Special Envoy of Palestinian Authority President, Dr Ghassan Khatib: Q&A session notes (unedited transcript)
Q: Firstly, thank you very much for coming to speak, I think this is a great idea, Manny, congratulations. Two questions. Apologies if they seem loaded. I’m interested in your analysis. The first question is, between 1947-67 there was no real occupation of the West Bank by Israel, why was there no peace there at that point? What factors do you think were the issues?
Second question is, in any peace process, or in any final agreement, as a start point, if the Palestinians were offered the Muslim Quarter of East Jerusalem, a mutual swap of Palestinian land along the West Bank, compensation by Israel for people who have been displaced, is that a good start or what else do you see as the issue?
A: Well the first one and I'll be quite frank with you. After the year ‘47 and until a little bit later than ’67, the Palestinian people in general were adopting a political program and demands that are different from current demands and programs. Palestinians at that time were calling for ending the existence of Israel and achieving a full return of refugees to Palestine. With time and because of different factors and reasons that are beyond the session that we are in, the Palestinians undertook lots of internal debates and discussions and arrived in the late 80s into new political platform based on willingness to compromise, the willingness to go for a solution that is based on dividing historical Palestine into two states, Israel and Palestine, on the basis of 1967 borders. So I think that the idea of a Palestinian State in part of Palestine was not part of the political thinking of the Palestinians of that time.
There is a second probable reason, which is that the remaining parts of Palestine, particularly the West Bank and Gaza Strip....these two parts came under the control of both Jordan and Egypt, and whether we like it or not, the Palestinians at that time did not have developed political leadership and unified political arrangements of the kind that would allow the Palestinians to have any unified political position anyhow. It was only after the war of 1967 when the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the PLO, all started to develop gradually and reached a point in which it became able to claim that it represents the Palestinian people in different areas. So the absence of any developed political expression on behalf of the Palestinians probably was also another reason why nothing happened in that period.
On your second question, I’m not sure that I got it but I will try to deal with it. You asked whether an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders would swap, and you said something about Jerusalem that wasn’t clear (interruption: the Muslim Quarter as part of a Palestinian capital), and compensation for refugees. Is your question whether these things would bring back the Palestinians to negotiations or if this would be a good solution (interruption: bring back to negotiations). No, we don’t have conditions such as these to return to negotiations, and we are not against returning to negotiations. We cannot be accused of being reluctant to go back to negotiations because, as I said, we are usually accused of over-negotiating this conflict, 19 years of negotiations. I think that we want meaningful negotiations. We want negotiations of the kind that can be more productive than the previous ones, and we believe we need probably three aspects to be available in order to make sure the next round of negotiations have higher chances of success.
The first one is to have agreed-on terms of reference, including something like President Obama said 1967 as basis for negotiating the borders between the two states, which is something Israel is refusing to commit to. Second, time-frame for negotiations because it doesn’t make sense that we go into another open negotiations and, number three, it doesn’t make sense that we negotiate as we did already the future of the territories at a time when Israel is actively changing the nature of these territories through the settlement expansion.
So all what it takes to guarantee negotiations with better chances of success is, one, to agree in advance on terms of reference especially of the borders of 1967, and to have a clearer role for the international community in trying to ensure the adherence to the terms of reference and to the international legality in these negotiations.
As far as Jerusalem is concerned, we don’t think that Jerusalem is different and Jerusalem is as illegally occupied, I mean East Jerusalem, as Nablus or as Ramallah.
So legally speaking, whatever happened to be to the eastern side of the borders, whether it is in Jerusalem or in Kalkiliah or in Nablus, it is supposed to be part of the Palestinian future state, and whatever religious or otherwise sides that happened to be in the western side of the border, it is supposed to be under the sovereignty of Israel. We believe that political sovereignty should not be extended on religious basis. Religious freedom is supposed to be guaranteed whether religious sites happen to be for political and legal considerations under the control of the Palestinian State or the Israel.
Having said that I also add, should add, that the Palestinian side is willing to live with a solution that would allow Jerusalem unified, provided that it become the capital for the two states, Israel and Palestine. Refugees issues....compensation only is not a sufficient solution to the refugees problem.
Q: Thank you very much for your presentation and I’m very pleased that this discussion is taking place. What I would like to know is, with this diplomatic initiative, what do you, in terms of the UN, how will the UN, you’re talking about General Assembly or the Security Council, what sort of decision-making process, and what indications do you have at the moment that the international community will vote in favor of your declaration, and where does Australia stand in this at the moment? If you could comment on that. Is the Arab League fully supportive? Is the Soviet Union, is China…Russia I mean not Soviet Union?
