Abbas: “We want to push peace process on an international basis”

In an exclusive interview with RT, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas discussed Palestinian reconciliation, Fatah-Hamas relations, as well as the issues related to Palestine’s relations with Israel, Russia and the USA.

RT: Mr. President, I would like to first ask you about the talks in Cairo sponsored by Egypt and their implications for Palestinian reconciliation?

Abbas: As for the dialogue… Its last round was today and it was sponsored by Egypt. It has turned out to be constructive. But, unfortunately, I have just received news that they weren’t able to reach an agreement. Possibly it’ll be postponed until the middle of next month. Certainly, we were very interested in achieving results, just as was planned by our Egyptian brothers, so that an agreement could be reached to put an end to this dangerous situation that the people of Palestine have to live with.

But, sadly, it’s been postponed due to a number of issues that we discussed and were not able to agree on. That’s why we hope that Egypt will continue with its efforts, which are indeed unprecedented, to reach an agreement.

RT: Do you expect this agreement on Palestinian reconciliation to be reached by the deadline, the 5th of July?

Abbas: It is difficult now, because the date is being shifted to July 15th or even 18th. I don’t know exactly. Half an hour ago I received a message from our delegation that everything is being pushed back and they are returning from Cairo today or tomorrow.

RT: Today you have met with the Head of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Dr. Aziz Duwaik, who has recently been released from an Israeli prison. Tell us about this meeting and why his release is so important in relation to Palestinian negotiations.

Abbas: Ever since the arrest of Dr. Aziz Duwaik, we really wanted the Israelis to set him free. I demanded his release from Premier Olmert several times. Olmert would ask me: why? And I would say that that man was the Head of the Legislative Council and could play his part in drawing different points of view together, considering that he made such efforts in the past. Then I would go on to say that it’s in our interest to release him, but Olmert was surprised that I demanded the release of a Hamas representative. I explained to him that, at the end of it all, they are all the sons of our people and it’s important for us to set them free. But, first and foremost, I said I would want the release of the head of the Legislative Council, Aziz Duwaik. Thanks be to Allah, he is out of prison now! I personally greeted him right after he was released. Today, he visited me here. We discussed different issues and, Allah willing, he will get down to what he started prior to his arrest.

RT: We hear about arrests and the kidnapping of Fatah members by the Hamas movement every now and again. Can you comment on this?

Abbas: To my great regret, the arrests happen constantly. I don’t know the grounds for them; neither do I want to get into the details. Yes, arrests do happen. Yesterday hundreds of people were arrested without any reason. Moreover, people are not just arrested – they are not allowed to leave the country. If one Fatah member, say, wanted to go to Cairo or some other place, they would be forbidden to do so. That’s exactly how they treated members of the Women’s Council, when 90 of our sisters were expected to attend the 5th Women’s Summit. They were not allowed to leave the country and, afterwards, other people weren’t allowed to, either. They always set restrictions. Yesterday they made a series of arrests – and that’s when I decided to release many of the Hamas movement members, because either they made a promise not to be involved in public activities that threaten security or because there are no charges against them. When we arrest someone, we carry out an investigation quickly. If someone is not found guilty, we release them. We don’t have a problem with such people. Take, for example, the case of an important Hamas functionary named Fazer As-Sawafta, who surrendered to authorities at the Egyptian Embassy, and spent a week or about 10 days here. He promised not to get involved in unlawful activities and was released – because we had no questions left about his case.

We can arrest a person only if there is one of three reasons.

First of all – undermining national security, secondly – carrying weapons and thirdly – money laundering. These are the three reasons that would give us grounds for arrest. Anything beyond that doesn’t give us the right to make an arrest. I’ve said it time and again that we can’t arrest anyone from Hamas or some other movement due to political reasons, their political standing or political statements. We don’t allow ourselves to arrest a person just because of that. But when it’s an issue of security, we are very determined not to compromise. The same goes for money laundering or smuggling cash. It’s unacceptable and forbidden. If we arrest someone, then it should be based on these reasons only. And if the reasons are not there – then we aren’t going to do anything to those people. The sons of our people have different points of view, different preferences – from right wingers to left wingers – and everyone is free in their political choice as well as in the open or discreet expression of their position – as they wish. I don’t have any objections to this. For example, if a person from some organization decides to go to the local administration and tell them off – no one will do anything to him, because he has a right to speak his mind. But if he goes further and beyond that – we will arrest him.

RT: At-Taib Abdulrahim, the Secretary General of the Palestine National Administration, said it has uncovered Hamas plans to carry out terrorist attacks against members of the Palestinian government on the West Bank. What can you say about this?

Abbas: We have verified information. We are keeping track of the situation. We will reveal this information to the mass media in due course. But right now we are not going to do anything. Moreover, we have some verified information that confirms their intentions. There are people who store weapons, ammunition and explosives. We found two tonnes of explosives in one residential area. Imagine if there was a short circuit or something else went wrong! The whole area might have been destroyed. Why store explosives? Why store these weapons? Small arms, medium and heavy caliber weapons, light and heavy machine guns, shoulder-launched weapons, military uniforms of the president’s troops. And they are going to use them all.

We are watching them and we will catch them. We have also found out that there is a group that organises assassination attempts.

RT: Mr. President, how ready is the Fatah movement for its next conference, its sixth, due to be held in Bethlehem on August 4th? How relevant are the decisions that will be taken at this conference to the Middle East peace process?

