“We will never recognize Israel as the Jewish state, we will never do that. Any country could do that, no problem. Israel could call itself whatever name, that’s not a problem”.
“Why we cannot really accept this? First of all, if we accept Israel as the Jewish state, then we are accepting their national narrative. And if we accept their national narrative, then we are canceling our own national narrative about our connection to the land and about our need to establish an independent Palestinian state”.
Dr. Riyad Al-Maliki interview by Sophie Shevardnadze
Sophie Shevardnadze: The Middle East stepped into the year 2014 in the state of a boiling pot: war in Syria, insurgency in Iraq and Lebanon, another revolution in Egypt. In the center of it all is Israel and its never-ending conflict with Palestine. The implacable rivals have started a new round of negotiations. What does tomorrow hold for the occupied territories? Will Netanyahu ever release his grip on the Palestinian state? To take a glimpse into the future, we talk to the foreign minister of Palestine.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Dr. Riyad Al-Maliki, it’s really great to have you on our program today. Palestinian foreign minister, welcome. So, Mahmoud Abbas has said recently that good progress has been made in negotiations with Israel, and there’s a possibility of prolonging the talks…So what have the Palestinian negotiators managed to get from the Israeli side at this point?
Riyad Al-Maliki: Well, first of all, the person who’s in charge and responsible to declare if there is any progress in the negotiations is Secretary Kerry and nobody else. We cannot talk about progress or lack of progress. Are we going to prolong?…No one is talking about prolonging the already allocated time for the negotiations which is really nine months. We have reiterated clearly that we are sticking to the original date which should end by the 29th of April this year, and so any talk about prolonging the negotiations or the talks is premature and lacks, of course, knowledge of the status of the negotiations. If we reach a stage where what is needed is an extra day to arrive at an agreement that needs to be signed, maybe we’ll talk about prolonging it for an extra day, but I don’t think, based on what we have seen so far, that there’s any need for prolonging the negotiations, no.
SS: What are the main obstacles that remain at this point in the negotiations?
RA: The main obstacles are very clear: Israel is not seriously interested in the negotiations; they are using the negotiations as a means to maintain the status quo, to build more settlements, and to put the blame on the Palestinians. When they try to divert the negotiations from the original final status issues into newly presented issues like the “Jewish nature of the state of Israel,” like “security arrangements on the Jordan valley” – these are not issues of the final status that we have agreed to discuss since Oslo until today. So it’s very clear that introducing new topics in the last minute is a reflection of Israeli intentions to divert attention, to bring a problematic issue on the table in order for the negotiations to reach total deadlock.
SS: Mr. Abbas also said that if the negotiations fail, Palestine would revert to other options. What are the “other options?”
RA: Well, we don’t have that many “other options.” We have only one option – if the negotiations really fail, then of course we have to go either to an international conference – and we have been talking for so many years about the international conference in Moscow as a continuation of international collective efforts to bring about a solution to the conflict – or we will go back to the UN, seeking membership to all specialized agencies, applying to sign protocols and conventions, and seeking full membership in the UN.
SS: So Palestine seeking full membership in the UN depends on the negotiations?
RA: We have committed ourselves to a nine-month period and we are respecting that. We are not going to do anything until the 29th of April. After that, we will see what are the outcomes and what are the options, and so until this moment we should not talk about “Plan B” rather than trying to see how we could maximize the existing efforts, to make the current efforts initiated by Secretary of State Kerry to be the successful ones.
SS: Will Palestine accept Jerusalem as a joint capital for both states?
RA: We are accepting Jerusalem to be an open city, West Jerusalem as capital of Israel and East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, and that people can move freely from East to West, from West to East without any problem, respecting religious freedom for all religions – and this is really how Jerusalem should look like.
SS: What do you think of the Canadian proposal to establish international control over the Old City?
RA: I was aware of this. What you call official/non-official kind of Canadian efforts to present some ideas to the Old City of Jerusalem, but this is really only one of so many other floating ideas about Jerusalem and the Old City or the Holy Sites within Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine, and we cannot accept anything less than East Jerusalem being the capital of Palestine. Internationalizing the city or bringing an international body or an international force to oversee the city is unacceptable. That’s why Canadian efforts are appreciated but could stay as an exercise, what you call an “academic exercise” that was done by group of academic/former diplomats who tried really just to engage Canada or to use Canadian funds to do some kind of academic work.
SS: Mahmoud Abbas has also said recently that the right for the Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to the territories of Israel cannot be negotiated away. So is the right to return more important than the establishment of Palestinian statehood?
