political system. Do all parties in Israel have the same platform? I mean, they themselves will tell you that they each have differences between them. Now they are in the process of forming a government, but no doubt it is going to be a coalition government.

TML: You share something in common.

Faya’d: In parliamentary democracies, it is not an unusual outcome. Often, particularly where you have a multiplicity of parties, you have to govern through a coalition government. This happens. This is normal.

TML: You’ve referred to different ideologies among factions and Hamas is viewed as a terrorist organization by many countries. They also will not recognize the state of Israel, as Fatah will, so how can you move forward with two factions that are dealing with very different ideologies?

Faya’d: You have a faction simply described as one that does not subscribe to the commitments and obligations the PLO has entered into on behalf of the Palestinian people everywhere. And [these are] agreements and obligations and commitments which actually created or led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority, so that does represent a challenge. You have a faction with popular support – because Hamas did win the elections, there is no question about that, in January 2006 – that did not agree with those commitments, obligations and agreements that produced the Palestinian Authority to begin with. This is a major contradiction. Nevertheless, as I said, [a way] has to be found and can be found to reconcile these two issues. I gave you an example of how that can be done, of an agreement amongst the factions on a government that is non-factional, a government whose platform is shielded from the platforms of the individual parties that make it up, or that back it. Anyway, at the end of the day, you really have to deal with issues like this in a political way. You cannot just wish away a faction that disagrees with you. You have to allow the political process to run its course. And you cannot debate these issues endlessly when you have issues of the here and now that have to be dealt with. Life is extremely difficult for our people, not only in Gaza, but in the West Bank as well. And the situation simply cannot take endless debate about how to go from A to B without doing something about it. So I think, with a bit of pragmatism, in a way that can be found, those political differences can ultimately be resolved.

TML: Do you think Hamas could ultimately recognize Israel?

Faya’d: You know, I think, what is the ultimate deliverable goal of the peace process? Emergence of an independent, viable Palestinian state on the territories occupied by the 1967 war, clearly, living side by side in a state of security and harmony with its neighbors, including Israel. That’s the goal of the peace process to which we have committed ourselves. There is not really going to be a question of recognition. If this is going to be accepted as the outcome of the peace process to which we have committed ourselves and which we have been pursuing, then there should not be a question of recognition. Now, between now and then, you have a faction like Hamas that says, “No, I do not recognize that it is.” That represents the problems and complications to which I have referred. Now, to say that because of this, you have to stop everything and say, you cannot move, because the Palestinians on one hand, in January 2006, decided they wanted to give the majority to Hamas and therefore nothing can go [forward]; think about the consequences of that. I am not really disputing the logic, or how one could think. I am not really saying that this in an irrational reaction. All I am saying is that, unfortunately, given the situation we are in, the choices we have to make are choices between bad and worse, and not between good and bad. The case between doing it this way or that way, or that we cannot move and stop everything until we can stop all of these conflicts. The problem with that, is, think about the alternative. If we stay there – and that’s not the alternative – that’s basically the path we have been on. If we continue to act this way and the world continues for us to act this way, then what that does over time is to erode the political weight and significance of those factions of the political body in Palestine that subscribes to the process in which it was originally conceived. That was the outcome that everybody should frankly be looking for, for all the right reasons. Therefore, rather than saying, stop everything, which basically makes the process itself hostage to an outcome that was produced democratically, I think what is best is to resort to a political process that leaves out resolving these differences over time and in the interim finds solutions to these problems. But it would be a huge mistake to just basically stop everything until there is a different outcome. Because stopping everything until there is a different outcome may even lead to reinforcing the status quo, which is not something anybody wants.

TML: Efforts are underway to raise billions of dollars to rebuild Gaza. Because most countries will not give money to a Hamas government, your government is making arrangements to help channel these funds. Is this feasible given the Fatah-Hamas split?

