RAMALLAH - Perhaps it was the daytime fast and abstention from smoking during the holy month of Ramadan, and perhaps it was the conversation about the exhausting negotiations with Israel that caused Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to press the white button at least three times in the course of last Wednesday's interview.
Sa'id, his personal assistant, enters without a word, pulls out the packet and lights a cigarette for the president. Abu Mazen's relaxed mood does not hint at all the troubles bombarding him from inside and out.
He dismisses the threats of colleagues, including the chairman of the Palestinian negotiation team Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) and rivals such as Prof. Sari Nusseibeh, to replace the negotiations over two states with a demand for equal rights between Israelis and Palestinians in one state. He also promises that, just as he opposed the second intifada, he will not support a third one.
The message is almost self-evident: Don't miss your opportunity with me. You won't have a partner like me. But on one point he is insistent: the right of return. Israel will have to absorb refugees in its territory, he emphasizes, following negotiations regarding their numbers.
He is aware of the arguments in Israel about his political weakness. "It's a good excuse for Israel not to fulfill its obligations," he says with a bitter smile. "I'm still reading in your newspaper that it won't be possible to reach a peace agreement because your prime minister, Ehud Olmert, is accused of corruption and I'm too weak. But even senior Israeli officials now admit that we are doing an excellent job."
Even Amos Gilad, the head of the diplomatic-security headquarters in the Defense Ministry, and a sharp critic of the PA?
"Even Amos Gilad. We have restored order to the West Bank cities, we are taking steps against anyone who tries to undermine security and stability, whether it is Hamas, Islamic Jihad or even Fatah. In Israel and in the United States they are well aware that the Palestinian security forces have prevented many attacks. We even dismantled Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. Today there is one armed force and one authority in the field."
Abbas' situation in public opinion surveys conducted in the territories is better than ever. The chaos that reigned in the cities of the West Bank has been replaced by the Palestinian police. The security systems are garnering praise from those very senior Israeli officials who in the past leveled penetrating criticism against their functioning - including the head of the Shin Bet security service, the defense minister and generals in the Israel Defense Forces. The economic situation in the West Bank is also improving. And nevertheless, Abu Mazen knows that without a diplomatic agreement, all these achievements will evaporate and the Palestinians will return to Hamas' embrace.
Do you remember that Saturday, September 13, is the anniversary of the Oslo Accords?
"Because it didn't succeed. Fifteen years have passed since then, and we are still far from an agreement."
Olmert is about to resign. What do you feel on the personal level?
"I admire him very much and for over a year we've been working together. Now he is about to leave and we will honor what the Israeli public decides. We will conduct negotiations with any prime minister elected in Israel, and bid farewell to Olmert. But I intend to conduct negotiations with him until his last moment in the job."
It is evident that the elections for the leadership of Kadima are a source of great concern to those sitting in the Muqata, the PA's seat of government, in Ramallah. Abu Mazen's advisors are busy not only with issues related to Hamas and Fatah, but also with the attempt to guess who will win: Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz or Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. On this subject, as on others, MK Ahmed Tibi (Ra'am-Ta'al), who was present at the interview, serves as a guide for the PA president. In addition, Abbas makes sure to keep abreast of reports from the Israeli media.
Olmert said that we have never been so close to an agreement. Had he remained in the job would that have changed anything?
"I cannot say that 'an agreement is near' or 'not near' is the correct term to use, but it is doubtful whether we could have completed an agreement by the end of 2008 [as the sides promised at the Annapolis conference], even had he remained in the job. So far there has been no achievement in the negotiations. There are various proposals regarding borders and the refugee issue, but they have remained proposals only and all six central issues of the final status agreement [Jerusalem, borders, refugees, security, settlements and water] have remained open. I cannot say that there has been an agreement on a single issue. The gap between the sides is very large. We presented our ideas and demands regarding the six issues, and have yet to receive any answer from the Israeli side."
Jordan's King Abdullah said recently to a French newspaper that he is not convinced that Israel wants to solve the conflict, due to the absence of a long-term vision. Do you agree with that statement?
"I tend to agree with King Abdullah. We can reach an agreement because the outline is known, and it is not clear to me why there is no progress. Perhaps because of internal political disputes in Israel. I can say that the Americans continue to play a central role, and are even eager for us to reach an agreement by the end of the year. They are convinced we are capable of that."
We have heard many different versions about the percentage of the area of the West Bank Israel is willing to transfer to the Palestinian state. Could you tell us the exact percentage?
Abu Mazen smiles. "We have been presented with more than one proposal. I can tell you that, among other things, we raised the demand to conduct negotiations over no-man's land and not only over the entire West Bank." [One example is the Latrun area.]
Have you told the Israelis that they have to refer to previous documents, to previous negotiations like those conducted in Taba in 2001?
"Israel now claims that those talks were conducted by other teams. 'It's not us. It's Yossi Beilin,' they say."
Abbas looks very excited when he mentions the 2002 Arab peace initiative, in which 22 Arab countries agreed to normalize relations with Israel if Israel withdraws to the 1967 boundaries. He asks his secretary of many years, Intisar, to bring the version of the Arab initiative adopted by the Islamic summit conference. The paper is decorated with the flags of various Islamic countries, including Iran.
"Yes, yes, even Iran agreed at the time [2002 - before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's era] to the principles of the Arab initiative, and never regretted it," he says. "I presented this paper to Olmert, who didn't react to it. Unfortunately, to date there has been no discussion of the initiative in the Israeli government. You should remember that this is the first time even the king of Saudi Arabia, who is the guardian of the places holy to Islam, enlisted for the sake of solving the conflict."
