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Remarks by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to the Council on Foreign Relations

Authors: Mahmoud Abbas, and Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
July 24, 2003
Council on Foreign Relations


Speaker: Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister, Palestinian Authority
Presider: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations


RICHARD HAASS: It is a particular honor to welcome Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to the Council on Foreign Relations. It is a particular honor for me because this is my first event presiding as president of this organization, and I take it as a good omen on lots of levels. The Council on Foreign Relations, Mr. Prime Minister, was founded more than 80 years ago. It is an independent organization of American citizens devoted to contributing to the debate in this country and the world over foreign policy and international relations. As a result, it is a prime example of what social scientists call civil or civic society, which I believe and others believe is essential for the functioning of a true democracy.

You sir, as prime minister, are in many ways the symbol of the political hopes and aspirations of the Palestinian people, and for the promise of political change, that one day there will be not simply a state of Palestine, but it will be a democratic state of Palestine. And we look forward, when that day comes, not simply to welcoming you back, but also to welcoming the president of the Palestinian Council on Foreign Relations. Because independent organizations such as that will be one of the real guarantors that democracy in the state of Palestine will be truly vibrant and truly robust.

The prime minister arrives here today not simply as a symbol of the political potential for democracy, but also the potential for peace. This is a man who has devoted a good many years, indeed decades, to trying to find a peaceful resolution to the dispute that has all too often defined the history of relations between Israelis and Palestinians.

As everyone in this room knows, the prime minister also arrives here at a particularly critical time. Indeed I'm hard pressed to think of when any time in the Middle East is not critical. As I look out at this audience, one filled with real experts on the region, I expect that many of you are pessimistic, indeed some might even be cynical, about the prospects for peace, and I understand why. It's easy to be given the legacy of conflict that has taken too many lives, Palestinian and Israeli, all the failed or less than fully successful attempts at diplomacy, the strength in the region of those who are clearly opposed to compromise, and all the difficult issues that still remain to be resolved—from the right of return, to dealing with settlements and checkpoints and prisoners, to the future of Jerusalem, to territorial issues, you name it. Not to mention, of course, the issue of violence.

Still, I am more optimistic than at any time over the past three years, and I realize by saying this that the words optimism and Middle East are rarely stated in the same paragraph. But I am more optimistic for a number of reasons: the removal of Saddam Hussein and his regime; the tabling of the road map; the diplomatic cooperation among the United States, the EU, the U.N. and Russia; the new emphasis on promoting progress in the Middle East by the Bush administration; the ceasefire that key Palestinian factions have agreed to and thus far implemented; the road map itself that has been tabled and elements of which are being implemented; the fact that a powerful prime minister in Israel, a powerful conservative prime minister in Israel, has spoken of his willingness to support, under the right conditions, a Palestinian state. And perhaps also the exhaustion on all sides of people with the absence of peace. And that exhaustion can in many ways be the raw material of a willingness to compromise.

But I'm optimistic also for one other reason, and that is because of the gentleman sitting here to my left. The emergence in March of this year of a Palestinian prime minister, someone again with a record of striving for peaceful reconciliation, and someone who is respected throughout the region. And here I can do no better than to quote today's New York Times, which describes him as "the mild-mannered agent of a quiet revolution in Palestinian politics." Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to present the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: Good evening. To spare your time, I will deliver my speech in English. (Laughter.) And I will ask your excuse for two reasons; the first is my poor English, and the second, I had surgery in my eyes. So please excuse me.

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to start by thanking the Council on Foreign Relations for hosting me today. It is a great opportunity to present and discuss our vision for peace in the Middle East with such a distinguished gathering.

My visit to the United States comes at an extremely sensitive time. While the implementation of the road map has started, the process remains fragile. There are many skeptics who do not believe that the road map will succeed, and there are those who do not want it to succeed. They must be proven wrong, and the only way to do that is through action, action that concretely improves the lives of Palestinians and Israelis, and actions that indicate clearly that the parties are committed to President Bush's vision of ending the occupation that began in 1967 and establishing a viable, sovereign Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel.