Faya’d: It is feasible, but it would more efficient under the conditions of reconciliation. There is no question about that. The reality on the ground is the following: on the one hand, we have the separation or apartness that gets in the way of doing things right and fast and efficiently. On the other hand, there are the needs, the desperate needs of our people there. Imagine a situation with somebody sitting on probably what used to be their home now. They are not going to be amused by debates as to who is going to be able to do what and whose responsibility it is. They want to have a roof over the heads of their children. That’s what they are looking for…Take housing, as an example. Four thousand houses were destroyed in Gaza, rendering homeless 23,500 people. Eleven thousand housing units were at least partially damaged, affecting very adversely 78,000 of our people there. That’s a key priority of the reconstruction program. How are we going to do this under the conditions of apartness? We have to think fast. We have this conference coming up on the 2nd of March in Egypt to raise the funds necessary to rebuild. What we thought we should do is find a way to get the assistance directly to the beneficiaries. The minute you start to think this way, you think in terms of banks. There are banks that are operational in Gaza. The Palestinian banking system is still fully integrated and consolidated. So we start a bit of discussion, small circles to reconsult on a scheme to do this and to have the right parameters attached to it and then we brought in this other group of consultants about 10 days ago. Finally, we got to the point of being able to put before all of the banks actual schemes fully prioritized in terms of how to do this. Similar thinking goes into what does a country do for example with what happened with the financial crisis around the world, the housing problem in the United States, except we had to do it fast, you know, given the miserable situation on the ground. And we found a way. This morning, today, after two weeks of extensive and intensive discussions on this, we signed an MoU, a memorandum, an understanding of all the banks in Palestine here, for a mechanism for which donor funding would be made available to individual beneficiaries on an individual basis. We have actually used the services of an international NGO, an operation in Gaza to do a survey on the damage alone, and within the next two to three days, we are going to announce the scheme to the public and invite them to go to the bank nearest to them to apply, and banks have committed to respond in a short time. By the time we go to Egypt the mechanism will be firmly in place and as soon as the funding becomes available, donor countries will have the option of either transferring the money to us and then we transfer the money to the banks -- the mechanism is extremely transparent and will be highly efficient -- or they can choose to send the money directly through their representational offices here. You see, this is an example; it illustrates my thinking on the other issues you were talking to me about. One way of dealing with this is to say: “How were we going to be able to do anything under conditions of apartness; how are we going to do anything with passages and crossings closed, with the siege on Gaza being what it is? All of this is true. But here we are, we are ready. By the time we will go to Egypt, all that is required is for the donors to actually allocate their funds and to disperse it, leaving only one big problem, crossings. But then it will be one problem to solve and not all of these other problems of cooperation to resolve. So yes, this is the kind of thinking we have actually engaged in and this is what we have come up with for housing. We are working on similar schemes extremely hard to cover the needs in the agriculture, farming sector, industry, the private sector.

TML: What was Hamas’s reaction to this?

Faya’d: You know, at first there was a lot of debate early on, political debate of who’s in charge, and how is this going to happen. Do they do it, do we do it, etc.? But again, the concept I was thinking in terms of [was] what would a citizen be thinking about. Again, amidst this misery in Gaza, they are not going to be amused by this debate. And that’s not going to resolve anything. We need to move to answer, to respond to people’s needs. As we started to do that, I think, the intensity of debate started to weaken. And I hardly hear much of the debate on this anymore, and actually I think there is a lesson in this for all of us. That is, it is one thing to make an assertion of position and I think clarity is required and leadership does require that one be clear as to where they stand on issues. But dealing with the needs of people when you’re in the position to govern and to lead, you’ve got to come up with practical solutions to people’s problems.

TML: What is your take on the negotiations between Israel and Hamas? And what do you think is the obstacle to the agreement that opens the Gaza crossing points and repatriates Gilad Shalit?