Is it clear that on the issue of the right of return, the refugees will return only to the areas of the Palestinian state?
"Not at all. This issue is not at all clear. There are today five million Palestinian refugees whose forefathers were expelled from the area of Israel, not from the West Bank and Gaza. We understand that if we demand of you that all five million return to Israel, the State of Israel would be destroyed. But we must talk about compromise and see to what numbers you can agree.
"We have to talk about Israeli recognition of its responsibility for the refugee problem, and then discuss the right of return in practice. The Palestinians who don't return to Israel can return to Palestine. If they decide to remain in the countries where they are living, they will receive compensation, as will the countries that absorb them. There is a central issue that Israel tends to ignore: the assets of the absentees. That is a very important issue, almost the basis of the problem.
"We intend to hold talks with Israel about the number of refugees who will return to its area. I am criticized for not demanding the return of all five million, but I say that we will demand the return of a reasonable number of refugees to Israel. The Arab peace initiative also discusses that - a solution to the refugee problem has to be agreed upon with Israel, according to UN General Assembly resolution 194 [from 1948]."
Foreign Minister Livni said that when the Palestinians erase the word "nakba" from their lexicon [the "catastrophe," the expulsion and flight of the Palestinians in 1947-1948], there will be peace.
"Can I forget the nakba, which happened to so many people and even to me? [Abbas is a refugee from Safed.] That is our memory. Just as I can't ask you to forget your national memory, you can't demand that of me."
President Shimon Peres claims you said that you would oppose the participation of Hamas in the January 2010 elections, if it does not recognize agreements with Israel and international decisions.
"Let's put it differently. If we want to establish a unity government of professionals, according to the Arab League's proposal, it must honor all the commitments and agreements that we have signed, like the road map. We cannot agree to any initiative that does not accept that. And of course, you have to accept the Arab peace initiative."
When does your term end? Hamas claims in January 2009 and not in January 2010, as you claim.
"I think that the elections for parliament and the presidency should take place together, in January 2010. We will decide, and issue a presidential order accordingly. And we will definitely demand that the elections be held in Jerusalem as well."
Will you run in the next elections?
"I don't know yet. It's too early to talk about that."
Was it a mistake to allow Hamas to participate in the 2006 elections?
"No, it was a good test as far as we're concerned. Had we rejected its participation we would have rejected a large part of the Palestinian people. Now, after the nation has come to know and experience Hamas, it will have to decide who to vote for."
Do you see a possibility of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, and unity between the West Bank and Gaza?
"Gaza and the West Bank must unite, otherwise there will be no Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. But we will not use force to do that. There are contacts for reconciliation being conducted by the Egyptians, and in the end an Arab proposal will be presented, with the support of the Arab League."
Are you aware of the fact that if Israel releases the Hamas members of parliament as part of a deal to release [kidnapped IDF soldier] Gilad Shalit, there is a good chance that the Palestinian parliament will not extend your term?
"Yes, but without any connection to my term, I'm not opposed to their release. I have even demanded of Olmert more than once to release the speaker of the parliament, Aziz Dweik of Hamas. There is no reason to leave them in prison, and we have made it clear to Israel that in the context of any peace agreement, all the Palestinian prisoners will be released."
What do you think of the rise of Al Qaida in Gaza?
"I was the first to warn about it, and we are opposed to it. But you must understand that you have to remove the siege of the Gaza Strip in order to stop the strengthening of these extremist factors. You must open the trade crossings to the Strip, because distress will only strengthen organizations like Al Qaida."
What do you think of the calls by senior Palestinian officials, in light of the failure of the negotiations, to dismantle the PA, transfer responsibility to Israel and establish one state for two nations?
"That is an issue that came up in the Arab League, too. But in my opinion, we should stick to implementing a solution of two states for two nations. That is the best proposal. But you must not prevent this solution and push people into a corner. A continuation of your dangerous policy in the West Bank - construction in the settlements, the roadblocks, the raids on West Bank cities - will only distance the two-state solution."
"We don't want one state for two nations, and various people who are doing that, including Abu Ala, are doing it out of despair. You must treat the Palestinians with respect, as full partners, human beings like you. If you believe in occupation and the Palestinian partner becomes irrelevant, no Israeli will feel secure."
Did you make a mistake in the second intifada when you turned to violence?
"I have said this in the past. We made a mistake when we turned the intifada into an armed struggle, and I will do everything possible so that there won't be a third, armed intifada. But you mustn't push people into acting violently."
The interview takes place mostly in English. Occasionally MK Tibi whispers into the ear of the rais and the conversation continues. The secretary of the PA, Tayeb Abed al-Rahim, one of people closest to Abu Mazen, is present at the interview and adds his comments.
When will you meet with U.S. President George W. Bush, and what will you tell him at your last meeting?
"I'll be meeting with him on September 26, and I'll listen to what he has to say. I admire him very much. He did very good work, and nevertheless we did not succeed in reaching an agreement. It's not his mistake, nor mine. As far as he is concerned, he made the required effort."
Did you think that 15 years after Oslo we would still be sitting here and talking about the chances for a peace agreement?
"It's unbelievable, it's beyond any imagination that we haven't succeeded in reaching an agreement until now. But even today, I'm convinced that I would have signed the Oslo Accords. I risked my life for peace and if I have to pay for it with my life, that's a negligible price. I don't regret the Oslo Accords. Twenty years before the agreement I believed in peace with the Israelis, and I still believe in it."
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