War With Israel Effectively Over

Published February 14th 2005 in The New York Times
The new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, told The New York Times in an interview this weekend that the war with the Israelis is effectively over and that the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, is speaking "a different language" to the Palestinians. Mr. Sharon's commitment to withdraw from Gaza and dismantle all Israeli settlements there and four in the West Bank, despite "how much pressure is on him from the Israeli Likud rightists," Mr. Abbas said, "is a good sign to start with" on the road to real peace.

"And now he has a partner," Mr. Abbas said.

In a 40-minute interview in his Gaza office late on Saturday night, Mr. Abbas spoke with pride about persuading the reistance groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad to respect the mutual declaration of a truce that he and Mr. Sharon announced last Tuesday at their first meeting, in Sharm el Shaikh, Egypt, which was the highest-level meeting between Israelis and Palestinians in four years.

Mr. Abbas said the war with the Israelis would be over "when the Israelis declare that they will comply with the agreement I made in Sharm el Shaikh, and today our comrades in Hamas and Jihad said they are committed to the truce, the cooling down of the whole situation, and I believe we will start a new era."

In the interview with The New York Times, his first with a Western news organization since he was elected president of the Palestinian Authority five weeks ago, on Jan. 9, Mr. Abbas spoke with confidence and humor in nearly fluent English. He also spoke of several developments.

Hamas made a commitment to him to run in the July elections for the Palestinian legislature, continuing the group's "conversion into a political party."

Mr. Abbas fired nine senior police and security officials in Gaza and was prepared to fire more if they did not get "the first message" that they are to enforce his cease-fire.

He set the release of Palestinian prisoners as his first priority, and said it would be a measure of how much tensions have eased in the West Bank and Gaza.

He rejected any idea of a sovereign Palestinian state in temporary borders before a final settlement.

The Americans were talking to him "in a very helpful way," and he hoped the Bush administration would deliver on its promises of political and economic aid.

At nearly 70, he expected to retire after one term of five years.

Mr. Abbas wants progress to continue so that the two sides can move quickly to political discussions about the road map, a diplomatic process meant to lead to tackling the most difficult issues that have deeply stymied both sides: questions of final borders, refugees, Jerusalem and now, "President Bush's initiative about a democratic Palestinian state," Mr. Abbas said.

While he is happy to coordinate Israel's withdrawal from Gaza with Mr. Sharon, he says, the Palestinians need a political horizon looking toward a real state. At their meeting in Sharm el Shaikh, Mr. Sharon made many positive commitments, Mr. Abbas said, offering to form a joint committee to discuss releasing the 200 or so Palestinian prisoners held since before the 1993 Oslo accords, and the pullback of the Israeli military in the West Bank and the reopening of Gaza's seaport.

Israel acted further on Sunday to improve relations by agreeing to release 500 prisoners.

Mr. Sharon also spoke "about the Palestinian independent democratic state" and "about the occupation, never to be an occupier anymore," Mr. Abbas said. "So on all these things he was positive, but what we want to know is the implementation on the ground."

Asked about his first priority, Mr. Abbas was quick and explicit. "Prisoners, prisoners are our priority, and we told everyone about it," he said, from the American secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, to President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. "The situation will be stabilized and will cool down in Gaza and the West Bank" to the degree that Mr. Sharon "helps us to release the prisoners," Mr. Abbas said. The Palestinian Authority says Israel holds nearly 8,000 Palestinians, but the Israeli government has had fierce debates about whether to release Palestinians held for attacks against Israelis, with Mr. Sharon expressing public understanding of Mr. Abbas's need to show Palestinians quick benefits from the new quiet.

But Mr. Abbas then wants to move quickly to political discussions with Mr. Sharon about carrying out the road map. He said he would be happy to coordinate Israel's withdrawal from Gaza with Mr. Sharon, but said the Palestinians need a political horizon looking toward a real state.

Although the road map mentions the option of declaring a sovereign "Palestinian state within provisional borders" while talks continue about a final settlement, Mr. Abbas said, "If it is up to me, I will reject it." Palestinians will see an interim solution as a trap, replacing a final settlement, and "peace will not prevail anymore in the region," he said.

"So it's better for us and for the Israelis to go directly to final status," he said. "I told Mr. Sharon that it's better for both sides to establish this back channel to deal with final status and go in parallel with the stages of the road map."

What did Mr. Sharon say, Mr. Abbas was asked. He laughed. "He didn't respond," he said. "But we'll talk more about it. Maybe he didn't like it. We have to repeat it more and more in our ongoing negotiations."

