I met with Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa at his elegant quarters in the heart of Cairo last week — on the eve of the League’s crucial meeting with Palestinian Authority Chief Mahmoud Abbas to decide on direct talks with Israel.
Moussa’s career has gone from strength to strength since I first briefly met him as Egypt’s ambassador to the United Nations in the early 1990s. He was named Egypt’s foreign minister not too long after, and then moved on to head the Arab League. Some say he had become too popular on the Egyptian street, and this was President Hosni Mubarak’s way of sidelining a potential competitor.
There have been whispers about Moussa running for Egypt’s highest political office in elections next year, particularly as rumors swirl about Mubarak’s losing battle with cancer. But the Arab League chief is firmly focused on the most contentious issue in the Middle East right now – the troubled, never-ending “peace process” between Palestinians and Israelis.
In a candid conversation with Moussa just hours before the first Arab foreign minister arrived, he addressed a broad array of hot issues in the region – carefully, but passionately too. A decade in this prestigious – though some may argue, largely impotent – post, Moussa, still has fire in his belly and the determination to do something about it.
What was clear from our discussions was that the Arab “world” is reaching the end of its patience with the regional status quo and the 19-year-long US-sponsored peace process. If genuine and well-intentioned negotiations do not emerge in the very near future, the direction of the region is up for grabs. And Moussa has some ideas as to where it should go.
First though, some thoughts on the Arab League itself – its accomplishments, and even its relevance in the face of decades-long regional stagnation and the difficulties in gaining consensus among 22 different nations:
S: You’ve been secretary general of the Arab League for almost ten years – do you feel you’ve accomplished anything significant – if so what?
A: Oh yes, I do feel that the Arab League has become more active, more effective in several political situations, in particular the situation in Sudan, in Lebanon, in Iraq, and also the question of Palestine and Arab-Israeli peace. Don’t forget that during these 10 years, the Arab Peace initiative was adopted (2002), and that the only conciliation meeting which took place for the Iraqi question, took place here in 2005 with the participation of all those names that you hear today, including the prime minister of today, the members of the transitional council of that day, many of the leaders, candidates for the prime ministership – everybody was here. This is the only meeting which was held to bring everybody together since the invasion in 2003. The deals that were arrived at, at that time, at that period, had they been followed and supported by all powers and all forces concerned inside and outside of Iraq, I believe the situation in Iraq would have been in a much better position today.
I was the first Arab official to visit Iraq in 2005. An Arab League delegation was the first Arab delegation to visit Iraq back in 2004 under such difficult, serious, dangerous circumstances, but the Arab League was there and has established the first resident Arab mission in Baghdad in a very risky security situation when everybody was leaving Baghdad. In Lebanon, as you know, I spent a couple of years coming and going and meeting with all leaders and all factions in Lebanon. That is just to give you an example of the activities, the new activities of the Arab League in Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq, and the Arab-Israeli conflict in particular. I was in Yemen at the beginning of the conflict there, and sent several delegations to Somalia – a lot of things have been done with the presence and participation and sometimes the urging of the Arab League. This is both security and political.
Also, on the economic side and social side, there are a lot of activities, pertaining to family, women, and children. For the first time, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) found a place in the Arab League system and they are invited to attend the meetings. Arab NGOs didn’t have any place in the system before. Now they have a place in the system. The parliament, Arab Parliament, selected or elected from the existing Arab countries – although definitely not what one should hope for – but it has created a certain dynamism discussing together – not as representing their countries – but their political inclinations. You find the leftist and the rightist and the religious-oriented people and the other who have liberal trends. This is the beginning of a debate, a good debate in the Arab League. So, there are a lot of things that have happened in the last ten years.
S: I’m more interested in conflict resolution, because in this area it doesn’t seem like there have been significant breakthroughs mediated directly by the Arab League. We now see in the region countries like Qatar and Turkey who have these very proactive foreign policies and they go right to the heart of the issues; Qatar’s Doha Talks for Lebanon, Turkey’s interventions with Syria and Israel, and Qatar’s mediations in Sudan. Twenty-two nations represent such a diverse body and diverse political opinions – surely that makes for very lukewarm resolutions when compared to the flexibility inherent in individual state mediation.
A: First of all, I welcome the activist policies of Qatar and any other country that wants to make efforts to help the Arab League and the Arab situation. The Doha process now in Darfur, for example, it is an initiative by the Arab League and the African Union that asked Qatar to lead those talks. As for Turkey, I believe that it is an added force, positive force, that we should welcome working in the same direction to achieve peace and justice with each other. So, we don’t feel offended by any role that any Arab country would like to play. Egypt, for example, has demanded to follow and achieve conciliation between (Palestinian factions) Hamas and Fatah, Qatar between factions in Sudan. There are many other Arab countries that are called upon to play a certain role in a certain situation.