RA: No, no. The issue of refugees, rather than right to return, is one of the final status issues. We want to solve this issue as much as we want to solve the other pending issues. Right of return is part of the discussions about how to solve the issue, the issue of the refugees. I want to remind you that former President Clinton in 2000 has represented the so-called “Clinton Parameters” to try to solve the refugee issue and the refugee problem. And at that particular time he made reference to four categories. One category is that the Palestinian refugees could stay where they are today, in the hosting countries, pending that the hosting countries will accept that. At the end they would get compensation, they are in Jordan, they are in Lebanon, etc. The second parameter is to go to a third country, and this is really pending that the third country will accept them; it could be the US, it could be Canada, could be Australia, etc. The third option is that they will go back to state of Palestine, when the state of Palestine is…
SS: Well, that’s what I’m asking. Could that be an option, really?
RA: Yes, absolutely!
SS: Because Israel would not accept…
RA: No, no. Accept or not accept – that’s their problem, but the solution should overcome what they accept or not accept, because we are talking about an international mechanism that will solve the problem, and the problem won’t be solved only by Israeli acquiescence to this. It has to do with also the international involvement in finding a solution to this problem of the Palestinian refugees – since 1948, we’re talking about five million…
SS: So a Palestinian state could be an option also? Or an alternative?
RA: …The fourth option is that a symbolic number of Palestinian refugees will go back to the current state of Israel, pending that Israel also will accept and will reveal each application.
SS: There’s this question that arose recently about Palestinians recognizing the Jewish state.I know that there is a large Arab minority on that, but will you recognize the Jewish state if they recognize the Palestinian statehood?
RA: Never. We will never recognize Israel as the Jewish state, we will never do that. Any country could do that, no problem. Israel could call itself whatever name, that’s not a problem. This country used to be the Soviet Union and right now it’s the Russian Federation. Iran used to be…
SS: Persian Empire.
RA: Persian Empire. And right now it’s really the Islamic Republic of Iran. Libya used to be something and then moved to Jamahiriya-something-Libya. Each country could call itself whatever it likes, and then they would apply to the UN asking for changing the name. This really is a sovereign decision, it’s not pending on me accepting or not accepting. Now when it comes to me, then there is what you call it, an international law. The international law oversights what you call sovereign decisions, and if sovereign decisions really contradict with the international law, international law supersedes. This is very important. Now, when it comes to this issue in particular, why the Israelis today, and not when they were negotiating during Oslo or even after Oslo…
SS: Why has it become so important now? Because some politicians in Israel think it doesn’t even matter. Why now?
RA: Absolutely. Because Netanyahu wants to complicate matters and wants to prevent reaching the solution to the conflict. He doesn’t want to end the occupation, he doesn’t want to see an independent Palestinian state, so he brings onto the table a complicated issue like this, knowing in advance that the Palestinians will say “no” and he will keep insisting on it. This issue was never an issue of negotiations, and when we have agreed that there will be final status issues, we identified them as six final status issues. This issue was never part of that six final status issues. Why we cannot really accept this? First of all, if we accept Israel as the Jewish state, then we are accepting their national narrative. And if we accept their national narrative, then we are canceling our own national narrative about our connection to the land and about our need to establish an independent Palestinian state. There should be a certain compromise about their national narrative and our narrative. The moment that they asked for recognizing their own narrative, then we are canceling our own – this is really something that we cannot really accept. Secondly, we are worried about the future of 1.2 or 1.5 million Palestinians who are living in the state of Israel as a minority, huge minority. If Israel wants to turn itself into a Jewish state, then what will happen to such people? Our fear is that either they will be expelled or their rights will be reduced from having political rights into having only so-called practical rights.
SS: Wouldn’t all that be a subject of negotiations if Palestine thought it would be possible to recognize a Jewish state? All the points that you were saying right now could be part of negotiations…
RA: No. What’s really part of negotiations is the six issues that we have agreed upon, according to the Oslo agreement, and we were invited to come back and to find the solution to the six final status issues. As I said, if Israel wants to call itself “the Jewish state of the Zionist nation of Israel,” it’s up to them to call themselves such a name. They have to ask the UN to change their name. We have asked the UN that we change our name from “Palestine” into “State of Palestine.” They have accepted and right now our name is “State of Palestine.” So it’s up to them to decide, and they don’t need our approval for such an application.
SS: When you were talking about Palestinian connections to the Israeli land, Israel insists on keeping Jewish settlements on the occupied territories, at least when it comes to Jerusalem and Heights of Jerusalem and Hebron. Can Palestine agree to that, if there is an equal swap of land that is proposed?
RA: In order to show our readiness to compromise, we have accepted “for free” the principle of territorial swap, acknowledging that, maybe, Israel needs certain territorial modifications in order to define final borders. So, in principle, we have agreed to this. Now, when we sit to negotiate, we will start negotiating about where and how, the percentage, the issues, “One part of that land in this area because of its strategic location is really equivalent to that amount of land in other part of area, less developed, etc.” This will be a technical matter that will be discussed, but the principle has been really agreed and we have no problem to continue discussing about territorial swap.
