Raghida Dergham, a columnist for the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, is a contributing correspondent to the Global Viewpoint Network. She met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in New York earlier this week. It was the first interview with Abbas following his historic Sept. 23 speech before the UN General Assembly.
Raghida Dergham: Mr. President, how did you feel at the moment you stood before the General Assembly? At that historic moment as you stood there, how did you feel personally?
Mahmoud Abbas: I felt that we are really witnessing an historic event, that we are before a just and right demand, namely that we want to obtain a state that is a full member of the United Nations, just like other people. I, as I gazed upon the people, felt that if we held a vote we would have had unanimous support. But unfortunately, there are those who want to prevent the Palestinian people from reaching that, and those who want to reject this, and all we can do is to be patient.
Dergham: Are you afraid of the reactions? Is this an adventure that you fear may bring you undesirable consequences?
Abbas: It is not an adventure. On the contrary, it is a well-calculated endeavor. For more than a year, we have discussed this issue and considered it down to the tedious details: Where do we go and how do we go there? We discussed it with Arab countries, which have been fully up to speed, especially the Arab follow-up committee, on every step we have taken. For this reason, we were not maneuvering or playing games, but were instead absolutely clear to everyone. This is our stance, and this is what we want to do. This is not only recorded in the minutes of meetings, but also in our statements.
Dergham: Will a US veto lead you to alternatives that you know of? What will you do? What are your alternatives if the US veto is used?
Abbas: I said that we will now return home and study all possibilities. This means that anything that will be proposed to us, we shall not reject readily, but instead consider in accordance to the ground rules that we hold. In other words, we want to return to the negotiations. But without recognition of the 1967 borders and without a halt to settlement activity, we will not do so. We await the Security Council to resolve the matter in due course through its formal and technical procedures. However, we reject any political games aimed at obstructionism and stalling.
Dergham: Is there a scenario whereby upon the arrival of the application to the Security Council, a decision on it is deferred, only deferred, until the European efforts along with those of the Arabs at the General Assembly are concluded, so that Palestine would be given the membership of an observing state but not full membership?
Abbas: We are not currently looking into this issue. Certainly, we reject any kind of delay or obstruction.
Dergham: If the issue comes to an end with the US veto, Palestine would not have the status or position of a state, and would not be able to head to the ICC [International Criminal Court]. What would you have gained then?
Abbas: The United States, the bastion of democracy, would do wrong to the Palestinian people if it denies them the right to liberty and self-determination. It will have to bear responsibility for its own actions.
Dergham: But there are those who say, Why risk losing an American president who sympathizes with you and your cause?
Abbas: It is the US president who spoke of the necessity to halt settlement, and it is he who spoke of the ’67 borders. He has to fulfill his words, at the very least.
Dergham: Has [French] President Nicolas Sarkozy become the alternative when he put forward detailed proposals?
Abbas: We say that we appreciate what he proposed, but our official answer will be given after we consult the Palestinian leadership. We present everything before the latter in detail, and it is this leadership that decides upon the appropriate position.
Dergham: Is the Quartet over? Are you disappointed with the stances of the Quartet?
Abbas: Unfortunately, the Quartet has failed throughout the past year in issuing a statement, despite the fact that in the past it indeed issued good ones. But this year, since September and to date, it has failed. Twice it has failed to meet, and in the third time, it was the Quartet that rejected American proposals, not us. Russia, Europe, and the United Nations rejected what the Americans proposed. This means that what the Americans offered was unacceptable to anyone. Such proposals talk about a Jewish state, about the settlement blocs, as though they were a fait accompli, and about security that would remain in Israel’s control. After that, the Quartet envoy, Tony Blair, carried to us the ideas that the Quartet itself had rejected. For this reason, I told President Obama that we reject totally such ideas.
Dergham: The Quartet statement the [UN] secretary general told you about includes new ideas, correct?
Abbas: They presented some ideas and views. We said we would listen to them, discuss them, and then give them our feedback.
Dergham: President Sarkozy has proposed a timetable for negotiations. Are you ready to move forward on that?
Abbas: The negotiations are the first matter, before the timeframe. This is important. But the core issue is the substance. If the substance is appropriate, then yes, a timeframe. We would put a timeframe in place and within which we would conclude the negotiations.
Dergham: Hamas has criticized your speech. While the world was applauding you and giving you a standing ovation, positions were taken and statements were issued against you?
Abbas: From the outset, Hamas said that this move is unilateral and one-sided. True, we perhaps did not consult with them. But the matter should not be, “If you do not consult me then I am against you.” At least I understand the essence of their position. But they have taken pride in erroneousness. They continued to reject and started looking for pretexts, saying that the statement contained contradictions and whatnot. The whole world understood the speech, and yet they say it is full of contradictions. This is regrettable.
Dergham: Why is there talk of dissolving the Palestinian Authority?
Abbas: We are not talking about dissolving the Palestinian Authority.
Dergham: You proposed what is now close to being a civil intifada against the occupation.
Abbas: I did not say intifada. This has existed for some time. The popular and peaceful resistance is present in Bil’in and Ni’lin and elsewhere in Palestinian cities adjacent to the Wall, and it is carried out every week by Palestinians, Israelis, and foreign volunteers. We encourage these popular and peaceful protests, which are not against international law, or anyone for that matter, but only against the occupation, while using peaceful methods. What is required of us? Now, our Arab brethren have taught us with their uprisings and their Spring. They talk about the peacefulness of their protests. And indeed, this has proven to be the most effective way for people to attain their rights.
Dergham: Are you afraid [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu may carry out his threats of taking measures, as it seems he is making threats that may even amount to military action?
Abbas: He can, without making any threats, he can do anything on the military level because we cannot confront him on that level, nor do we want to. If he likes, the doors will be open to him.
Dergham: Do you fear that US financial aid to you may be suspended?
Abbas: There is talk of suspending aid, but at least the Americans should tell us why, if they want to suspend aid, then why. But we shall cross that bridge when we get to it.
Dergham: Are you currently on good terms with Syria? And why do you not conduct a visit to Iran? The first to congratulate you on your speech were the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the emir of Qatar. What is the nature of your relations at present, while bearing in mind that there is an Iranian-Turkish competition over the region, and what is the nature of your relations with Iran and Syria currently?
Abbas: I think, when we went to the conference, there was the Iranian delegation who welcomed us. The same can be said of the Syrian delegation with whom we’ve met.
Abbas: Yes, we met yesterday, we more than once met with the Syrian delegation, both in the General Assembly or at the home of the emir of Qatar. Then today, [Syrian Vice Foreign Minister] Faisal Mekdad came and congratulated me. We are not on bad terms at all with any side, and we maintain good relations with everyone. With regard to Erdogan, our relationship is excellent, and our relationship with the emir of Qatar is excellent as well. We have no problems with anyone. For this reason, everyone came to congratulate us and greet us. If a certain side did not want to do so, then no one is putting pressure on anyone to congratulate, greet, or say good words about the speech.
Dergham: Is there anything that makes you afraid?
Abbas: Of whom should I be afraid? If Netanyahu wants to attack us, then welcome. If he wants to annul agreements, then welcome. He is free to do whatever he wishes because he is the occupier, not us. He occupies our land, and he is able to do what he wants. But we will not submit to what he wants. We shall oppose him by all peaceful means.