Mahmoud Abbas: 'We cannot build foundations of a state without rule of law'

<preform>On the eve of the London conference, the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas tells Donald Macintyre</b></i> why he believes peace is finally possible</preform>
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The Independent Online

Q How is progress on a hudna (ceasefire), in the light of Friday night's bombing?

Q How is progress on a hudna (ceasefire), in the light of Friday night's bombing?

A Ending violence and security chaos is first and foremost a Palestinian interest. We cannot build the foundations of a state - which, after all, is our ultimate objective - without the rule of law and public order. We have agreed with the various Palestinian factions that the only acceptable mode of political expression is through the ballot box, and everyone will participate in the upcoming elections so as to allow the Palestinian people to choose.

We have already announced the end of violence at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit. We are exerting 100 per cent efforts and it has yielded good results so far. As for the suicide bombing last Friday, such actions will not be tolerated by us as they are against the Palestinian interests.

While the Palestinian factions remain committed to the hudna, there may be other parties who want to destabilise the situation. We arrested a couple of Palestinians directly related to the suicide bombing. It is also necessary to deal with the party who is responsible for the planning in order to prevent such actions from reoccurring. Israel co-operated with us in sharing the information relating to the bombing. We hope that Israel will withdraw its army to 28 September 2000 positions to give us a chance to reassume our responsibilities in the Palestinian areas. An end to violence cannot be sustained when Palestinians are being killed by the Israeli army on a daily basis. Ending the violence is a mutual Israeli and Palestinian commitment.

Q Do you think your election in January was an example to the rest of the Arab world?

A The Palestinian people have always maintained a tradition of democracy that we will seek to maintain and consolidate. In addition to the presidential elections, this year we will hold municipal and parliamentary elections, as well as elections in the Fatah movement. We will encourage elections in the various political parties and civil society institutions. We believe that democracy is the strongest guarantor of stability, and the most transparent mode for rejuvenating our political system and recreating a public sense of ownership of our political life. Elections are a Palestinian national interest of the highest order.

There is a clear international commitment - as expressed by the G8 - to encourage democracy in the Middle East, and we regard ourselves as partners in these efforts. We are setting an example of how democracy can be achieved even under the most adverse conditions of Israeli occupation.

Q There was a clear timetable for the road map and when it would lead to final status negotiations. Given that time has been lost, what do you think is a realistic timetable now for the creation of a Palestinian state?

A First, let me reiterate our commitment to the road map. We believe that the road map remains the only agreed path to ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and we have started implementing it. Israel now needs to start implementing its commitments of the road map. Rather than spending time and energy on reconsidering the timetable, I believe that we must put all of our efforts into implementing the road map. The one thing that we must all keep in mind is that the establishment of a Palestinian state - by which I mean a viable contiguous and independent state along the 1967 borders, not an interim or a truncated state - is in the interest of both us and the Israelis. Such a state is a cornerstone in solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The sooner we realise such a state, the sooner we and the Israelis can set about the task of bringing sustainable development, stability and prosperity to our peoples.

Q Given Ariel Sharon's views, not least on borders and Jerusalem, do you think a final settlement is really possible with him?

A Just as the Israeli government cannot choose who to negotiate with on our side, we also cannot choose who to negotiate with on the Israeli side. We trust that the Israeli public will choose a true and permanent end of the conflict over the continuation of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories. We believe peace is possible now and we are ready to negotiate with Israel to reach a true and lasting peace based on justice and international legitimacy.

Q How can you convince Mr Sharon to withdraw his forces even to where they were before September 2000?

A Withdrawal to the September 2000 lines is an Israeli obligation under the road map, which was accepted by the Israeli government. Just as we are currently implementing our road map obligations, we expect Israel to implement its. The road map was designed as a package of mutually supportive measures that must be implemented in parallel. Picking and choosing, or imposing conditions will lead to serious delays in the peace process. While discarding obligations - such as withdrawal to the 2000 lines - might be politically convenient for Israel in the immediate term, the long-term results - namely the collapse of the peace process - will be disastrous to both peoples.

In this regard, the international community has a role to play. The road map stipulates an international monitoring and verification role. The world, primarily the Quartet [the US, UN, EU and Russia], must step in to help us all implement the road map. If we fail to implement our obligations, the world must point this out to us. By the same token, if Israel fails to implement its obligations, it must be held responsible. We have an opportunity here, and it would be irresponsible if we, the Israelis, or the world allow it to slip away.

Q What confidence-building measures do you want Israel to introduce?

A Rather than talking about "confidence-building measures", I prefer to talk about "confidence-building attitudes". The measures that need to be taken are spelled out in the road map, and we do not need to reinvent the wheel. What is needed, though, is a new approach to dealing with these obligations. Rather than approaching obligations as a zero-sum game, where every loss for the Palestinians is seen as a gain for Israel, and where every detail has to become subject to protracted negotiations, a new attitude is needed where every step by either side is seen as a step towards the mutually beneficial aim of ending the conflict.

I am afraid that Israel has not yet reached this paradigm shift. The recent negotiations over the Israeli withdrawal from Jericho has shown that Israel has yet to stop looking at the details and start dealing with the big picture.

Q On the right of return, some Palestinians have said that Israel must acknowledge the right but that the application can be negotiated. What about the rights of Jews driven out of Arab countries?

A We do not speak for other Arab countries. In our negotiations with Israel, we only deal with issues of bilateral concern.

