|TRANSCRIPT OF PRESS BRIEFING BY PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATIONS MINISTER SAEB ERAKAT
The text below is the transcript of remarks made during a press briefing by Palestinian Minister of Negotiations Saeb Erekat at the DC-based Palestine Center on 24 June 2004, following a meeting Dr. Erekat held with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on 23 June 2004.
[The first point] We had, as Palestinian leaders, asked the Egyptians' intervention. Many people talk about an Egyptian initiative; many people talk about an Egyptian plan. I don't think there is such a thing as an Egyptian initiative or an Egyptian plan. The Egyptians have been asked by us. So have the Jordanians today, because Prime Minister Abu Ala just concluded his meeting with His Majesty King Abdullah of Jordan an hour ago. What we have requested from both our Egyptian brothers and our Jordanian brothers is that we need to begin a process of retraining, restructuring, reconsolidating, and regrouping our security forces in the West bank and Gaza. In the last three years, our forces have taken a lot of serious hits and were badly damaged. I don't think we have command centers, communication centers, vehicles or anything anymore. So, the process here, when people ask us to shoulder our security responsibilities, I think we need to have security elements to shoulder these responsibilities. The Egyptians have agreed to do that, and so will the Jordanians. And this element is not outside the Road Map. There is a provision in the Road Map, the first phase of the Road Map, that specifies an effort to rebuild and retrain Palestinian security forces by Egypt and Jordan, with the Americans' assistance.
Egypt and Jordan will not have any role, any security role, if or when Israel withdraws from Gaza or the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority will be the sole responsible for all security responsibilities and economic, social, health, and so on. The second element we asked the Egyptians to do is that the dialogue between Palestinian factions, which they began months ago - we want them to resume their efforts in order to revive this dialogue between Palestinian factions, hoping to reach common ground on many things that would relate to our obligations emanating from the road map, and that includes, of course, a Palestinian commitment to the cessation of violence against Israelis anywhere. Period.
Mister Powell met me yesterday. My message was 'help the Egyptians by making sure that the Israeli government stops the current policies of dictates, fait accompli policies, creating facts on the ground.' Prime Minister Sharon promises President bush openly, in letters, in media that he will not build the wall around the settlement of Ariel in the north of the West Bank. He's doing it right now. He's doing it. And we ask, what will the U.S. do about it? Sharon promises president Bush that he will not build any new settlements. Last week he tendered for a new settlement to build 13,500 units south of Jerusalem. He promised that he will facilitate the relations with Egypt in terms of the borders and so on, security and so on. Then, three days ago he tenders in Haaretz newspaper building a mediaeval ditch, four km in length, 6m in width, 25 m in depth, at the entrance between Rafah and Egypt. And then, in the letter from Sharon to President Bush they say that no settlers will be moved from Gaza to the West Bank. And Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz is on the record that he will move settlers from Gaza to the West Bank.
Not a single promise that was made by the Israeli government to President Bush was delivered. They were supposed to take out all settlement outposts that were created since March, 2001, and they made a promise to President Bush. I think we have 18 more outposts today than we had in 2001. There is an intensification of settlement activities and buildup of the wall. And how do you characterize a courageous, high-risk Egyptian role, and that's the truth, if Mister Sharon's policies will be consistent with business as usual? Just the creation of facts on the ground, settlements, walls, closures and so on, this will really undermine the Egyptian efforts. So I urged Secretary Powell yesterday to exert every possible effort to ensure that the Israeli government will stop such practices and give the Egyptians the chance they deserve. For the first time in three years that we've been talking about ideas, exchanging views, we met in Paris, Sharm al-Sheikh, and we had the Mitchell Report, Tenet, Zinni and so on exchanging views of 'do what', 'chicken and egg'. Today for the first time in three years, we are trying to do deeds on the ground, and that's what the Egyptian efforts are all about. I want to give this a chance, and a chance cannot be provided if mister Sharon continues business as usual as far as the settlements and the walls are concerned.
The second point I spoke with mister Powell [about] yesterday, is that first of all the American administration talks about the larger Middle East. They want democracy, human rights, accountability. And as Palestinians, we want this, and we ask them to begin with us. We stand fully ready for Presidential, legislative and local elections under the leadership of the United States of America, the European Union and other members of the world. We believe we're ready, and we're wanting to do it, and we want their assistance in creating the atmosphere that will enable us to carry out the elections as soon as possible. I believe we can do it in six months.
