Perhaps it is a small coincidence that key Fatah figure Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala), who heads the Palestinian negotiating team with Israel, decided to present the Palestinian position a few days before his boss, President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), talks to United States President Barack Obama about those negotiations.
Since the 1993 Oslo accords, Qureia and Abbas have walked lockstep, sometimes stepping on each other's toes. At home critics lurk in every corner, with Hamas on one side, Fatah youngsters on the other, and people from their own generation who remained outside the territories or away from power all around.
Both of them gambled on an option of a political settlement with Israel whose fate - as well as their's - is now in the hands of one man: Barack Obama.
"Abu Mazen will facilitate again the Arab peace initiative," Qureia said in an interview Sunday morning, in his spacious office in Abu Dis. "The United States and the Quartet must adopt and ratify its principles - an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and normalization. The border issue is the key. If the borders will be very clearly defined, I think it will solve no less than 70 percent of the whole conflict in the region."
Will Abu Mazen present new conditions for renewing the negotiations?
Qureia: "There will be no negotiations without a complete cessation of the settlements, including what you call 'natural growth.' - Rabin said he would erect a fence around each settlement, not exceeding 50 meters from the last house of each settlement - and not expand beyond them. Unfortunately, Rabin was assassinated. There will be no negotiations without an evacuation of the outposts established since 2001, and [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak moves them from place to place. Before the negotiations, Israel will have to remove also all the internal roadblocks that dissect the West Bank. We shall not agree to continue in a situation in which Israeli soldiers enter the Muqata [government headquarters] after Israel reoccupied the West Bank."
Netanyahu said he is not committed to the understandings about borders and other issues that [former prime minister Ehud] Olmert and [former foreign minister Tzipi] Livni reached with Abu Mazen and with you. I heard him say he intends to start the negotiations from the beginning.
Qureia: "Impossible. It's a waste of time. We do not want to negotiate over a few meters here or there. This is not the problem. We have to discuss the timetable for the withdrawal, the normalization and how to move ahead implementing the agreement. I had suggested to Livni that we start the negotiations from the Taba understandings, but she maintained it was not clear what had been agreed there and demanded we start from scratch. Bibi proposes an economic peace. I don't understand what that means for people who live under occupation. His proposal that there be administrative arrangements, what is this? Power sharing? It's a return to formulas of the 70s. With that, I certainly understand his security demands and we are working on that with the Americans."
Do you insist on rejecting Netanyahu's demand that you recognize Israel as a Jewish state?
Qureia: "Livni raised that as well and we said it was not our business. Call your state whatever you wish - democratic or non-democratic, Jewish or non-Jewish. It's not fair to demand that we recognize you as the state of the Jewish people because that means an evacuation of the Arabs from Israel and a predetermination of refugees' future, before the negotiations are over. Our refusal is adamant."
Five years ago Arafat said, in an interview with Haaretz, that he understands Israel is a Jewish state.
Qureia: "But he did not provide it [in writing]."
In 1988 the Palestine Liberation Organization recognized United Nations Resolution 181 [the partition plan] and that contains the term "Jewish state."
Qureia: "Please, let us discuss Resolution 181. Livni asked me the same question and I told her 'Please, let's discuss implementing the entire partition plan'."
Is the problem the Right of Return or its implementation?
Qureia: "The Right of Return is one of the Palestinians' rights. The question of how to relate to this right is up for negotiations. We have to find a balanced formula. Do not believe anyone who presents you with any position on this matter before we see the agreement's bottom line. This is one of the rights along with self-determination, the establishment of an independent state with its capital in Jerusalem. All these are elements of a comprehensive arrangement and it would be wrong to select one element and discuss it. You've got to see the whole package that includes, also, normalization and security."
Do you insist on Palestinian sovereignty over Haram al-Sharif?
Qureia: "Of course. It's the second most important place for the Muslim world."
Peace equals security
Do you agree to demilitarize the West Bank?
Qureia: "We call it less arms. But I am sure we shall find a solution. I believe peace is the best security guarantee."
What will happen if Netanyahu continues to oppose a two-state solution?
Qureia: "Without progress on the Palestinian track you will not make any progress on any track. I believe you have an opportunity to reach an agreement with Syria and Lebanon, but if you want it, you must be ready to pay the price."
And if the Israelis will not be willing to pay the price, and will want to continue negotiating?
Qureia: "I understand from all the public opinion polls that most of the Israelis do want peace. This is not a commodity that you pick up in the street. You have to pay for it. There is a limit to bargaining. We paid 78 percent of the territory [of historical Palestine]. At Camp David, in Taba and with Livni we agreed on the principle of land swaps. The questions is what you will take and from where - take the heart? The hand? The leg?"
Do you mean, for example, that in a land swap arrangement you will not agree that Ariel remain in Israeli hands?
Qureia: "Negotiating the annexation of Ariel to Israel is a waste of time. Ma'aleh Adumim and Givat Ze'ev must also be part of Palestine. Any agreement must guarantee our territorial contiguity; leave historical sites in our hands, especially Jerusalem, as well as natural resources, especially water."