S: Why choose Egypt for those reconciliation talks?
A: That is a resolution by the Arab League. So, it was discussed and then decided by everybody that we need Egypt.
S: Do you think Egypt can actually play this role given their own hostilities toward Hamas and Gaza?
A: They are playing a role, it is a difficult situation. No question that there are a lot of other dimensions, interventions, “foreign fingers” that make it rather difficult, but still Egypt is playing that role and in a very active way.
S: Well, how about someone who wouldn’t be influenced by foreign fingers as much to take that role because this is obviously a very critical negotiation for the region.
A: Yes, it is indeed very critical. We need the support of everybody to support Egypt’s efforts in this. The Arab situation sometimes doesn’t help, but it is bound to help at a certain point. We are trying; I am trying myself, meeting with (Hamas Chief Khaled) Meshaal, meeting with (ousted Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail) Haniyeh, visiting Gaza, talking to the Egyptians, talking to the Palestinians, talking to the Syrians. We are trying. You know, you have to move on and continue to work on it.
S: Still, Egypt just seems like it would be the last country able to mend these differences between Hamas and Fatah because of its own history on the border with Gaza and its own relationship with Hamas and political Islamists. Does it not make sense to you, to maybe switch that around: isn’t Hamas-Fatah reconciliation not critical to move forward?
A: Yes, it is critical to move forward and that is why we are very actively trying to achieve reconciliation. It is critical.
S: But, it’s been 18 months or more…
A: Oh yes, because this is their fatal mistake, a Palestinian fatal mistake to continue along this path of confrontation, of creating difficulties for reconciliation. But, there are certain things that we have already achieved: First, that Hamas has accepted that the Palestinian state should be established within the 1967 borders. Hamas is very clear that Abu Mazen, the President of the Palestinian Authority, has the mandate to negotiate with the Israelis. Their opposition (to the peace process) is for the fact that the Israelis are not serious and I believe they are right. Number two, that, in case Abu Mazen succeeds in achieving something, this has to be put to the people in a referendum. This is the position of Hamas. So, by developing such a position, I believe reconciliation will come. But, I would again underline the fact that there are a lot of “foreign fingers” that play in favor of or trying to make it very difficult for both parties to reconcile.
S: Can you be specific?
A: Israel of course is number one and some of Israel’s friends that have lamented this party or that party to sign a reconciliation document. Lamented, because Fateh has signed and they were kind of told “why did you do so?” by some powers.
S: Are you talking about the United States?
A: No, I’m talking about the foreign fingers, as I told you it is Israel mainly and several certain friends of Israel. I don’t want to go beyond that.
S: That’s too bad.
A: Sometimes it is so.
S: Well, I mean I know from different parties in the region, including an Egyptian foreign ministry official, that the Americans often simply give marching orders on this reconciliation thing. There was a time right before the post-Goldstone report fiasco when the parties were on the verge of signing an agreement, and apparently, suddenly, a whole lot of new language was thrown into the document to scuttle the deal.
A: There is a lot of talk about that – being on the verge of signing and then they didn’t sign, etc. That the document has not been signed by Hamas and that Hamas has certain reservations, and that’s why I discussed this with both Haniyeh when I was in Gaza and Meshaal in Damascus, only days back, to see what kinds of reservations they have and discuss them one by one, because after all who will remember five or six years from now that this organization reserves this position on this article? Who will remember the article itself? The fact is that we need reconciliation; this is a major strategic goal, not a tactical thing that needs to be dealt with, with paragraph 3a or paragraph 4c. Who cares about that? I believe they listened carefully to that. I’m not hopeless about it. I’m hopeful that we can do it.
S: Reconciliation has happened before obviously, and reconciliation could happen again.
A: Not only that, they are now in contact among themselves. There are delegations from Fatah and Hamas, coming and going. They are on talking terms.
S: Has something changed? Because the animosity has been ferocious, at least from Fatah towards Hamas in what I’ve observed in the last few years – ferocious, you know. Has something changed recently in your view?
A: I think yes. My answer is yes – at least I really hope so. They have realized now that they are losing not only the international public opinion, but the Arab public opinion itself, and sometimes the Palestinian public opinion. That it is a feud between certain leaders, organizations, etc that has nothing to do with the cause itself – the rights of the Palestinians, the interest of the people, and they realize now that they are losing by the day if they do not really conciliate because we don’t understand, nor do we appreciate, nor accept the reasons behind such a conflict, such a confrontation, such a division. We do not appreciate it, we do not accept it.
