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Leaders Struggle to Revive Israeli-Palestinian Talks

April 24, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with President Bush Thursday in a bid to provide a needed boost to U.S.-backed peace negotiations with Israel. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Dan Gillerman discuss the state of the talks.

MARGARET WARNER: President Bush has been meeting Mideast leaders in Washington this week, part of his effort to help broker an Israeli-Palestinian accord by the end of his term.

Today he met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. I talked earlier this evening with one of the participants in that meeting, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.

Mr. Erekat, welcome.

SAEB EREKAT, Chief Palestinian Negotiator: Thank you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: President Abbas went into this meeting, he made very clear, wanting to have President Bush put more pressure on the Israelis on a lot of the issues that divide you with the Israelis, especially the question of Israeli settlements and the expansion of settlements. Did you come out of that meeting with any confidence that the Bush administration is ready to do more?

SAEB EREKAT: I believe we were in a very serious, in-depth meeting today with President Bush. And I think the message of President Abbas to President Bush today was, “Time is of the essence.”

Time is running out on us, as Palestinians, as a Palestinian moderate leadership. If we have an agreement with Israel by the end of the year, we win. If we don’t have an agreement by the end of the year, Hamas wins. This is as simple as you want to put it.

So President Abbas walked President Bush through the last five months since Annapolis of all the details of the negotiations. Gaps still exist. And then he walked him through the non-compliance of Israel, as far as settlement activities are concerned, and he described the settlement activities as the most major obstacle undermining our efforts in this peace process.

President Bush said he wants to reassure us and President Abbas that he wants to see a Palestinian state that’s viable. And he used the term, I think, not a “Swiss cheese state,” referring to these Israeli settlements.

President Bush reiterated his commitment that he wants to make the agreement before the end of the year. He’ll be sending Dr. Rice to the region next week. He’ll be coming himself to the region in three weeks’ time, where he’s scheduled now to meet President Abbas in Egypt.

U.S. role in process

Saeb Erekat
Chief Palestinian Negotiator
President Bush should tell Israel, "You have an obligation, and I want to see full compliance. I don't want to see half compliances. I want to see full compliance."

MARGARET WARNER: But did you hear what you came looking for? I mean, these are -- what you've described are positions the president has taken for many months, for longer than many months.

SAEB EREKAT: This is part of a process, Margaret. We meet with the Israelis, and then we meet with Secretary Rice or President Bush, when he came to the region last January, and when we came here, and then we go through -- we go through the negotiations.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask it another way, if I might. When Israel announces an expansion of a settlement, as they did last Friday, the U.S. now publicly criticizes Israel. What more would you want the United States to do?

SAEB EREKAT: To have the Israeli government comply with its obligations. The road map specifies Israel to freeze all settlement activities, including natural growth, period.

Israel, United States, President Bush should tell Israel, "You have an obligation, and I want to see full compliance. I don't want to see half compliances. I want to see full compliance."

I have obligations to the Palestinians. I expect President Bush to tell me, "I want to see full implementation, full compliance."

He has General Fraser, an American general, who's the judge now in the trilateral mechanism. He's supposed to tell the world who's doing and who's not doing.

But to be fair to President Bush, President Bush is not going to make any decisions for me and the Israelis. Major decisions on major issues, like Jerusalem, borders, settlements, refugees, water, security, Margaret, President Bush or nobody else can make these decisions for us. It's us and the Israelis.

But having said that, President Bush can have the Israelis stop the settlement activities, because Palestinians are sick and tired of hearing us with their ears. They want to see with their eyes.

They don't want to see settlement activities. They don't want to see roadblocks. They don't want to see undermining the peace efforts. And now this is eating up our credibility.

MARGARET WARNER: Yours, you mean the Palestinian government?

SAEB EREKAT: The Palestinian government, President Abbas, myself, the Palestinian party that wants to make peace with Israel through peaceful means.

Impact of Hamas

Saeb Erekat
Chief Palestinian Negotiator
We don't need to reinvent the wheel; we don't need to eat the apple from the start. The issues are the same issues: Jerusalem, borders, settlement, refugees. It's about a two-state solution.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you mentioned Hamas. The big news out of the Middle East, in terms of here in the United States in the last months, has just been the steady barrage of rocket attacks from Gaza and Israel, Israel's retaliatory strikes. What impact is that having on the peace talks?

SAEB EREKAT: Devastating impact. And that's why I would reveal something for you. Three weeks ago, President Abbas went to Cairo, met with President Mubarak, asked him officially to use every possible effort with the Israelis and with Hamas in order to reach a mutual cease-fire in Gaza.

The news that we received today from Egypt is that something big had happened. We may be waiting for a positive development in this.

MARGARET WARNER: This was the Egyptians announcing today...

SAEB EREKAT: The Egyptians have been working very secretly. They have been putting a wonderful job with the government of Israel and all Palestinian factions in Gaza...