Abbas: It is now too late for the conference; the fifth conference was held twenty years ago. We decided on August 4th because it is the birthday of President Yasser Arafat, in addition to being the date on which the fifth conference was held. There have been huge differences and discussions for years on how and where it would be held, until it was decided by the revolutionary council that the date would be August 4th, and the place will be Bethlehem. Preparations are underway to secure the success of this conference.

Political and regulatory documents will be discussed at this conference, followed by elections of the central committee and the revolutionary council. I don’t believe that political changes shall be adopted specifically in relation to the settlement issue; because everybody believes and is convinced that settlement with the Israelis should be arrived at on the basis of the two-state solution. Therefore, there will be no surprises at this conference.

RT: That’s the Palestinian position. Mr. President, what do you make of the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netenyahu’s speech at Bar-Ilan University and how do you view the peace process in light of the Israeli position?

Abbas: As a matter of fact, this speech was preceded by a speech given by the American president, Barack Obama, and by my visit to Washington and the visit of Prime Minister Netenyahu to Washington, during which we came to know that the international position centres around two major points; the first one is that the road map speaks about two states, a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel, and the end of the occupation of the territories, occupied since 1967. These are firm principles set down in the Road Map. The second point is the freezing of all Jewish settlement activities, including the enlargement of the existing settlements. Against this, the Palestinians have their own commitment requiring them to recognise the state of Israel. We have declared that we have fulfilled most of our obligations and shall continue doing so.

With respect to security, this is an ongoing operation and the security situation in the West Bank is very quiet. This was also confirmed by President Obama. Benjamin Netanyahu, for his part, spoke about an almost empty Palestinian state. Accordingly, it is not the kind of state mentioned in the road map; a viable Palestinian state living side by side with Israel. This is on the one hand. On the other hand, the Israeli government is still hesitant about freezing its settlement activities. In fact, they are maneuvering about this issue by finding different pretexts, such as the growth of settlements, newly-married couples, or the unfinished buildings, etc. To be frank, if they continue like this, it means they are unwilling to freeze the settlements. We would not accept this, Obama would not accept this, EU countries and Russia would not accept this. I can add that half of the Israeli people will not accept this.

What is required of Netanyahu, then, is to recognize the commitments of former Israeli governments and to look to the future. If he accepts this, then we can resume our talks to continue what we had already begun following the Annapolis conference. All things are clear for us and for the Israelis, all issues, all dossiers, and we are ready to continue in case he accepts this. After all, we are waiting for what will happen between Obama and Netanyahu.

RT: What about the Obama – Medvedev summit to be held in Moscow?

Abbas: We heard about this summit from president Medvedev and from president Obama as well. We are optimistic about US-Russia relations and hope they improve and arrive at an accord about their international policies. What's important for us is the Moscow peace conference agreed on in Annapolis, in Paris and then in Sharm Al-Sheikh. We hope to set a date for the conference to be held in Moscow in order to be able to push the peace process forward. Let's wait for the upcoming summit between presidents Medvedev and Obama.

RT: Mr. President, let me ask about your position with respect to the last meeting of the G8 and the Middle East Peace Quartet.

Abbas: Frankly, we are comfortable with the results of these meetings, especially with respect to our own issues. We will not talk about the way they handled the global financial crisis, but the way they handled the Middle East and peace process issues is comforting to us, and we have declared this more than once.

RT: We are aware of your position on the Moscow peace conference, which you just confirmed, but what are your expectations?

Abbas: We shall arrive with our political documents in our hands …. as well as our issues. We have the road map plans, the Arab peace initiative and the agreements we reached with the Israeli government. The Moscow peace conference organisers confirmed that they would try to move the peace process forward and not start from scratch. What we want from the Moscow conference is for the peace process to be pushed forward on this international basis. We do not want to invent anything new. We do not want new sponsors or new positions. What we want is the fulfillment of the commitments declared by the world towards the Palestinian case and I don’t think that is difficult.

RT: Do you believe that the relevant parties are prepared to hold this conference and are ready for serious talks?

Abbas: I believe that if the Israeli side continues adopting the policy they have been promoting, a different situation may apply. If Israel wants to talk about the settlements, and about the two states and about the negotiations according to its own thinking on these issues, it means they are willing to put a stick in the cart's wheel. Therefore, I would like to reassure you that I am committed to all international decisions and resolutions in this respect. If I am told by the international community that I did not fulfill a certain paragraph in the negotiations, then I am ready to do it at once without any questioning. But when we review the road map and find out that the Palestinians have fulfilled 90% of their commitments while the Israelis haven’t started with any of their commitments, then who is required to push the peace process forward?

RT: Mr. President, what is your evaluation of Russian-Palestinian relations and the chance of future improvement?

Abbas: Russian-Palestinian relations are very good and we have continuous meetings and visits. We met recently with President Medvedev, with Prime Minister Putin, with Foreign Minister Lavrov and Deputy Foreign Minister Sultanov, who visits us frequently. They come to us and we visit Moscow. We have identical viewpoints. We also get support from Russia on various levels, such as training, education and equipment, etc. We are very pleased with this level of relations. Everything between us is on the table; we have nothing behind the curtain. Our relationship is very strong and it dates back to the times of the Soviet Union and has been growing since then.

RT: What about non-political relations--social relations, for instance?

Abbas: We have had huge cooperation in the fields of training, education, scholarships, in addition to logistic help that come to us from Russia. In Palestine, we have properties belonging to the Russian church. They are run by the Russian Embassy and government and, hopefully, we shall see more reconstruction of these properties in the future. Moreover, we do wish to see more Russian pilgrims coming to Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Jericho. This is very important to us.

RT: Mr. President, thanks for speaking to Russia Today.