Some people are talking about a Post-Oslo era; do you see it this way?

Abu 'Ala:
First of all, I'm sure we are at a very critical juncture. Though this is a most dangerous period, I believe that taking a long view, we are standing on the threshold of achieving the national right of our people to e$tablish their independent Palestinian State. This is how I see the picture even at a time when the Israelis are escalating the situation with unprecedented severity through assassinations, closure and military occupation of our territory. I don't think any other country in the world is doing what the Israeli occupation forces are doing today.
But this unparalleled use of force will not achieve success. These are measures taken by a government in despair and without a viable policy. Therefore, despite all the obstacles and the difficulties, I am very optimistic in my conviction that, eventually, peace will be achieved between Palestinians and Israelis and an independent Palestinian State will be established. This will be the outcome, first of all, of the determination of the Palestinian people but also, I believe, that of the of the peact:; camp in Israel. Eventually, these forces will win the battle.

But on the political level, where do we stand today?

After Oslo, there was much optimism. But when people saw the implementation, their expectations dropped.
On the contrary. In spite of this aggression from the Israeli side, what I am seeing is that the ceiling of expectations among our people is even stronger than it was before. This confirms my confidence that the right of the Palestinian people will be recognized here in the region and in the world, and implemented. You must bear in mind that facts have been created on the ground that constitute the foundation of the Palestinian State. The Palestinian Authority is the last step in the march to establish our state. On the political side, there is no doubt that we are in a time of crisis, because Sharon's government lacks any political program. No Palestinian will assert Sharon's statements on the so-called long-term interim agreement and neither does this idea benefit those Israelis who are looking for a real, lasting peace with their neighbors.

Can we stilI talk about Oslo as the basis for the political process?

Oslo is still alive and working. The crisis of Oslo is the result of violations
and provocations from the Israeli side. There are two scenarios in which Oslo can die. One is when we reach a permanent-status agreement and lasting peace. The other would be if Israel declares that there is no more Oslo. That would be generating an even more dangerous confrontation than exists today, the sort of explosion that will not be contained here, but would spread throughout the region.
Some people accuse those who were involved in Oslo of making mistakes that led to the situation we are seeing now - the eruption of violence on both sides.
That is not Oslo's doing. It seems to me that the fault lies in the structure of Israeli society and of the Israeli government. We signed the Oslo agreement with the late prime minister Rabin, who said that he would fight terror as if there is no peace and work for peace as if there is no terror. With this vision, circumstances permitted negotiations to continue until he was murdered. Contacts continued under Peres for a very short period of time, and in the same spirit. But when Netanyahu came in, he froze the implementation of the agreement for three years. Netanyahu was the choice of the Israeli people, not our choice. Even when we signed the Wye River agreement, Netanyahu, in his way, rejected the agreement that he himself had signed. Then Barak came into power. Barak was courageous in his opening moves, but not courageous enough to complete them. Therefore, he avoided implementing the remaining interim agreement issues, and refused to return the Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Ois. He tried to escape implementing the third deployment by going over to permanent-status negotiations. We made some progress, but then Barak fled from the negotiations to the Camp Oavid summit, without adequate preparation.
At Camp Oavid, we moved forward somewhat but, none of the bold decisions expected from the leaders were taken. Then Sharon went to AI- Aqsa and the crisis began. Negotiations continued in Taba, but there were new Israeli elections, leading to the election of the 5haron government. 50 in this short period of eight years, the Palestinians have faced five prime ministers - Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu, Barak, and now 5haron - with five ideas, five concepts, five visions, five strategies, each one contradicting the others. Here is the real problem. I have never seen, on any national political scene, such a series of governments, each one refusing to accept what the previous one agreed to.

Is it because Oslo was weak that each prime minister or leader could have a different interpretation of it?

It is not a matter of interpretation. It is no secret that the Likud rejected Oslo from the day it was signed. Right up to today, you still hear many Israeli ministers, such as Lieberman, saying they reject it.

You met with Netanyahu and Sharon?

I met with them. I'll meet with anybody. We have no objection to meeting with any Israeli who is in power, who has been elected by the Israeli people.

But how do you convince the Israelis that we should continue the implementation of Oslo?

