Abbas: the interview

The full televised version of the interview of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by Israeli Channel Two TV was ten minutes long, and was aired on November 2.

It can be viewed on Youtube here, or — with all the ads — on Israel Channel Two’s website here.

But, it was 2-minute preview aired the night before that got the most play, at least here in the region.


In that 2-minute preview, Abbas responded to the mention that he was born in Safed [in the 193os, under the British Mandate], by stating that he personally has no intention to live there any more [unsaid: under Israeli rule], but that he would like to visit there — which is his “right”, he stressed, and which he said he has already done at least once [together, he indicated, with someone else sitting in the room at the time the interview took place].

It was the remark that he “had no right” to live in Safed [because it is in Israel, and he lives in Ramallah, in Palestine] which drew the most negative reaction — many Palestinians and their supporters vilified Abbas for supposedly giving up the Right of Return.  Abbas’ team put out subsequent messages saying this was not true — but these messages were neither convincing nor persuasive.  But there was not a lot of back-and-forth on this [or any other matter] …

    Abir Kopty observed on Twitter just after the full interview aired: “@AbirKopty – The interview was very short, they took from #Abbas what they wanted to hear and said bye bye!

Abbas was speaking from a position that is based on the Camp David talks in late July 2000 [between Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the late Yasser Arafat]. In these talks, which led to no conclusion, as well as in subsequent talks in Taba in January 2001, which also led nowhere as Barak lost reelection, the Israeli team stressed what is a majority position in Israel: there can be no “Right of Return”, and any “return” will be minimal and miniscule. A formulation to make this somewhat more palatable to Palestinians was mentioned in these talks, and was in a speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2000 by Israel’s Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, who said that Palestinian refugees can only “return” to a future Palestinian state [as it later emerged, and this can happen only with Israeli control and approval].

This was also the formula adopted by the Geneva Initiative between Israeli + Palestinian “civil society” — and was one of the main reasons that many Palestinians scorned, and denounced it. But some others, who were involved with the Geneva Initiative [including Abbas, though invisibly] believe that it was the only way to move things forward.

What Abbas was saying in the interview conformed to that negotiating position.

This whole matter is rarely ever discussed fully + clearly among Palestinians, in part because feelings are so strong and positions are so…determined.

The interview was conducted by Israeli Channel Two TV’s Udi Segal, who shot rapid-fire questions in English. Abbas began to answer in Arabic, but after about four minutes he switched into English.

Continue reading Abbas: the interview

The Israeli Peace Initiative is the Arab Peace Initiative-plus, with a better name?

The announcement came by email today, from Ben Or, an Israeli PR firm in Tel Aviv.

The email says: “President Abbas has invited the leadership of the Israel Peace Initiative to the Mukaata [sic] in Ramallah to present their new regional peace initiative. The invitation follows the Palestinian President’s recent statement regarding his willingness to relinquish the plan to appeal to the UN General Assembly, if the political negotiations, based on the ’67 borders, are renewed”.

A report by Israel National News today — along the same lines — said Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren told Israel Radio “that Washington is attempting to convince its European allies that a unilateral declaration of statehood for the Western-backed Palestinian Authority will bring conflict and not peace”, and that “Israel is trying to renew negotiations with the PA in order to draft an agreement of two states for two nations in the Land of Israel”. The report is posted here.

So, if these two assertions are correct, both the Palestinian and the Israeli leaderships are looking for a way to create a Palestinian State by September. Could that be true?

One of the problems with the email sent out by the Israeli PR firm about tomorrow’s [Thursday’s] meeting at the Muqataa is that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas seems not to have made the statement attributed.

It was Yasser Abed Rabbo who said it — he is Secretary (and member) of the PLO Executive Committee, and he is also head of Palestinian Television, and he was (and still may be) the head of the Palestinian team in the “civil society” Geneva Initiative [signed December 2003]. He reportedly said it in an interview in the London paper Al-Hayat, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz here.

There are, in fact, a number of signatories to the Israeli Peace Initiative who are associated with the Geneva Initiative. Before he was elected President, Abbas himself was involved in drafting the Geneva Initiative through the efforts of his staff member Ghaith al-Omary, now at the American Task Force on Palestine in Washington D.C. This is one of several indications of the tacit approval given was to the effort by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat Israeli former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin was Yasser Abed Rabbo’s counterpart, and Beilin’s staff assistant Daniel Levy, now also in Washington at the New American Foundation, was al-Omary’s counterpart in the drafting process.

