What are your thoughts on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Gaza disengagement plan?

I don't consider it a plan. It looks like a unilateral, spur-of-the moment, individual approach to try to solve some specific problems, whether they are specific to Sharon or to Israel. Perhaps it is meant to deflect criticism of a lack of political planning, foresight or strategy, or accusations of corruption. It may be a question of getting rid of a demographic and security problem by transforming Gaza into a prison. The issue is - can this sort of unilateral initiative succeed? The Americans and the international community seem to have latched on to it as a way out of the current impasse. It can only succeed if it self-negates - if it ceases to be unilateral and becomes multilateral. Only if it ceases to be disengagement and becomes a real withdrawal and an engagement in a genuine and self-sustaining peace process can it succeed.

Do you feel this is what the Egyptian involvement is about?

I think the Egyptians are trying to work on the security issues. They consider security to be a foundation of the plan, since either there will be an internal breakdown or an external spillover effect. If extremism and violence take over, it will have implications, not just for any potential peace plan, but for the neighborhood as a whole.

Given the fact that the Egyptians have to have control over the so-called Philadelphi Corridor, and that they are trying to arrange some sort of cease-fire, not exclusively Palestinian but a Palestinian-Israeli cease-fire, means they are trying to deal with the larger context. However, the larger context has to be via genuine third party participation, i.e., the international community, if such a creature exists. There has to be a substantive process that moves rapidly forward, that deals with permanent status issues, and quickly creates a linkage with the West Bank - a territorial, legal and political linkage - that would hold Israel accountable. A substantive process would evacuate settlements in both the West Bank and Gaza, would lift the siege, and would not give Israel any payback in the West Bank, particularly a territorial payback in settlements, boundaries and Jerusalem.

So, the response of the international community to Israel's plan so far does not constitute that?

Not yet. Of course there is a convergence of interests. There's the Sharon interest, the Israeli occupation interest, the U.S. President George Bush interest and the international community and the Quartet interests.

Bush is in the midst of an election campaign. Not only does he want a period of quiet in the Middle East, where things can sometimes flare up, particularly given the disaster in Iraq that they created, but he wants to ensure that nothing will impose itself on the agenda during a period when he wants everything to serve his campaign and his chances for reelection. That's paramount to his interests. In addition, this U.S. administration has very strong ties and contacts with Israel, with Sharon and his people, and they want to present themselves as peacemakers, with the ability to intervene positively, having intervened negatively in Iraq and having elicited very negative responses to their Greater Middle East initiative. They are trying to do some damage control, trying to show that there is still a peace process that is connected to the Road Map. This is the American perspective.

The [other] Quartet members have for some time now been trying to find an opening to reenter the arena, given the fact that for some time now the Road Map has been moribund - indeed, the Quartet was deliberately shunted aside. Sharon's 14 reservations about the Road Map exclude any third party participation unless it's American. Look at what happened to the verification and monitoring mechanisms. Of course, the Declaration of Principles and the Oslo process were silenced, with no small amount of brutality, by Sharon. Today, Quartet members consider this Gaza disengagement initiative an opportunity. They did express their criticism and disaffection with the American position, particularly after the April 14 love fest between Bush and Sharon in Washington when Israeli unilateralism became Israeli-U.S. bilateralism at the expense of the Palestinians. But now they are trying to see if something can be made out of this [Gaza initiative], to ensure a role for the European Union (EU), for example, or the UN.

Thus, you have a convergence of all these aspects. But there is a real flaw in the whole process. First of all, there is an attempt to exclude the Palestinians as an effective partner. Secondly, there is an attempt to make it a bilateral American-Israeli agreement. And thirdly, there is no real binding timeline and mechanisms to implement the rest of the Road Map, particularly concerning permanent status issues.

But can the EU assume a greater role? It seems that the U.S., particularly under this administration, likes to do things its own way.