S: Was it a “fiasco” what happened after the Palestinian elections in 2006, in your view?
A: Yes, well, I want to tell you that the Palestinians were the first to put ink to implementation of the call for democracy, elections. “Elect your government,” they said. “Go to the magic glass box and vote.” They voted, and Hamas emerged as the winner. The moment they emerged the winner, they were punished.
S: By whom?
A: The first as I remember back in 2006 was a statement, I believe by the European Union, that they are going to cut the aid or something of that kind followed by other countries and this was in my opinion a very serious and dangerous failure. You call for democracy? Then accept the results of democracy!
S: What did the Arab League do or say about this?
A: We dealt with the government as was constituted after the elections. Then, what happened, happened, and you can never tell who started what. The point is that now there is a chaotic situation within the Palestinian political body, although as I told you now there is a certain development of talk or contacts taking place between the two organizations.
S: Where are these taking place, just incidentally?
A: They visit each other on their own.
S: In the West Bank?
A: In Gaza.
S: Gaza and the West Bank – not Damascus, or…
A: Also in other capitals. So, there are three points of progress. Number one, they are talking directly with each other. The contacts between them have become active recently. Number two, the position of Hamas vis-à-vis the (Palestinian) state that it can accept – a state within the borders of 1967, and three, that yes, Mr. Abu Mazen in his capacity as the President of the Palestinian Authority is mandated, is authorized, to negotiate with the Israelis.
S: When did they say this? Because I didn’t hear this.
A: That’s on record for the last year or so.
S: Ok I didn’t know that. Is there anything beside the word “Arab” or the Arabic language that binds these 22 nations in the Arab League?
A: A lot. The question is not “language” It is the relations between societies, the links between societies. If you know, if you live here in this region, you’ll see that all of them, from Mauritania to Oman, watch the same television series, soap operas, songs, read the same books, comment on the same issues, marry each other, and work in the wider Arab markets. No, there is a lot on a societal basis, on an economic basis that’s going on. These are people who are speaking Arabic, thinking in Arabic, producing in Arabic, living in Arabic. Living, not only talking. Language is not just a media between you and me to understand each other – no. It forms my mind, your mind, your way of thinking, your way of enjoying things. No question there’s this … The books that are being read by everybody; youth, old people etc … the books that are being published in Cairo, in Beirut, in Bagdad etc … No, it’s not just a question of language.
S: The reason I asked is because when there’s a political event, the walls come down on these borders, whether it’s over Iran or Palestine or something that happened in Egypt…or even a football game. Gaining consensus from twenty-two nations must water down almost every effort on almost every issue. Do you not find this frustrating?
A: Yes I do find it frustrating. Definitely frustrating – and very frustrating. We have to deal with that, you know, since we have the same background, the same tastes, the same, as I told you, books and newspapers and TV series and films and songs and music… It is only normal that this creates a strong public opinion pushing in this or that direction which really means that today, when we are talking about Iran, talking about Palestine, talking about any other problem, you’ll find that public opinion is fairly unified, perhaps more than in comparison with their governments. So, there’s a major pool of agreement between the people who care about the situation in each country, who follow many of them in the Maghreb, in the Gulf, the developments in Egypt, for example. Or we, in following the developments in Iraq or what happens in Lebanon or the Houthi and the problems in Yemen or in Sudan or Somalia. This is our preoccupation – not only as officials, but also as citizens.
S: Do you find, as someone who’s obviously so passionate about various issues, do you get frustrated and say “the hell with this, I’m going to call up the Emir of this or that state because I know he cares about this issue.” Do you find yourself doing that more and more?
A: If you’re asking me whether I’m frustrated, my answer is “yes”. Angry? Yes. That I make a lot of contacts on the telephone every day, four or five or six or seven calls, right and left. Yes, that’s what happens. Do I feel hopeless about the situation? I don’t think so. But it might need some change, even in personnel.
S: Well, who’s responsible for the Emir of Qatar, the Saudi King, the Egyptian foreign minister, maybe Bashar Al-Asad hopping over to Lebanon this weekend? I mean how does that happen for instance? Is it an individual effort?
A: Individual and collective. But this is something between each individual country and Lebanon. All of us want to show our concern about the situation there, which remains fragile. I hope that those contacts will help assure the Lebanese people that everybody in the Arab world is behind them. They know that, but they are so sensitive about the situation in the south with Israel.
S: Let’s skip to the Special Tribunal (the investigation of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri). This is what the recent crisis in Lebanon is kind of over – the anticipated results of this tribunal. There is this public speculation from day one, first of all, that the investigation is not in the hands of the Lebanese, it is in the hands of “foreign fingers.”
A: This is not fingers, it is foreign “hands.”
