Natasha Mozgovaya
Haaretz (Interview)
June 14, 2010 - 12:00am

During his visit to Washington last week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met with some 30 Jewish-American community leaders and former senior government officials at the Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace for a serious discussion on the peace process.

Former U.S. congressman and Abraham Center president Robert Wexler, you hosted the encounter between the PA president and Jewish-American leaders. Do you see any hope as a result of the meeting?

He was asked tough questions and I am glad he was. I think it's important for President Abbas to hear what concerns American Jewish leaders. Few world leaders would open themselves to an hour and a half of uncensored random questions. What he did is testimony to the integrity of his commitment to the peace process. What gave me hope was that he unequivocally, in every way, rejected violence as a strategy or as a tactic. In fact, he said that the intifadas were a terrible failure for the Palestinian people.

He essentially accepts Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu's definition of a demilitarized Palestinian state; he describes his state as one that doesn't have need of tanks or missiles or offensive weapons, but which has a need for an internal security force.

He says he will invite third parties for the purpose of protecting Israeli security, but he rejects the presence of Israeli soldiers in what will become a Palestinian state, because this is a question of sovereignty. He readily acknowledged that he will welcome Jewish soldiers. I am not suggesting that Israelis should accept these principles, but these are reasonable positions and I think most Israelis will say: It's worth exploring.

Can any of the numerous think tanks in Washington examining Middle East problems provide a plan that hasn't yet been tried? What can the Abraham Center do to aid the peace process?

I think most serious people in Washington understand the complexity of the problem, and also there is a greater realization now in Washington that the lack of peace in the Middle East affects American interests throughout the world. The best we can do is to support the Obama administration in its efforts and provide an opportunity when non-governmental actors are either appropriate or helpful to bridge the gap between the parties. [We can also] provide useful discussion points and techniques on how to engage a discussion. Does it seal a peace deal? Of course not. But it does enable in this case Abbas to better understand the concern, the fears of the American Jewish community. And the American Jewish community has a more knowledgeable understanding of Abbas today than they did before - and this is a big step forward.

How would you evaluate Israeli public relations in the wake of the flotilla episode?

The impression in America is starkly different than almost everywhere else in the world. Most Americans appreciate the context in which the blockade and then the flotilla occurred. Americans understand that Israel has the right to prevent the importation of missiles and other weapons. Many of the participants were legitimate, but the flotilla was poisoned by the participation of those individuals who in fact were not humanitarian, and whose goals were not peaceful.

Americans are not comfortable with the loss of life in this situation, but they also understand the difficulty of the situation the Israeli soldiers were put in. America is conducting wars in two different places and war isn't neat, nor is it simple. So I think there is a great understanding and empathy for the position that Israel finds itself in.

But [still], I think most Americans would like the U.S. government and the Israeli government to revisit the humanitarian conditions in Gaza, [to determine if there] is there a way to relax the conditions for the ordinary population without providing opportunity for Hamas to rebuild its aggressive infrastructure.

What about the matter of an international inquiry?

I agree with the Obama administration that it will serve everybody's interest if there were a transparent commission with international participation, so that the international community can have confidence in its findings.

Israelis might ask why there isn't an international commission investigating American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.

With all due respect, I don't think this is a double standard. Israel faces a predicament that unfortunately is unique in the world. If organizing an international commission will bring out the facts of the so-called flotilla, then I think the international commission is justified.

Is Turkey lost to the West?

No, I don't think Turkey is lost to the West. The bigger event was their vote at the UN Security Council. That's a bigger problem than even the flotilla situation, because that "no" vote was a vote against America, because they voted against President [Barack] Obama's strategy to isolate Iran. There is no sugarcoating it. This no-vote has nothing to do with Turkish Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan's problem with the situation in Gaza. This has to do with American policy to offer Iran a legitimate way out of its predicament by simply agreeing to give up its weapons of mass destruction program.

When Russia and China are convinced to vote yes, and a NATO ally of ours is not persuaded, that's a significant statement.

When Netanyahu arrives in Washington at the end of the month, what do you think the U.S. administration will expect him to say?

Netanyahu should be prepared to convey in a forthright fashion to the president what steps he is prepared to take in the context of direct negotiations on the core issues. We need to move from a discussion of process and important but not core issues, to the discussion of the core issues that define the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

President Abbas said he wishes to see the American plan implemented. Some might claim there is no plan because the Obama administration has no strategy.

I think the administration has a very rational strategy and part of it is that America is not going to impose a plan. President Obama is committed, he is taking risks for peace, but he is not going to bargain for the parties. The Palestinians cannot rely on the president to arm-twist the Israeli government.

I think the Israeli people should take some confidence in the fact that the American-Israeli military-to-military relations, intelligence relations, have never been closer. It's not a coincidence that the president is the most committed to bringing an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

President Abbas said this week he doesn't know whether peace is possible with Netanyahu.

Not only is peace possible with Netanyahu, I believe his previous government established that under certain circumstances Netanyahu will make courageous decisions for peace. He has legitimate security needs and legitimate other concerns that must be satisfied through direct negotiations with Palestinians, and the Arab world has a role to play in terms of security guarantees.

Where is the Arab world?

The Arab world has articulated the Arab peace initiative; they now have an obligation to put words into action. In my view this is a prerequisite for peace, part of the process that needs to happen.

Do you think Mideast issues will affect the American midterm elections?

I think the midterm elections in America will reflect economic conditions here, unemployment... the degree to which they are content with the way we resolve the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Is the post of ambassador to Tel Aviv something you might consider?

Without being coy, I am really not able to comment on that at all.


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