Of course this is the aim. What are the most dangerous Israeli violations of Oslo? One is failing to respect the scheduled, the clearly delineated timetable agreed upon in Oslo. There was no room in the agreement for any misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the schedule. The Oslo Accor,ds contain a condition that, in the third ye~r of the interim agreement, permanent-status negotiations are to begin; and after five years - not exceeding five years - a permanent agreement will be achieved. Also, there are very precise schedules for withdrawals and redeployment, and these leave no room for one-sided interpretations. But the Israelis failed to respect that timetable to which they had agreed unambiguously.
The second very serious violation of Oslo is the continuing expansion and construction of new settlements. At Oslo we agreed, since permanent-status negotiations were to begin at the start of the third year of the interim agreement, that the issues of settlements and Jerusalem were to be tackled during permanent-status negotiations. Therefore the status quo would be maintained until the parties determine together the future of these categories. But the Israelis, under Labor and Likud prime ministers alike, continued expanding settlements, confiscating land, building bypass roads, and constructing many new settlements, among them Abu Ghneim/Har Homa. All this is nothing more or less than a flagrant violation of the agreement, its text and its spirit alike.
The third violation is that the Israelis always believe that, since they have superior military power, they can use it against the Palestinians indiscriminately. Look at the situation here on the ground today. Who can accept the imposition of a whole year of closures, isolating cities and villages from one another, closing whole areas down completely? This is the mentality of the occupation. This is not Oslo. It was agreed in Oslo that the interim period would be used to build trust, not to wield power in this way, not to expand settlements, not to violate the situation in Jerusalem, not to ignore all the scheduled timetables that had been agreed upon.

We're talking about violations from the Israeli side, but after the Camp David talks, the Americans and the Israelis were united in criticizing the Palestinian side and accusing them of responsibility for the failure of Oslo.

The Israelis said that, in Camp Oavid, Barak offered the world, including withdrawal, a Palestinian State, etc., etc. It's not true. We were ready to accept the 1967 borders, as long as modifications were agreed upon by both parties. Actually, the biggest concession we made was in our readiness to accept the 1967 borders, which represent 22 percent of the size of historical Palestine. But the Israelis were not satisfied and demanded more and more Palestinian concessions. No Palestinian could accept what was actually offered at Camp David.
In Taba, it seemed to me that the Israeli negotiators like Shlomo Ben¬Ami, Yossi Beilin, Yossi Sarid, Amnon Shahak could better understood Palestinian needs. At that time, I said we were closer to each other than at any other time, though that doesn't mean we had bridged the gap. There was still a gap. But I believe that had we continued for two months or so, we may have reached an agreement.

Then the Israeli elections took place in February 2001?

Yes, the election changed everything, and this is the problem with the Israeli government. As I said, with each new Israeli prime minister, you have to start anew.

So what is the approach now with Sharon's government?

There are third parties who are working to bring the parties closer to each other under international auspices. George Mitchell and his team proposed a mechanism for solving the problems on the ground and to pave the way to a two-track negotiation - one track to implement the interim agreement, and one to begin permanent-status negotiations, as long as potentially explosive elements such as settlement expansion and violence are removed,

But the problem here is the implementation on the ground. We hear about talks and meetings, and then suddenly witness a development on the ground that moves everything in the opposite direction.

This is because Sharon tied his hands by the promises he made when he came in as prime minister against entering negotiations until the violence stops. Since he exercises the arrogance of power, only he will decide when this will be, and the other party is ignored. It cannot go on this way. A good example is the Israeli freezing of revenues due to the Palestinian Authority. They don't have the right to block this money. Sharon wants to topple the Palestinian Authority, but he will not succeed.

On the other hand, Palestinian attacks in Israeli cities give Mr. Sharon and his government an opportunity to say the Palestinians are the ones who are committing the violations.

We are very clearly against such violence. We condemn it. We stand against it. But without cooperation from the Israeli side, it's impossible to control it. For example, after President Arafat and Shimon Peres met on the 26th of September, 2001, we agreed on the first step forward to lifting the closure and starting the implementation of part of the Mitchell plan. Immediately, the next day, Israelis carried out an assassination in Qalqilya, then another one in Jenin and one in Bethlehem. Why, in that situation, was Israel in such a hurry to kill Palestinians. There are those within the Israeli government - and unfortunately, maybe among parts of the Israeli public - that believe the use of force will compel the Palestinians to succumb. How can we get back to coordination? We have had good experiences in this respect in the past. Rabin, whom I respected as a very courageous and wise man had once said, "We have to fight terror as if there is no peace, and we have to work for peace as if there is no terror." But now, the Israeli government believes only in power, power, and more power.

Is Sharon's main target now to undermine and lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority?

Yes. Unfortunately, this is what he thinks, and unfortunately, this is the lOP's plan. But everybody should realize that this has no chance. We are a people who believe in our rights. We are a people which is looking for peace with our neighbors, not for perpetual war, conflict, violence and hardship. We are the people who have suffered the most in this region, if not in the world. We want a fair peace, a peace that we can defend, that our children and grandchildren can accept. A dictated peace will not survive. A lasting peace that enables us to build our state in cooperation with all the countries of the region, including Israel, is a historical necessity.