The Geneva Initiative was viewed with hostility in Israel — mainly because the Israeli government at the time said it had not been informed in advance. The Swiss government, which did give substantial diplomatic and financial support to the Geneva Initiative, was surprised and flustered by the Israeli rejection. The Swiss support since then has fluctuated. Other European states, the United Nations, and the U.S. were cool — though former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was at the signing ceremony in Geneva on 1 December 2003.

Since then, the Geneva Initiative Israeli team has been much more active than the Palestinian team — though they seem to have revived a bit, and recently held a meeting in Nablus on the Right of Return, one of the points in the Geneva Initiative most criticized by Palestinians and their supporters.

A recent Tweet from the Israeli Geneva Initiative office (@genevaaccord on Twitter) said, based on the Haaretz report, that: “Geneva Initiative’s cofounder Yasser Abed Rabbo: PA prefers negotiations to unilateral declaration of Palestinian…”

According to the Haaretz report, “The Palestinian Authority will defer its attempts to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state at the United Nations if “real and serious” negotiations with Israel begin, an official was quoted saying Monday. Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organization Yasser Abed Rabbo told London-based Al-Hayat newspaper on Monday that the basis of any negotiated agreement must be according to ‘the 1967 borders, very limited exchange of land and no exchanges of populations’. Abed Rabbo called on the Middle East quartet, comprised of the UN, the European Union, the United States and Russia to ‘tackle these negotiations in accordance with the timetable we previously agreed on, which ends in September’, he told the London-based daily … ‘Otherwise’, the PLO official said, ‘we will go to the United Nations, then ask them to deal with the military presence and the Israeli settlements as an assault on the sovereignty of another state, which is a member of the United Nations’. He added that ‘these are the two solutions for international powers, especially Washington. We do not have a third option’. Abed Rabbo said that the PA will honor all of its internal and external obligations as a formal state, but that it would not accept Israeli military or civilian presence in its territories”…

But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has never said anything publicly like this, and has continued to insist that the Palestinians would present their request for recognition of a Palestinian state to the UN in September.

Given the track record, however, that doesn’t mean he disagrees with the proposition.

Maybe there is something in the works that we all don’t know about, yet.

The head of President Abbas’ press office, Mohamed Edwan, said Wednesday “No, the President has never said that he was willing to relinquish this plan” if political negotiations are renewed. However, Edwan noted, “if we reach that [a Palestinian state] by negotiation by September, that would logically change the current plan, IF…”

The website of the Israeli Peace Initiative, we are informed by today’s email, is here.

The email sent out by the Israeli PR firm also says that “The Israeli Peace Initiative is a new regional peace initiative, calling upon the Israeli government to take action that will ensure the existence of Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State, its security and prosperity, and also to ensure normal relations between Israel and the Arab and Muslim world, and not be dragged along by the political events. More than 70 Israeli leaders from the fields of economy, defense, education, media, diplomacy and academy have already signed the initiative”.

This is the same Israeli PR company that is representing another group of Israelis who made their own recent peace initiative in Tel Aviv last week, the Declaration of Independence from the Occupation (as we wrote about here yesterday, see our post, A Tale of Two Translations, here.

Though both groups are represented by the same Israeli PR firm, only one is being taken to the Muqataa tomorrow to present their plan to the Palestinian President.

Is this a conflict of interest? Does one group of Israelis simply pay a better retainer to the Israeli PR firm?

Or are their other reasons for this selection? Does the Palestinian leadership prefer to deal with ex-military and ex-security officials? Does it judge that they have a greater chance of success? Does it feel that this particular group of Israelis will be in a better position to make accusations against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if there is no other development between now and September? Is it the linkage (though not explicit) with the Geneva Initiative part of the charm?

This Israeli Peace Initiative has already been welcomed by the U.S. as a “positive contribution”, according to a report by AFP posted here.

That, of course, is polite, but falls short of a full endorsement. It’s not a cold shoulder, however.

According to AFP, the U.S. State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said: “We remain committed to achieving an agreement… we also support the goal of fully normalized relations between Israel and the Arab world … We welcome all ideas to achieve those goals and we look forward to hearing more about the Israel peace initiative. We believe it could possibly make a positive contribution”.

Akiva Eldar, Israeli journalist who is big supporter of Arab Peace plan, and one of the signers of this new Israeli Peace Initiative, has said that the biggest problem, for Israelis, with the Arab Peace Initiative is its name.

This is not a joke.

A number of other Israelis I’ve questioned over the last three years all agree — Israel can never sign on to an “Arab Peace Initiative”. It has to be Israeli, they said.

So, now we have it — the Israeli Peace Initiative (proposed by private Israelis, not the government).

However, it is written as if by the government.

The full text of the proposed Israeli Peace Initiative [IPI], posted here.

Continue reading The Israeli Peace Initiative is the Arab Peace Initiative-plus, with a better name?

