Felice Friedson
Ynetnews (Interview)
February 23, 2011 - 1:00am

In an interview conducted on eve of UN Security Council vote on a resolution condemning settlement construction, Dr. Riyad Al-Malki, the foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority, spoke to The Media Line about Iranian backing for Hamas, Palestinian statehood on-track for a September declaration and growing international support.

The Media Line: Yasser Abed-Rabo said to me the other day that Mahmoud Abbas will not run for president. So, who will?

PA Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr. Riyad Al-Malki: Well, I don’t know. First of all, I hope that he will run again because we need him. He has heard such requests not only from his own people but also from many leaders around the world. I witnessed many occasions when very important world leaders asked the president to re-think his decision. It seems like everyone appreciates the role the president has done so far and they believe his leadership is needed for the near future. Who else? Theoretically, the Palestinian people have enormously qualified people who could run for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority.

TML: For example?

Al-Malki: I don’t know. Anyone could be qualified, based on experience and commitment. But for the time being, I do believe we need President Mahmoud Abbas to lead us toward statehood.

TML: What about Riyad Al-Malki? Any interest?
Al-Malki: No. No. I am really satisfied at the level that I have reached. Being foreign minister for almost four years is enough. I don’t have any aspirations beyond going back to family and to think of my future in a peaceful way.

TML: There has been some speculation that the announcement of local and parliamentary elections was calculated to pre-empt the sort of popular unrest that has been spreading from Tunisia and Egypt. Do you think that’s so?

Al-Malki: Well, we saw the unrest spreading from Tunisia to Egypt, but I didn’t see the unrest coming here. I don’t think that’s a logical interpretation of events. I’ll give you an example. When Al-Jazeera did its campaign against the Palestinian Authority and the negotiating process, we saw demonstrations in support of the PA and President Mahmoud Abbas -- nothing contrary to that. I didn’t see unrest in the Palestinian Authority. We are talking about democracy in Palestine; we are talking about a multi-party system, transparency and accountability. We are talking about things that might not be available in other areas of our region, but (this is not the case) in Palestine. So if one wants to analyze or interpret the reason behind the unrest in some of these countries, I don’t feel like there are any common links to the situation here in Palestine.

TML: One of the most serious issues regarding the future for the Palestinians is the divide between Fatah and Hamas. Will what is happening in Egypt affect that issue?

Al-Malki: First of all, it’s not between Fatah and Hamas — it’s between the PLO and Hamas. We have to include the other factions within the PLO. Hamas doesn’t want to recognize the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. The problem is there. Obviously, I do realize that this is a top priority for us. We have been so concerned since the Hamas coup d’état against the Palestinian Authority about how to bring about reconciliation and rapprochement. Egypt was taking such responsibility on behalf of the Arab world. Now, with what has happened in Egypt, one should really ask the question to Egypt, “Is Egypt still interested in maintaining this responsibility or do we need to pass it back to the Arab league?” I think Egypt wants to continue this and we still believe that Egypt can continue to do the necessary work to bring about reconciliation between the two parties inside the Palestinian internal conflict.

TML: So many people have tried for rapprochement between the two sides. How can you get past the issue of security: each side demanding to retain control of its security apparatus?

Al-Malki: The solution to this is elections. We have stated that very clearly. Even within the Egyptian document (proposed settlement), it states very clearly that there will be the formation of a government that will prepare for elections. Whoever will win the elections will lead the Palestinian people in the next period. Now, Hamas does not want elections because Hamas fears that the outcome of elections will not put it in the government seat. They realize that very well. They read the situation on the ground very well and that is why they are totally against elections. But at the end of the day, the people should realize this and the people should really put pressure on Hamas in order to come to its own senses.

The second problem that Hamas faces is that Hamas has sold its spirit and its independence to other countries. Hamas is not free to decide on its own about its decisions. I think other countries decide for Hamas. This is really a problem. I’m referring to Iran in particular. Amazing, but this is really the problem, that Hamas allowed such countries like Iran and others to intervene and influence internal Palestinian affairs and decisions. One of the ways to handle this matter is to bring Hamas closer to the ministry and politics and convince them it should give up relying on Iran and others and to become a Palestinian political party concerned for Palestinian political affairs and really represent Palestinian political interests. When this happens, then the reconciliation becomes a possibility.

TML: Looking ahead, if elections take place without Hamas, what is going to be the scenario?

