Palestinian FM: Refugees from war-torn Syria will be safer here than in Europe

Rising tensions in Jerusalem have sparked worries that full-scale violence may raise its head in Palestine again - adding to the bloodshed the whole Middle East is already in. At the same time, the UN is raising flag of Palestine over its headquarters. Is there hope for Palestinian statehood? Can unrest and fear undermine the path to the peace between Israel and Palestine? We have a special guest to answer these questions: Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Palestinian Foreign Minister, Riyad al-Maliki, welcome back to Moscow, it’s great to have you again on our show.

RM: Thank you very much.

SS: So the Palestinian flag being raised at the UN for the first time - it’s a very good symbolic gesture, but how will this help Palestinian drive for a statehood?

RM: You know, it’s a step forward. We are not going to take it out of its dimension. It’s true, it’s really very symbolic, but for the people who have really strived for so many years to see the flag being really raised, for so many years sacrificing even their lives for the flag, protecting the flag and raising the flag… you know, it’s important. So, it might be symbolic in the sense of our endeavor to achieve independence, but this really has huge content in terms of value for the people who have been really fighting to see the flag raising in the UN HQ. So, we see it as a step forward. We have done a few steps before in terms of becoming UN member state, in terms of really becoming members to the ICC, members to UNESCO, et cetera. So this step really brings us closer toward the objective of becoming full members in the United Nations.

SS: Let me put it this way: can Palestine become a fully-fledged member by working through with the UN? What I mean, is UN capable of putting enough pressure on those who are against your bid?

RM: Frankly speaking, we have to work in different levels. We have to keep working within the UN system in order to achieve our objectives, by convincing all parties including the countries who have veto power, to convince them that it's in the vested interest of everybody - peace and security worldwide - that Palestine becomes a full-fledged member; but at the same we have to work at other levels. Yes, we do believe, still, in negotiated peace agreement with the Israelis, we see it as a must, and we are ready to see ourselves re-engaged again in serious negotiations with Israel with international guarantees. All these elements are important, but we are not going to let go one in the expense of the other. We will work parallelly with all different venues in order to achieve our objective.

SS: Now, at the end of his General Assembly speech, Mahmoud Abbas has promised something sensational. Do you know what it may be?

RM: Yes, I know.

SS: Can you tell us?

RM: I have read his speech…

SS: So give us some clues, sneak preview!

RM: I think it should be, a surprise to everybody; but in the sense, he’s not going to “throw a bomb”. What he’s trying to do is to describe the situation as it is today, meaning that we have signed with Israel since Oslo agreement until today, many and different agreements. We have been fulfilling our parts of the agreements. Israel is not. So either Israel fulfills its part of the agreement, the way that we are doing - so, that’s okay. If Israel does not and will not fulfill its part of the agreement - then why should we?

SS: Mr. Abbas has also warned that tensions around the Al-Aqsa Mosque don’t ease there may be another intifada, and of course that would completely destroy the progress made at peace process at the UN, right?

RM: Well, first of all, I wonder if there’s any progress made in the peace process. This is a really big question. There’s no progress. Since Netanyahu became Prime-Minister we cannot talk about any progress in the peace process. And there are no prospects for any progress in the peace process as long as Netanyahu maintains his position - not to negotiate, not to recognize the state of Palestine, not to end occupation and not really to accept the two-state system. So, this is really a problem. But you know, going back to your question, look: President Abbas is not capable to stop any intifada - or to start any intifada. This is really one… Secondly, President Abbas is not a person in favor of violence in the Palestine’s occupied territories. You have seen his behaviour, his attitude: in the last ten years since he became President, he has maintained law and order in territories under his own control and so he’s not going to allow violence in the sense that it will be out of control, out of hand. What he was referring to, that he cannot keep preventing people from expressing their frustration, their disappointment and their anger from the fact that Israel and Netanyahu in particular wanted to create, first of all to let go the status-quo that existed in Al-Aqsa and to create his own status-quo. This is not acceptable. This really is a total violation of international law, violation of his obligation as an occupying power according to Geneva conventions.

SS: Two questions. First of all, do you think, God forbid, third intifada rises - would Palestine stop it or to try to control it, or it will actually support it? First that.

RM: No. This is not really a type of question that one should really answer. The question should be: “are we capable to prevent any escalation in the situation by either the parties themselves or by the international community?” This should be the question.

SS: What if you’re not? Then what? And then an intifada happens - what do you do?

