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The Future of Palestinian-Israeli Negotiations: Is Peace Still Possible?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Edited Transcript of Remarks by Dr. Ahmad Tibi
'For the Record' No. 291 (15 February 2008)

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wants to reach an agreement with the Palestinians on 'paper only' by the end of 2008, a plan that he does not intend to implement. According to Israeli Knesset member Ahmad Tibi, Olmert, like his predecessors, is only interested in having a process rather than peace. 

The Palestine Center
Washington, DC
5 February 2008

Dr. Ahmad Tibi:

Thank you Samar.  Thank you all for being here.  I just arrived directly from the airport coming from Tel Aviv. But it was very important for me, as [PLO] Ambassador Afif Safieh advised, to come here, to discuss with you the latest developments or lack of developments on the Israeli-Palestinian track, especially what's going on, on the ground on the Palestinian side and on the Israeli political arena as well.  Both are connected in an organic way: the Palestinian internal issues and the Israeli internal issues. 

Just yesterday, in the Knesset, we voted on the so-called Winograd Report which was published last week.  [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert got 59 votes of support and 53 against, which is not a big success for him, especially if you look at how the coalition voted.  Some of the coalition members, both from his Kadima party and from the Labor party, mainly voted against him, asking him to resign.  We, ourselves, my faction, voted of course against because from the very beginning we were against the war on Lebanon.  We thought that it was a grave mistake to go for this overwhelming war on Lebanon as a reaction to the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers.  The Winograd Report also stated that Mr. Olmert and the Israeli cabinet did not; they went directly to war without considering other choices: political and diplomatic choices.  The internal debate on the Israeli side is not about was it correct to initiate this war or not.  It was why it failed and why the victory was not glorious.  That's the debate; that's why Winograd initially was constructed.  This is the discussion in the Israeli public opinion, in the Israeli legal system, in the Israeli political system, about why the Israeli army, for the first time in the Israeli-Arab conflict, when there is a military confrontation with any Arab side, for the first time, there is no Israeli victory.  I started from this point, from Winograd, because there are a lot of implications from this on the internal political system in Israel and how things will affect the Israeli-Palestinian track, the negotiating process.

In the last months, there were eight or nine meetings between Abu Mazen, [Palestinian] President Mahmoud Abbas, and Mr. Olmert.  They discussed almost everything in the so-called core issues:  Jerusalem, refugees, borders, water, settlements and security issues.  But when the official negotiating process started between the Israeli delegation, headed by [Israeli Foreign Minister] Tzpi Livni, and by the Palestinian delegation, headed by Abu Ala', Ahmad Qurai', until today there is no progress.  Not one tangible achievement as a result of this negotiating process. 

It is because of the Israeli traditional disease of falling in love with the process and putting aside the peace.  The most important thing for any Israeli government is the process.  If you have a process with the Palestinian side or any other Arab country, you have an agenda.  You can cooperate with your public opinion, with the Israeli public opinion.  But there is no progress and on the ground there is continuation of the settlement activity, the apartheid Wall and the confiscation of the land process making it very much difficult to implement in a sincere way the two-state solution vision.  It is very difficult to implement this vision taking into consideration how settlements are widespread in all the West Bank areas.  Although it is a reversible situation, it becomes more and more difficult to change the reality being created on the ground in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. 

Mr. Olmert, after Winograd, is much freer to act, to move.  Yesterday, he told me that he's very willing to move forward on the Israeli-Palestinian track and that he's serious.  You know, we've heard these intentions, these words a lot but we are facing things [on a daily basis] and nothing tangible is being felt there.  That's why there is frustration within the Palestinian leadership about this negotiating process. 