Al-Malki: Elections are elections. There are many examples in the world where parties decided to boycott elections. That does not make the elections invalid or unrecognized internationally. When the president calls for elections and has the mandate to call for elections, it’s up to the political parties to make up their minds on whether to participate. Of course, it will make it (more) meaningful if Hamas participates, but if Hamas decides to boycott elections, it’s an internal decision of Hamas. It won’t alter the plans to hold elections because it is a democratic requirement to hold elections and we will run with whatever political parties decide to participate. We should take the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem as one entity; one unit territorially and have total representation. The problem will be how to make the people in Gaza participate and vote. Right now, with technology, it is not really a problem. We are finding ways and preparing for that. The independent election commission will authorize alternative mechanisms for voting in case Hamas will try to prevent us from opening election stations in order for people to vote through the normal process. Our people in Gaza will participate and elect our own representatives to a new legislative council and the president.

'We should really think collectively'

TML: If you can't find that way, can you move forward with a Palestinian state in the West Bank with Gaza annexed?

Al-Malki: We have to continue because life should not be stopped because Hamas wants to stop life where they are. We have to go forward. We have to continue working for statehood. We have to continue working for Gaza to come back to the Palestinian family. We have to work for international recognition of Palestinian statehood. We have to work for September. We have obligations as an authority to continue. At the end of the day, history will judge us and that's why we're not going to yield to any kind of pressure from Hamas or whomever. We should continue believing that one day very soon Gaza will revolt against Hamas, who controls it by force. The people of Gaza will ask and will seek to come back to the Palestinian body which is really the Palestinian state.

TML: Worst case scenario: Iran continues to provide money and supplies to Hamas and continues to give Hamas its marching orders. Don't you have a long-term problem in terms of the radicalization of Gaza?

Al-Malki: Of course. Gaza is becoming a radical spot in our region. We are worried about that. We are worried about radical elements coming into Gaza because Gaza is a lawless kind of territory. While Hamas controls the inside, Hamas does not control the outside, meaning who comes in and who goes out. Some who are persona non-grata from other countries have found refuge in Gaza because of the lawlessness there. They are building a base and this really becomes worrisome to us. In fact, we have seen and we have heard of clashes between such extremist elements, even with Hamas. One day such extremist elements might take over Gaza and then what will happen? We are worried about our own people in Gaza, the one-and-a-half million Palestinians. It should also be worrisome to other countries in the region, Egypt in particular. The United States and others are worried at seeing the deterioration of the situation in Gaza and Gaza becoming a base for extremists. This will undermine not only stability in the West Bank but it will spill over to many other countries in the region. That's why, yes, we should really think collectively about ways to prevent this from getting even worse.

TML: The Palestinian Authority controls the flow of goods into the Gaza Strip. Israel says humanitarian aid gets in; the World Health Organization says it does not.

Al-Malki: We have been providing 58 percent of our total budget. We did not ever stop paying the water bill or the electricity bill. And even when it comes to medications, we have been re-sending shipment after shipment to Gaza. We know Hamas has been putting all these shipments aside instead of giving this medication to people in Gaza. They used to keep it for awhile and then they throw it out after it expires, so no one benefits from it. Again, we are dedicated to the well being of our people in Gaza and we never stopped. In all of our meetings with international visitors, we raise the issue of Gaza; we call for lifting the siege, the embargo; for increasing the number of items allowed in. We talk about the circulation of goods. We talk about exportation and free importation. Regarding medicines, we send more than what we need to make sure our people in Gaza won't suffer from the Israeli siege and from the Hamas control.

TML: There were revelations recently released by Al-Jazeera that indicated negotiators had made sweeping concessions to Israel but kept them from the people. Is there truth to the leaked documents?

Al-Malki: I don't know about the truth. I don't care that much, but what I am concerned about is whether we’ve been keeping such information from our own people and from many others who should know. The answer is, “No, absolutely not.” Our people were not really shocked because President Mahmoud Abbas is the one who talks all the time about 1967 borders with small modifications. He is the one who is very clear about what he says in closed rooms and outside. Our people know for a fact what the position of the Palestinian negotiators is when they go sit and talk to the Israelis. Also, the negotiators have been under the instructions of the president to keep the Arab league informed about the positions, about the negotiating process, and also informing many other Arab leaders. I'm not really interested to know whether the documents themselves are genuine or not because at the end of the day this is a matter that is left to the investigation and to the people themselves to admit or not to admit. At the end of the day for me, what is important is when there is a document signed and agreed-to by both parties. What concerns me the most is what type of agreement (results) and what is contained in that agreement. Regarding the process itself -- how the negotiators were talking, smiling, were making jokes -- I'm not really interested in this. At the end of the day, these are details I have more important things to worry about.

TML: If the documents were not accurate, then was this done by Al-Jazeera or was it done someone else?

Al-Malki: Well, I don't know. First of all, if they were accurate or not accurate, we have a process of investigation and we should really leave it to this and wait and see the outcome of this. For sure, Al-Jazeera wanted to undermine the position of the Palestinian Authority. We are aware of that and that they have been trying to do so. This is only a chapter of their anti-PLO and anti-PA actions and we will be seeing in the near future other chapters where Al-Jazeera will try to undermine and discredit the PA, the president in particular, and many others. We have to be prepared for that.