Distinguished guests, the new Palestinian government was formed under extremely difficult circumstances, most of which still prevail. We lack the tools of governance that most governments take for granted. Our territory is divided into small, disconnected areas separated from one another by trenches, dirt mounds, and more than 160 checkpoints. People cannot move between these areas. Social, economic, education, health and other aspects of Palestinian lives remain highly restricted. The whole of the West Bank is fully occupied. The economy is in ruins, with extremely high poverty rates and unemployment figures.

Yet we must seek positive signals, and we can find them. Both Palestinians and Israelis are getting tired of the ongoing violence. It is clear to all that our conflict had no military solution and that political solution is the only way out of the vicious cycle of violence.

President Bush had opened a political horizon by presenting his vision of an end to the occupation that started in 1967, and the establishment of a viable, sovereign Palestinian state by the year 2005.

A tool for reaching this vision is available in the form of the road map. Drafted by the Quartet, the United States is renewing its engagement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and a Palestine reform process is in place and picking up steam.

Many challenges remain. We must restore calm and security for Palestinians and Israelis. We must resume the peace process with Israel in accordance with the road map. We must revive the economy, and we must continue and consolidate the reform process. But we are clear on how to overcome these challenges, and are determined to do so.

In terms of security, our objective is to achieve one authority, enforce the rule of law on all, and not allow weapons to be held by any other than those entrusted with upholding the law. This all must be under the framework of political diversity. Under these parameters, security is a matter of Palestinian national interest. This is the only guarantee for the sustainability and legitimacy of the security measures.

Our priority is to achieve reform in finance, the judiciary, and public administration. We are building a market economy in close cooperation with the private sector. After all, reform is not only an aim in itself, but also a tool for establishing the foundations of the modern democratic Palestinian state to which we aspire.

In terms of the peace process, we remain committed to the implementation of the road map without any changes. This process will lead to the realization of President Bush's vision of establishing the sovereign and independent Palestinian state living side by side with Israel in peace and security and ending the occupation that began in 1967. In our statement launching the road map in Aqaba, we did not hesitate. We sent a clear, uncompromising message to our people, Israel and the whole world regarding our intention to uphold our road map obligations without compromise.

The Israeli statement, unfortunately, was directed more towards appeasing domestic constituency than toward expressing commitment to Israel's road map obligations. This pattern of hesitant implementation has characterized Israel's approach to the road map since. Without bold steps we will not succeed.

On the security front, we agreed with all Palestinian factions to a comprehensive cease-fire, based on the rule of law and clearly stating that those who breach the cease-fire will be punished in accordance with the law.

We succeeded.

By Israeli admission, the levels of violence have decreased dramatically, even in areas in which we still do not exercise security control. All factions remain committed to the cease-fire, and the minor breaches are dealt with promptly and forcefully.

Ladies and gentlemen, the success of the road map follows from its internal logic. Only mutually supportive steps taken by all the parties can get us to our goal.

On our side, we will impose and maintain security control over all Palestinian areas to achieve the oneness of authority and control over weapons. We are committed to condemning and fighting terrorism, and to being partners in the international war against terrorism.

We are in the process now of finalizing the Palestinian constitution and are making preparations to hold elections as soon as possible.

The Israeli side has obligation, too. Israel must finish its withdrawals to the September 28th, 2000, lines; lift the siege on President Arafat and allow him to travel freely; ease and ultimately end the restrictions on the freedom of movement of Palestinians; stop assassinations and home demolitions, and stop violence from its army and the settlers.

Of the most immediate importance and urgency is the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons. Most of those are actually detained without charge. Besides the legal and humanitarian grounds for releasing prisoners, there is a forceful political logical to it. Prisoners are one of the main constituencies for peace and an active player in the conclusion and maintenance of the cease-fire. Releasing them would strengthen the moderate elements among the various groups and create a sense of inclusion for these groups.