S: Foreign hands then. The rumor mill has churned from day one – you know the Tribunal’s main suspects were the Syrians for all these years and suddenly, now that Syria is being courted by Arab and Western governments, the attention has suddenly shifted to Hezbollah. They are using language like “rogue elements of Hezbollah.” Hezbollah rejects that there’s a single rogue element within their organization. It all seems very politically opportunistic, this switch. It is hard to swallow that all of a sudden you go from Syria to Hezbollah – these are surely convenient targets, enemies.
A: Who are the convenient enemies?
S: Switching from Syria to Hezbollah; it is targeting one “bloc.” Whereas if you talk to anyone in the street, they will instead say “It’s Israel, it’s America” – completely different parties than those being investigated. Whatever comes out of this tribunal, is not going to ultimately be trusted. It really was focused on Syria until recently and now Syria has been brought into the fold by Saudi Arabia, the Europeans, Turkey, the attitude seems to be let’s go for Hezbollah instead. But, just enough to cut them off at the legs a bit – not too much though, because the Syrians and these others won’t let us. I mean, it seems a game!
A: You seem to understand the situation very well in Lebanon. Yes, indeed, I see what you mean, and I see the frustration by some and the fears by others, and the changing sands, the changing ground, the changing alliances in Lebanon, and that’s what creates a real problem for the Lebanese themselves. They need some assurances, so the visit by King Abdullah today and the expected visit by President Bashar Al-Assad would be of great importance.
S: Do you know what the tribunal results are going to be?
A: No. How can I know that? People over there talk about the tribunal as if the verdict is out.
S: To be quite honest, it seems so patently manufactured to me – and I have only become familiar with Lebanon in the past year. Political theatre, this tribunal.
A: I tell you, it is more than a theatre. The drawback or the weak point in Lebanon is that it has become a theatre not only for the conflict in Lebanon, but for whatever conflict that takes place in the region. The first theatre all parties try to use is the one in Lebanon. So, Lebanon is payng the price of their open society that allows this foreign influence – and the Lebanese do suffer for that. That’s why they really feel the fragility of their situation. So, of course as Secretary General of the Arab League, I frequently visit Lebanon. I was there last month meeting all the leaders and a week before, a month before, also trying to tell them that they should be very cautious about the situation in the region because it’s a fluid situation.
S: Part of the problem with the Tribunal is the assumptions they’ve made from day one. If you think you know who did it and you spend all your time focused on that, then you’re going to have the conclusion you want in some form or other. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has been taking this logic to the Lebanese public recently through the media. People tend to trust his word – even Israelis – because he is known for delivering on his promises, good or bad. He’s saying the investigation is riddled with “false witnesses,” some of who are known, and that the latest conclusions have been reached because of “telephone records” collected during a time when Israel had spies within Lebanon’s telecommunications industry – this too is known. Why not instead look to the process of the tribunal? Maybe to prevent a conflagration, this whole investigation has to be reinitiated within Lebanon, within the region. Why is the investigation being conducted by “foreign hands” who may have their own vested interests in the conclusion?
A: Yes, you are asking why? What Hassan Nasrallah says, people believe him as you said. The concerns he expresses that it is a game etc – and so many people believe that. But also on the other side, people say “okay, there was a crime and those who perpetrated it have to be punished.” So, there’s a passionate call by some that those accused should be punished, while some others say, “there’s a game, that the emphasis is being shifted from a certain direction to another direction according to political developments.”
S: Both are correct. There’s a crime that has to be punished and it is a game too.
A: It’s all those things.
S: If you take the game out of it, maybe then you can have a fair investigation though?
A: Absolutely, you may be right. There is a game, but is it possible to take the game out of it? Or is there a game in it? There’s a question mark here. Is there a game in it? Is there a game that could be really avoided?
I really avoid commenting further on this issue because it’s highly sensitive in Lebanon and it will help nobody. You say whatever you want to say and it would lead to nothing.
S: No, in fact I think people with authority in this region need to speak out with unusual clarity to defuse these contentious issues. I think things are coming to a head in the Middle East. I research this bloc – the so-called “resistance bloc” that supposedly consists of Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas who have assumed a great deal of influence in the Mideast in recent years. For the first time since the Arab nationalism of (former Egyptian President) Gamal Abdel Nasser, you have powerful and influential leadership whose views resonate with the “street…”
A: On this, I just want to tell you something. Don’t underestimate the power of that street. Don’t underestimate the power of the public opinion in the Arab world.
S: No, I never do.
A: And what brought us to this point is the wrong dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict and in particular with the Palestinian question. That created a lot of suspicion, a lot of doubts, and a lot of rejection that makes you not believe them.