I want to touch on the third party role, the American role, which should be much more influential in order to bridge the gap between the parties.  Instead, it is still almost unilateral, unbalanced and it is even not there in order to implement President Bush's vision of a two-state solution.  The vision of a two-state solution, especially the words Palestinian state, should be investigated, should be defined.  What's the meaning of a Palestinian state when it's being said by Mahmoud Abbas, by Afif Safieh, by Ahmad Tibi, by Ehud Olmert or by Ariel Sharon? He [Sharon] was one of the first right-wing leaders to say, before President Bush, a Palestinian state.   Sharon said a Palestinian state.  He didn't say sovereign and independent Palestinian state, which differs a lot.  When the Israelis are talking about a Palestinian state, it seems according to what's going on on the ground these days, they are talking about a so-called wall state; Palestinian state with almost no sovereignty inside the areas of the Wall, the apartheid Wall in the eastern side of the Wall, leaving all of the western side of the Wall under the control of Israel, including all lands confiscated by the Israeli military for the sake of this apartheid Wall.  Sovereignty is important.  The principle of putting an end to the occupation is much more important.  It seems that the Israeli concept about the reality on the ground is not putting an end to occupation but to rearrange the occupation.  This is the difference.  There is no internal decision on the Israeli side, both within the political system and the Israeli public, regarding an end to the occupation.  When there is such a decision, this will be a turning point.  We are not there yet. 

One of the most negative points on the Israeli-Palestinian track is that the Israeli and the American administrations adopted this position. They deal with the Palestinian issue as if it is an internal Israeli coalition problem between Kadima, the Labor party, the Likud, left, right and how it can endanger the coalition.  Look what happened last week.  Last week, out of the blue, well, not so out of the blue, Mr. Olmert declared the issue of Jerusalem will not be discussed between the two delegations.  Why did he declare this?  Because Ovadia Yosef, leader of the religious Shas party, an important member of the Israeli coalition, said if there is any discussion over Jerusalem between Abu Ala' and Tzipi Livni, Shas will leave the coalition and the coalition will collapse.  Olmert immediately accepted the message, the threat, and for him his coalition is much more important than pushing forward the peace process, which was [re-launched] here in Annapolis and declared as the official start of the final status negotiations process.  Jerusalem is one of the most important parts of the negotiating process. 

It also seems that the American administration is adopting this concept of the Israeli side that the Palestinian issue, the Palestinian cause, is an internal Israeli coalition problem and it should be dealt with in such a way.  When American officials talk to Palestinian officials, they always talk about Mr. Olmert's difficulties, the difficulties of Kadima, the difficulties of the Prime Minister, the problems of the Prime Minister with his Foreign Minister, the problems of Mr. Olmert with Shas; look what [Avigdor] Lieberman is doing; look what Lieberman is not doing.  I am not sure that Mr. Olmert heard from the American envoys about the internal Palestinian public opinion or about the internal Palestinian considerations.  It seems that there is only one important public opinion in the area and it is not the Palestinian public opinion.   This is one of the mistakes of the American administration in the area, dealing in a superficial way with the Palestinian cause. 

There was no breakthrough in Annapolis.  Annapolis was just an initiation of a process which will take a long time in order to try to achieve something.  The agenda of Mr. Olmert, as was declared by President Bush, is to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian agreement before the end of 2008.  Is it possible?  I doubt it when taking into consideration outside pressures, regional, internal problems on the Israeli-Palestinian sides, leadership, the Palestinian internal disputes and the weak Israeli leadership.  Mr. Olmert says that he is serious about bringing an agreement.  In the point of view of Israelis, Mr. Olmert is very weak. 

After the Winograd Report, he increased by ten points [in the polls].  The Israeli public opinion is very dynamic, but that's what Olmert is thinking and that's his project, his plan'to try to achieve an agreement with President Abbas on paper.  It will not be implemented.  It will be presented to the Israeli public before the elections in Israel to say I have an agenda, I have an agreement with the Palestinian side; this is what I am going to deliver after the elections.  And there is another choice; Bibi [Binyamin] Netanyahu pushing towards war and confrontation with the Arab and Palestinian side.  This is Mr. Olmert's plan.  Taking this into consideration, I doubt that Mr. Olmert will arrive at an agreement on the so-called core issues this year.  He will not fall and the coalition will not break during this year.  He succeeded in bypassing the Winograd crisis.  He's a very talented politician.   He's not a charismatic leader; he's a talented politician. He knows how to manipulate and to survive. He's a good survivor. 