RM: No, no. I won’t even go in that direction, because this is really just a speculation in that sense. President Mahmoud Abbas has said all the time that he is against third intifada or any intifada. So he’s not going to allow intifada to happen. But that should not give assurances to Netanyahu that since President Mahmoud Abbas is against third intifada, then Netanyahu will feel - “Well, well, in this case I will do whatever I want because I know that President Abbas is not going to allow third intifada in Palestine occupied territory”. This should not be understood this way by Netanyahu. Our reaction should not be only a violent reaction. There are other means that we could undergo and use as Palestinian authority - remember, that we became member of the ICC and we have really submitted documents to the ICC a while ago, and ICC is looking into the fact that if there are enough evidence  to open an official investigation against Israel, tantamount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. What we could do? We could really gear our attention and focus all our efforts towards that way, by trying to expose the fact that Israel has committed war crimes and secondly, to activate the legal dimension of our approach, rather than using the violent dimension where we know that we are going to lose in advance.

SS: But let’s stick to intifada situation. Why do you think Israel just concerning the Al-Aqsa Mosque story is being so heavy-handed and does it even have a choice of a softer approach, considering they have so much pressure from its own citizens - why do you think they are being like that?

RM: Because Netanyahu reads very well what’s happening in Arab world. He knows there will be no Arab or Muslim reaction to this situation - it’s really an opportunistic kind of an approach. He has know that he has to please his Settler movement who are his allies in the current coalition government. So, it’s really an opportunity for him to create new facts on the ground, taking in consideration that international community is not ready to engage or ready to react.

SS: But, the way it seems to me another huge problem, stumbling block in this peace process between Palestine and Israel is the situation within Palestine. I mean, how can you reach a peace process with Israel when in Palestine, West Bank and Gaza are governed by two different factions?

RM: Look, this has really always been an excuse of Netanyahu - “With whom should I really speak? To the Palestinians in West Bank or the Palestinians in Gaza?” This is not the first time and not the only time when it happens so that certain elements of the country are rebellious. If you want to look into countries around the world, you will see that central governments, they are not in control of all their national territory. Put it in that perspective. But, you know...look, we have said and Hamas has told the President Mahmoud Abbas that “you have full mandate to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian people”.

SS:  So you have an agreement with Hamas regarding that.

RM: Yes, to reach a peace agreement with Israel. The moment that you reach peace agreement with Israel, what you should do is to put that agreement into public referendum. Now, if the people will approve that agreement - then everybody, including Hamas will respect the results. If they don’t, then President Mahmoud Abbas will respect that result.

SS: So, as far as Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are concerned, I know that some PLO members have called for a new format, meaning a bigger international team involved in the talks. Who would Palestine like to see as mediator?

RM: Look, now, the Quartet has been…

SS: Would you say it has failed? Would you say Quartet has sort of hitted dead end?

RM: I would say that the Quartet did not achieve the objectives that it was created for. Since its inception until today, the Quartet did not produce the type of results that one expected from it, and that’s why while we value the Quartet in that way, we are not saying that we need to dismantle the Quartet, but we are looking for creative ideas and one of the creative ideas was to organize a meeting in the UN on the 13th, by inviting three ministers from the Arab world -  Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia - plus the Secretary-General of the Arab League, to see that if their inclusion into the process might make a certain difference. This is on one point. On the other point, you know that France and Laurent Fabius has been really promoting and really presenting ideas of setting up an international support mechanism to support the peace process, by saying that, first of all that is not enough to put all our eggs into Quartet basket, one, two - that there are so many countries outside of the Quartet, which are ready to engage, are ready to also put their own synergy in the process in order to promote peace and to help the Quartet, moving the process forward.

SS: So who would those countries be, except the Arab countries that you’ve just mentioned?

RM: Well, they are talking about the five permanent members, plus some of the Arab countries, plus some of the European countries, plus other counties like Japan, like, maybe, Brazil, South Africa - we are talking about, you know, heavyweight countries, politically and economically, who want to engage and who want to contribute. We believe that their engagement into such a process might really make a difference.

SS: What kind of help do you expect from Russia, precisely, in helping to settle this conflict?

RM: Look, Russia has been always supportive to a peace process and supportive to the Palestinian cause - that’s for sure. The voting pattern is indicative and dialog that we have had with them also is indicative. But, you know, we have agreed, back in 2009, in the UNSC Resolution 11860, that there should be an international peace conference to be held in Moscow. Now, of course, Moscow deserves to be given the opportunity to show not only its commitment, but also involvement and its ability to mobilize support around the Israeli-Palestinian negotiative process. This is really one. Secondly, Russia has been always ready to engage, whenever it's being really called for - and this is really an excellent position that we appreciate from Russia, and that’s why when we met with President Putin, minister Lavrov - we have spoken about different ideas that we might really contemplate during our presence in New York next week or beyond that. Look, there are always at least 2, 3 or 4 meetings between President Putin and President Mahmoud Abbas every year. Such meetings allow for exchange of ideas, views, coordinate matters - and I believe that continuing such dialog between the two Presidents allows both sides to oversee matters that one cannot see separately. This really what is important: first of all, to continue coordination bilaterally, secondly,to work through the Quartet and work through the international support mechanism in New York, and thirdly, also, to look into what are other ideas that we are contemplating in the UN, including going to the UNSC and asking for different types of resolution.

