More from Sharm al Sheik
Q. Why was this summit organized in such a rush? Hardly a few months have gone by since the death of Yassir Arafat. Should the new Palestinian President have had more time to settle into his role before facing such a test?
A. A dynamic has developed over the last few weeks following a sudden initiative undertaken by Mahmud Abbas. The idea behind the summit was to reinforce this dynamic. Ariel Sharon and Mahmud Abbas have both reaped political benefits because they both can use the summit to overcome reservations and hostility at home. That is, if this dynamic is regularly boosted with mutual gestures and measures.
Q. Abu Mazen (Mahmud Abbas) was a close associate of Yassir Araft, yet we had to wait for Mr. Arafat to die before talks were restarted. Was that simply because Sharon detested Arafat?
A. There are two schools of thought concerning Yassir Arafat. The Israeli thought, shared by the Americans, is that Arafat was an obstacle to peace for a number of fundamental reasons. For the Palestinians, Sharon, by locking up Arafat in Ramallah, put Arafat in a position which prevented him from taking any initiatives at all. They thought that Sharon used Arafat as an excuse to avoid the peace process. There are many differences between Mahmud Abbas and Yassir Arafat regarding the management of day-to-day Palestinian Authority operations. But as to strategic objectives, they are one in the same.
Q. Wasn’t Yassir Arafat, with his ambiguous double dealing with Hamas extremists, an obstacle to the peace process? Now that he’s gone, doesn’t Sharon lose a convenient alibi which justified his intransigence and now obligates him to make some concessions?
A. On the one hand it might be said that Yassir Arafat was an obstacle to peace, and on the other that his isolation by Sharon in Ramallah was an obstacle to peace. That’s now a debate for the historians. Today Ariel Sharon is faced with a new situation and he will be judged on how he responds to it.
Q. Does the Bush Administration possess the political will to force these adversaries into negotiations? Can this will extend to reexamining the very large economic subsidies which the US gives the Sharon government?
Q. Why don’t the United States and the European Union use the lever of financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority and Israel to guarantee progress in the peace process? A carrot and stick approach?
A. There is currently no mechanism for this. As to the United States, there is some intransigence but it does not go as far as questioning the special political and economic relationship with Israel. I have the impression that because of the Iraqi situation and because he’d like to warm up to the Europeans, George W. Bush is willing to hear some of what they have to say on the subject of Israel-Palestine.
Q. Does Condoleezza Rice’s statement that she would like to include the European Union in the resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict reflect a policy decision? In practice, what can the EU do to influence things?
A. The marching orders issued in Europe are to say: We are not around just to sign checks—that is, just to provide the financing to a process managed exclusively by the United States. The Quartet, which includes the USA, the EU, Russia and the UN, the designers of the Road Map, could be used an a multilateral approach, but we’re not there yet.
Q. If Ariel Sharon abandons the settlements, will that cause a civil war? Is it possible to force out the Gaza settlers without political breakdown in Israel?
A. Israeli society was traumatized by the assassination of Rabin in 1995 and does not want to relive such dramatic internal friction. The most radical of the settlers are a small minority but their attitude could push things to excess, although the civil protests organized up to now do not seem to threaten pullout from Gaza.
Q. Do you think that the return of refugees (or the status of Jerusalem) is an insurmountable obstacle to genuine peace?
A. It depends on what you mean by “return of refugees.” Mahmud Abbas adheres to the following expectation: "A just and negotiated solution" must be found for this critical issue. The Palestinians expect some concessions on what they believe to be the right of return, considered unacceptable by Israel. We can imagine some kind of symbolic recognition of the facts following negotiations with Israel after which a few thousand refugees would be readmitted but which would not change the Jewish character of Israel. Such an arrangement was suggested during the Taba negotiatons in January 2001. It’s also in the Geneva Accords. Solutions can only be found after confidence and a dynamic in that direction has been restored.
Q. For the sake of the future of both states and peace, would it be wise if the Israelis were to evacuate the Occupied Territories, which would mean no Jews in Palestine? Meanwhile more than 20% of the Israeli population is Arab, most Muslim but some Christians. Wouldn’t you say that the Israelis have a pluralistic society?
A. There is a difference between the Palestinians inside Israel—called Arab Israelis--and the Israelis who went to settle in Gaza and on the West Bank starting in the 70’s. The former were there before the creation of the state of Israel; the latter, most of them anyway, want to make the founding of a Palestinian state impossible. I strongly doubt that they would accept to live under the authority of the Palestinians.
Q. The Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs, Silvan Shalom, said on Tuesday night that he was going to launch a campaign for a referendum on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan for the Gaza Strip, an move which could hinder Ariel Sharon in going ahead with the pullout next summer. What do you think?
A. Shalom’s aims are internal Likud objectives. There are factions more radical than the settlers inside the party. By organizing a referendum, which the settlers want, Shalom hopes to put himself in a good position for the post-Sharon era.
Q. What is the reaction of the Palestinian and Israeli people to the summit? Are they happy about it?
A. There is more satisfaction and optimism on the part of the Israelis than the Palestinians. This is due in a large measure to the fact that violence stemming from the Intifada has subsided in recent months, which makes the Israelis more optimistic about the future. The Palestinians still find themselves beset by obstacles to the circulation of goods and persons and the continuation of Israeli military operations even if such operations do not have the intensity of those in 2002 and 2003.
Q. What is Mr. Abbas’ claim to legitimacy? Is there fear that his decision may cause divisions among the Paletinians, even violence?
A. Mahmud Abbas was elected by a large majority of Palestinians in an election perceived as honest and for which voter turnout was decent though not exceptional. This adds to the historic legitimacy of Abbas, who together with Yassir Arafat, was a founder of the Palestinian national movement. Today Abbas is in sync with public opinion, which is prepared to halt the armed Intifada on the condition of dialog with the militants in place of repression. But if Mahmud Abbas should give the impression that he incapable of improving the living conditions of most Palestinians, without mentioning the peace process, there is the risk that the Palestinians will turn away from him towards the armed militants, who, starting with Hamas, will believe that they have carte blanche to restart military operations. The big question mark is Hamas. No one can say what they’ve decided.
Q. Has Hamas been permanently weakened by the campaign of targeted assassination carried out by Tsahal? Does Hamas intend to sabotage the current peace effort? What means does Abbas possess to prevent that from happening?
A. Hamas is anything but weakened and has the means to cut short the current rapprochement. Does Hamas believe that it is in its interests that the Palestinian people understand and support it? Mahmoud Abbas certainly does not have the means to limit the influence of Hamas. This is why Mahmoud Abbas would like to include Hamas in the political arena and in the municipal and national elections, hoping that political involvement will turn it away from armed conflict.
Q. Is the wall permanent?
A. The Israelis have been saying for quite some time that the wall is a security barrier, not a political barrier, and that it is a temporary, not a permanent, structure. The Palestinians are very pessimistic and believe the wall is now a fait accompli. For Mahmud Abbas, the wall is an essential question and one which he would like to tackle as soon as possible. So far, half the wall has been constructed. And no one knows for sure if its construction will continue. If the violence vanishes, as seems to be the case for now, the wall will obviously lose its legitimacy.