So, United States is invited to begin with us, in the process of democracy, human rights, accountability, the rule of law. Palestinians stand ready, and we can have major elections in less than six months, and I hope that they will not stop the natural growth of Palestinian democracy for anything. We are urging them, even when they speak about new Palestinian leaders. I was elected in 1996 to represent the constituency of Jericho. I believe the voters in Jericho and the people in Jericho have the right to elect their new representatives. But as Palestinians we don't have any other means to have new leaders other than direct, free and fair elections. I really hope that those in Washington who speak about new Palestinian leaders will be consistent as far as enabling the Palestinians and helping the Palestinians in carrying out their free, fair elections. And, the law says that any Palestinian over the age of 35 years can run for President; any Palestinian age thirty and over can run for legislative council, and any Palestinian who's aged 25 and over can run for the municipalities.
I believe today we really do stand a chance for the first time in three years, and I've been following this process to the tiniest of details. I see a chance. I see a shy ray of hope that we need to maximize. I believe the Egyptian efforts provide this; I believe we should all stand to help the Egyptians who have accepted our request to do that. I don't know what else will break this vicious cycle other than this effort, and we appreciate also that King Abdullah of Jordan an hour ago informed PM Abu Ala that Jordan would be also willing to assist in retraining and reconsolidating and reequipping our security forces.
As far as the talk that we've been hearing about Gaza withdrawal, the Israeli government announced that this will be unilateral, and that they don't have a Palestinian partner on this. That's their business. With all due respect to the Israelis, as Palestinians, we do respect their democratic choice at a time when they say they don't have a partner, at a time when they do not show any respect to the Palestinian democratic choice, we stand and say we respect Israel's democratic choice, they elected Mister Sharon, and we invite them to come back to the negotiating table. This is the shortest way to saving the lives of Israelis and Palestinians. I don't think you can provide security through walls, mediaeval ditches, and more settlement activities and more incursions and assassinations. This will just add to the complexities and add more fuel to the fire.
Speaking about unilateral withdrawal is something beyond my comprehension. I think that anybody who can add one plus one and come up with an answer equals two needs to answer a question to those enthusiasts about the Gaza withdrawal. The day after a Palestinian woman delivers a baby in Rafah or Khan Yunis and she wants to register this baby. My question to them, what will be the legal framework for this registration? Will this baby be registered in accordance in accordance with Gaza as A area under the Oslo accords? Will Gaza be declared an independent, sovereign state? Will we go back to the British Mandate to create the legal framework? Or, will there be a new international custodianship, and if this is the case what model will they dictate on us? Is it Kosovo, Namibia, or East Timor, or whatever? People should look at the day after. We've been sensibly busy, as Palestinians, working the day after and the legal framework. A team of more than fifty Palestinians from all over the world has been participating with us in the Negotiation Affairs Department in the legal study and the economic study. And then, economically speaking, anybody who wants to speak about the Gaza economy must not plan to send 100,000 workers from Gaza to Israel. So, we need to shift the Gaza economy from a labor-oriented economy to a goods-oriented economy. How do you do that? In doing so, I think every single job you need from the fifty thousand jobs or so will cost $20,000. And how can you do that, if Mister Sharon says he will keep the keys to Gaza and the international passages, territorial water and airspace in his pocket? And what will be the third party route? And will Gaza happen before elections or after elections? Palestinian, that is.
What's between us and the Israelis: our obligations emanating from the road map. I believe it is the responsibility of the Quartet committee to shoulder their responsibilities, because if you read page one of the road map they are the judges. They're supposed to provide monitors, timelines and mechanisms to implement the road map.
My final comment, if the Israeli government chooses to withdraw from any place in the WB and Gaza, the Palestinian Authority stands ready to shoulder all its responsibilities, including the security one. Thank you very much.
[The remarks below were made by Dr. Erekat during the question-and-answer period.]
[In response to a question about Secretary Powell's response during their meeting]
Secretary Powell urged me to convey to my leaders to carry out our security obligations. He stressed highly on the security obligations, which we promised to do. Secretary Powell, as far as the elections are concerned, he did not commit to elections, but at the same time he did not say no. He asked me about the municipal elections. We told him we would begin in Jericho, because that's the only place where we have Palestinian Authority and we can do it, but then the rest of the place in the West Bank cannot be done without resuming our security responsibilities in the villages, towns and refugee camps. I think it would be much more credible for the United States, I said to the secretary, when they speak and define dates for elections in Iraq to put Iraq elections and Palestine elections also, and I hope that the United States will stand firmly and support us in our endeavor of democratization, and as I said, the Middle East initiative, I believe it can begin with the Palestinians, with full democratic processes.