S: You mean they don’t believe their leaders?
A: They don’t believe whoever says “okay…yes we’re going to sit and solve the problem with Israel, or that Israel has ‘promised’…etc.” Everybody is laughing about that now.
S: Yet people on the Arab street believe Hassan Nasrallah, and they pump their hand in the air for Ahmadinejad.
A: The ill-advised policy towards the Palestinian question has produced and is going to produce so many negative results from the point of view that you are explaining. And until now, the mistakes are being repeated; the wrong policies are being followed – always what Israel wants should be implemented. Now, there’s total rejection of that policy: “Sorry, we are not going to implement that.” You will see in the next few days that even the so-called “moderates” those who have been called and asked to direct negotiations – nobody believes in the promises connected to it. And nobody will tell them “yes sir.”
S: I wrote an article calling these proximity talks “The Theatre of the Absurd…”
A: We have seen all that before – it is what I call “a book of tricks, political tricks.”
S: By whom?
A: By all those who intervene and by, in particular, some in the political western societies.
S: Can you name names?
A: I don’t want to name names. It is useless, why should I? But I know, and you know. Now, the proximity talks. Back in the 60s it was proximity or “shuttle diplomacy. Then came the peace process itself, the word “peace process”, then the non-papers, the informal exchange of I-don’t-know-what, and now the proximity talks. All this we have seen before. A peace process? Okay – in and of itself, you can accept it, I can accept it. But it must have a time frame. You cannot have an open-ended negotiation for good. Forever! Nor can you negotiate without a final agenda or clear terms of reference.
A: That’s what they wanted. Today we tell them: “Sorry, we cannot have negotiations without clarity.”
S: But as long as the “process” is going on, Israel enjoys a “pressure-free occupation.”
A: Absolutely! Israel is “off the hook” once you sit Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas down, but only for the photos, television, and false success – it will be absolute nonsense, the same old tricks. To do it without preconditions, including no time limit, no time frame, means that we’re back to where we were in the 60s and 70s and 80s and 90s of last century. So, we cannot allow that and we shall not allow it. In as much as we want to help President Obama, we cannot shoot ourselves in the foot. Why should we?
S: We both know that today there can be no Palestinian state or peace solution based on a land-for-peace formula because the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since talks started in Madrid nineteen years ago have quintupled. Right?
A: Yes, yes, right.
S: While Likud has been yelling about building settlements, Labor has stealthily built them – it has made no difference which Israeli political party is in power. There’s no land-for-peace formula, yet still to this day, we’re talking about King Abdullah’s peace plan, the Arab League’s Initiative. Why such hypocricy? Why did the Arab League waste so much time until this very minute defending these initiatives and pushing the Palestinians to sit at this table?
A: We are not saying this. We have accepted the proximity talks because we needed the time, and then after Abu Mazen came here, and sat and told us formally on record that “I have received commitments, guarantees, and understandings from the broker,” which was the United States, that once the proximity talks start there will be no provocations and that the general atmosphere, positive atmosphere will be built in order for us to reach progress that would allow us to move from proximity to direct negotiations. Then look what happened. The first day Mitchell arrived in Israel, he was faced with an Israeli decision to build 212 more settlements in the occupied West Bank. Then, a week later, Biden tried to save the situation, and the moment he arrived, they announced 1600 more units in East Jerusalem, which showed that the guarantees, the understandings, the promises did not work. That is why the proximity talks – until this moment – don’t achieve anything. We said – 120 days – okay. For President Obama, Senator Mitchell, alright – as agreed, you’ll need the 120 days, take the 120 days. But after that, we are shown that it will bring nothing, there will be no progress. So, how can we go about it? It is not necessarily by moving to direct negotiations. It is a failure especially if there are no terms of reference. We should go to the UN Security Council.
S: But the US has – I read this the other day – exercised several dozen vetoes for Israel in the United Nations. Why would the Security Council be a good place to continue negotiations?
A: I’ll tell you why. We’re not going to have a general debate nor are we going to trade accusations. We’re going to say that we’re ready for peace, we’re ready for negotiations, but under the auspices of this Council and the permanent members – and of course the first of whom is the United States. But we want the Council, the international community to decide, to call on both parties to negotiate according to this agenda, to this timetable, and to meet in a certain time, in 3-months time or 4-months to assess the situation and to decide: if there’s success, we can build on it. If there’s no success, you are called upon to create the Palestinian state or as the Arab Summit resolutions stipulated the Council should proceed. But now, we’re getting reports and promises and nothing else.
S: You all are fed up?
A: Absolutely fed up. Absolutely.
S: And not just you? We’re talking about the so-called moderate Arab states too?