Of the most strategic importance is ceasing the construction of the separation wall and freezing all settlement activities, in accordance with the Mitchell report and the road map. The vision of two states cannot be realized if Israel continues to grab Palestinian land. The continuation of settlement activity will make a sovereign, viable Palestinian state impossible and will permanently destroy the prospects of permanent peace and an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Nothing less than a full settlement freeze will do, because nothing less than a full settlement freeze will succeed.

Previous attempts to impose a partial freeze have all failed, and there is no reason to expect things to be different this time.

There are things that both we and the Israelis must do. Incitement by both sides must be ended and replaced by education for peace. Stereotypes that developed throughout the last 34 months must be reversed. The process of occupation should extend to all aspects of life. We have established joint committees that must be strengthened and allowed to operate at their fullest capacity. Finally, if we are to really end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, we must start discussing the permanent status issues so as to establish a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, and to resolve the refugee question in accordance with the Arab initiative and on the basis of international law.

The United States has a fundamental role to play. The efforts of President Bush, Secretary Powell and National Security Adviser Rice have been essential in getting us to where we are today, and they must continue. The Palestinian Authority is in a dire need for political and economic support to rebuild itself. The administration has been generous in offering $20 million in direct financial aid to the PA, and we hope that this amount is increased and that the provision of direct financial aid is enshrined in legislation.

The U.S. must also play an active monitoring role if the implementation of the road map is to succeed. While we and the Israelis have progressed in rebuilding our bilateral relations, trust remains fragile, and neutral third-party monitoring and verification will be essential to rebuild this confidence and to avoid misunderstandings and unnecessary crisis.

Finally, once we and the Israelis resume discussions of the permanent status issues, the U.S. must support us along our journey and assist us in reaching our final goal. The U.S. role must be complemented by the efforts of the international community, and in particular, the Quartet of the European Union, the United Nations and the Russian Federation.

Ladies and gentlemen, one of the tragic outcomes of the recent years of violence was the disillusionment and the disintegration of the peace camps in Palestine and Israel and the rest of the world. The peace process has lost many of its supporters to despair. As we, the politicians, embark today on a renewal of the peace process, we are in great need for the efforts of the peace constituencies throughout the world, and I will not spare any effort to succeed in our quest for peace. We will establish a Palestinian state, and this state will be democratic, this state will be a good neighbor to Israel and all other states in the region. This is my pledge and this is my vision. But without the support of an active peace constituency, we will not succeed. We must all give peace the support it deserves.

Thank you. (Applause.)

RICHARD HAASS: Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister.

What we're going to do now, the prime minister has graciously agreed to field your questions. My only request is that you keep them as questions. We've had one speech tonight; that's it. And when people stand, if they would state their name and their affiliation, we would appreciate that as well. And again, I ask that you be short; that's the best way we can give as many of you out there an opportunity as would like.

Jim Hoagland?

PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: Now, if you ask your questions in English, I will reply in Arabic. (Laughter.)

Audience: Thank you, sir. I was interested in your remark to an American audience that the Palestinian Authority is interested in being a partner in the international war on terrorism. To Americans, there's a specific connotation in trying to disband al Qaeda and its associated groups.

Are you offering to take part in the war against al Qaeda specifically? And more generally, what in the Palestinian Authority itself are you prepared to do to stop international terrorism?

(Note: Prime Minister Abbas' answers are translated from Arabic.)

PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: We have said following September 11th that we are against the operations done by al Qaeda. And we have expressed our readiness to be a partner in fighting terrorism. And this is why we will not be easy on terrorism, we will not allow terrorism, and we will take part in the effort in fighting terrorism along with our brother Arabs. And this will be everywhere.

RICHARD HAASS: Thank you. Yes, ma'am.

Audience: Mr. Prime Minister.