The U.S. has been known to be unilateral, particularly now given the nature of the administration. Unilateralism is the name of the game. And militarism is the name of the game. That's why you see an ideological identification with people like Sharon. But it's up to the EU to decide whether they have the political will and backbone, not just to stand up to Israel, but to their major ally-cum-competitor, the U.S., particularly in the context of the peace process. They keep telling us that they want a role, and they want the Americans on board, because the U.S. can make a difference. They have an underlying assumption that the gatekeepers are Israel and the U.S. And therefore they are accustomed to pay the gatekeeper to be able to get in. I'm afraid they have always habitually underestimated their influence and power, and they haven't used it. They keep finding excuses - that they're not one country, they're not monolithic, that the EU has many policies - but I've seen them stand up to the U.S. on other issues. There is the promise and the assumption that Israel, as the gatekeeper, can give them an ending. This is not true. If you play the carrot and the stick with Israel, you always end up giving more carrots. They'll eat them and ask for more. [The EU] has never really used the stick with Israel.

The stick being economic sanctions?

There are all sorts of sticks. The one time that Israel backed down rapidly was when the EU started talking about suspending scientific research agreements when Israel closed down Palestinian universities.

But they never followed through with that...

Yes, but Israel reopened the universities. The EU has power. The real question is whether it can use it. And, of course, whether EU countries can get the U.S. to take them seriously. I'm being quite blunt. Frequently the U.S. doesn't take the EU or the UN seriously unless it's in trouble, the way it is now in Iraq where it's desperately seeking NATO troops and UN involvement, and where, suddenly, Bush is paying attention to UN envoys and others whom he either ignored or censured before. He needs them now.

In this context, how important are the American elections?

They are very important. No decision is taken in America today unless it has an impact on the elections. This is the center of policy, if not of gravity. That's it. Everything is measured against its impact on Bush's chances for reelection.

How much of an effect would there be with a change in administration?

It depends. I've seen both administrations. I've also seen some of U.S. Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry's foreign policy advisers in action in previous administrations. Right now, the wisdom is that Kerry is me too-ing everything that Bush does and says, because he's not entering into any confrontations. Strangely enough, that echoes the European position. He may designate a different political terrain for himself, and oppose Bush on everything else, except on the Middle East. When it comes to that, he tries to outdo Bush.

But this is in terms of the campaign...

That's what people are telling me. This is a campaign thing, and we'll see what happens when Bush gets reelected, or if Kerry gets elected. I understand political cynicism and opportunism, but how far can it go? People who make election promises are supposed to try to implement them. For example, Kerry once mentioned that he would appoint a high-level envoy to the region, whether it be (Bill) Clinton or (James) Baker or someone like that, but when he met with opposition from the pro-Israeli lobby, he immediately backed down, and started talking about people like Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk. These guys have failed before. More of the same will produce more failure. What we need is a real change, a real political shift, in policy and in approach.

Do you see that happening?

There are some standard issues that are constants in American policy, such as the strategic alliance with Israel, and maintaining Israel's strategic edge over the region, in terms of military superiority. These are standards - it doesn't matter whether it's the Republicans or the Democrats. But what the current administration brought to the alliance is an ideological identification, which hadn't existed before, and a willingness to give a priori, as well as post priori, approval for anything the Israeli government did, to the point where they would find justifications for things that violate American policy. And [this administration] has also shifted American policy on refugees and boundaries with that April 14th speech. So it has gone beyond what any previous administration would ever consider doing, in terms of legality, politics, policy and morality. An absolute identification.

Will the Democrats be different? It's not a question of the Jewish lobby, because the majority of the Jewish community votes Democratic, and they tend to be more liberal, more open. Perhaps there will be an impact on defining Israel's interests. The U.S. is always trying to serve Israeli interests. People like the extreme right-wing neo-con Christian coalition will define Israel's interests in a way that is conducive with the most extreme ideological right-wing factions in Israel. And people in the Democratic Party will define Israel's interest in having a peace agreement that would give Israel a two-state solution and a democratic character.

So the key in American politics is how they assess Israel's interests?

Exactly. You can't accuse any of them of looking at Arab interests, or seeing that the Palestinians have been unjustly treated, that we are the weaker party, etc.

How substantive do you think are the April statements in Washington by Bush and Sharon, and is this the only game in town and everyone has to jump on the bandwagon?