A: Everybody is fed up – out of conviction, and some of them out of irritation. They are irritated, and nobody can tell anybody today or tomorrow when we meet that “yes, today’s circumstance are conducive to successful negotiations.”
S: What are you putting on the table at tomorrow’s crucial Arab League meeting?
A: Well, we’re going to listen to Abu Mazen about the recent contacts, messages that he has received, perhaps letters that he has received, and the promises, commitments, and we’ll decide then. But, I don’t think we’re going to decide to accept the move for direct negotiations with Israelis without the necessary requirements, guarantees and time-frame.
S: The resistance block: Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas. They’ve all been so vilified in the west, that it’s very convenient to put them together. In fact, I believe that this is not a bloc of four – this is instead a regional “World View” that goes beyond these four and includes countries like Qatar and Turkey, maybe Oman, Iraq and others too…
A: Yes, you may be right.
S: …and that the one common denominator shared by all these state and non-state actors is the “desire to act in their own self-interest.” That’s it. This has been an impossibility for many, many decades in the Middle East. It is such a simple thing: the desire to make your own mistakes, the desire to forge your own alliances, the desire to find your common interests that are not based on external influences. And, this is not just a Middle East phenomenon, it’s a global phenomenon among middle states and developing nations alike. Yes? Whether it’s Brazil, India, Indonesia, or South Africa, Turkey or Iran, Qatar or Iraq, they want to act in their own self-interest.
A: Your point is well taken: it is not an air-tight bloc. And the fact is they’re not alone – there are so many other countries who think this way, so many others – and their public too…
S: …is 100% behind them.
A: Absolutely! 99%. This awful percentage: 99% means everybody is fed up, everybody, and that is nothing.
S: I just want to make sure: 99% of public opinion is what?
A: Is fed up. Is fed up.
S: But they like this bloc’s “World View?”
A: Yes, they are of the opinion that there’s something wrong in the whole process and that we have been duped again and again, and they want us to negotiate in order for Mr. Netanyahu to say, “You see? I’m negotiating. Why do you talk to me about settlements? Why do you talk to me about Jerusalem? We are negotiating. Things are on the table. So, hands off! Shut up!” And then, they will build settlements; continue actions in Jerusalem, and the result would be zero.
S: Mr. Moussa, is a two-state solution possible today with a “sovereign” Palestinian state?
A: Until now, there’s a possibility.
A: The possibility is, according to how the Palestinians think – especially the Palestinian Authority – that they (Israelis) have built (settlements) on, say, 5% of the West Bank. Will you take this and give us another 5%, and then our state will have the same space as before – and we are ready to do it. And, they are ready for certain concessions, reasonable concessions – to assure others that there would be no attacks and so on. It is possible. But, the Israelis do not believe in that. They do not want a Palestinian state. The talk is just fraud, otherwise they wouldn’t have allowed such policy of settlements – and as you know, it’s half a million settlers now. Yesterday, they erased villages in the Negev because they were “illegal.” By their old talking and tribunal decisions, they have a ring of so-called illegal settlements they never tried to erase. But, they went to the poor Arabs in Negev and told them that they are illegal. They have also determined that a certain ring of settlements is illegal and promised that they are going to eliminate it, to erase it, to remove it. They never did. That shows that it is an impossibility from the Israeli point of view to allow Palestinians to have a real state, a viable state. What they are thinking of, what their concession would be, is a state on a part of the West Bank. A state with passports and a flag and a national anthem and postal system, and that’s all. And this won’t satisfy the Palestinians nor will it satisfy anybody. Nobody would accept that.
S: It won’t solve the problem of the Palestinian refugees.
A: At all, at all, at all! So, now, you can say that another idea is emerging which is “One-State.” In One-State, we talk about citizens equal in treatment, equal in rights, equal in obligations – not the way South Africa was under the Apartheid regime. We shall see.
S: Where is this thinking emerging, in your view? Who’s saying this? Who in your organization, the Arab states are talking about One-State?
A: Many of us. I am talking about this and many others are talking about it.
S: Are the Saudis and the Egyptians and the Jordanians talking about it?
A: I don’t think any of them exclude this prescript if the two-states concept fails.
S: Do you know what’s interesting to me about “One-State?” Last year, even in late 2008, I started noticing Israelis saying “the One-State solution is not possible” and I was thinking “who are they talking to? Nobody’s saying One-State.” Within Israel, they knew this was where the discussion could go, and as usual, they tried to control the narrative before it got there. But they raised flags. Israelis were worried. Now, suddenly, it’s interesting where the push came from: Hillary Clinton, Ehud Barak, and Ehud Olmert brought up this word “Apartheid” to try to push the current Israeli government to seriously tackle the two-state solution. But in doing so, they opened up this can of worms – and since it looks like the Israelis are basically going to settle the West Bank and it will all end up as a single state, it will be an Apartheid state. So, now there’s no chance for the Jewish state to thrive because “Apartheid” – as we know it in the human consciousness today – gets dismantled, right?