Less than a month after he took office on Jan. 15, Mr. Abbas spoke with surprising optimism. The Israelis say he started slowly and timidly, and then has done better, showing more courage when challenged. Mr. Abbas contends much has been accomplished, given the deterioration of the Palestinian Authority under Yassir Arafat, "but we can't negotiate everything in 10 days."

With his upbeat mood, he may be trying to instill hope in the Palestinians, who, as he says, "are observing, and they see progress, and they are happy with it, but they want more."

"They want job creation, they want to eat, and they want security," he said.

But Mr. Abbas will undoubtedly face serious challenges from Hamas and other radicals, whose support may be tactical, and some of whom want him dead.

Mr. Abbas said he was surprised that the armed militants, many wanted by Israel, embraced his candidacy. "All the fugitives came to me from all factions and said: 'We are for you. You were with us, and we want you to solve our problems,' " he said. They want real jobs in the security forces of the Palestinian Authority "and to be secure from Israeli assassination and attacks," he said. "I promised them, and now it is realized."

Was the armed intifada of the last four and a half years a mistake? "We cannot say it was a mistake," he said. "But any war will have an end. And what is the end? To sit around the table and talk. And they realize that this is the time to come to the table and talk and negotiate."

Asked if Hamas and Islamic Jihad want what he wants, he laughed and said: "No, of course they don't want what I want! They want to come to power if they can. For that they ran in municipal elections and after that they will go" to the legislative elections. "And if they win, of course they want power. And it is their right. It is the competition" of democracy.

Asked about Hamas's recent victories in local elections in 7 of the 10 cities and villages in Gaza, Mr. Abbas said: "This is democracy. We have to congratulate Hamas and say, 'O.K., you won.' Why not?" His own mainstream Fatah faction made many mistakes, he said. The vote "is a good lesson for Fatah to realize its position toward this and that and prepare themselves for the coming elections" for Parliament on July 17.

Fatah is already working to renew itself and bring in a younger generation "in parallel" with preparations for the elections, Mr. Abbas said, including work to form a new government, expected within the next week. Some in Fatah worry that Hamas could win more a substantial share of the vote, and Mr. Abbas is negotiating a new law with Hamas about how much proportional representation, which Hamas favors, will be used to elect legislators.

Mr. Abbas argued that democracy would help tame the radicals. "Of course they should be converted into a political party," he said. "It's good for us. We're talking about national unity."

He said he was not bothered that Hamas could construe the acceptance of Israel merely as a stage toward a Palestinian state, to be followed by a renewed desire to eliminate Israel. "Whether they consider it a stage or not, they will accept an Israeli state within the 1967 borders and they declare it," he said. "For me it is not a stage; for them it is a stage - O.K."

The Israeli foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, speaking for the right, has said that a cease-fire is not enough, and is just a "ticking bomb" until Mr. Abbas confronts and dismantles Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Mr. Abbas rejected the argument, but not entirely, saying: "If he will put preconditions, it will not work. It will not start. We say, 'We are now in a truce. Let's strengthen it, let us work to stabilize the whole situation.' Now Hamas and Jihad are running for the elections, and what does it mean? It means that they will be converted in time into political parties."

Mr. Abbas, who will be 70 on March 26, is a refugee, and says he will insist on the right of Palestinian refugees, under United Nations Resolution 194 of 1948, "to return back or to be compensated." But he says he is willing to negotiate this, as all other matters, with the Israelis.

"I don't think the Israelis have the right to say, 'No, we won't discuss it,' " he said. "We will ask them to discuss this resolution, and when we come to an agreement, on anything, of course we will accept it."

Mr. Abbas was born in Safad, in what was then British Mandate Palestine. He was 13 in 1948, during the Arab-Israeli war that followed Israel's establishment as a state. "I remember everything," he said. "It was 1948 when we have been deported from Safad to the Golan Heights to Damascus, and I remember every specific point," he said. "There was a war. We had to leave the city. The Israelis invaded the city, the Haganah at the time. We left our country."

With Safad in Israeli hands, Mr. Abbas said, he could not return until 1995, after the leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization were allowed to return to the territories after the 1993 Oslo accords. He wanted to go sooner, but the mayor of Safad organized demonstrations against the visit, he said. But in 1995, "I did go back, but secretly," he said. "The Israeli Ministry of Interior helped me to go discreetly there." He stopped, his face suddenly softer. "I was there for 5 or 10 minutes only," he said. "I was very, very sad. I was very sad."

He looked off toward the far wall, then continued, "Every place, every quarter, every building I remember. I saw my house. But I didn't go inside."