Do you believe Israel would agree to evacuate Ma'aleh Adumim's 35,000 residents?
Qureia: "[Former U.S. secretary of state] Condoleezza Rice told me she understood our position about Ariel but that Ma'aleh Adumim was a different matter. I told her, and Livni, that those residents of Ma'aleh Adumim or Ariel who would rather stay in their homes could live under Palestinian rule and law, just like the Israeli Arabs who live among you. They could hold Palestinian and Israeli nationalities. If they want it - welcome. Israeli settlements in the heart of the territories would be a recipe for problems. Israel evacuated all the settlements in Yamit and in the Gaza Strip. All the prime ministers who negotiated with Syria, including Netanyahu, agreed to evacuate all the settlements from [the Golan] Heights. So why is it so difficult for you to evacuate the settlements in the West Bank?
Perhaps because the Israelis see what has happened since they evacuated Gush Katif and Hamas seized control of Gaza.
Qureia: "If we could present the Palestinian people a peace agreement that would end the occupation [we could hold a referendum about accepting it]. Hamas has agreed to support a referendum among the Palestinians who live in the territories and in the diaspora. Hamas is part of the Palestinian people and will respect its decisions."
Olmert said he had given you the most generous offer on borders but that you rejected it. Do you expect Netanyahu to give you more? More than 94 percent?
Qureia: "If they want peace, they should pay the price. Where will we have land for a land swap? Take for example the settlement of Ariel that penetrates 22 kilometers into the West Bank, or the string of settlements from Givat Ze'ev to Efrat, that would completely isolate Jerusalem and sooner or later Bethlehem as well. Do you believe there is one Palestinian who would support this? I have no doubt Abu Mazen wants to reach an agreement and he has quiet of bit of problems because of this. He cannot accept any solution, because he has to sell it to the Palestinian people. A solution that would not guarantee the Palestinians' basic rights, would play into Hamas' hands."
Why didn't you reach an agreement with the Olmert government? What stood in your way?
Qureia: "I believe they wanted to reach an agreement, but time was too short. [Former U.S. president George W.] Bush started late and they were preparing for elections. I believe that if Olmert and Livni would have stayed in office, we would have reached an agreement before the end of 2009. Without external support, the parties will find it difficult to reach an understanding on the border issue. I know how difficult the refugee issue is for you - and for us. Jerusalem is a major obstacle. If Bibi will link Ma'aleh Adumim and E1 via the settlement of Kedar, what would be left for us in Jerusalem?"
Olmert said he had made a proposal and that you disappeared.
Qureia: "Not true. Abu Mazen continued meeting Olmert right up to the end and tried, up to the last minute, to reach an agreement."
Taking out Hamas, and Fatah
What do you think about the position of the head of the Shin Bet security service, Yuval Diskin, who said that Hamas must be toppled in order to facilitate a political process?
Qureia: "You can be sure that in that way he will topple Fatah. The only way to beat Hamas is in elections and this will happen if Israel will let us improve the living conditions of the people in the West Bank. In addition to a withdrawal from the A areas [that should be under complete Palestinian rule] we expect you to transfer C areas [under full Israeli control] to B areas [where the Palestinian Authority is responsible for civilian matters and Israel for security] in accordance with the agreement that Netanyahu signed with Arafat at the Wye Plantation in 1998. The Palestinian population is choking because of the density. During last year's negotiations we asked Olmert to transfer some lands from the areas surrounding our towns and villages. He promised to examine the request and, as always, dragged it out and nothing happened."
It seems as through even Egypt is beginning to tire of the negotiations between you and Hamas.
Qureia: "A national unity government of Fatah and Hamas is a precondition for peace with Israel. Much progress has been made in the negotiations in Egypt. It was agreed that the PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and that the organization would be reformed. We also agreed that the elections to the presidency and to the Legislative Council will be held on January 25, 2010, but we still differ on the election system. There is also a disagreement over Hamas' refusal to commit itself to abide by the previous agreements made with Israel. Their proposal, that they will "respect the agreements," does not satisfy us. Egypt proposed setting up a joint team that would serve as an interim umbrella. The Egyptians made it clear that they are not willing to be an interminable guesthouse and that we must reach a decision by July 5. All the Arab states, including Syria, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, support this."
In the meantime it seems there is an all out war between [Fatah's] young and old guard, to which you belong, and that the organization is losing the public's support.
Qureia: "Fatah is the biggest movement in the territories and without it there would have been no peace process. Those who claim Fatah is dying and that there is an alternative are making a grave mistake. Fatah won all the elections in the last three years - in the universities, and in the engineers', doctors' and workers' unions. The impression that there are differences between the veterans and the young generation is artificial. It is an invention of Fatah's rivals, spread by external elements. During the past year, Fatah went through an extensive reform. For the first time, hundreds of thousands of members took part in elections all over the West Bank and in certain parts of Gaza. More than 250 people were elected and the eldest is 40-years-old. The reform was conducted by those accused of being in the old guard. The agreement provides that the Fatah congress will meet on July 1 and that there will be 1,550 delegates there. We have prepared the regulations and the program, but still have not agreed on the venue."