[In response to a question about whether Arafat would run for president again in light of Israeli and American concerns over his role]
Well, President Arafat [is from the] Fatah movement, and his party can nominate him to be the President. He's over 35 years, so he's eligible to run for the elections. We're speaking about true democracy, Barbara, and I think disqualifying people is not relevant to the democratization process we want. So I, at the end of the day, I think that the Israeli government could care less if Palestinians are ruled by Attila the Hun, or the Boy Scouts of Washington. We all know the petty politics there, but at the same time, please, do not put any obstacles in our people's natural development towards full democracy.
[In response to a question about what change in stance he expects from the Americans]
You know, I don't think politics and interests are about love and hate relations and stands and so on. Nations, like individuals, follow their interests, and today the US borders are no longer with Mexico and Canada. They today have borders with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Gulf, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and go down to Pakistan, and China and I really hope that the U.S. will stop seeing the Middle East and the Palestinian situation and question in the eyes of who is the PM of Israel. Today we all stand in a moment of truth. I think [for] the last 96 years of this century in the Middle East and how it will be solved will depend on two questions. One, will the US continue treating Israel as a country above the laws of man, or will we have peace, a just and fair solution, translating President Bush's vision from a vision to a realistic political track, by ending the Israeli occupation. And the second thing: democracy, and human rights and accountability in the Middle East. I cannot tell nations what to do. As Palestinians, we don't intend to disappear, to vanish, we did not do so for the last hundred years, and today we stand fully ready for a comprehensive settlement, a peace agreement with Israel on the basis of the terms everyone has provided for in the Madrid peace conference and other agreements signed between us and them, and the Road Map that specified its endgame as to end the Israeli occupation that began in '67.
[In response to a question about whether or not the US fully appreciates the implications of the disengagement plan, and if so, how they have explained them to him]
Well, the thing is, at the end of the day, it's really Palestinians that will negotiate for Palestinians, so we urge Washington, London, any capital on Earth to please not to negotiate on our behalf, not to make concessions on our behalf, especially about permanent status issues (Jerusalem, settlements, borders and refugees). This is my job. This is my job, alright? And, I believe at the end of the day it's Palestinians and Israelis who will deliver, who will make the required decisions. And the United States, we urge them to be the facilitator for Palestinians and Israelis, and President Bush, when he went as far as sending a letter to Mister Sharon, talking about facts on the ground, new realities on the ground, these are settlements, illegal settlements. It's like me going to the President of Turkey and telling him, mister President, since you have 4 million Turks in Germany, I can give you this paper to take some lands from Germany! Or shall I go to President Fox in Mexico and tell him that due to the facts on the ground and the realities about Mexicans in California, some parts of California should be part of Mexico. We still respect the rule of law, international law, and Palestinians are the only ones who will negotiate and make the decision on their behalf. And, as far as the Gaza withdrawal, we're not going to stand in front of any Israeli tank that wishes to leave any place in Gaza and the West Bank. They say they don't want to negotiate with me, that's fine, but it's me and the Palestinian Authority, that will shoulder the responsibilities the day after. And that's the truth.
[In response to a question as to how PA plans to address Israeli and American unwillingness to deal with Arafat, and how other Palestinian factions that oppose Egyptian involvement will be dealt with]
Well, Khaled, in response to your first question, President Arafat is only the President of the Palestinian Authority and was elected by the Palestinians. He doesn't get to be the President of anybody else. So he's relevant as far as the Palestinians are concerned. He's the elected Palestinian leader and we urge people o respect the democratic choice of Palestinians. You cannot force people to do whatever they don't want to do, but out of respect to the Palestinian democratic choice I think people should respect our democratic choice. As far as the statements that were issued against the Egyptian efforts before they began, I'm sure that once the facts are clear to everyone, once the facts are known that we are the ones who have requested the Egyptian intervention and the Egyptian efforts, once it becomes clear that Egypt will have no security role whatsoever in Gaza and the West Bank, and it will be the PA's responsibility, I think things will change. And Egyptians, we appreciate their efforts, we appreciate their courage, we appreciate the risks they're taking in retraining, re-equipping, reconsolidating our security forces and also with the Palestinian dialogue between the factions.