They did jump on the bandwagon as if it was the only game in town, but they went beyond that. We met with [the Americans before the meeting], and they asked us how do we make this work? And we gave them all of our positions - no payback on the West Bank, full withdrawal, no control, no siege, access, airports, seaports - the whole thing. They know what is needed. And then, to turn around and give this speech, even though we knew about it from Israeli leaks and were trying to prevent this very serious and dangerous speech from being made, because it's a serious and destructive shift in American policy, a violation of international and humanitarian law.

They tried to cover themselves by saying that no permanent status issues can be decided upon without the agreement of both sides. But that's not enough. Because once you say that it's not realistic to expect the refugees to return, and that you have to take into account "population centers" and demographic changes, you immediately become complicit in the occupation, you're violating the Fourth Geneva Convention, you're giving retroactive legitimacy, etc. So no matter how they tried to phrase it differently, the damage has been done.

It's a very serious shift, and I don't think that any subsequent administration can free itself entirely from such a bias. That's why you see the pro-Israeli lobby rushing to legislate these things into law in Congress, to make them binding. And Sharon sold it as a major concession that he got from the U.S. So it's very serious, and has undermined even further U.S. credibility and standing and its ability to play any role.

Are there any other types of assistance that the international community can provide?

Of course. There has to be a comprehensive, integrative approach. It's not just a question of security. It's security, economics and politics, which also will involve a redefinition of the nature of security. I don't believe that security equals military security.

There has to be a full economic plan, which will integrate the West Bank and Gaza, and there also has to be a political process. And we need inspections on the ground. I really believe that there has to be third party participation, with peacekeepers and monitors. We do need monitoring and verification, and we will need troops, peacekeepers, international, multinational, multilateral, whatever. There are many variations on the theme connected with issues of nation-building, such as the activation of airports, seaports, trade issues, and of course relations with neighbors like Egypt and Jordan.

Egypt seems to be stepping up its involvement. Do you think Jordan could, or should, be doing something similar?

There are two perceptions of this. There's the Israeli perception of breaking Palestine apart: the West Bank with Jordanian involvement, or even oversight or a mandate, a trusteeship, without calling it that; Gaza with Egyptian participation, oversight, mandate, trusteeship, call it what you will; and Israel being allowed, with U.S. collusion, to annex as much territory as possible. This is part of Sharon's interim long-term plan. However, there have been discussions between the Palestinians, Egyptians and the international community to ensure that this will not happen. The process has to take place in a multilateral context, with the Quartet, and with the understanding that the Palestinians are the seat of sovereignty. And, therefore, any kind of sharing is a Palestinian decision and at Palestinian invitation, in order to assist in nation-building and make any other possible contribution.

What about a lower level of international involvement, the Palestinian diaspora?

That "lower level" is crucial. When we talk about the Palestinian diaspora (and I don't usually use the term) we may talk about 5 or 5.5 million refugees, but some of them are expatriates, some are exiles and some are refugees. Each requires a different approach. But in any nation-building and peacemaking process, they'll have to play an essential part.

First of all, they are a human resource - human, economic, etc. They can help with their expertise, know-how and capital to rebuild Palestine. We are undergoing a period of repression, of deliberate de-development. I think we're the only nation in the world in this situation, as a result of the rampant destruction visited upon us. We all know that Israel would like nothing better than to have us as fragmented population centers under Israeli control. Institutions, infrastructures, any type of cohesive forces have been destroyed.

I also think that the Palestinian exiles should be part of the decision-making. We should have a larger framework. One talks about the PLO, but the PLO alone is not enough. Its institutions are obsolete, and there is competition between the PLO and the PNA, etc. We need to put our house in order. We need to upgrade, update and democratize the PLO, in order to function as a national institution. We need to build the institutions of a state, and to move rapidly forward. And the expatriate, refugee or exiled communities should be a part of it.

At the same time, we should continue to work with the refugees on the questions of their own rights wherever they are in their host countries. They cannot be put on hold, and victimized again and again because they are refugees, or because of their years in the host countries. There's no reason to suspend their political, human, economic and civil rights for fear of upsetting demographic balances or because of political realities. This is a regional question. We're talking about large populations. This is the key to stability or instability in the region.