TML: Why do you think they want to do that?

'We will avoid completely going alone'

Al-Malki: It seems Al-Jazeera tries to present itself as the political leader or the political party in the Arab world that could really make change. They think they can undermine the stability in the region and change regimes. OK. Then one has to look into it and see how we will react to it. This is really Al-Jazeera. It's a mandate they have undertaken. Who really gave them that mandate to make the change? It will be clear in the future. It's beyond their own capacity to make a change. They are serving others’ interests rather than serving their own.

TML: There were ramifications of the leaked documents. Saeb Erekat, who was one of the most effective voices for the Palestinians, had to resign. How serious a loss is that?

Al-Malki: Well, what's important isn't the loss. What's important about it is to grow lessons and conclusions and to learn from your lessons. The president drew conclusions and that's why he accepted the resignation of Saeb Erekat. He wants to change the whole approach vis-à-vis negotiations. He wants to appoint new people -- a collective team for negotiating with the Israelis -- and that could happen in the near future. And we will see different changes and approaches when it comes to negotiations. This is really the most important outcome of the leaks.

TML: The timetable for statehood is this summer according to the prime minister himself. Do you think the Palestinians are prepared?

Al-Malki: Yes. It's autumn. We are prepared and have been prepared for a long time but we wanted to make sure this readiness is recognized by the international community. This is why we brought this two-year plan. We wanted the international community to partner with us in the final touches of preparing for statehood. We wanted them to witness such readiness. The moment that we prepared the two-year plan and we invited the international community to partner with us, to walk with us in each and every step, their reports became the guarantee that we are ready. When the World Bank report talked about achievements in that direction, it was really important and added value in that direction. And when Hillary Clinton or Catherine Ashton; or this prime minister or that foreign minister speaks on behalf of the PA, acknowledging our achievements, that's what we really wanted to get. So when we come at the end of August or beginning of September and we say we have completed our tasks in terms of institution-building and our readiness for statehood, then it's not going to be a Palestinian voice alone. It will be echoed by voices all around the world -- credible voices who will say, “Yes, they are ready. Yes they deserve a state.” So, are we ready? Yes we are ready. Are we ready for September? Absolutely. I think our issue will be raised not only by us but by the international community as a whole, including the United States of America.

TML: Will the state of Palestine be declared by way of a unilateral declaration or will it be part of the negotiation process with Israel?

Al-Malki: President Mahmoud Abbas has stated repeatedly many times in the past, that, “We prefer that a Palestinian state will come as a result of a negotiating process with Israel.” We are working in that direction. Even the collective recognitions we have recently gotten from countries around the world are intended to prove that two-state solution is still alive, despite the fact that Israel tried to kill it by building settlements everywhere and to make the two-state solution a total impossibility as a task. Such recognition always brings the two-state solution back on the table, makes it really alive and puts the type of pressure on the Israelis and on the Americans and on the international community that there is a need for resumption of negotiations in order for a Palestinian state to come as a result of these negotiations.

TML: Can a state by unilateral decision survive? At what point would you go to the United Nations to recognize Palestine and as what sort of entity?

Al-Malki: We are not going to the United Nations. The UN will go to the UN and ask them for such recognition. I am not going to ask the United Nations to recognize a Palestinian state because this would be a unilateral action. We will avoid completely going alone. We will avoid completely being accused of unilateralism. This is for sure. We still believe we have enough time for the resumption of negotiations and for achieving a two state solution based on negotiations and for a Palestinian state to be declared as a result of that. But if we reach September without that outcome, and if the international community comes to that conclusion themselves, then the international community has to take action in order to see that a Palestinian state will be seated in the United Nations next to Israel.

TML: European nations have recently upgraded the level of diplomatic recognition but have not gone as far as South American nations. Are you disappointed?

Al-Malki: Somehow yes. I am disappointed, but at the end of the day I understand the pressure, the historic ties. I understand what they are planning and preparing for. I accept it. The Europeans have a two-phased approach. The first phase is to upgrade the status of our missions today and the second phase is for recognition. I accept it in two phases. But ultimately yes, I expect the Europeans to recognize the Palestinian state. If you go back to their last statement that was issued on December 13, 2010, it was clear that they will recognize a Palestinian state when appropriate and in the second line, they made reference to the World Bank report which acknowledged our readiness for statehood. I'm speaking to many foreign ministers within the European Union. It's really clear that we should anticipate a collective recognition of the Palestinian state by September.

TML: Minister Al-Malki, what is the status of the UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel building on post-1967 lands?