Then, there is the Iranian threat, which is a very serious issue and plays a large part in Israeli considerations'official considerations these days.  Any official who visits Israel will hear about the Iranian threat.  Israel will directly connect any development in the region to the Iranian threat.  Israel is very much interested in pushing a third party, another side, to attack Iran as they succeeded in, one way or another, to convince the United States of America of attacking Iraq.  They are pushing a lot on this issue.  They were very much disappointed by the American intelligence report which said that until now there is no nuclear effort in Iran.  The Israeli effort against Iran will continue and pressure by Israeli officials and the Israeli cabinet on the international community, mainly the United States, will be a leading feature of Israeli diplomacy in 2008. 

I want to touch on, before taking questions, on the internal Palestinian dispute which is grave, shameful and has pushed back the Palestinian cause instead of pushing it forward in the direction of freedom or putting an end to occupation.  I am listening; I am hearing my colleagues in the Knesset, especially the right wing parties, who are very delighted about the Palestinian situation; very delighted.  I hear Lieberman, the Mifdal, the Likud'they are willing to widen this Palestinian split and to have the gap much wider.  Meanwhile, the Palestinian factions should do the opposite and they are not.  Palestinian unity is important, especially in this very delicate situation when nothing serious is being achieved.  I know what the implications and the results of Palestinian unity would be as far as the American administration and the Israeli government reaction.  I know it.  We all know it.  But still, there is a need for Palestinian unity in order to stop the artificial and the dangerous split between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  Israel was delighted yesterday when a Hamas official spoke about an economic connection between Gaza and Egypt and said, 'Yes, we will agree that Gaza be annexed to Egypt.'  When I am talking about Palestinian unity, I do believe that Hamas should take one step back in order for both sides to take one step forward or much more than one step. 

We, as representatives of the Arab-Palestinian minority inside Israel, we passed this message, what I am talking about now, this Palestinian unity message to both sides: both to the Palestinian National Authority and Fatah and to the Islamic movement in Gaza and the West Bank. We were very concerned about the deterioration within the Palestinian internal situation which has a direct implication on us as a Palestinian community, as a Palestinian minority inside Israel.  We're also a part of these people. What I am saying is that the Palestinian people are like a triangle.  The base is the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.  The long side is the Palestinians in the diaspora.  The shortest one is those one million Palestinians who are citizens of the State of Israel.  Maybe we are the shortest, but without us there will be no triangle. 

Speaking of the Arab minority, I want to take this opportunity to tell you about the identity of the so-called Arab minority.  In the personality of every Arab inside Israel, there are two main components, cardinal components.  One is we are citizens of Israel and one is national; we are Arab Palestinians.  We would like to develop both identities.  We want to increase our civic struggle towards equality.  And we want to develop our national identity as Palestinians and as Arabs.  We are confronted, in a very brutal way, from the right wing because of this description.  Ten days ago when I took part in the funeral of George Habash in Amman, I was brutally attacked by all right wing parties.  They even asked to kick me out from the office of deputy speaker of the parliament.  First, they were afraid of our national component.  Now, they are even afraid of our civic component, of our citizenship.  That's why there is that demand, that proposal, by Lieberman and others in Israel of a so-called exchange, which is another word for transfer.  They are willing to exchange between 150,000 citizens of the area called Wadi 'Arah, the triangle, with the [Jewish] settlers in Ariel [on the West Bank] and other places.  They are trying to equate us, Arabs in Israel and settlers in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which is a very immoral thing to do.  We did not confiscate or control other's land.  We are not settlers.  We are not immigrants.  We are the indigenous people.  Lieberman is an immigrant.  He came from outside the country and he is living outside Israel.  He is living in a settlement in the occupied West Bank trying to kick me out of the country.  This is the reality we are facing day by day.  Why are they trying to exchange between us with them'because of the so-called demographic threat.  What's the demographic threat?  We are 20 percent of the Israeli population.  They are very afraid that in 2020, Palestinians from both sides of the Green Line will be more than Jewish citizens.  That's why when Sharon started the so-called disintegration from Gaza, he said that the first degree of consideration was demographic, getting rid of less than two million Palestinians.  They are dealing with 20 percent of their population, of their citizens as a demographic threat.  Suppose that the government of the United States is talking about the Jewish minority or Jewish citizens as a demographic threat.  No one will continue in his post or his office one hour if he will claim that.

