"We Want Our Own State"

July 26, 2003

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas came to Washington last week. Shortly before he met with President George W. Bush, Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, spoke to Newsweek Senior Editor and Washington Post columnist Lally Weymouth about the prospects for peace in the Middle East. Excerpts:

Lally Weymouth: Many Israelis are convinced that Palestinians do not accept Israel as a Jewish state. Would Israel retain its Jewish character in your vision of peace?

Mahmoud Abbas: We have accepted Israel since 1988 when, during our PNC [Palestinian National Council] session in Algiers, we said openly that we recognize U.N. resolutions 242 and 338 and the right of the states in the region to live in peace and security. In Oslo, we did the same thing. The majority of Palestinians accept Israel as a state.

Weymouth: Do you accept as written the so-called Roadmap to a Palestinian state?

Abbas: We accepted the Roadmap in letter and spirit. And we didn't ask for any amendments.

Weymouth: Do you think the Roadmap could be a real breakthrough?

Abbas: I hope it will be different. Everyone in the region realizes it is a rare opportunity.

Weymouth: Why would it be different this time?

Abbas: I think after two years of violence, terror and casualties, both sides concluded they should have peace, and both sides are accepting the Roadmap and its implementation.

Weymouth: How is your relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon? Do you trust him?

Abbas: Sharon is the elected leader of the Israeli people, so we have to talk with him as our partner. Lately, I met with him four times about the implementation of the Roadmap. I am waiting to see if he will deliver or not.

Weymouth: Does that mean freezing settlements and dismantling settlers' outposts [erected since March 2001], as specified in the Roadmap?

Abbas: Not this only, but all the items stipulated in the Roadmap—freeing the prisoners and ending the occupation.

Weymouth: But the issue of prisoners is not in the Roadmap.

Abbas: It is in the Roadmap. It is in the Tenet [work plan].

Weymouth: All the prisoners should be released?

Abbas: All prisoners—to put an end to the conflict and to open a new era for both peoples.

Weymouth: Many Israelis have been killed in the last two years. Why would Israel release all the prisoners—some of whom carried out these killings?

Abbas: The Israelis also killed Palestinians. So both sides killed each other. We cannot keep this problem forever. We must ask the people to forget about the past and to live for the future.

Weymouth: Don't you have to do something about the terrorists on your side of the line?

Abbas: We are already doing something...especially in Gaza. We control the territory there and we are working on the military actions from the Palestinian side. I hope the Israelis will stop their military actions.

Weymouth: What about the West Bank?

Abbas: It's still under occupation and therefore not our responsibility to control the security there.

Weymouth: Does [Palestinian President Yasir] Arafat have to approve the actions that you take?

Abbas: All the actions, all the actions. He is the leader of the Palestinian people.

Weymouth: People are hoping you can be an independent actor.

Abbas: No, I cannot be independent. I am a part of the authority.

Weymouth: People say that you have only about 30 percent of the security forces under your control and that Arafat controls the rest. Is that accurate?

Abbas: We are working to unify the security apparatuses. We have no problem with other apparatuses that are not under our control.

Weymouth: Aren't they working to undermine you? Arafat didn't stop the intifada, did he?

Abbas: There were many reasons for the intifada to break out. It was not Arafat. Nobody could control it because of the occupation.

Weymouth: But you denounced it last December.

Abbas: I said that the armed intifada is useless and we should stop it. For that, the Palestinians elected me prime minister and for that Arafat nominated me to be prime minister. And I accepted, according to my ideas.

Weymouth: Haven't you had two power-sharing agreements with Arafat that failed?

Abbas: No, they didn't fail, but there are some hurdles from time to time. We try to work and overcome them.

Weymouth: Can you succeed with the Roadmap if Arafat stays?

Abbas: Yes, and with his help, I can succeed.

Weymouth: Israel is building a "security" wall to divide Israel from Palestinian areas. Is this an issue for you?

Abbas: It's a separating wall. It is built on our territories. It will create a de facto border. It is an uncivilized wall. The last wall which was destroyed was in Berlin, and I hope the Israelis will remove this one.

Weymouth: The wall isn't in the Roadmap.

Abbas: The wall is a kind of settlement. It would confiscate [Palestinian] lands, it divides villages and land and is a unilateral action.

Weymouth: When you talk about settlements, what are you looking for—a freeze or for outposts to be removed?

Abbas: Now, in this transitional period, we are looking for a settlement freeze. But when we talk about final status issues, we will ask for all of the settlements to be removed from our territories.

Weymouth: What are your red lines—the things you will not ultimately give up?

Abbas: We want our independent state. We want Israel to withdraw from the territory it has occupied since 1967. We want East Jerusalem to be our capital. We want the Israelis to remove all their settlements and we ask to find a just solution to the refugees.

Weymouth: Are you saying that you want the right of return [to Israel] for Palestinian refugees?

Abbas: I said we should find a just and agreed-upon solution. We are not asking that 4.5 million return, but at least let them choose.

Weymouth: Oh, you mean compensation?

Abbas: U.N. resolution 194 says either return or compensation.

Weymouth: What's your impression of President Bush?

Abbas: He is direct, to the point. He told us that he will stick to his vision of a Palestinian independent state and Israeli withdrawal to the '67 borders, and I believe he means what he says.

Weymouth: Do you want to see the president put pressure on Israel?

Abbas: The United States is the sponsor of the Roadmap and is responsible for its implementation.

Weymouth: Do you mean sending troops?

Abbas: Monitors to observe the situation, to see what's going on, and to judge, of course, to see who is breaching the [accord].

Weymouth: What lessons do you draw from the U.S. operation in Iraq? Reportedly, Iraq was sending money to the territories.

Abbas: They [the Iraqis] did send money. I think [the Palestinians] should be compensated by the international community because Iraq sent the money for social aims, for social affairs. So we need the money for social affairs, for the victims and for the martyrs.

Weymouth: Do you feel that you have completed your obligations under Phase One of the Roadmap?

Abbas: We have started fulfilling our obligations in a clear way, but the Israelis didn't start.

Weymouth: Their pullback from Bethlehem was not significant?

Abbas: The people say that it's better to keep the occupation. The Israelis left the center of the city but all around, the city is besieged.

Weymouth: What have you done to combat incitement?

Abbas: We established a committee for anti-incitement on both sides, with the participation of the American side. After one meeting, the incitement from our side, unilaterally, dropped 80 percent. But nothing was done by the Israeli side.

Weymouth: It is said that Israel has a great stake in the success of your administration.

Abbas: I am coming to revive the peace process. If they do not help, the peace process will collapse.

Weymouth: In the end, isn't Hamas a threat to you?

Abbas: I believe that Hamas is now intending to be a part of our society.

Weymouth: Does that mean you think you can turn Hamas and Islamic Jihad into democratic citizens?

Abbas: Why not?... We will try. We have started talking with these factions about being integrated into the Palestinian society. If so, why should we go to civil war or confrontation with these people?

Weymouth: Don't they say that they're dedicated to the extinction of the Jewish state?

Abbas: [They can] keep their slogans. I believe that if [Israel can be confined] within the '67 borders,[Hamas] will live with it and will accept it. It's only 22 percent of the historical Palestine.

Weymouth: It's said the "Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." Are you going to miss this one?

Abbas: We are not going at all to miss this opportunity. We are going to grasp this opportunity, but we hope that the other side has the same intention—the Israeli side. This is exactly what we are asking for: an independent state and withdrawal to the '67 borders as President Bush said and we accepted.

More Information on the "Peace Process"
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