Faya’d: You know, I think it is extremely important and it should be a matter of the highest sense of urgency that we make the cease-fire a lasting one. We are working right now on the basis for a temporary cessation of hostilities, a temporary cease-fire. That should be made a long-term one, a lasting one preferably. I hope discussions of that will get back on track, to produce a long-term truce if not a long-term period of calm; that’s very important, that’s critical there. We are talking here about reconstruction, about relief and we still do not have in place a long-term truce. And that is a problem. I see no reason why these issues are not dealt with quickly because they have been discussed extensively. Whether it’s the prisoner’s release, Gilad Shalit, and the Palestinian prisoners, or whether it is the passages or the truce, each one of these items, each one of these issues has been discussed and negotiated extensively and I think it’s time to get on with this, because the whole situation will continue to be extremely vulnerable and there is a great deal of risk in things sliding back in a direction that would be extremely devastating for all of us.

TML: Can you tell us of any talks regarding the release of Barghouthi?

Faya’d: We have always pushed for the need to release our prisoners, Marwan Barghouthi included. That’s a known fact. I believe to keep thinking of our prisoners’ file as something that can be dealt with later is a mistake. You know, so-called permanent status issues – this is a phrase used to describe issues that were agreed to be set aside for negotiations later – do not include prisoners. It was never the case that the issue was going to be deferred until permanent status. This is a transitional issue and one that has been dealt with and dealt with in a hurry. Whether it’s Marwan Barghouthi or other Palestinian prisoners, they should be released, that’s [been] our position all along.

TML: If he is released, will he make waves?

Faya’d: He definitely is in a position of leadership and influence, and you know, first things first. Let’s first get him out and all our prisoners out and let the political process take its course.

TML: This week, Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad is having a lot of company from the American Congress. It’s an example of a stark turnaround when comparing Obama to Bush policies. What’s your read on the Obama efforts, and are you optimistic?

Faya’d: I am aware of several congressional delegations that had visited the city before and I am aware actually that there have been visitors from Congress to Syria recently, and I will be meeting with some of them and I met some of them already, as a matter of fact. So this has been going on in terms of Congressional delegations or members of Congress visiting Syria. On this, let me tell you that I am someone who believes in talking and dialogue rather than keeping the channels shut, because it is the only way through which concerns of all sides can be raised and talked about and discussed. Now, it is conceivable that after you discuss certain issues, you can point out disagreements, but that’s a much better way of dealing with international relations than to say, “I do not want to talk to this person,” to that country, to this country. Countries are who they are with all their problems and concerns, ambitions and agendas. International diplomacy is about engagement and not disengagement.

You know, this is not to say that principles are not important, or that objectives have to be sacrificed or for the sake of dialogue, per se. But unless you are engaged in dialogue, you are not going to be able to manage the political process. How can you really manage a political process if the stopping point of that discussion is disengagement? That is a contradiction in terms. So if anything, I want there to be more of this, because that cannot but be constructive if decisions and positions are reached on the basis of thorough discussion of possibilities. Chances are we will be much more considerate than otherwise.

TML: On the Israeli side does it matter who will form the government and who will sit in the cabinet?

Faya’d: What is really important for us, indeed, for Israel and the international community, is for there to be an Israeli government to take seriously the commitments it [has] entered into; I referred to the obligations, commitments, agreements we have entered into, and the cause of pursuing this peace process. That’s really what matters. That’s the measurement. That’s the parameter. That’s the yardstick by which we should measure governments, in terms of who actually forms them. Last year or in the period after Annapolis, as everybody knows, commitments that had been entered into or accepted by Israel going back to spring of 2003 were not only not implemented, but insofar as settlement activity which is supposed to be frozen completely – and it’s a clearly stated obligation – and roadmap and settlement outposts that are supposed to be removed under the roadmap, if anything that situation [has] deteriorated. Not only did settlement activity not stop, it actually accelerated over the period since Annapolis. What is really important for us is a government in Israel that would begin to act in a manner consistent with those obligations. That’s what really matters. Whether it’s this coalition, that coalition or another coalition, we know it’s going to be a coalition. But we are looking for a government that is beginning to fulfil the obligations and to begin to do so, beginning to do so, related to settlement freeze as well as the commitment to redeploy to September ‘07 positions, meaning to stop the incursions into the area. These are very serious indicators to us of the seriousness with which the peace process is going to be pursued in the period ahead. This is what we are going to be looking at very closely.