RICHARD HAASS: -- please identify yourself.

Audience: Beverly Lindsay, senior Fullbrighter. Mr. Prime Minister, you indicated that both countries should cease incitements. And one of the ways that this should be ceased is through education for peace. What key components of education for peace would you articulate? And what's the role of universities and cultural institutions in this regard?

PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: About two weeks ago, we formed joint committees between us and the Israelis. There are approximately 10 such committees. Two of them -- the first one has to do with incitement, and the second one is a people-to-people committee. The second committee, people to people, its main object is to provide aid and assistance to all people who are willing to meet and do activities together on both sides among the Palestinian and the Israeli communities, because we would like to build the peace between the peoples and not between governments.

And in my opinion, I believe this is the most important committee that can work between us and the Israelis.

The committee focusing on fighting incitement has held one meeting last week, and as a result of that meeting, there has been a drop in incitement on the Palestinian side by more than 80 percent. This is what Prime Minister Sharon has informed me, as well as Ambassador Wall. And that is a sign that we are quite serious about fighting any type of terrorism. However, incitement is done on both sides. And this is why we are ready to sit down with the Israelis and discuss all the elements that have to do with incitement on both sides, from the Israeli as well as the Palestinian side.

So the drop in incitement more than 80 percent is on our side, and this is a sign of our intentions.


Dan Schorr?

Audience: Thank you. Daniel Schorr, National Public Radio. Mr. Prime Minister, what concretely do you need from President Bush now? What is not happening that you think should be happening?

PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: In reality, in truth, we do need the assistance and support of President Bush in the following areas.

First of all, the U.S. administration is the sponsor of the road map. It is part of the Quartet, which is sponsoring the road map. So we would like -- we expect the United States to keep sponsoring that and make sure that the road map is implemented accurately. And when talking about the road map, we expect the United States to play its role to make sure the road map is implemented.

On the Israeli side, there is the issue of prisoners. This is a very important issue. The Israelis were supposed to release those prisoners, but so far this has not taken place. There is also the issue of settlement activity and expansion of settlements, as well as the wall of separation that is being built. And of course there is also the withdrawal from the territories back to the line of September 28th. So we do expect the United States to play its role forcefully for the implementation of that.

As I mentioned earlier, I'm quite grateful to the president and the U.S. administration for having provided us with the direct aid of $20 million, the first time in the history of relations between us and the Americans. And this has gone directly to the treasury of the Palestinian. And if this is a sign of anything, it is a sign of the trust that they have in the financial reforms that we have undertaken.

And we do ask and hope -- we do ask, from the United States, and hope that the United States will provide us with additional assistance in order to rebuild the institutions that have been destroyed in the past several years.

RICHARD HAASS: Actually, let me start trying the people from different parts of the room.

Barry Schweid? Just wait for the microphone for a second.

Audience: I wonder if you could tell us what will happen to the cease-fire agreements, which you helped work out, which only have about two months to run. If you don't get big concessions from the Israelis -- I don't want to quibble, but prisoners aren't in the road map, of course, but you do want releases and you want other things, lots of things. What if you don't get them? Will the cease-fire survive?

PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: Those who have agreed to the cease-fire are totally convinced of that action. We have not forced anyone to agree to this accord. And this is a positive indication regarding the various Palestinian factions, that they could be part of the political fabric of the Palestinians. So, the burden really is on the shoulders of the Israelis. And I have mentioned -- as I have mentioned earlier, there are certain things that we expect them to do regarding the release of the prisoners, regarding the freezing of settlement activity, as well as the withdrawal. And if Israel is not going to do this, then it is basically reaffirming, reinforcing the occupation. And we all know, if occupation is to continue, what can happen. If occupation were to continue, then the Palestinian Authority will be put in a very dangerous and embarrassing situation, a situation that no one would envy.