A: There is still no answer to the first part of your question because what exactly we are trying to do in the United Nation is not finalised yet, and one of the reasons is that in these visits to different countries we are not only conveying our messages and complaining and asking for increasing international involvement, we are also trying to get the feedback from these countries and we are trying to consult with these countries and seek their advice. After this we are going to have an assessment and put a plan forward, the details of what we are going to do in the United Nations.
But it is important to avoid the possibility of ending up with another resolution, whether from the General Assembly or the Security Council. What we are after is to encourage the international community to practically help pushing things forward towards the implementation of the international community’s vision of peace, which is the two-state solution. So this time we are hoping to encourage the international community to go beyond just voting for or against another resolution because we have enough resolutions in the Security Council and in the General Assembly.
We believe that the international community have huge leverage on both Israelis and Palestinians. Israelis and Palestinians probably are the most countries dependant on support from outside. This is correct for Israel and for Palestine to different extents. So the outside world can have more forceful approach to the conflict which is to the favour to both Israelis and Palestinians.
So before getting into the procedural aspects of the United Nation, the general objective is to encourage the international community to be more active in helping us moving forward, but we will come to that hopefully soon.
In terms of Australia, I mean in this visit, I mean people here are very receptive on all levels, including yourselves. We have been meeting with officials, with party leaders, with parliamentarians, with government representatives with civil society initiatives, with media, in addition to representatives of Jewish community and Palestinian community here in this city and in other parts of Australia, and also to do the same in New Zealand. We believe that Australia can be more helpful. Australia has special and good relations with Israel, which puts Australia in an advantaged position because we believe that countries like Australia should not have any problem being friendly to Israel and supportive of Israel, especially the legitimate rights and requirements of Israel on one hand, and the legitimate rights of the Palestinians. We believe that these two sets of legitimate rights are not incompatible at all. Israel is after peace, security, recognition, integration, prosperity. These legitimate concerns and objectives do not and should not contradicts with the legitimate rights of the Palestinians for ending the Israeli occupation, allowing for an independent Palestinian State that can live in peace and cooperation with its neighboring countries, including Israel.
Q: Thank you. I’d like to return to the question of the right of return of refugees. I think there are many in the Israeli and Jewish community worldwide whose choice it seems is two states living in harmony but feel that with the right of return of refugees to Israel seriously threaten Jewish self-determination in their country. So I’m just wondering, what way forward do you see to solve the refugee issue, short of a full return of refugees to Israel? As an addendum to that question, many Palestinian advocates and intellectuals feel that the Palestinian Authority don’t actually have the right to even compromise on this issue because it is an individual right rather than a communal right. How will that problem be addressed?
It is not Palestinian Authority by the way that is negotiating it is PLO because it is true the Palestinian Authority do not have the mandate to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians because the Palestinian Authority has the mandate of running the affairs of the part of the Palestinians inside the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza. But the PLO is recognised by the Palestinians and by the outside world as the legitimate and by the way, by Israel as well, as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people all over the world. And the PLO negotiated with Israel on these basis and the PLO is recognised by more than 120 countries in the world on these basis.
Of course there are certain Palestinians who would disagree with this and who would appose that. But this is correct everywhere and I think in every country if the government will do things that is not seen appropriate by certain opposition then you would expect questioning the legitimacy of such decisions.
But I think that it is important for the Palestinians and for the Israelis to include the issue of refugees in their negotiations, and to make sure that this component of the conflict is solved because this is not a small component of the conflict because those refugees happen to be the majority of the Palestinians, and any solution that do not address the issue of refugees is not going to be a final solution, whether we like it or not. That’s why the two sides have agreed and signed in Oslo on the agreement that stipulates that the refugees is one of the final negotiations issue.
Now, when we will come to negotiating the refugees issue we have to have several parameters, including the concern that you have just mentioned but also including other concerns of Palestinians. And that’s why this issue is supposed to be an issue of negotiations because it is not a straight forward subject and there are several considerations that must be taken into consideration in looking at it. On one hand, Palestinians have the right of return. This is a inalienable right and this is a natural right and this is a right that is guaranteed by the international law, by specific resolution of the United Nation, and we cannot deny that legally this is a right. This is one consideration.
The other consideration is that different Palestinian refugees have different aspirations when it comes to solving the problem. Some of them want as a solution a compensation because they are happy wherever they are living and they prefer to make use of the compensation possibility. They might be settled with their children in whatever country in the world. I don’t know how many of the Palestinian would prefer compensation but I’m sure that there are some of them. Other Palestinians would prefer to be guaranteed a passport, a citizenship in a comfortable country maybe like Australia or Canada, I don't know, and prefer that to going back to wherever they might return for obvious reasons.
Other Palestinians might like to return, but not to the part of Palestine that they left because now this part is no longer Palestine that they left, now it’s Israel. And I guess many Palestinians might not like to return and to become citizens in Israel. They might prefer to return to the Palestinian State. I don’t know how many would prefer such option but I’m sure that many would like to. Others might like to return to the part of historical Palestine that is now Israel and I don’t know how many want to go there.