TML: There are those who opine that only a right-wing Israeli government can bring peace. Do you agree with this?

Faya’d: I’ve heard that said before and I know that this is more of an academic, think tank kind of discussion. It’s not bad to engage in this sort of thinking, but I myself do not look at things this way. I do not know who actually will be in power when a deal is going to be made. What is really important is focusing on the requirements, objectively defined. The next question is whether there is a government out there that is actually going to live up to the commitments, obligations of the process that should lead to that. That’s what really matters.

TML: If Netanyahu forms a government, is the Obama administration up to the task of keeping negotiations on track?

Faya’d: You know, I really do not like to personalize things in terms of names. It’s not an aversion to discussing personalities. I would much rather focus on requirements and I think this issue has to be looked at objectively. There is a political process and success has certain prerequisites that have been identified and on which there is consensus. I am talking about, for example, road map obligations. The road map is an international document. Actually it has become itself a matter of international law because there is a U.N. Security Council resolution 1515 that actually deals with that. I think the issue should be, “Isn’t it time already for there to be insistence on applying international law as it is and stop what has become a common practice of negotiating it?” A commitment is a commitment and obligations are obligations. Negotiations should not be about renegotiating commitments already made. What is a really important commitment in the period ahead, if I should be able to summarize it in one word, actually is accountability. Much greater accountability has to be demanded and expected of the parties. We Palestinians are open to it. The issue is will it be demanded equally on both sides? It is essential and it is logical for that to be the case if this process is going to be productive. Otherwise, we will continue to be engaged in a process that is not only not productive but, unfortunately, while it is going on, that is, activity on the ground that is adverse and inconsistent with what has become accepted universally as the most important deliverable of the peace process will continue to take place. That’s what we are looking for. It’s not a question of who is going to be there in power as much as it is the need for a shift and an adjustment, if you will, of how this whole issue is approached regardless of which government is in office.

TML: When you first came into power, one of your first orders of business was security; where do you think it stands now?

Faya’d: Well, as far as the West Bank is concerned there has been a major turnaround, as everybody knows and will tell you. This is something that was first and foremost felt by our own people. If you travel around the country and talk to people, it’s not too difficult for them to compare as to where it is right now in terms of the turnaround that has been accomplished there. We are very pleased with that. The country was the victim of so much lawlessness, exactly around the period you referred to. We took office in the immediate aftermath of the violent takeover of Hamas in Gaza. That had consequences in the West Bank. In addition to the state of extreme lawlessness that was pervading then, that bad situation was made much worse by acts of revenge, vandalism. That was the situation we inherited and turning that around was a key objective policy. It was essential that we succeed in doing that and fortunately we have, so much so have we that it is a matter that is not only acknowledged, but felt by our people; that’s how it is viewed by the international community, including, especially Israel…We have achieved this turnaround, but to this day, Israel still continues to send its troops to areas where we have already deployed our security services. It’s got to stop. That, incidentally, is what I referred to in my earlier comments about obligations that have been entered into and taken previously, what I said about redeployment to September 28th positions. What is required is for those incursions to stop. We have come a long way. We are building toward statehood. Security is key to statehood. Security is the most important service any responsible government should provide to its citizens, first and foremost. We have come a long way. If we are rebuilding toward statehood, as I believe we are, we definitely should be allowed to perform the security tasks and chores in our areas. That’s what would define a state and so it is essential for that to happen and to happen now.

TML: How would you define peace between the Palestinian Authority and Israel?

Faya’d: It is a state of tranquillity, peace between people, perfectly normal relations in all facets of bilateral relations, not only political, certainly economic, cultural. Perfectly normal relations between countries living side-by-side in peace and harmony. That’s what we’re looking for.

TML: Are you going to see it in your lifetime?

Faya’d: I do not know when it will happen. I know it will happen and I believe that when it happens it will be because a model of governance like the one we have been promoting and adopting since mid 2007 will have succeeded.

Prime Minister Salam Faya’d, thank you very much for your time and this interview.

Transcribed by Liana Balinsky-Baker.


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