Omar Karmi: Following President Yasser Arafat's death, will it become even harder to seek a solution?

Saeb Erekat: It depends on who is answering the question. I think that the question should be addressed to the Israelis. Are they willing to go for an end-game with us - meaning are they ready to end the occupation that began in 1967? Are they ready to fully adhere to the Road Map? If the answer is yes, I think we would need just six weeks to complete the permanent-status treaties.

Six weeks?

Absolutely. I have already drafted four chapters of a permanent-status agreement, together with my colleagues in the former Ehud Barak government. But if the present Israeli government is going to start with long-term interim solutions, with Ariel Sharon preempting and dictating to us his own wishes regarding settlements and the annexation of Jerusalem, rejecting a withdrawal to the 1967 borders, and ignoring the refugees' right to return; while and at the same time demanding that the Palestinians execute certain demands - if this is going to be the Israeli answer, I'm afraid the opportunity will be lost. Even if we had Mother Teresa as our president, Thomas Jefferson as the speaker of our parliament, Mahatma Ghandi as the chief negotiator and Nelson Mandela as the prime minister, I think that Sharon would lead us back to terrorism. The answer to the question is that it's up to Israel.

Do you see any possibility for new changes in Israeli-Palestinian relations?

I think that Israelis and Palestinians should engage in a meaningful peace process; they should resume the permanent-status negotiations. This is the only path that can create a better future for Palestinians and Israelis: to construct a relationship based on peace and coexistence. The [Gaza] withdrawal plan should be carried out as a part of the Road Map. The permanent-status negotiations on Jerusalem, settlements, borders and refugees should be resumed parallel to the Gaza disengagement, with the aim of ending the Israeli occupation in the Gaza Strip no later than the end of 2005, as was specified in the Road Map. If Sharon wants to withdraw from Gaza, Jericho, or anywhere else in the West Bank, we won't stop him. We are ready to assume responsibility for any area from which Israel withdraws.

Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) said that we don't want to talk any more about the peace process...

He said that we have finished discussing the time line, and 2005 has been set.

There is a difference between coordination and negotiations. When Sharon invented the term "Gaza disengagement," he didn't consult with me. He said there was "no partner," and I believe that his whole strategy should have been buried along with Arafat. His pretext was that President Arafat was no partner, that he was an "obstacle" to peace. But Sharon is completely wrong. The obstacles to peace were, are and will always be walls, settlements, occupation and diktats instead of negotiations.

Today, if he says there's a partner, what does he need the Gaza disengagement for? Why can't we go for the end-game?

The Gaza disengagement is not the only unilateral step. There is also the wall.

Of course - the wall and the settlements. He mentioned them recently in his speeches, but failed to come up with anything new.

What should the U.S. role be today? We now have four more years of President George W. Bush.

First of all, Sharon talks as if he is going to make peace between himself and President Bush. Bush has no right to negotiate on our behalf. If he wants to make concessions as far as New Mexico, Texas or California are concerned, that's fine. But no one has the right to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians, or make concessions on their behalf. Bush should be consistent when it comes to American policy, which says that permanent-status issues must be negotiated between the two concerned parties, i.e., Palestinians and Israelis.

But the U.S. does have a major role...

Yes, it has a role, a big role. We are a people with no army, no navy, no air force, and we know that the United States is the ally of Israel, totally siding with it. Israel can make incursions, kill, assassinate; it can enter Jericho, Gaza, and demolish homes, etc., but nobody can ever dictate on our behalf, or sign anything without our cooperation. If Bush and Sharon want to make peace with each other, that's their business, but I would remind Sharon that Tel Aviv will always be only 67 kilometers from Jericho - while Washington is 7,000 kilometers from Tel Aviv. Sharon will have to make peace with me, and not with the president of the United States.

I don't want to make peace with a particular Israeli party or coalition. That's their business. Israel must know that I did not specify the requirements for peace. I was asked to recognize Israel, and I did, on 78 percent of historic Palestine. I was asked to accept the two-state solution, and I did. I was asked to accept a Palestinian state on 22 percent of the land, and I did. Now, if Sharon thinks he is going to also partition the West Bank; if he thinks he can give Gaza as a present, and 40 percent of the West Bank as cantons enclosed within walls, without addressing the issues of Jerusalem, settlements, or borders, and still have a partner for peace - Sharon is making himself an un-partner [sic]. Peace requires a partner who adheres to the two-state solution: to the withdrawal to the 1967 borders as specified in the Road Map.

