The offices of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah are nothing like the fortified barracks across town in the Muqata of Chairman Yasser Arafat. There are no armed soldiers in the corridors, no visitors crowded into the waiting room hoping for a chance to whisper a secret into the chairman's ear or win an invitation to dinner.
Abbas, in a brown suit, weighs his every word. Sometimes he pays attention to a comment from MK Ahmed Tibi, one of the people closest to him and the translator for Abbas' first interview with an Israeli newspaper.
Best known as Abu Mazen, Abbas glides easily over any attempt to extract a sharp comment against the occupation authorities or against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "I don't want to judge Sharon by what he says or by what's said about him," he says with a smile. "I know him inside and out. I'll believe him only when he implements the road map. The implementation is the only test as far as I'm concerned. I'm not so interested in what he says and what's said about him."
When Abu Mazen talks about the road map it's important for him to emphasize that the 14 Israeli reservations have nothing to do with him. "They don't interest me," he says. As far as he's concerned, the only document that matters is the road map that was finalized in December 2002 and handed over to the parties at the end of April this year. Nothing more, nothing less.
"We do not accept each side picking and choosing only those specific elements that are convenient for them in the road map.
"The map was prepared last December and we accepted it, despite our own comments and reservations. We wanted to give this initiative a chance, but it's impossible to continue inventing comments and reservations after it was submitted."
He says: "We understood from the Americans that there are no changes in the road map. This is an historic opportunity to return to a track of normalcy. We are saying to the Israelis, `follow the map and don't waste time haggling over details.' We must get into the implementation phase. It is vital the two peoples feel something is changing on the ground. In any case nobody will pay attention to this or that reservation."
He doesn't forget to express admiration for "President Arafat, who ordered us not to deal with the negative aspects of the [Israeli] government decision." Sensitivity about Arafat's honor is evident throughout the interview. "We will do all we are required to do," says Abu Mazen. "As far as we are concerned, we can already begin cooperation. We have already begun preparing for the next phase."
Abbas says the Americans proposed he not pay any attention to any of the talk about [Israeli] comments and reservations. They promised him they too would not allow Sharon evade a declaration about an end to [Israeli] violence and incitement, as required by the first article of the road map.
Abbas says that article has to be mutual and offers an example. "A few days ago I went to Gaza, after the IDF withdrew from Beit Hanun. I decided to visit there. Before I arrived, the IDF broke in, demolishing and beating. How should I read that? It's said that every action has a reaction. This cycle must be stopped."
He warns that is an absolute condition for any progress. It won't be the first time, and perhaps not the last, that a Palestinian leader is counting on American pressure on Israel.
Above all, prisoners
Five years ago, when Sharon was infrastructures minister and the right wing flank of Benjamin Netanyahu's government, he invited Abbas to dinner at the Sycamore Ranch in the Negev, where he presented his well-known cantonization maps to Abbas. He asked how the honorable minister proposed that a resident of Ramallah make his way to his parents' home in Bethlehem. Sharon said the problem could be solved easily, with tunnels or bridges "like Gush Etzion residents go to Jerusalem."
Abbas remembers telling Sharon it was a shame to waste time on matters that would only come up at the final stages of the negotiations. That has been the approach he adopted ever since he signed the Oslo accords at the White House, and he is sticking to that approach today. He thinks wherever it's possible to go around the wall it's better to do that than bang one's head against it. When the time comes, everything can be discussed.
Until then, it's impossible to pry a comment out of Abu Mazen that departs from the permanent, official positions of the Palestinian National Council regarding the weighty problems of borders, settlements, refugees and Jerusalem.
The refugee issue, considered most sensitive of all, is also known as particularly close to the heart of the refugee from Safed. After reiterating that the "refugee problem is a subject for discussion in the permanent status negotiations and should not be brought up as a precondition," he proposes a substantive reason for postponing it to the end.
"We cannot accept relinquishing the right of return. The Arab League initiative refers to a just and agreed solution, based on UN decisions. That is a very clear statement." But then he adds immediately, "this does not mean we want to destroy the state of Israel - we recognize it in the borders drawn by [Resolution] 242."
He is up to date on all the reports in the Israeli press about his latest meeting with Sharon. He confirms that Sharon offered the Palestinians accept control over certain areas. But the Palestinian premier wants to make things clear.