MARGARET WARNER: Trying to get a cease-fire?

SAEB EREKAT: ... in order to have a full cease-fire, no missiles, no incursions, no assassinations. Palestinians will stop shooting; Israelis will stop their incursions, their shooting.

I think today we have good news. I don't want to announce it. But if this happens, it was President Abbas who asked President Mubarak to do it. And if it happens, we are fully behind it, Hamas or no Hamas; 1.5 million Palestinians are our responsibility. They have suffered more than enough.

We believe a cease-fire will serve our interests. And we need to see this siege lifted. Look at the report of the U.N. today. Gaza is living a catastrophe.

MARGARET WARNER: But will that actually help the peace talks?

SAEB EREKAT: Absolutely.

MARGARET WARNER: How would it help them?

SAEB EREKAT: If we stop -- if we don't have eight Palestinians killed everyday and rockets, this will really put the atmosphere and create the environment conducive for us to seriously engage in a peace process.

Now, if every day Palestinians will go to the cemeteries to bury 8 or 10 Palestinians, this is killing us.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you this. There was a big controversy here last week. Former President Jimmy Carter met with the Hamas leadership in Syria and elsewhere. The U.S. government said that undercut your government, moderate government. Did you feel undercut?

SAEB EREKAT: No. By the way, we did not object to President Carter's mission or his meeting. President Carter can go and meet anyone. But we don't want Hamas to misread such meetings.

I know what President Carter told them. President Carter told them exactly what I'm telling them: rescind the coup, accept the two-state solution, stop violence, have a prisoner exchange.

Now, we're afraid -- and that's where we'll be undercut as Palestinians, not as a moderate government -- is because Hamas may misread this and think that the next step will be President Bush comes to see them or Margaret coming to see them or whoever. And that's the real tragedy.

And Carter or no Carter, OK -- and, yes, Margaret, if we don't help ourselves as Palestinians, nobody else will. This is the deepest wound we suffer from since 1967. And I hope that Hamas will rescind the coup, adhere to Palestinian legitimacy.

And they're a Palestinian party. They won the election, and we want them do these two things.

MARGARET WARNER: A final, quick question. President Bush says he wants some kind of a peace agreement or at least a framework before he leaves office. Is that realistic in the final months of this president's term?

SAEB EREKAT: Absolutely. Margaret, what is it? We don't need to reinvent the wheel; we don't need to eat the apple from the start.

The issues are the same issues: Jerusalem, borders, settlement, refugees. It's about a two-state solution.

We need decisions today, and not negotiations. And decisions are expected from two persons, President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

MARGARET WARNER: Saeb Erekat, thank you so much.

Settlements under scrutiny

Dan Gillerman
Israel's United Nations Ambassador
What we're seeing in the region is a fight, a clash between moderates and extremists. And it is in everybody's interest to indeed see the moderates win and the extremists being marginalized and isolated.

MARGARET WARNER: Next, the Israeli view. We get that from Dan Gillerman, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations.

And, Mr. Ambassador, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

DAN GILLERMAN, Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations: Thank you, Margaret, for having me.

MARGARET WARNER: You just heard Saeb Erekat say essentially time is running out on these talks and that, if there isn't an agreement of some sort by the end of the year, Hamas wins. Does the Israeli government share that sense of urgency?

DAN GILLERMAN: The Israeli government and I myself share that sense of urgency and agree with most of the things which Saeb Erekat said. I'm sure that, if many of the things which he said could be implemented on the Palestinian side, we could have an agreement very quickly.

We have no interest whatsoever in wasting time. We are as eager, if not more eager, than anybody else to have peace, to live in peace with the Palestinians. We're destined to live side-by-side.

I think most Palestinians -- and I do believe that most Palestinians want peace. I don't think any baby is born wanting to be a suicide bomber.

And, therefore, I hope very much that the meeting that took place today between President Abbas, who we respect and trust, and President Bush, who we respect and trust, is another sign of the moderates making the necessary strides.

What we're seeing in the region is a fight, a clash between moderates and extremists. And it is in everybody's interest to indeed see the moderates win and the extremists being marginalized and isolated.

MARGARET WARNER: But you heard Mr. Erekat and President Abbas of this moderate say the biggest obstacle to these talks is, in fact, Israel continuing to expand existing settlements. Why does Israel continue to do so?

DAN GILLERMAN: Israel has no policy of expanding or building new settlements. Israel is only doing what is absolutely necessary to accommodate the people who are already living there.

And I really do not believe that settlements, which has become sort of a coined word, is the obstacle. The real obstacle to peace is the extremism and fundamentalism of Hamas. The real obstacle to peace is terrorism.

As long as the Palestinians are set on killing and maiming Israeli civilians, babies and children, shelling our cities and our villages with rockets indiscriminately, there will be no peace.


DAN GILLERMAN: And if Saeb Erekat mentioned the road map, the first obligation under the road map is for the Palestinians to cease terror. That is the first obligation and the main obstacle.

