The Media Line (Interview)
February 14, 2011 - 1:00am

Yasser Abed Rabbo is a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee and is a senior adviser to Mahmoud Abbas. He was interviewed on February 13, 2011, by The Media Line’s Felice Friedson.

The Media Line: The Palestinian Authority has taken a noticeably low-key position during the unrest in Egypt. How should that be viewed?

Abed Rabbo: Well, I don't think we have taken a low key position. We have always stressed that our relationship with Egypt is a strategic one and we support the choice of the Egyptian people. We don't have to interfere in the details of the crisis because we are close neighbors; but our position will remain that we support the Egyptian people, their democratic choice as we have shown in the statement which was issued by the PLO after the resignation of President Mubarak.

TML: In recent months, some pundits suggested that Egypt's influence had diminished, pointing in-part to the shift in Fatah-Hamas negotiations from Cairo to Syria. Should we expect any changes in these dynamics with the fall of Mubarak?

Abed Rabbo: Well, before deciding this, let us wait and see how things will develop in Egypt. Things that the transitional period will determine -- whether Egypt is going to remain or even increase its influence on the basic problems in the region -- mainly the Palestinian issue. Egypt, in spite of the temporary problems -- and we believe they are temporary -- but nobody can replace Egypt. We believe it will be much greater than it was before. We will always depend on the Egyptian role, as Egypt is the major Arab country. Egypt is the democratic Egypt, which is supported by its people; the Egypt where the institutions will be elected by the people; and the Egypt which will reform political, social and economic life; Egypt, which we expect to be more the main and key player in Arab politics and the region as well. We are not deceived by the temporary problems that Egypt is facing and we think that within a few months, the change that had carried in Egypt will be more and more deepened and it will cover all aspects of Egyptian politics, including its external politics on the Arab level.

TML: Some observers have suggested that the recent calls for local elections and now parliamentary elections are an attempt to preempt grassroots unrest like we've seen in Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen and Egypt. Is there any truth to this?

Abed Rabbo: Why should we deny it? We don't see that there are similar copies of problems in each country. We have the main problem, the main one, which is the occupation. We want to solidify the role our society is facing [regarding] the occupation and its policies and the underground, including the policies which are taken in Jerusalem, to change the nature and character of east Jerusalem. For that reason, we were thinking and we are now more motivated to try and reform the political distance by going toward municipal and later also legislative and presidential elections. We need this as part of an overall process to strengthen the systems and to introduce more elements to this system based on elections in spite of the problems that we have with Hamas. By the way, everyone remembers that we insisted on having elections in the past year and even the year before it, but the obstacle was that Hamas had rejected the elections before having an overall agreement covering all the issues, whether they are political, security or administrative issues. Now, our position is that we are ready to open a national dialogue with Hamas and with all Palestinian factions in order to solve the problems that obstruct the holding of elections. But if we cannot solve these problems, all of them, let us solve what we can in the coming year, and the other problems can be discussed and resolved in the new legislative council and new parliament, because this is the only option in front of us. We cannot postpone elections any more. We have, this year, a serious political challenge with the Israeli occupation. The whole world is supporting our right in building and establishing our own independent state. We should make our society stronger by these democratic measures, basically elections, in order to meet all options and all that we might face in this year after six or seven months. It's an option and a choice we have taken up, turning up from the national interest of the Palestinian people -- and it's not a reaction to what happened in Egypt or Tunisia. The policy was there and the policy now is escalated and motivated more and more by the positive developments that have occurred in Tunisia and Egypt and in the whole region. The youth voice was very clear in the night during the night of the collapse of the old regime in Egypt. The youth were demanding in the streets of Ramallah that the people want to overcome the divisions and the people want a united Palestine between Gaza and the West Bank. This is a priority for the people and with this priority, everybody demands reform. We are going to go in that direction because it's very connected with the national interest and with the political agenda for the coming months including the main task, which is to put an end to the Israeli occupation.

TML: Mr. Abed Rabbo, you're the secretary of the PLO executive committee. You made the announcement that there would be parliamentary elections. Hamas quickly came forward and dismissed it. Is it possible that the people of Gaza are going to push their leaders to accept the elections?

Abed Rabbo: We hope that the whole people, all the Palestinians, inside and outside, should make the maximum amount of pressure in order to solve the problems which led to the division between Gaza and the West Bank -- solve them through democratic methods and means. The most direct road leading to that is through elections. Hamas' rejection to that is because they have a different approach. They want to sit alone with Fatah, divide the cake between them and Fatah and then tell the people, “this is the cake.” Everybody had their share before the elections and that's why they insist on solving all the problems before the elections so that the people, as it was usual in all non-democratic regimes in the region, the people will receive the results and will at last decide the results through the voting ticket or [ballot] box. So that's why Hamas wants to solve, as they say, all the problems beforehand -- before the elections. We say we cried for three years to solve them through the negotiations. We solved some; we didn't solve the others. One of them is the security problem because Hamas insists that they will keep their security militias and forces as they are and will keep the security forces as they are in Gaza. We say, “what we've solved, we solved.” What we didn't solve, we will try to solve between now and September. But if there will be remaining issues, then these issues will be addressed by the new legislative council and the new government that will be formed after the elections. This is the only possible way to overcome that division. Hamas doesn't want that. Hamas wants only to reach a compromise, not with the people, but with Fatah alone. To divide as I said, the cake between them and Fatah, and that will leave no share for the people from that cake because then the people have to agree on this division and show consent only to a deal that will be made between Hamas and Fatah.