Al-Malki: We know pressure is mounting on us by the US, trying to persuade us to take this issue from voting because it will embarrass the U.S. But you know, we are responsible as the Palestinian Authority because if we were not, we could have really taken this issue to voting (before). Remember, last week, we have 2 million people in Tahrir Square in Egypt. Imagine we put that resolution to vote last week when this 2 million people were demonstrating and we force the voting and Americans decide to veto that resolution. The whole exercise in Tahrir Square, the 2 million will be chanting anti-American slogans. We tried to avoid that because we are responsible partners and we avoided the Americans great embarrassment so I hope the moment we take this resolution to vote this week that the Americans will avoid their own embarrassment.

TML: This begs another question. Is the resolution a test of President Obama's ability to serve as an honest broker?

Al-Malki: For many years the Americans were accused of double standards. They have to prove otherwise. This is really very important. We are not really accusing Israel. We are condemning settlement activities. We have used the same language that Hillary Clinton has used. So we are not putting forth inflammatory kind of wording. We are using official American wording in order to tranquilize the Americans. Still, they want to veto their own wording? It's up to them. It will make it uncomfortable for the Americans. I'll tell you why. For the first time ever, more than 130 countries have endorsed this resolution. This never happened before. So imagine how the Americans will explain this to the 130 countries in the United Nations. “Why are you voting against a resolution that is condemning settlement activities in Israel?” We are not pinpointing Israel. We are condemning settlement activities which is totally illegal according to international law.

TML: What will be the Palestinian position if the United States vetoes it?

Al-Malki: We will feel disappointed and frustrated and we will wonder how the Americans will be able to continue with their efforts as a fair broker after such an embarrassment because such veto will prove they cannot really continue as fair brokers because no one will take them seriously. This is really important. I remember when President Barack Obama was sending messages to the Egyptian leadership and he was saying to Mubarak, “You have to leave now; you have to make changes now; you have you have to start reforms now.” I thought, my goodness, if he is able to say 'now' to Mubarak, he could have said 'now' to Netanyahu regarding settlements. This 'now' is difficult for Obama to say it when it comes to Netanyahu.

This also poses so many questions. It's really fair to hear answers to such questions from President Obama.

TML: Would you like to see the European players have a larger role when it comes to Middle East peacemaking?

Al-Malki: Absolutely. It's fair. They are contributing financially to the Palestinian Authority and they have been very supportive regarding institution building. They are close to us in geographic terms. We are jointly part of the Union of the Mediterranean in that sense. So yes, we would like to see a more active European role, a larger European role inside the Quartet and outside the Quartet. It is clear that Europe wants that. But of course, no one talks about replacing the US We are talking about supporting the role of the US, backing the US so the US does not feel it is alone in taking decisions but is also supported by the European Union as it is being supported by Russia. This is really important and fair.

TML: You were critical of the Netherlands, accusing it of lobbying against the European Union, becoming more involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Why is that?

Al-Malki: Historically, the Netherlands has been supportive of Israel and has been one of the closest friends to Israel from the beginning. We have no problem with that. To tell you the truth, being a friend of Israel does not make you against also being friends with the Palestinians. On the contrary, it brings you added value to be friends to both in that sense. We have encouraged many countries to maintain their relations with Israel but also to develop their relations with Palestine because this really gives them an opportunity to intervene, to help, and to offer advice to both sides. This is important. What happens with the Netherlands is three things: First of all, its parliament has passed a resolution against recognizing the Palestinian state. This has forced us to stand up and ask, “Why?” Why this anti-Palestinian decision? The Netherlands is among a few that have been taking actions not to (support statehood). But at the end of the day we are very open and have received the visit of the foreign minister, Uri Rosenthal here. It was a very good visit. He was received by the president, the prime minister and by myself. We had excellent discussions and we are aiming even to sign a political consultation memorandum between the two foreign ministries. There is really progress.

TML: This whole peace process has been a long journey, a long path. At the end of the day, as you say, it comes down to the people on the streets. Do average Palestinians want peace with the Israelis?

Al-Malki: Absolutely. I can guarantee that. I sense it. I feel it all the time. People here and in Israel are tired of this status quo. No one wants to continue in this kind of turmoil -- no war, no peace, standing up on alert. It's time for our people just to relax and start thinking about the well-being of themselves as individuals and as a collective. Every time we read a public opinion poll it shows that the majority of Palestinians and Israelis are in favor of peace and a two-state solution. Of course, what happened is that politicians sometimes undermine such consensus or majority by taking actions that make the people really realize that “Oh my goodness, where are our leaders taking us?” Especially in Israel, they allow the elitists to lead. And the elitists right now in Israel are leading us no where, unfortunately.


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