MARGARET WARNER: But you did hear him say that, every time a settlement is expanded, additional houses are built, that the credibility of his government with their own people, their ability to sell a deal, their ability to get them to accept compromises is diminished. Is there something to that, just in political terms?

DAN GILLERMAN: I don't think so. I think that the Palestinian Authority knows very well that, if it achieves a fair and long-lasting settlement with Israel, it will probably, hopefully, have the recognition and the support of most Palestinians.

And, therefore, you know, settlements, occupation, you know, we have Gaza as a model. Israel was in Gaza for many, many years. Israel left Gaza over two years ago, every single grain of sand, every inch of Gaza.

The Palestinians then had two choices, one, to turn it into a place where their people would live well and improve their quality of life and standard of living, or make it into a launching pad for missiles to Israel and a terror base.

Sadly, tragically, not just for us, but for them, they chose the latter. There isn't a single Israeli in Gaza. There were, indeed, Israeli settlements in Gaza. They were totally removed. And we're still experiencing terror.

It's terror which is the impediment and the obstacle to peace, not settlements.

Reaching a two-state agreement

Dan Gillerman
Israel's United Nations Ambassador
I fully agree with Saeb Erekat that we don't have to reinvent the wheel [...] We're talking about the two-state solution [...] where Israel is the solution for the Jewish people and Palestine is the solution for the Palestinians.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me go to what the U.S. attitude is, as you understand it, because, as I mentioned to him, that when you expand these settlements, the U.S. government now criticizes it. But what is your private understanding?

DAN GILLERMAN: Well, my private understanding is the U.S. government is saying what it feels. And I think it is very legitimate for it to do so.

Israel must continue to do what it feels is right for the security, for the safety of its citizens.

But I emphasize again, Margaret, settlements are not the problem. The problem is terror.

Once terror ceases -- and I was very happy to hear Saeb Erekat's proclamation of a cease-fire. But, you know, this cease-fire is a cease-fire which could have happened in an instant, in a second, if the Palestinians, if Hamas would have chosen to stop shelling Israeli cities, kindergartens, schools, and cafes with missiles.

There would be no violence. There is no cycle of violence. There's only terror which Israel is fighting.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, and you're talking about the Hamas government now. Are you saying that this announcement in Cairo, in which Hamas announced its proposal for a six-month cease-fire, looks promising to the Israeli government?

DAN GILLERMAN: I really don't know. I haven't heard it; I don't know the details of it.

All I know is that Hamas is a terror organization dedicated, committed to the destruction of Israel, refusing to recognize Israel, to accept any of the terms demanded by it, from it by the international community. And if, indeed, the Hamas wants to cease fire, it doesn't need anyone to broker it.

What my biggest fear is that Hamas will do what it has always done: use this cease-fire in order to regroup, in order to re-arm, in order to be ready in a few months to continue those indiscriminate killings of Israeli civilians.

MARGARET WARNER: Could I ask you about a report in the paper today, going back to the U.S. attitude toward this, that Israel believes it had private assurances from the Bush administration four years ago that, in fact, Israel could continue not building new settlements, but expanding existing ones? Is that the premise under which the Israeli government is operating?

DAN GILLERMAN: The Israeli government, and mainly Prime Minister Sharon and President Bush, reached agreements which specified exactly what Israel's obligations and commitments were and what the Palestinians' commitments were.

I believe that Israel adheres to these obligations in the fullest sense of the word.

MARGARET WARNER: And could I ask you very briefly, do you think that it is still doable for President Bush, the Bush administration, you, and the Palestinians to reach some sort of an agreement or framework by the end of the year?

DAN GILLERMAN: Yes, I believe it is doable. I fully agree with Saeb Erekat that we don't have to reinvent the wheel. Everybody knows what the terms are.

We're talking about the two-state solution, a two-state solution where Israel is the solution for the Jewish people and Palestine is the solution for the Palestinians. We can reach it.

I think that there's a lot of goodwill on all sides, on the side of this administration, on the sides of the Palestinian Authority, and Israel, Prime Minister Olmert, and President Abbas, as well as Foreign Minister Livni and Salam Fayyad and Abu Allah (ph), are carrying on talks which go far deeper into the issue than any Israeli leader or Palestinian leader have done before.

I think they have dealt with all the issues. They'll know exactly what is necessary to make peace.

And I believe that, if the Arab world -- and I think that is the key, Margaret -- if the Arab and Muslim world that came, maybe out of fear, but came to Annapolis to align itself with the moderates against the extremists, legitimizes and supports the process, and legitimizes the Palestinian leader who goes for it, they will find in Israel a willing partner who will go with them a very long way towards finally, after 60 bitter, bloody years, putting an end to that conflict and living side-by-side in peace and security.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Dan Gillerman, thank you so much.

DAN GILLERMAN: Thank you very much, Margaret.