What is going on here?

USAID just doesn’t know what to do with its money?

It could partly build a new school (it could build maybe one-fourth of a new school) with what it has agreed to spend in giving the Israeli team of the “Geneva Initiative” — not a deprived or unconnected group of people — to film certain leading Palestinian Authority personages telling an Israeli audience that they are “partners” to make peace.

One of the first of these USAID spots finished and released features Saeb Erekat, who says to the camera: “Shalom to you in Israel … I know that we have disappointed you … I am your partner. Are you mine?” This can be viewed on the site of the Geneva Initiative’s Israeli team here.

The promo spots are being released just days before the hoped-for relaunch of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which were broken off in late December 2008, as the IDF launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.

Now, USAID does not have any programs in Israel (which is a developed country) — though (for security reasons) its growing West Bank-and-Gaza program is located in an oceanfront highrise office Tel Aviv (and its officials can only travel to the West Bank with a vastly-expensive and armor-plated American escort).

Nonetheless, it is the Israeli team of the Geneva Initiative — headquartered in another high-rise office in Tel Aviv where former Prime Ministers have maintained offices — which asked for, and got, funding to produce this media campaign ahead of this week’s Washington meetings.

The justification for it is unclear.

USAID’s website states that “The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funds programs that help people living in the West Bank and Gaza lead healthier and more productive lives. Since 1994, Palestinians have received more than $2.9 billion in U.S. economic assistance via USAID projects – more than from any other donor country” — this is posted here.

Of course, people living in the West Bank and Gaza could reasonably be expected to lead “healthier and more productive lives” if the Israeli direct and indirect military occupation is ended — and through negotiations, as the principals all now say they prefer.

But, this media campaign leaves a lot of questions open, including these, which I addressed earlier today to USAID:
“Could you please help me understand how it is, and why, USAID funded the Geneva Initiative (Israeli team’s) request to make promo spots intended to air on Israeli television in which some prominent PA figures appear?

“Was it a difficult decision for this arm of the U.S. government to back the Geneva Initiative (about which, if I am not mistaken, the U.S. government previously felt somewhat more neutral)?

“Can I also ask what was the amount of the USAID backing for this request? (YNet apparently reported in Hebrew that it was $250,000, but in English YNet referred to “millions of shekels”)…

“Has the Palestinian Peace Coalition (the Geneva Initiative’s Palestinian team) made a similar or parallel request, and if so is USAID planning to fund it, too?

And, I also asked: “In addition, can I ask what is the amount allocated for USAID’s current billboard campaign in Ramallah, praising USAID projects?”

I am waiting for a response…

Meanwhile, some background: the Geneva Initiative was announced as an effort by “civil society” in October 2003, and signed — in Geneva — in a ceremony in December 2003, for which the Swiss government flew in a planeload each of Israeli and Palestinian supporters just for the event, then flew them all back to the region. The document was discussed, or negotiated, primarily between Israeli politician Yossi Beilin (drafted on his behalf primarily by Daniel Levy, now writing and think-taking in Washington) and Palestinian politico Yasser Abed Rabbo (with considerable drafting done by a then-aide to Abu Mazen, Ghaith al-Omary, who is now also in Washington with the American Task Force on Palestine). The main innovation of the Geneva Initiative was to stipulate that any exchange of territory in the context of a final deal should be done on a 1:1 basis. The Geneva Initiative was denounced by many Palestinians for being so understanding of Israeli refusal to imagine the return of any but a handful at most of the millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants scattered in neighboring Arab states and around the world. One of the main questions at the time was whether Yasser Arafat approved or not. Though it was unstated, Arafat’s tacit backing was evident. The discrete talks that produced the Geneva Intiative were hosted by a sympathetic professor at the University of Geneva, and funded by his wealthy Swiss banker father. The Swiss Foreign Ministry found the initiative appealing and offered diplomatic, financial, and logistic backing — and then were shocked by the sharply negative reaction of the Israeli government, whose main objection seemed to have been that it was not officially informed of the initiative in advance.

Netanyahu presses demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as state of the Jewish people – Fayyad says Jews can stay without discrimination in a future Palestine

It is a slightly but significantly different formulation from the demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish State.

As Israel’s Prime Minister clarified just days after his recent policy speech at Bar Ilan University (billed as his answer to U.S. President Barack Obama’s address to the Muslim world from Cairo University on 4 June), he is now asking — as he did again today at the weekly Cabinet meeting — for Palestinians to “recognize the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish People”.

Continue reading Netanyahu presses demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as state of the Jewish people – Fayyad says Jews can stay without discrimination in a future Palestine