Q Can you give some specific examples of how you expect to deal with corruption?

A Eradicating corruption - and more widely administrative inefficiency and misuse of public office and funds - is essential for building the foundations of a democratic, transparent and accountable state. Some measures have already been taken. For example, some cases of alleged corruption have been referred to the attorney general, and we are in the process of setting up a complaints office at the Presidency.

That said, corruption cannot be dealt with by discrete measures here and there. It needs institutional solutions. In particular, a comprehensive public-sector reform effort has been launched to reconstitute our bureaucracy along efficient and effective lines, and efforts are under way to rebuild the judiciary so as to enable it to play its role as the independent guardian of the rule of law.

Q What kind of judicial system are you envisaging? How will you ensure that judicial decisions are implemented?

A After years of chaos where the institutions of governance have been weakened and the rule of law ignored, an independent and efficient judiciary is an essential cornerstone for re-establishing stability. We are working to ensure that the judiciary has under its disposal sufficient resources to deal efficiently and in a timely manner with its caseload.

At the same time, any interference by the executive in the judiciary will be dealt with swiftly and firmly. I believe that if we fail to establish a credible judiciary, the public will have no incentive to resort to the institution and will instead continue to rely on extra-legal processes for resolving all kinds of disputes. This will erode our efforts for the establishment of the rule of law not only in security and criminal matters, but also in civil and commercial transactions.

Q Can you put the Palestinian house in order, in relation to security and institutions? How can you do this without making enemies of people who benefited from the old system?

A We have no choice but to put the Palestinian house in order. We have not struggled against the occupation for decades just to have our future Palestinian state born as a failed state.

Any process of change will inevitably affect entrenched interests, but what matters at the end of the day is the national interest as expressed by the electorate. I was elected with a clear majority which gives me the necessary legitimacy to implement my reform platform. An important component of my reform plans is the unification and modernisation of security services into three accountable services with a clear chain of command. Steps have already been taken, and the process is under way whether in terms of passing the necessary laws in parliament or in terms of retraining the forces or restructuring the services.

Q Israel has called for you to act against incitement in media and education. I know that you have feelings on Israeli schoolbooks etc as well. What do you want to happen on this subject?

A We have already issued orders to end incitement as we see this as a departure from the true role of the media in democratic societies. I have repeatedly called for reactivation of the trilateral anti-incitement committee that was established under the Wye River agreement. I hope that Israel agrees to this immediately so that we can start dealing with this unhealthy phenomenon in both the Israeli and Palestinian societies.

Q Will you change the electoral system for the Palestinian Legislative Council (parliament) to a more proportional one as Hamas has been asking?

A The legal process for changing the PLC electoral system is passing a revised election law through the parliament. This is well under way to allow for better representation of smaller parties in the parliament. We believe that this will make the PLC more reflective of the diversity of the Palestinian political life.

Hamas and the other factions are strongly inclined towards participation in the upcoming PLC elections in July. This is an important step towards ending violence and entrenching elections as the ultimate arbiter of competing political agendas in Palestine.

Q George Bush has said he would welcome you to the White House if you want to go. Do you?

A Yes, I do. The role of the US is indispensable in the Middle East peace process. President Bush has expressed clear commitment to advancing peace in the Middle East and it will be irresponsible not to seize upon this commitment. I have great respect for President Bush and I am looking forward to resuming the co-operation we started when I was prime minister. I will discuss with him the implementation of the road map and the resumption of the peace process.

Q What are you hoping for from the London meeting tomorrow? What role if any can Tony Blair play to help the peace process?

A Let me start by expressing my appreciation for Prime Minister Blair for his efforts and commitment to peace in the Middle East and to supporting the Palestinian Authority in building its state institutions.

The London meeting is an important international gathering to garner concrete support for our efforts to implement our road map obligations and build our institutions, and we expect it to send a clear signal of the international support of what we have already achieved. The London meeting must lead to the holding of the international conference called for in the road map to relaunch final status negotiations and a credible peace process. In my meeting with Prime Minster Blair, I sensed that he is deeply committed to this and I am looking forward to working with him.

Q What do you think of Mr Sharon's plan for disengagement from Gaza and the northern West Bank?

A The Israeli disengagement plan as passed by the Israeli government and the Knesset is about the withdrawal of Israeli troops, the evacuation of some settlements, the expansion of other settlements, and the construction of the wall. All to be carried out by Israel unilaterally. While we welcome the withdrawal of the Israeli army and Israeli settlers from Palestinian territory, we reject completely the continued yet increased occupation manifested in the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, including east Jerusalem. We reject the building of the wall. The wall is built inside Palestinian territories. It is not built in Israel nor is it built on the borders. It separates Palestinians from other Palestinians and from their land and livelihood.

I have stated in Sharm el-Sheikh that we are ready to co-ordinate with Israel the evacuation and the withdrawal. Co-ordination should not be a process by which we merely discuss the implementation of a unilateral Israeli decision, but rather a bilateral process that reflects both Israeli and Palestinian interests.

We must demonstrate to the Palestinian people in concrete terms that a bilateral process is better than unilateral steps. This will restore people's hope in negotiations. This will happen, I am sure, when the bilateral process delivers a comprehensive withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and strengthens the unity of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

In addition, the disengagement must be linked to a political process. It must be part of a political process to ensure that "Gaza first" is not "Gaza last" and is not "Gaza at the expense of the West Bank".