In short, I believe that the solution of the refugees problem has to be based on a package that includes these different components but in negotiating these details we have also to take into consideration the concern that you raised. A massive return of, theoretically, eight million Palestinians might have the effect that you refer to, and we believe that this is a legitimate concern. But probably the return of, theoretically speaking, 10 Palestinians might not have this effect, and I’m not suggesting that number, but I’m just trying to say that a lot can depend on the details that needs to be negotiated in a way that must take into considerations all these legitimate concerns, rights and parameters.
Q: Thank you very much for coming to speak. I have so many questions but I’ll start with two short ones. What techniques, what tactics do you intend to use to pressurise the international community and Australia to be more involved in the conflict because I tend to think that the international community is over-involved in this. And also, given what’s going on in North Korea, what’s going on in China, what’s going on in Africa, and what I saw with my own eyes in Sri Lanka two years ago, a country that has survived 35 years of civil war, whose suicide bombers, the Tamil Tigers, are trained by the PLO, do you not think there are more important issues for the international community to focus on?
A: I’m sure that there are other important issues but I don’t think that the international community can only focus on one conflict. All the conflicts that you listed are supposed to be subject to attention by the international community.
Interruption by the person who asked the question: But the attention seems to be taken up by Israel-Palestine. I’ve been to the Territories myself. In comparison to what else is going on in the world these people are middle class. It’s not a situation of terrible human rights abuses or concentration camps like there are in North Korea. It’s not a situation like I saw in Sri Lanka, where there are people who have no limbs in the street and no food. You say it is an urgent situation. They're the urgent situations. The international community needs to focus on those and not focus on the distraction of Israel and Palestine.
A: I think I disagree with your assessment to the level of importance of this conflict. I think that the Middle East in general is very important to the world for many reasons and I believe that it is an accepted rule that the continuity of the Israeli-Palestinian or the Israeli-Arab conflict is an important factor of instability in a region that is extremely important for the outside world. And that’s why you see and you notice sustained attention by the international community on the Middle East conflict, whether there are dramatic situations and violence, or not. Because it seems the outside world have a different assessment than yours vis-à-vis the importance of this conflict. I noticed that there has been always sustained attention by the international community to this conflict. There has to be reasons for that and we build on that our understanding, our assessment, is that the international community is interested in trying to find a solution, and I think that this interest has increased recently after what is called Arab Spring that is going on in the region, and we heard president Obama saying, three times, saying in statements and in speeches that the developments in the Arab world is a factor, urging us to try to move faster in trying to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now we might fail into attracting the attention of the international community but we will do our best and we have a sense of urgency, and I hope that others will share this feeling with us.
Q. Firstly, I’d like to say that we are meeting on the land of the Wurundjeri people, the original Australians….secondly, I wanted to ask about two parts to the question about the last two years of the development and establishing the apparatus of statehood being acknowledged. The first question is, has Tony Blair been involved in this process, and if so, I’d be interested to know how it came about and whether he is still involved…..and the second part is, you were talking about the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank but could you say a little about Hamas and Gaza, and the connection and the relationship at the moment?
A. Yes, Tony Blair was involved. Tony Blair is the representative of the Quartet. I mean he has a limited mandate, unfortunately. When he was appointed he wanted to have the mandate of representing the Quartet on development and aid aspects but also on political aspects. But then this did not work because the American Government insisted that the mediation on behalf of the Quartet on the political issues should remain in the hand of the American Government and Secretary of State of that time, Condoleezza Rice.
While Tony Blair was given the mandate of representing the Quartet in terms of the international community’s development programs and humanitarian programs. He was caught between the Palestinian requirements and plans and projects that are financed by the international community on one hand and the Israeli restrictions on implementing such projects on the other hand, and he spent probably 70-80% of his time and efforts trying to lobby, and trying to convince, the different Israeli authorities to be more flexible in allowing this sewage project in this area and that water desalination project in that area and paving this road because it is an Area C where Israel has to approve etc. So I think that he has been involved, and he keeps talking with pride about his role in the success of the Palestinian Authority in implementing his plan, and in spite of the limited successes we appreciate his role and we are grateful for him.
On the second part of your question, Gaza, this is a problem for us and for others. I first have to clarify that the Hamas problem is a result of the failure of the peace process. Because as I said in the beginning, the failure of the Palestinian Authority to deliver the peace and independence that we promised by negotiated means gave the chance for the opposition to grow and to ask different questions that we did not have answers to and attracted the public to try with the Authority. So the only way in the long term and the probably medium term to reverse the balance of powers to the favour of the moderate sectors in the Palestinian society, is to give a chance for the peace process to succeed. In this case that will empower the Palestinian moderate leadership and that will weaken Hamas.