SS: Mr. Kerry has also proposed a joined Israeli-Palestinian presence on the West Bank, Jordan border, but Israel insists on IDF control. What about Palestine? Will you continue to insist on an international presence there, and against any Israeli involvement?
RA: Did you think about the line of questions…First of all, you were asking about us recognizing the Jewish nature of the state, then us accepting the settlement situation, then us accepting Israel having almost a permanent military presence. I don’t know what kind of Palestinian state it will look like under such Israel extra-conditions. If we are going to reach an agreement with Israelis, Israelis have to accept the fact that occupation has to end. Their hegemony over Palestinian life and future has to stop. They have to realize, they have to let go of the occupation and the notion of hegemony and to allow the Palestinians to have free life, to plan their own future, and to have sovereignty over their own territory. But, to add conditions, conditions, conditions, to make the Palestinian state less and less sovereign and under the control of the Palestinians – this is not going to play and it is not going to help us, nor the Israelis, nor the American efforts or the possibility to arrive at the solution to the conflict. So, the more Israelis are putting conditions, the less the possibility that we will reach certain understanding. We would advise Israelis to be realistic, and to know that we, the Palestinians, we cannot accept anything less than full sovereign control over our own territory, we cannot accept to live under the Israeli occupation forever, we cannot allow the presence of one single Israeli soldier on the Palestinian territory. We cannot accept recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. If they will agree, then there is a possibility for a peace agreement. If not, then of course, as you have asked at the beginning, what are the options and I told you that there are few options, but they are available options for the Palestinians.
SS: You actually answered my next question; I was going to ask you what the ideal outcome of the negotiations would be. To the latest news, Israel has recently released 78 long-serving Palestinian prisoners, all convicted of killing Israelis. They are actually promising to release 26 more in the months to come…So I think Tel Aviv is waiting for something in return?
RA: Yes, of course. Well, first of all, let me explain one thing. First of all, yes, maybe, there are Palestinians who have been imprisoned for killing Israelis, but I might ask – who killed the thousands and thousands of Palestinians? I don’t know, people from the moon? Or they are Israeli soldiers? So Israeli soldiers and, also, Israeli politicians have blood on their hands. When we are in conflict, one has to let go the fact of accusing one side and neglecting the participation in the same crime by other side…When it comes to this issue of the releasing of Palestinian prisoners, Kerry came to us and he struck two deals – one deal that we will restart negotiations and that negotiations will end by the 29th of April, hoping that then we will reach a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. The second deal, he said: “Well, I know and I heard that you, the Palestinians, are preparing to go to the UN and apply for membership, to the different UN agencies to sign the agreements and conventions. How could I, Kerry, convince you not to go or to postpone going?” We said, “No one would convince us.” He said, “What kind of price you expect in order for you to postpone going?” We said, “If Israel releases 104 Palestinian prisoners who were imprisoned before the Oslo agreement, then we will agree to postpone going to the UN and to apply for membership for a period of nine months.” So, the period of nine months has been mentioned in the two agreements, twice. But this is really a different agreement that we have reached with Kerry and with Netanyahu. Netanyahu accepted to release 104 Palestinian political prisoners on the exchange that we, the Palestinians, will refrain from applying for membership to all UN specialized agencies, and not signing any protocol, UN protocol. So, releasing of prisoners…we have the price already, in advance. We have agreed not to apply for membership to all these agencies. So the price is being really paid and we are not going to pay twice.
SS: But those prisoners, when they were released, they got a hero welcome at home…
RA: Absolutely. The Israeli generals and the soldiers who killed the Palestinians are also greatly decorated by the Israeli government. This is also part of the narrative, part of the history in Israel and Palestine. You cannot pinpoint at what we do in receiving Palestinian prisoners as heroes and overlook how the Israelis treat their soldiers and the army and the settlers who killed the Palestinians and then they are received also as heroes. It will stay with us as long as the problem exists. When we conclude the agreement and when we move from state of war and conflict into the state of peace and cooperation, then we could really remember how we treat each other along the way. But until then, these issues will come, will go, people might focus on them or not, but at the end of the day it’s like a mirror. What you see about Palestine, just look at it and it has reciprocity on the Israeli side. Absolutely exactly on the Israeli side, it’s like a mirror. So, when you talk about how we receive our prisoners – always remember how Israelis receive their soldiers and settlers who always kill Palestinians.
SS: Foreign Minister, thank you very much for this interview, we wish you best and many changes to come.