A: You know, what you’re saying is you will be faced with a “can of worms” – I agree with that, but it will affect all people on all sides. Israel cannot get away with Palestinian territory or it will have to expel more Palestinian citizens from the West Bank and create another problem of 21st century refugees. America is going to lose tremendously – tremendously. That they have done nothing and brought us to this situation, and not only that there’s no Palestinian state, but there’s an Apartheid policy – that perhaps America will defend.
S: They can’t – they’ll be the only ones. What’s interesting to me is this BDS – Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – movement against Israel. But instead of coming out of the Middle East, it is primarily coming from the west – is that not shameful for the Arab leadership in the region? Israel is moving toward an Apartheid state, they are going to take over the West Bank and yet you’re doing nothing…
A: What you should say is that we’re moving to an Apartheid state even under the existing circumstances. The way they talk about the “Arab minority” over there shows that they want to discriminate against those people, and they are – under the existing Israeli state – second-class citizens.
S: Then why does the Arab League not join in the boycott?
A: We are talking about that in a different way: that you should not normalize relations with Israel as long as Israel continues to go in the existing direction. Look, at a certain moment, there was a lot of pressure to end the boycott. Now, with the situation going down the drain, you can exclude nothing. Because with the reigning frustration, general frustration in the region among the Palestinians, among the Arabs, among the neighbors etc that there has been no use (in this peace process) and that we have been duped along the way – don’t exclude any possibility. That is why we are calling for immediate action in order to halt this deterioration.
S: So, what would an Arab boycott look like?
A: I cannot tell you now. I am not talking about Arab boycott at this moment. Why? Because this has to be, there would be a serious discussion about everything once we find that…
S: …we have reached the end of this peace process.
S: And is this end coming soon?
A: We’ll see. Of course, I believe that we are at the end of the process. I believe that we are at the end. I declared back in 2006, that the peace process is dead. That was a public declaration: the peace process is dead. And the peace process until now is dead; we are trying to shake it, to give it some resuscitation, but this requires conditions.
S: For show it seems. For the sake of this US administration – one last card you give them?
A: No, we’re not going to give them a free card like that. We are in all honesty and very clearly – we are for direct negotiations. But serious, direct negotiations, and on the basis of something we can really pursue, so that public opinion, governments and the world can see that this can be a serious thing that we cannot reject. How? There must be an atmosphere conducive to negotiations; meaning that settlements have got to stop and guarantees of (Israel’s) seriousness have to be given.
S: And Hamas has to be part of it?
A: I told you in the beginning that Hamas has nothing against Abu Mazen negotiating. But number one for direct negotiations is that there must be an atmosphere of confidence and an atmosphere conducive to successful negotiations.
S: Which you’re saying is impossible because Israelis do not want it.
A: Which has to do with settlements, has to do with what they do in Jerusalem and has to do with the blockade around Gaza – this has to be revisited. That’s number one. Number two, there’s nothing called negotiations without preconditions. Negotiations have to have a time frame, follow-up to assess where we are, and a clear agenda. You cannot say “I’m going to discuss relations – the economic relations.” No – you have to discuss borders, you have to discuss Jerusalem, you have to discuss the state, and so on. Number three – the negotiations themselves. You cannot start every time from scratch, from zero. The land-for-peace principle for example – why do you ignore the negotiations between former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abu Mazen on this? The inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war – why do you ignore such a topic?
So, there has to be a time frame, legal frame, agenda and guarantees, and the general ambiance, the general atmosphere. I believe that none of those will materialize, and that direct negotiations that have been advised and pressured – and it seems to be just for “show” as you said.
S: What is your personal forecast on what will happen to Israel in the next 20 years?
A: They will continue to be powerful because of the support of the United States. But, the anger around the world is mounting. So many circles around the world – political circles, important circles, say that “yes, you have to protect the existence of Israel, but you do not have to accept their extremist policies or settlements.” Israel says “we have the American position in our pockets” That’s what they feel. So, America can’t do anything. But the international public opinion, the international trend is really moving to be fed up with such policies.