[In response to a question on what kind of obstacle the Wall creates towards settlement of this issue]
I think as far as a settlement or solution, I think the Wall that's being built in the heart of the West Bank, is being built actually as a land grab, to confiscate more land that will be 50% of the West Bank at the end of the day, and it would really undermine any efforts to revive the peace process and revive hope in the minds of Palestinians, and Israelis for that matter. Look, we're a people with no army, no navy, and no air force. We're a people with no economy. I know if it's my word against any Israeli in the Congress in this town, I don't stand a chance. But today, in my generation, we stand ready to make a historic agreement with Israel. We have recognized the right of Israel to exist in 78% of historic Palestine, and accepted to establish our state in the remaining 22%, that is the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Today in Israel, there is a government that's trying as hard as possible, under the pretext of security, because if it's a security wall, nobody would have stopped them if they'd built it on their territories, not in the heart of Qalqiliya and Zawiya, and Nablus and Ramallah and East Jerusalem and so on. So it's nothing to do with security.
Some people in Israel believe it's a historic opportunity for them, that they will lower Palestinian people's expectations and the Palestinians will accept a long-term interim solution in a Gaza prison and 40% of the West Bank, without Jerusalem, settlements, borders being discussed. This will not happen. They may have the power to storm my hometown Jericho 20 times; I cannot stop them. They may have the power to hit missiles in Rafah; they may have the power and the support to demolish hundreds of homes and make thousands of people homeless, but they will never have the power to force a pen in any Palestinian hand to sign something that is not consistent with the interests and aspirations of the Palestinian people.
[In response to a follow-up question on whether or not the Wall's completion will kill the peace process]
Well, look, the peace process has no legs of its own, no heart of its own to be stabbed. Peace as an idea will always be there. There is nothing that's more important to Palestinians and Israelis than peace. I can speak on behalf of the majority of Israelis and the majority of Palestinians who have no aspirations and nothing in their hearts and minds other than to achieve a comprehensive peace treaty, and that's the truth. Today, there are some who still think they can achieve their goals through fait accompli policies and dictation rather than negotiation, because that's what the unilateral approach is all about. It cancels negotiations and bilateralism, and replaces it with dictation rather than negotiations. I cannot force them to negotiate. I want to negotiate with them. I'm inviting them - this is the year 2004 - to come back to the negotiating table. Peace is the goal. I'm one of those who has been to life after peace. We don't need to reinvent the wheel, and they know and we know at the end of the day that it is the two state solution on the '67 borders. They know that. And if they think they can grab 50% of the West Bank through [the] Wall, they can't. I was 12 years old when the occupation came to my hometown, Jericho. Today I'm 49. I really want to cut the long story short for my children. I did not have an alternative in 1967. Today, there is a big alternative called peace, and a peace process we should maintain alive.
[In response to a request that he elaborate his vision on the election process]
Well, we [the PA] want elections because Palestinians want elections. Palestinian people want to go to elections; they want to elect their leaders; they want to elect new faces, maybe. Last time I ran in Jericho, I ran against 7 candidates. You know, it's the smallest constituency in the West Bank. I don't know if I'll run against 15 this time, but that's up to the people to choose, and that's what democracy is about, at least the democracy we know, and I hope people will not start tutoring us in the democracies of excluding candidates, or including candidates, or disqualifying people and so on. You know that Palestinians are ready. And as far as six months, I'm following the laws. You need to have voter registration, and after that you need to put registration for objections, and then you have a 2 week period for candidacy, then a one week withdrawal, and then you have three weeks election campaign, and that, the whole process requires nearly a hundred days, so in order to prepare the ballots and so on, that's why I said six months, but we need assurances. We're going to hold the elections in September in Jericho for the municipal elections. If an Israeli jeep decides to enter Jericho on the day of the elections and arrests an opposition candidate - under the pretext of security, you know how this will sound on Fox News or any other agency here - what will happen to the elections, in your opinion? It's dead. So we stand asking the democracies on earth, the US, I was in Dublin with the presidency of the EU, I was with Secretary Powell, I was in Moscow with the Quartet, urging them and asking them to please help us at least to ensure that we will do our elections without the Israelis' intervention. And if we can get the situation to Sept 28, 2000, that will be the atmosphere conducive for the elections, and we're demanding, last time in our elections we had 2500 international observers, headed by President Carter, we hope this time to have 7000 observers, so they can check on us and our way of life and our democracy, and at the same time make sure that we will have genuine elections.
[In response to being asked if creating an atmosphere conducive to election involved Israel lifting closures, checkpoints, etc.]