Audience: Thank you. Pauline Baker, the Fund for Peace. In situations such as this, the resolution of a conflict often hangs a lot on the character and relationship between the two top leaders. And I cite as an example former President de Klerk in South Africa and Nelson Mandela.

Recognizing this is a public event, and with as much candor as you can, could you describe to us what your opinion is of your opposite, Prime Minister Sharon, and what the nature of your relationship is? (Laughter.)

PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: We deal with the prime minister of Israel as a prime minister who represents the Israeli people, and the Israeli people have elected him and selected him to be the prime minister. And as long as the situation is what it is, we deal with the prime minister of Israel who represents the Israeli people.

I have met him four times and we have discussed all the issues between us -- that concern us. And in the end, I will make my final judgment based on the results that we will get, the solutions we get.

RICHARD HAASS: Sir? Please wait for the microphone.

Audience: (Off mike) -- Mercy Corps, working in the Middle East and various countries.

Mr. Prime Minister, I'd like to ask you a question that I put a few days ago in Jerusalem in separate conversations with Naomi Kazan and Hanan Ashrawi, both rather independent-minded women who are critics of their own political establishments. I asked them what would they think America should do to further the road map implementation. They gave me almost identical answers. They said the Americans should keep the pressure on steadily, unrelentingly on both sides to implement in full the commitments they've made. They both expressed concern about the possibility that one side or the other, or both, would get into a situation of delay, delay, delay, and this could be an end to the whole process. So they both were saying don't think you have time forever and forever to work on this, keep at it and keep the pressure on both sides.

How would you answer that question?

PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: As Ms. Hanan Ashrawi has answered. (Laughter.)

Audience: Smart man.

PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: We ask the U.S. government to put the pressure on both sides, and that will be quite pleasing to us. But the United States should be really asking the party that is not -- to see which party is not implementing its commitment, and then ask that party to fulfill its obligation.


Audience: Barbara Slavin of USA Today. Welcome. It's nice to see a Palestinian leader here again. I wanted to ask you about your obligations. The Israelis, of course, have demanded that you begin to disarm Palestinian groups. You've talked about bringing these people into a political process. At what point will you feel strong enough to begin to remove weapons from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups? Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: We have made it clear in our famous declaration in front of the Palestinian Legislative Council that we seek one authority, that the rule of law will be applied for everyone and on everyone, and that there is only allowed to carry weapons only for the legitimate forces to be armed, and to put an end to the chaos of the spreading of weapons as well as -- (translator pauses) --

As well as what? (Laughter.)

(Translator resumes) -- as well as encouraging the political pluralism.

RICHARD HAASS: It's hard to get good help. (Laughter.)

PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: There is one important point I'd like to make. We have not deceived anyone. We have not forced anyone into this. We have told them exactly, openly, this is what we plan to do; this is what we plan to implement and how we're going to do it.

RICHARD HAASS: I am in the unenviable position now -- the prime minister has to be leaving shortly, so there's only room for one more question. So let me first of all -- let me first of all apologize to those who won't get their questions answered. I hope people don't withhold paying their dues to the council in protest. (Laughter.) I also ask that after we finish that people stay seated so the prime minister and his delegation could leave the room easily.

Yes, ma'am.

Audience: Thank you. Gwendolyn Mikell, Georgetown University. Mr. Prime Minister, you have spoken about the financial responsibility of the United States. But can you talk for just a minute about the -- what you expect of the international financial institutions, in as the peace -- as the road map moves forward?

PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: There are four parties who have engineered -- put together the road map: the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia. In other words, the entire world sponsors the road map. So what we hope and expect that the United States will do, we hope and expect that the rest of the world community will do as well in order to have the road map succeed, especially when it comes to financial support.

RICHARD HAASS: Again, I apologize to those who I have not been able to recognize. Please don't hold it against me.

I want to say -- (speaks a phrase in Arabic) -- to the prime minister for coming here this evening and giving his time. (Applause.) Thank you. Thanks very much.

Thank you all.

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