But until then, the Palestinian Authority is trying its best to find a way out, including an initiative by the President, President Abbas, that was taken up positively by the new Egyptian regime, which mediated again between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas in a way that led into signing a reconciliation agreement between the two sides. We hope that this agreement will be implemented because on one hand this will gradually solve this problem internally but in a way that is careful and sensitive to our commitments to Israel and to the signed agreements with Israel and to our commitments to the international legality and community at the same time. And so far the prospects of implementation are not clear but we are hopeful that it will work.
Q: Before this event I was inundated with a whole lot of questions, so I might mention a few very brief ones because there is an underlying theme here. What is the Palestinian Authority doing in relation to antisemitism that exists, whether it's in text books at school or in the media—that’s state-run or not state-run media? The other one is about focusing on educating the kids about taking over the whole of Israel as opposed to a Palestinian State beside Israel? And lastly, the issue of naming squares and stadiums after terrorists?
A: This question is problematic because it has an internal logical contradiction. You want me to explain why there are antisemitic expressions in the Palestinian school text books and media while I believe that there isn’t. So I find it difficult to explain how when I don’t see or don’t believe it exits. Palestinian school curricular is consistent to 100% with the signed agreements between the Palestinians and the Israelis. There isn’t at all any section or sector or sentence in the Palestinian school curricular that contradicts with the Palestine commitments in the agreements. I am an educator and I know what I’m talking about and I always in these kind of meetings, I always challenge anybody to prove otherwise.
Interruption: Excuse me, in Jerusalem Square in Ramallah when I was there in 2004, there was a banner that has a Star of David equals the Nazi Swastika. Is that antisemitism or it doesn’t exist?
A: I was referring to the school books and I challenge everybody on this, there isn’t any problem in this regard in our school books and I can add to this, Israel is allowing teaching our school books in Jerusalem schools that are under the Israeli direct education control. And I don’t think Israel would allow these Palestinian Authority school books to be taught in such place if they have any impression that there are problems in them.
In addition, and allow me to be a little bit transparent and elaborate on this, because it keeps coming with no ground. The printing of our texts books is financed every year by the Europeans. And because of these continued allegations they sent a commission to check on these text books and send a report that is usually published in a website that any of you can read it. And every year they testify through this commission that there is no incitement or antisemitic problems in the Palestinian school books. So anybody who has any criticism or accusation must bring an example, must tell me page number so and so, and the book number so and then we can deal with it. But keep referring to this issue in this level of generality is not constructive.
Why Israel does not exist in the Palestinian curricular? Because Palestine does not exist in the Israeli curricular and the minute we will see the map of Palestinian State in the Israeli curricular, there will be a map of Israel in the Palestinian curricular.
Interruption: Isn’t there a difference that Israel currently exists and Palestine currently doesn’t?
A: Palestine does not exist because Israel is occupying Palestine. Before asking us to include it in the map has first to end its illegal occupation in order to allow us to have an independent state and to include it in the school books in Israel, and three days before that you will find the map of Israel in our school books, and I think that is only fair.
Interruption: On that point, why don’t you take a unilateral action, I mean Israel has taken a number of unilateral actions over the years, why don’t you take a unilateral action, put the map of Israel, declare the State of Israel in your school books, and go to the Israelis with that demand that they now reciprocate?
A: I suggest a third alternative; we go and talk to the Israelis and agree on one date in which the two sides will put the map of the other. So neither we go before them nor they go before us.
On the third part of your question, regarding naming places after Palestinian personalities that are considered heroes by Palestinians and considered criminals or terrorists by Israelis. I think that this problem exits in both Israel and Palestine because in every conflict heroes on one side are criminals or terrorists on the other side, and when we got these accusations from Israel we went and collected examples in Israel of streets and squares and buildings that are named after people whom the Israelis might consider heroes but we and others in the world would consider terrorists or criminals. People who have committed crimes against the Palestinians, people who led operations of ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians. We have the right to look at those as criminals exactly the Israelis are looking at people in our side as criminals. Either we reach an agreement that will be applied on the two sides or we leave each side free to do it the way they want.
When these issues were raised intensively, President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayad suggested to the American side the need to establish a three ways committee, Palestinian-Israeli-American, that would have the two tasks of, one, developing and agreed on definition and criteria for incitement and second, apply this definition and this criteria in both Israel and Palestine, and based on that, plan for whatever measures, including education, that would help reducing incitement and calls for hatred in both Israel and Palestine. And until now we did not get an approval from the Israeli side for this proposal and we believe that we will not hear an acceptance from Israel because the current Israeli Government is not interested in solving this problem as much as it is interested in using it for propaganda purposes and for PR purposes.