I think, look, I'm not an independent state, to speak of elections like any other country. I have offered officially [to] the Israelis to form a joint committee with them on elections because there are things called 'not to do' things. Maybe they don't want me to campaign a kilometer from a checkpoint, or a settlement or a military installation, but maybe I don't want them to send their jeeps and their army into a campaign rally somewhere. Maybe I want parties to have the full right to move from one place to another to make campaigns for their parties. Without Israel's full cooperation in elections, how can you see it, how can you do it? This is why we're urging the Israelis, on one hand, to accept the formation of this joint committee with us so we can put down 'not to do' things, and at the same time, we seek the assurances of the international community to provide thousands of observers, on the ground, just to make sure that Palestinians feel that they will have free and fair elections.
[In response to being asked to address claims that the Intifada has been stopped, and that Israel's policies are the reason why it has stopped]
There are reasons for everything in life: your question has a reason, my answer has a reason, and the way I look at you and take my glasses and shake my hand has a reason and so on. Look, I look at Iraq, and I see Americans: they want to end the occupation! That's legitimate, and that's good. And they want to transfer power. So, for me as a Palestinian, since I was 12 years old, I was under an Israeli occupation (and it is an occupation), and I'm urging my occupiers to come and join me in negotiations so the transfer of power can be peaceful and smooth, but they insist on other means: settlements and walls and so on. So, we had an Intifada in '87 and people calling for their freedom and independence. We had an Intifada in 2000 and people calling for their independence and freedom. I hope we can join the Israelis in a negotiations process and we can deliver freedom and independence to Palestinians and security to Israelis through a meaningful peace process and negotiations, because as long as Palestinians do not have the right to be free and independent, what do you expect them to do? Another Intifada in 2010, another in 2020 and so on? Why can't we cut the long story short? The shortest way to peace and security is a meaningful peace process, negotiations that will end the Israeli occupation that began in '67.
[In response to a question noting there have been no suicide bombings for months and what the explanation is]
Well, I condemn suicide bombing, I condemn targeting civilians, whether Israelis or Palestinians. Look, I have a 16 year-old child, Ali. I don't want him to become a suicide bomber. I want him to be like your children. I want him to be the student, the soccer player, the painter, the journalist, the farmer, whatever he wants. And me being here, me going all over the world, me urging the Israelis, I want to revive hope in his mind that his life will be only normal. OK? So, the Israelis can say whatever they want to say. I'm not going to discuss this. I'm not going to score points, I'm not going to finger-point. But all I say is that we have been exerting every possible effort as the Palestinian Authority in order to ensure that there will not be suicide bombers.
[In response to a question about whether or not any sort of action whatsoever is effectively on hold until the November U.S. elections]
I think the American elections are American elections. Mister Powell told me yesterday actually, he said many people say we're not going to move because it's an election year, and he said to me that President Bush told him that he'll be busy with the elections and Mister Powell will be busy with the peace process. And we want the U.S. to continue its engagement with other members of the Quartet, to provide as I said the mechanisms for implementation, the timelines and the monitors to implement the road map. And I believe that, elections or no elections, this is an endeavor about peace, about saving life. It doesn't involve sending 50,000-100,000 armed Americans to somewhere else. We're talking about peace, we're talking about saving lives, and we don't need anybody to be there. It's Israelis and Palestinians who will negotiate. Nobody will negotiate on our behalf. So, I believe with the Egyptian effort today, we stand a chance, as I said there is a shy ray of hope, and I hope we don't lose this moment of opportunity.
[In response to a question about intra-Palestinian dialogue]
Well, 10 days ago, Prime Minister Abu Ala was in Gaza. He met with all factions, and he urged them to resume the dialogue, not in terms of Gaza. We're not talking about a Gaza administration or a Jericho administration or a Jenin administration. There is something called a Palestinian Authority that will be responsible to fully shoulder the responsibilities once and if and when they will withdraw from Gaza. In the dialogue, the most important thing now is to distinguish between, and I'll be very clear with you - political pluralism - multiple political parties, multiple political lives, people free to form whatever they want - and that's the basis of our political life, but at the same time, to differentiate between political pluralism and "authority pluralism". I believe that we should have a policy of zero tolerance toward pluralism of authority, and we should differentiate openly and clearly the difference between [the two]. If somebody wants to stand against peace, against Oslo, against agreements, a different economic program, a different tax system, that's their full right, but I don't think any party has the right to claim the law into their own hands, and act like a parallel authority, and that's what the basic area of authority should be.
[In response to a question as to whether there would be an attempt to absorb Hamas and Jihad into the Palestinian Authority]
What do you mean? It's not absorbing, it's elections. We're going to have elections, and whoever wins these elections will be our democratic choice. That's why we're offering presidential, legislative, local, union elections, and people stand free to choose who ever they want. And that's how the power will emerge in the Palestinian society.