SS: Now, tell me honestly, is mr. Abbas leaving his post as President of PLO and the Fatah movement?

RM: As long as there are hopes, as long as there are opportunities, as long as there is an international community ready to engage and to support him to move towards the peace process, to put an end to the occupation and to achieve peace agreement with Israel, then he’s ready to commit himself to that.

SS: Because, I mean, the escalation right now between the Palestine and Israel would make the region even more dangerous, especially considering that ISIS is lurking around the corner - and ISIS is not very favorable of the Palestinian cause. I mean, we’ve seen it invade Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, we’ve seen it burn Palestinian flags, et cetera. Are you afraid of an attack from ISIS?

RM: No.

SS: Tell me something, is Palestine ready to work with Israel against ISIS if the need rises?

RM: Look, ISIS is a threat to all countries in the region - to the stability and peace and security in the region, and we are ready to be part of an international coalition effort, that will try to confront such threat. That’s for sure. But this should not undergo and really make us forget about the atrocities and crimes committed by Israel as an occupying power against the Palestinian people since 1967 until today. This is really another matter. Israel has to understand that any kind of war against ISIS is not going to let go Israel's continuing occupation of the Palestinian territory.

SS: Do you think Israel will be willing to work with Palestine against ISIS? I mean, you surely have your take on that, you’re Palestinian Foreign Minister, you know what’s going on in the other side as well…

RM: Well, I don’t know if Israel is going to be involved in any international coalition against ISIS. Look, I think Israel is benefiting very much from the existence of ISIS as a threat, and Israel will always use ISIS as a threat to existence of the state of Israel, and that’s why they will say: “because of ISIS we have to continue our occupation of Palestinian occupied territory. Because of ISIS we should not withdraw from Jordan valley. Because of ISIS we have to build more settlements”, et cetera. So, they are benefiting very much from the so-called theoretical threat, coming from ISIS. But practically, I don’t think  that Israel will involve itself in any kind of international effort to fight ISIS.

SS: So you don’t think it’s concerned - because Syria is around the corner…

RM: There’s no threat to Israel from ISIS. There’s no threat.

SS: Why do you say so?

RM: Because, until today we didn’t hear one single word coming from ISIS, threatening Israel or mentioning Israel. Not at all! ISIS is worried about changing regimes in Iraq, in Syria, in the rest of these countries - but they did not mention Israel. Israel is not in their map.

SS: How you’re dealing, inside Palestine, with the spillovers of Syrian civil war - because there are some activists from ISIS who are actually in Gaza. Are they in the West Bank as well?

RM: No. In the West Bank there are none at all, and in Gaza - I don’t know if there are any ISIS members. We know, that, yes, there are certain salafists, like there are in many European countries.

SS: Taking Syrian refugees - Israel won’t let you do that, but physically, how are you planning on doing that economic situation and even space-wise - it’s not like you’re huge territory also…Even if it allowed for the refugees to come over.

RM: We have mentioned that long time ago. We have asked for possibility to absorb refugees coming from Syria long time ago, even from Lebanon. Now, with situation in Syria and especially in Yarmouk and also the spillover around, we have said that instead of our refugees leaving Syria and trying to venture in the Mediterranean and then to die or reach countries around Europe, much better for them and for us that they will be absorbed in Palestine. This is really our obligation, our responsibility. Now, the money that the EU will spend accommodating and to adjust and receive refugees in their own countries, could be spent in accommodating such refugees when they come to Palestine - so, of course, we don’t have the means, economic means, to absorb them, but we do expect the international community to help us to absorb them, to provide us with economic means to absorb them - not only that we have welcomed Palestinian refugees in Syria, even we said “we are ready to welcome also Syrian refugees if they like to come to Palestine and if they believe that Palestine for them is better secured than any other place around the world.”

SS: What kind of political solution is Mr. Abbas talking about in Syria? What do you think would be the best solution to the crisis?

RM: From day one, President Mahmoud Abbas was calling for a political solution to the conflict - when many counties said that the only solution to the conflict in Syria is a military one - for years later, everybody right now is talking about a political solution rather than a military solution. So, it proves that President Mahmoud Abbas was right from day one, nobody really listened. Secondly, he even presented his own ideas to resolve the conflict which became the basis for Geneva one. He presented these ideas to President Putin and to President Barack Obama, to President Hollande and to Merkel - to everybody at that moment. We still are ready to help to bring about such ideas into practice and try to seek possibilities of ending the conflict. When President Mahmoud Abbas met with President Putin two days ago, they talked about Syria, they talked about these possibilities, the same day he met with President Hollande of France, in Paris, and they spoke about such possibilities. Yes, we are very small country, still under occupation, we are not full-fledged member in the UN, but we have our own ideas and we have our own influence. We could help very much to bring about the solution to the conflict and we are ready to support that.

SS: Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki, thank you very much for this interview.

RM: Thank you.