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A CONVERSATION WITH MAHMOUD ABBAS

Sunday, September 30, 2007

When the Islamic radicals of Hamas kicked their more secular Fatah rivals out of the Gaza Strip in June, it looked as though the peace process was dead. But surprisingly, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have held a series of in-depth talks that U.S. officials hope may culminate in some kind of deal or framework to be presented at a proposed meeting of Middle East leaders in Washington in November. Last week, the Fatah chief attended the opening of the U.N. General Assembly and met with more than 35 world leaders to encourage them to support whatever agreement he may reach with Olmert. Abbas discussed the peace talks with Newsweek-Washington Post's Lally Weymouth.

Q. I understand that in your talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, you have gone into the really sensitive issues, such as borders, refugees and Jerusalem. How far have you gone in your conversations?

A. I cannot really talk about the talks . . . because they are only a probing, not negotiations. We tackled all the sensitive issues like borders, refugees, settlements, Jerusalem and security. But talking only. I cannot say anything about his attitude, and he cannot quote me. Why? Because in the beginning we said, let us talk and after we finish, we will establish our teams. We have already established the teams that are drafting an agreement about these sensitive issues.

What is your sense of Olmert?

I believe that he is sincere and serious and wants to make peace. I know his internal problems. But he is determined to do something.

Isn't it difficult to come up with a document in such a short time?

It's difficult but not impossible.

Are you talking about producing a declaration of principles [like the 1993 pact reached by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat]?

Not a declaration of principles but a framework -- a framework that deals with the principles of every element of the final-status issues. This is what we propose to present to the conference. After the conference, we will start negotiating the details of these issues in order to have a peace treaty.

The key issues have been around for so long, wouldn't it be difficult to solve them in a few weeks?

These are very difficult issues, but it is not impossible [to resolve them] because we know each other's positions -- we know how to handle these issues in spite of the difficulties facing us.

What do you think of the ideas that Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon has floated about giving the Palestinians areas in East Jerusalem where they have a majority? Is that satisfactory to you?

In principle, this is the right direction. The Palestinians should have their own part and the Israelis should have their own part. . . . I say and have always said that East Jerusalem is an occupied territory. We have to restore it.

Israelis are firm that they cannot accept the right of return [for Palestinian refugees] to Israel. . . . Do you think Palestinians should be allowed to return? You were born in the Galilee. Do you want to go back there?

This is my right, but how I will use this right is up to me and to the refugees and to the agreement which will take place between us. We want to find a permanent solution. The Israelis want security, and we are in need of independence. How can we deal with these two pillars? There is a gap between the two sides. We want to bridge the gap during the negotiations.

The Israelis thought they were doing a good thing when they withdrew from Gaza [in July 2005], but now they have been forced to evacuate a town near Gaza [because it has been repeatedly shelled by rockets from Hamas].

They did it unilaterally. They didn't do it bilaterally with us. We asked them many times to make [the Gaza withdrawal] the result of an agreement between us. But [former Israeli prime minister Ariel] Sharon refused. He didn't want to talk to us. . . .

But will Israelis agree to go to final-status talks when they are constantly threatened with attacks on their cities?

Last night, [our security forces] seized two rockets. We handed [them] over to the Israelis. We are very worried about these deeds and I think we can put an end to all this. Our security apparatus is ready to stop all kinds of violence.

Under what conditions would you make another agreement with Hamas?

They committed a fatal mistake when they launched their coup d'etat against the [Palestinian] Authority in Gaza. Now they should rescind their coup d'etat. Without this, we are not going to start any dialogue.

What do you mean by "rescind their coup d'etat"?

To restore the situation as it was prior to the coup.

Weren't you in a unity government with Hamas?

I don't want to return to the national unity government because it was a very bad experience, and they destroyed it.

No unity government under any circumstances?

Under any circumstances.

How much Iranian influence is there now in Gaza?

I don't like to take this question because we want to preserve our relations with everybody, even the Iranians.

Do you like the idea of the meeting in Washington, the November meeting?

Yes.

What can come out of it?

The framework. It should be agreed upon before the 15th of November.

And then at the conference, it will be given a kind of international stamp of approval?

Not approval but acceptance. They will say, "Okay, you reached this conclusion, go ahead, continue negotiations between you and the Israelis in order to finalize all the details."

Has the United States been active enough?

Yes. They showed readiness and are serious, as I heard from President Bush and [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice. They want to achieve some kind of progress on this track during the tenure of President Bush.

Did President Bush tell you that that was true?

Yes. We heard from Bush. He said that he is fully supporting Condoleezza Rice, and she is talking for him -- she is his representative. Rice alone cannot deliver. Do you remember his initiative when he talked about the two-state solution?

But now you have three states.

No, Gaza is not a state. Nobody recognizes Gaza. We have one authority, one cabinet, one government. Hamas is an illegal government.

How do you envision the borders of the future state ?

'67 borders.

But '67 borders will include Gaza.

Yes, of course. Without Gaza, we cannot have a state. And we should have a safe passage between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank because Gaza is a part of Palestine. . . . All the Arabs support this vision. At the last meeting of the Arab League, they issued a statement saying that Hamas's deeds were illegal. And they recognized my authority as the legal authority.

Is Saudi Arabia coming to Washington in November?

Saudi Arabia had reservations in the beginning because the whole situation was very vague. Now everything is clear. Yesterday, I met with Prince Saud al-Faisal, and he was satisfied. So I believe they will attend the conference.

Are there any concessions that you're willing to make in order to reach a deal with the Israelis? Are there any concessions you demand?

We will be flexible, but before 1947, we had 95 percent of Palestine. In 1937, the partition plan gave the Israelis only part of Palestine. And they were very happy at that time. [David] Ben-Gurion was very happy with it. It didn't work. After that [came] the 1947 partition plan -- we rejected this, so we lost.

You should have taken it?

Yes, at that time, of course. But it gave us 46 percent of Palestine. . . . Now, we accept [the pre-'67 borders].

Q. But how does this differ from what President Clinton offered Arafat? Didn't he offer him almost 98 percent of the West Bank?

A. No, no. In Camp David, it was only 92. Ninety-two is unacceptable to us.

Your popularity has increased since you declared yourself independent of Hamas and set up a government in the West Bank. Does this show that when you make a bold move, people like it?

Yes, but if I make concessions which are unacceptable to the people, I think that I will not be popular anymore. But it is not a matter of popularity -- it's a matter of fairness.

Do you think that Hamas will try to undermine any agreement that you and Prime Minister Olmert will reach?

They will try.

Is the U.S. policy of squeezing and isolating Hamas a mistake, or do you think it's the right policy?

In the beginning, I believed that they were mistaken, but now we are in the same position. I am against Hamas.

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