"I told Sharon we are prepared to do this, and will meticulously follow all the other steps required by the map. Sharon wanted us to accept control outside the framework of the map and we were forced to reject that. When we start to execute those steps, in the context of the map, we'll demand a full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and from there we'll move on to the rest of the cities of the West Bank."
Abu Mazen says he told Sharon the security services in the West Bank have been totally destroyed and that 70 percent of the services were demolished in Gaza. He does not know where the reports came from about the Americans rejecting his new government's security plan.
"So far, we have not presented the Americans with any security plan. We have begun discussions but the plan requires rebuilding the security apparatus. Without that, we cannot overcome the deviant phenomenon in the Palestinian street," It's important for him to add, "we are not doing this for others but for our own people."
But, for the move to work and for the Israelis to have security, he says the occupation must end, as well as all its side-effects - the break-ins, the incursions, and the assassinations. Perhaps most important, adds Abu Mazen, is prisoner releases. He's personally felt the rage in the Palestinian street when Palestinian leadership signs an agreement that forgets the prisoners behind bars.
He hints that if Sharon, Shaul Mofaz and Moshe Ya'alon don't pave the way for him to fight the extremists, he won't play into anyone's hands. "It will be very difficult to do it alone," he says, "we will have to count on our own efforts. It's impossible to do it by pushing a button. But we demand 100 percent effort [from ourselves] and we will do that. There might be a violent incident here and there, but those should be dealt with intelligently. Even the U.S., has not succeeded in stopping all the terror. Look at the attacks in Saudi Arabia, Morocco. Nobody can say the U.S. hasn't done enough for its security. But dealing with terror requires international cooperation."
Terror not Islamic
Asked about a hudna, an Islamic truce, he says that he would not make do with that. "I don't to want to talk about a hudna, but about absolute calm." That's what he is demanding from the Hamas "clearly and frankly."
"We hope and think it is important to control the violence, put an end to it, and we expect the Israelis to understand that even if here and there some violent incidents take place, we don't agree to it.
"If we go back to the cycle of reaction and action, that will make it difficult for us to achieve the goal. It is impossible to achieve 100 percent success in a brief period. It is important that the Palestinians see change on the ground, like cessations of the assassinations and demolitions, and prisoners being freed, and the Palestinian civilian should feel something has changed in the atmosphere and he can go to work and move around. These things are critical so the street supports the process. That will accelerate the process and prevent more suffering."
He rejects the charge that Islam encourages terrorism. "Islam is a religion that preaches tolerance and terrorism is foreign to it. The U.S. and entire West should look at the reasons for the terror and its roots. If oil was an important element in the war in Iraq, the lack of a solution to the Palestinian problem will be the most important factor in the Arab and Islamic world for terror and regional instability.
"That's what prompted the Arab initiative presented by Saudi Arabia last year. That was a balanced initiative and its implementation would lead to peaceful relations and normalization between Israel and the Arabs states and other Islamic states. That's the most important umbrella for peace and I am amazed the Israeli government did not take it into account. I heard that among the Israeli public it won support from 60 percent of the Israelis."
Another issue that prompts Abu Mazen to issue a vehement statement is Arafat's isolation. "Arafat is the elected president of the Palestinian Authority and should not be isolated. I reject, both morally and politically, all the pressure on countries and persons not to meet him. That has ramifications for the Palestinian street and for us in the leadership. It is difficult for me to explain to our citizens that we have a new government, conducting open negotiations with Israel and our president is isolated in the Muqata. There is no justification for it. Don't use my government as an excuse. I spoke with Sharon about this and did not hear convincing reasons for the continuing siege on the Muqata. We made a deal last January about lifting the siege. The condition was that [Rehavam] Ze'evi's murderers be jailed. Sharon asked us only to arrest the two planners, and we also arrested the executioners, and even the secretary general, Ahmed Sa'adat. The court tried all four and ruled Sa'adat was innocent."
He challenges the claim that Arafat is behind the terror attacks and the recent attacks on settlers. "If it was deliberately planned, he would not have agreed to a change in the constitution to form a new government. He is a most pragmatic man. Without him, there never would have been Oslo. He put all his weight behind the PLO accepting Resolution 242 in 1988 and even called it the `peace offensive.' The PNC accepted his proposal without anything in exchange. We thought the Israelis would respond in kind, but they respond precisely the opposite. After the U.S. decided to begin a dialogue with us, prime minister Shamir called it a black day."