TML: You're saying that Hamas wants control of certain ministries ahead of elections?

Abed Rabbo: Not only certain ministries. Hamas wants to keeps its control over Gaza and Hamas wants all of these guarantees. And in any deal before the elections to keep that control, whatever the outcome of the elections will be. This is the meaning of what they call “reservations” toward the people, which was in the past the Egyptian people. Now we say, in a very flexible manner, “OK, we will not decide in advance of the elections what will be the future of security forces here or there; what will be the future of institutions that Hamas had built and established in Gaza before the elections. Bluntly and clearly, we say, “let us go to the elections, and these problems will be addressed by the elected bodies after the elections to try to solve them gradually and to [work out] the necessary compromises for them. Not now, we cannot make the elections and the rights and the unity of the people hostage to the ambitions of Hamas and their own agenda.

TML: Mahmoud Abbas has said he is not going to run for re-election. Do you believe he will not?

Abed Rabbo: I believe that, yes.

TML: Will Yasser Abed Rabbo be a candidate?

Abed Rabbo: I didn't think of that at all before, but if you suggest it, I'll think it over.

TML: Can we now say you are running?

Abed Rabbo: No, no. I am not. I believe that we need the younger generation to play a major role at all levels, whether in the parliament or even at the presidential level. All levels. I believe that our generation has consumed itself and the only positive thing we can do in the future is to pave the way for the coming generation to take the leading role for our people. People in their twenties and thirties in the streets of Cairo -- everyone of them could be a real leader with a little bit of experience; and maybe with that experience, he will become a better leader.

TML: Is there someone you would back today?

Abed Rabbo: I keep it for myself and for the ballot I put in the box.

TML: How damaging was the leak of documents about negotiations with Israel to Al-Jazeera?

Abed Rabbo: Well, it's not damaging. The only thing I believe was damaged was the credibility of Al-Jazeera. Al-Jazeera is fighting the battle of Hamas and of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world. That's their political agenda and they wanted to undermine the credibility of the Palestinian Authority through these documents. Sa’ib ‘Ariqat resigned not because these documents are false or right; he resigned because these documents were in his office and were stolen from there and he should [have been] more responsible toward such documents. But the problem with Al-Jazeera is something different. Al-Jazeera had selected in a very biased way one sentence here, one word here and combined them together in order to justify and support an already-arranged position against the policy of the PA and the PLO. That was the role of Al-Jazeera which we revealed and was understood by the majority of our people. So the damage was temporary until we revealed it. We didn't want it to prevent us from taking measures in order to hold all those who were responsible on our side for that kind of leakage and take measures towards them. This explains the resignations of Sa’ib ‘Ariqat; and this resignation came after thorough investigations about the leakage and about other administrative issues.

TML: Will President ‘Abbas accept ‘Ariqat’s resignation?

Abed Rabbo: He did.

TML: Have Palestinian negotiators agreed to certain Jewish neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem and to a cap on the right of return?

Abed Rabbo: I don't think this happened but I don't want to discuss that now. The negotiations had their own nature and have their own rules. Many things are said through talks between negotiators but they do not abide in any way by one position and that way of trying to take one sentence here and one sentence there out of their contexts and out of the contexts of the whole political process is very damaging and very damaging because on the other side, with Israel for example, so many voices and so many responsible politicians and the media people had concluded that the Palestinians were very responsible in the negotiations. They showed readiness to make a deal and a compromise and the ones who are not ready and are not ready today are the Israelis themselves, Israeli negotiators and Israeli leaders. That's the issue.

TML: Well there are 1600 pages out there: maps, photographs, documents. Was there any agreement on territorial compensation?

Abed Rabbo: No, no. Of course not. There was no agreement on any issue, not territorially, not Jerusalem, not refugees and other issues. The documents -- the official documents that we consider as representing our position -- are the documents which were given to the Israelis and the Americans through the Americans and the documents that Mahmoud ‘Abbas had presented to Netanyahu during the last meeting between them that took place in west Jerusalem before the collapse of the negotiations. These are the documents that describe our position, but one sentence here and one sentence there during talks, out of the context, doesn't mean that this is the Palestinian official position.

TML: In the international arena, the $64,000 question remains whether there will be a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood. What do you, Yasser Abed Rabbo, say?

Abed Rabbo: I prefer to leave it to the coming months. We are now in the process of gaining more international support; more recognition by the international community, by states all over the world; and we are continuing the process of building the institutions of the Palestinian state. We want to complete this process by having elections; to strengthen the relationship, I would call it, between the elected bodies and the Palestinian public opinion -- inside and outside. We want to revitalize the role of the PLO and at the end, there will be political decisions made


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