They are counting us every morning.  I'm a physician.  I am a gynecological obstetrician, and I feel that they are counting us.  There is a professor in Haifa University; his name is professor [Arnon] Soffer.  Soffer, this is his name, and his specialization is demographic threats and the numbers of Arabs and the numbers of Jews.  Soffer in Hebrew, ladies and gentlemen, is 'bi'id' [which means] counting.  His name is [literally] 'professor counting' and he's counting us day by day.  It is a racist thing to do and to tell the citizens who were here before the state.  You know, we were on this land before Israel.  Israel came to us and we were obliged to get Israeli identity, the blue card, and it was a compromise in order to resist and to continue to live on this land, in this country.  After we were accepted as citizens and we accepted the new political reality of the State of Israel, now they are talking about this idea of exchange.  Yes, we are very much concerned about this idea.  I am, as one of the leaders of this minority, very much concerned. 

We are noticing that there is an ongoing process of anti-Arab feelings in the Israeli society.  Racism in the Israeli street these days is mainstream.  Racists were in the streets, now they are in the Cabinet.  Lieberman was a deputy prime minister.  He was the minister for strategic threat.  I said there is only one threat for us, the strategic minister.  When he resigned last month, in his press conference he said'just to show you how he wants to delegitimize us as minorities and leaders of minorities'he said, 'Ahmad Tibi and his colleagues are much more dangerous than [Hamas leader] Khaled Meshaal and [Hizballah leader Hassan] Nasrallah.'  This is a real threat when you are living and going to Tel-Aviv, East Jerusalem every day.  This is a real threat.  This is the way rightists and fascists are relating to minorities, especially to the Arab-Palestinian minority.  

I said in the preface that I'm not optimistic that this year will lead to an agreement.  But I will be delighted if I will be mistaken.  It is very important that the Americans take another direction, to be much more influential, to be much more balanced. I say this as someone who is living day by day the hardship of going from my residence, my home, to my office, passing through two or three roadblocks, military roadblocks.  When Olmert is promising Abu Mazen to lift these military roadblocks, Ehud Barak, the defense minister, is increasing these checkpoints.  Palestinians cannot move freely inside the West Bank.  I'm not talking about movement between Israel and the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority areas.  I'm talking about moving from Tulkarem to Ramallah, from Nablus to Bethlehem.  There is no sign that these things are going to be solved because these checkpoints are being stabilized, becoming almost as a border checkpoint between Nablus and Tulkarem, between Ramallah and Al-Ram and Jerusalem.  It is a daily suffering.  If there is an intention or the political will by the American administration to be much more influential and push faster to implement the vision of a two-state solution, the reality of the daily suffering can be changed by the American administration.  But it is not.  I think that reality can be changed'both by sincere political process; both by healthy internal Palestinian process; and by a much more positive regional role for all concerned parties and the American administration, especially when we are watching the one-sided support of Israel, even on the Israel-Syria track. 

There is a sincere Syrian position, willing to have international resolutions implemented; to have a real negotiating process with the Israeli side.  It was declared by President [Bashar] Assad and by the [Syrian] foreign minister.  There are more Israelis'officials and public'who are interested in checking this choice then the American administration who is putting up obstacles in this direction.  Why?  I think this process should be supported.  This choice should be given an opportunity.  And I do believe that the Syrian president is sincere on this matter.  I know it.   At the end, I hope that, Phillip, we will meet again in Jerusalem and that when you are willing to visit me, there are no roadblocks stopping you from arriving on time to my house. I mention this because not one Israeli Jew can live two or three hours having to go through police checkpoints in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.  When President Bush came and there were these kinds of checkpoints, Israelis behaved in an outrageous way and they were angry.  We are living like this 365 days a year.  We would like this reality to change and we would like the vision of a two-state solution, independent, sovereign Palestinian state on all occupied territories in 1967; putting an end to occupation and not rearranging the occupation.  Thank you very much. 

Dr. Ahmad Tibi is an Israeli Arab politician who has served in the Israeli Knesset since 1999. He is a member of the Arab nationalist party, Ta'al (Arab Movement for Renewal). 

This 'For the Record' transcript may be used without permission but with proper attribution to The Palestine Center. The speakers' views do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jerusalem Fund.

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