In the Beilin-Abu Mazen plan of 1995, which from besieged Ramallah in May 2003 seems so far away, there is an article that states the settlers can remain in their homes, as residents of Palestine.
Abbas says now he does not believe it will be possible to achieve quiet in the territories "as long as the settlers continue their provocations. At this stage we are only demanding an end to the construction in the settlements and to remove the illegal outposts. But it must be made clear that at the final stages of the negotiations, we will demand that all the settlements be dismantled, because they are illegal."
He rejects the "natural growth" formula before he's even asked about it. "That is a provocation," he says, adding, "that's how they expanded the settlements without any limits."
He says he has "heard the settlers attacking the Israeli prime minister over the road map. I hope that we won't have to use that as an excuse that it is also difficult for us, because we also have extremists who oppose the process."
And if the Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement has been mentioned, he wants to make sure that he says that he only met Beilin once on the issue, and that there were only contacts with the late Faisal Husseini, Nabil Sha'ath and others.
As for the Clinton plan, which envisages territorial exchanges and special arrangements in Jerusalem, he is very miserly with his words, saying only "that will all have to wait for the discussions about the final status."
But as for the claim, also made by former president Clinton, that the Palestinians missed an opportunity for a state at Camp David, he says: "The Barak government spread the spin that the Palestinians were to blame for the failure at Camp David. It's true there were various proposals, but it is impossible to end a conflict that has gone on for so many years with 16 days at Camp David and another six days in Taba. If the talks had gone on for some more time, it would have led to an agreement."
He does not conceal his view that the intifada caused great damage to the Palestinian cause. But he makes clear there is no greater folly than the claim that the intifada was planned in advance.
"There was no conspiracy nor planning - on our side," he says, with "our side" emphasized. "The circumstances that led to it were mostly the failure of the negotiations at Camp David and the Israeli media's portrayal of the talks as an absolute failure. Another factor was the continuing settlement activity. You can't imagine how powerful an influence that has on the Palestinian public. It creates the impression that a peaceful solution cannot be achieved. And there was another factor - Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount. As a result, 22 Palestinians were killed. The intifada began with Palestinian rocks and Israel responded with killing and it was all compounded by the sensitivity of Al Aqsa."
The Palestinian who signed the Oslo accords is disappointed by the behavior of the Israeli peace camp. He says the latest surveys by Bir Zeit University shows that 76 percent of the Palestinians are prepared to give a chance to their new government. He is convinced there is a similar proportion of Israelis who support peace.
"Let us honor those wishes," he says. "I had hopes the Israeli peace camp would play a larger role in solving the crisis. I hoped it wouldn't turn inward and would not become part of the coalition that did things similar to what happens now. I hoped the camp would be what it was in 1982, when it sent 400,000 people to the street in an anti-war demonstration. To my regret, we have not heard that voice in recent years and that is definitely a reason for frustration."
The question about whether he denied the Holocaust in his Ph.D. angers Abbas. "I wrote in detail about the Holocaust and said I did not want to discuss numbers. I quoted an argument between historians in which various numbers of casualties were mentioned. One wrote there were 12 million victims and another wrote there were 800,000. I have no desire to argue with the figures. The Holocaust was a terrible, unforgiveable crime against the Jewish nation, a crime against humanity that cannot be accepted by humankind. The Holocaust was a terrible thing and nobody can claim I denied it."
He does not forget to ask that I write he is still awaiting an apology by former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit, who said in a newspaper interview that Abbas belongs to the Bahai faith. Shavit explained at length in the interview that a Bahai cannot become a Palestinian leader.
That false rumor has been lately disseminated by people with ill-will toward Abbas. He is angry at The Jerusalem Post for prominently reporting that posters claiming he is Bahai are appearing in Arab countries. "This is not the first time that people spread that malicious rumor. I sued a Jordanian newspaper for publishing it. Regrettably, the person I sued passed away before the court ruled unequivocally that the report was false. I am a believing Muslim, son of a family of believers, and committed to the religion's commandments."