S: This bloc or “Regional Worldview” is the first “vision” that has come out of this region in 30 years. It attacks the Arab “malaise” big time. Last week I visited Mlita, the new Hezbollah museum in the south of Lebanon that has been in all the papers. I got to see one of Hezbollah’s underground bunkers/tunnels – it was ventilated, hot and cold water, even internet. I thought they would have astronaut food in there. But, they had fresh tomatoes, they had fresh lemons, pots and pans for cooking. The museum has these mannequins scattered amongst the dense foliage outdoors showing how Hezbollah fighters transport their food, their injured, their weapons. The Israelis come strapped down with everything on their backs and in big armored vehicles. They are burdened and heavy when they come to the South of Lebanon while Hezbollah are nimble, light and lean, eat homecooked food and sleep on comfortable bedding. Then, I saw a statistic that shocked me. What do you think was the casualty ratio of an IDF soldier to a Hezbollah fighter in 2006?
A: What is the ratio?
S: One to one.
A: One to one?
S: Yes, who even knows this astonishing figure? People in the region and outside are always saying “nobody can defeat Israel.”
A: No, no, no, no! It is not in our culture at all. Israel is really frightening nobody nowadays.
S: Why is that? Do you think it is Israel’s perceived defeat in 2006 that accounts for this?
A: No, it started in 1973. That is when it started to challenge the reputation that they were trying to build after 1967 – it was really shattered in 1973. In 2006, absolutely! And then, what are they doing this great (Israeli) army now? Just performing against the poor Palestinians in Gaza. This is not impressing anybody.
S: Mr. Moussa, a ratio of one to one. It was maybe a few thousand Arabs against 10,000 IDF soldiers in the last week of the war.
A: They performed very well.
S: I’m still trying to find out why they are so different from the rest of the Arabs. I cannot. It’s not the Shi’a thing. It’s not the injustice thing. It’s not the faith thing. There’s Shi’a elsewhere, there’s injustice elsewhere, there’s faith elsewhere. I’ve come to some conclusion that it’s a blend of all these things, but mostly it’s leadership. You know, many Israelis and other commentators have said that until Hezbollah came along, Israelis never saw Arabs not run away. Hezbollah fighters run toward them…
A: This is a new spirit.
S: Completely. But what does Egypt do to Hezbollah, what does Saudi, Jordan do to Hezbollah?
A: This is different. We are talking about a different context now…because there are a lot of other elements coming in. But if this situation continues you will see a lot of new realignments. If this situation continues, you will find so many of those opposing parties standing together.
S: But, on one issue, I don’t know how they can. It’s Iran. You have personally spoken out several times now about an Iranian-Arab rapprochement. How do you feel about what the US and the EU are doing to Iran with the tacit acceptance of some Arab countries?
A: Number one, we are against any strike against Iran. Number two, we find the process of negotiations (over Iran’s nuclear program) important and we see that Iran has accepted the offer for negotiations after Ramadan. And I fail to understand why some call on the “process of negotiation” and are dying to have this process of negotiations between the Palestinians and Mr. Netanyahu, and then when it comes to Iran, negotiations are somehow a bad thing? And if they say the negotiations haven’t reached anywhere with Iran, well, have negotiations reached anywhere with the Israeli government? By this same token, there has to be a process of negotiation with Iran.
Number three, the efforts of Turkey and Brazil were good. Had we really supported them and tried to build on whatever they had agreed, we could have reached something. But, it is not the logic. It is the Israeli interest, the Israeli politics that is important, that is very influential when it comes to the position taken vis-à-vis this nuclear situation. I even called for negotiations between Arabs and Iran because I fail to understand why countries like Brazil come to try to solve the problem and yet we, the next-door neighbors, are not a party to that. We are the most affected by whatever is going on.
I am giving you my position which I already expressed on several occasions as the secretary general of the Arab League. We need to talk to the Iranians and the Iranians need to talk to us, and we have to have a dialogue to sort out things. We have so many problems with them, and they have so many problems with us – and we can solve them at the negotiating table. But, at the same time, there are a lot of ways to discuss the present situation, the strategic situation and relations in this Middle East, where Iran and Turkey are our partners.
S: Why not invite Iran and Turkey to participate as guests in Arab League meetings?
A: I explain this in my Arab Neighborhood Policy proposal. Within the Arab League there are some different opinions about Iran. Not about Turkey, not about the rest, because that’s 18-20 countries that should be invited if we agree to this policy. As for Iran, as I explained, its membership has to be preceded by the dialogue and based on its results. At the same we should have a dialogue with them. That’s my opinion.
Follow up: The Arab League meeting the following day concluded that the League will support direct talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel when Mahmoud Abbas determines the time is right. A source tells me that there will be conditions attached to direct negotiations. These terms were delivered to President Obama by the US ambassador in Egypt – they specify, in part, that a timeline be established for any direct talks, and that there is an understanding that these talks will be a “final” negotiation phase, i.e., the last attempt to enter negotiations under the current processes.
First published on the Huffington Post, August 6, 2010