Let's take a look at the Palestinian elections. What's the significance of the fact that certain parties are participating and others aren't?

Elections are elections, and democracy is democracy. There is nothing in our election laws that prevents any Palestinian 35 and over from running for president, 30 and over from running for the Palestinian Legislative Council, and 25 and over from running for the municipalities. Those who choose to participate are welcome. At the same time, no one can stop anyone from boycotting the elections. That's democracy. But those who boycott the elections must understand that they can't act as a parallel authority. They must act within the rule of law. There is a difference between "political pluralism" and "authority pluralism."

Some people have suggested that the absence of the Islamist opposition, particularly Hamas, means the decisions aren't universal.

Last time we held elections in 1996, there was a boycott, and 82 percent of the population voted. The importance of elections is accountability and transparency. In 2005, we are going to be very busy. After the presidential elections will come the legislative elections, and then the municipal elections and institution-building in general.

Is there public support for Mahmoud Abbas' call for an end to the armed intifada?

Of course there is a lot of violence against Palestinians, as well. This is connected to page one of the Road Map. There is no such thing as a unilateral hudna (cease-fire). It's very important that the international community step up its efforts to ensure that both sides stop their violence against the other. I think there is public support for this.

How do you view Palestinian public opinion today?

When Sharon says in his speeches that he's going to annex Jerusalem and he's going to annex settlements, he is essentially negotiating with himself, deciding by himself, dictating to the Palestinians - such speeches simply give ammunition to those Palestinians who don't want a cease-fire, and will undermine Palestinian moderates. The majority of Palestinians want peace.

What about the issue of incitement?

A Knesset member recently called us "worms." If you look at the Israeli daily papers and TV, you find a lot of incitement, racism, etc. It's not good for Israel to allow, or to tolerate such things.

But the Israelis make the same accusations about the Palestinians.

I have nothing against Jews; I want to make peace with the Israelis and I want a two-state solution - live and let live. I say that with an open heart and mind, and I hope that the Israelis will stop counting on the [U.S.] Congress and the Senate to score points against us.

Do you believe there's a similar movement for peace on the Israeli side?

I believe the majority of Israelis want peace. I really do. I know many Israelis. When Sharon makes speeches about Syria, Iran and terror, he is promoting fear. When leaders promote fear among their public, it's very dangerous. But I also believe the majority of the Israelis want nothing less than a full peace, a two-state solution, based on the 1967 borders between the State of Palestine and the State of Israel.

The right of return is always mentioned as one of the big bugbears of the negotiations.

Let me not speak about negotiations - refugees, Jerusalem, borders and settlements are issues that should be reserved for the negotiations. These issues will be determined by what happens at the negotiating table. So please, I urge the resumption of meaningful peace talks. We can't get the results of the negotiations before we even begin them.

Sharon has said he will do everything in his power to enable the elections to proceed.

He should understand that elections are not just about voting. They are about campaigning, freedom of movement, both for candidates and voters. I hope that Sharon will really mean what he says, to ensure free and fair elections by returning to the situation that existed on September 20, 2000, without roadblocks, closures, sieges - now and not tomorrow.

Sharon said he was going to enable freedom of movement only for a certain period of time.

That's not good enough. It's not just a question of the presidential elections. He can't just return to the status quo ante.

Would that be an obstacle to the resumption of negotiations?

Of course it's an obstacle when presidential candidates are arrested - there were five candidates in the municipal elections who were arrested: one from Jericho, and four from Dahiriya. That's election rigging; it's not enabling us to have free and fair elections. Sharon should leave us alone.

Are you optimistic?

I don't weigh things in terms of optimism and pessimism. I am determined to continue this line of peace-seeking. I'm trying to make peace for my own sake, for the sake of my own children and my own people. I hope to God that the Israelis will believe it in their hearts and minds that peace is also good for them. Occupation will not serve them. Tanks, F15s, F16s, navy, assassinations and incursions will not provide peace or security. It's talking to me, reaching an agreement with me, creating a Palestinian state next to the State of Israel that will provide peace and opportunity. So yes, I'm going to continue to pursue the dream of saving the lives of Israelis and Palestinians, and making the Palestinian state a reality.