Despite all the hatred and violence that we still see, is there a chance for that?

Remember how much hatred there was before 1993, and look at the cooperation that began to manifest itself after Oslo, We even started to think about joint ventures and projects in various fields, in culture and education and industry. We began people-to-people programs to strengthen the relations. When there are real opportunities for peace, when there is a light at the end of the tunnel, people don't want to live in hatred. I don't know how the Israelis feel about being the only occupier in this world in this century. The world is moving on. No other country is looking to occupy another country or to control the lives of other people.

Now, the main reason for the talks is to work with the Israeli side in order to implement the Mitchell plan. Where do we go from there? We implement Mitchell and then go back to the negotiation table? On what basis?

I think something was achieved in Stockholm and Camp Oavid and Taba. I don't think we will put all that behind us and start anew. We will continue on from that point. I am speaking about principles that have been accepted. 242 is the principle. The 1967 border is a principle. Any modification on the borders must be mutually agreed upon by equal parties. This is a principle.

You are talking about a Palestinian State and Mr. Sharon also refers to a Palestinian State. But what you're looking for is totally different from the Palestinian State he's talking about.

That's right. We have to delineate this Palestinian State, its borders, its authority, its mandate. Who can accept a state in which Israel will control all the borders, the sky and the air space, who comes and goes? A state like Swiss cheese - blocks of settlements surrounding Palestinian villages, and the Israeli army everywhere. Real peace should satisfy Israeli security, but not through undermining our sovereignty. What President Bush said about a Palestinian State is important in that in a period of change, it puts us on the political maps of the new world order.

What about the American statement relating to a Palestinian State ¬and statements of other world leaders - that have been issued in order to help build a coalition against terrorism?

I think the whole world recognizes that the most dangerous weapon in the hands of all fundamentalist groups is the Palestinian cause, the Palestinian people and Jerusalem. I hope the Israelis will also recognize it. Let's solve these problems. Then the fundamentalist hands will be empty.
Bin Laden used the Palestinian cause when he was in a corner, and everybody heard what he and other Islamic groups say. I remember, when talking to Uri Sapir in Oslo in 1993, I said that, next time, the conflict would become a weapon of all the fundamentalist groups. Without a solution problems in the region will continue.

What kind of state do you envisage and how would you ensure security?

It is a Palestinian state that will accomplish peace for itself, for Israel, and for the region. That's why the state has to be independent with full sovereignty, like other states, capable of protecting its borders, people and system. Its system should be a democratic one that practices political plurality in prindple and practice; it has to provide political freedom of expression and protect that freedom. Astate must be capable of upholding the peace that it signs, and preserving it and developing it into viable cooperation with its neighbors for the benefit of all.
Such a state has to be based on the borders of 4 June, 1967,according to UN resolution 242 and 338. This state must be open to the world and its neighbors, welcoming visitors of all nationalities and religions. It must be able to control residence on its territories according to its laws and accepted international conventions. By implication, this state rejects any colonization of its land and annexation of any portion of its territory.
Only such a state will be able to sign and maintain peace. It will have credibility with its people and internationally and be able to assure stability based on financial sufficiency, modernization, and revival of a Palestine that had long suffered from occupation.
It surprises me that Israel does not make a bold declaration that it recognizes a state of Palestine within secure border s on the basis of 4 June, 1967 and resolutions 242 and 338, so that the State of Palestine can also declare its recognition of the State of Israel on the same basis.
This would break psychological barriers, opening the way to other agreements and security arrangements. It would be possible to set an optimum period for resolving outstanding issues - the refugees, the status of Jerusalem, security, water, relations, and other matters of mutual concern. The probability of resolution is then high because there is promise and mutual recognition.
Without such a bold step, the peace process will suffer, we will be trapped in a vicious circle, and other countries will continue to touch on the conflict without affecting its essence. The dangers of regional instability will remain, and both the Palestinian and Israeli sides will continue to exchange accusations and escalate the confrontation. It is certainly time for courageous moves by the leaders.

It seems you're more optimistic now.

It's not a matter of being optimistic or pessimistic, I see the world moving toward finding a solution. It's inevitable. This is the movement of history. Both peoples need and want peace. Opinion polls on both sides will veer toward support for peace once there will be a serious move forward in the process. The task of the leadership is now to end the violence and start the negotiations - and the sooner the better.