A Conversation With Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh of the Palestinian Authority

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Prime Minister, Palestinian Authority


Chief Foreign Correspondent, NBC News; CFR Member

Prime Minister Shtayyeh discusses the Palestinian Authority’s relations with the United States, its security and economy amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and the broader Middle East peace process. 

ENGEL: All right. Hello, everyone. Sorry for the slight delay—international politics intervened. I'm Richard Engel, chief foreign correspondent for NBC News. I've also spent much of my career in the Middle East, including reporting on the Palestinian Authority. And as any journalist will tell you, timing is everything. So we at the Council on Foreign Relations are very lucky to have the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Mohammed Shtayyeh, joining us now at this critical time. So very much look forward to hearing from him.

And just a little context on why this is such a critical time. I'm not going to tell the whole history of the Palestinian people, but it has been a history of struggle since, at least the modern history, 1948, and then in 1967 when Palestinians were displaced and then numerous intifadas and uprisings and a peace process that collapsed. But I would argue that the last four years have potentially been the most challenging of all. Palestinians have long dreamed of establishing their own state with Jerusalem as its capital and allowing some Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland, return to a future Palestinian state. But over the last four years that that goal has been pushed back as the Trump administration has taken many steps, including recognizing Israel's claim to Jerusalem as its capital, recognizing the Golan Heights, no longer considering—from the U.S. perspective or the State Department's perspective—settlements in the West Bank illegal, all steps that have been condemned by the Palestinian Authority. And now, right now, as we speak, the outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on a tour, a world tour that includes stops in the Middle East and he is expected to visit a settlement in the West Bank. And if he does, that would be the first time that a U.S. secretary of state has done that.

So without further ado, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, who also has to deal with the COVID pandemic that is wreaking so much havoc on the world, particularly on vulnerable populations like the Palestinians. So let me start, Mr. Prime Minister, how would you assess your situation? The situation seems to be one of incredible weakness right now that the Palestinians are in a very vulnerable position. The U.S. has taken so many positions that have set back the cause of Palestinian statehood. How do you move forward?

SHTAYYEH: Well, first of all, I would like to thank the Council on Foreign Relations. Thanks very much, Mr. Engel, for this very enlightening introduction. Let me come to your question. Look, I mean, by all means, we are really in a very difficult situation. And this has to do with three important angles of our relationship. One is the Arab normalizations with Israel, which is a violation of the Arab Peace Initiative. Second, having an administration in Washington, that's not to say, unfriendly to Palestine or in total alliance with Israel, but an administration that really hit hard below the belt and never respected the rules of the ring. The Palestinians, as you mentioned, have really suffered tremendously under this administration for all the unilateral measures that has been taken by the Trump administration, whether it is moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, stopping the financing for the United Nation Relief and Works Agency for the refugees, stopping assistance to the Palestinian Authority—all these sorts of measures that has been taken by the Trump administration. So this has really jeopardized all the agreements that has been signed between us and Israel.

On the other hand, this has encouraged, really, Israel to take more aggressive measures against the Palestinians, whether in Jerusalem with the intensive colonization programs that had been announced the day before yesterday and before, and during the Trump administration, the number of settlers in the Palestinian territories have increased by more than 60 percent and so on.

So all in all, the situation has led also to a total breakup of our relationship with Israel because when the ultimate deal of President Trump had been launched, Israel was ready to annex 30 percent of the Palestinian territory. From our side, we were really facing a very serious question, which is what shall we do? We are at cross points. Shall we really say we are not players anymore and let Israel take over as a colonizing power, let it be responsible for all its responsibilities under international law? And we as a responsible government, can we do that? Or shall we accept the status quo? Or shall we wait for new changes that might happen in the world? Luckily, the changes are we started to see changes. One important issue, it has to do with, of course, the outcome of elections in Washington. The other important issue, which is why I came late to this meeting for half an hour, which is a letter that we have received, which we have been waiting for, that Israel is ready to commit itself to the signed agreements with us. And this is for us a very important step in the right direction. Because Israel never wanted really to commit itself to the signed agreements.

ENGEL: Could you just provide a little more clarification? There are many signed agreements. What exactly are you saying that Israel is committing itself to?

SHTAYYEH: Well, remember one thing, which is the Palestinian-Israeli agreement, the Interim Agreement, has more than one dimension. One dimension is economic, financial, security, and territorial and political. Israel actually never wanted to commit itself to these agreements. We have frozen our relationship between us and Israel simply because we wanted Israel to say that they are committed to these agreements. And consequently, we stopped the transfer of our taxes. We stopped security coordination. We stopped all this and that, and today, Israel has sent us a letter to say that they are committing themselves to the signed agreements. Consequently, we will resume the Israeli–Palestinian relations accordingly.

ENGEL: Are you making an announcement right now? Is this a bit of news that the members here are listening to? Is this the resumption of some sort of dialogue, some sort of cooperation between your authority, the Palestinian Authority, and the Israeli government? Will this apply to COVID relief? Will this apply to taxes? Will this apply to security coordination? Help us understand what you're telling us right now?

SHTAYYEH: What I'm telling you is very simple. We will resume contacts with the Israelis on financial issues, on health issues, on political issues, on anything that Israel is ready for. The most important thing is that now, Israel is saying that they are ready to commit themselves to the signed agreements. What does this really mean? It means territorial, it means political, it means health, it means financial, it means all other issues. This is something that we have received a letter today, which we actually asked for. We have said that we are ready to resume talks with Israel on three options. Option one, we are ready to resume talks with Israel under the auspices of a Quartet-plus on the basis of international law and United Nations resolutions. Or resume talks from where they ended in 2014. Or Israel to commit itself to the signed agreements. Israel has decided to choose the third option. And therefore with interference from the European Union, the United Nations and other countries, Israel, it seems that they have decided to choose this option and therefore this letter has been received just half an hour ago. That's why I came late to the meeting.

ENGEL: Fair enough. And have you responded to the Israelis? And if there is one—

SHTAYYEH: Richard. Richard. They responded to us. They responded to us. It was our initiative.

ENGEL: Last time you had relations, I would call them tactical relations, practical relations with the Israeli government like the ones that you are hoping to now resume. When was the last time this happened when you had this kind of cooperation and coordination?

SHTAYYEH: Before May 19, 2020.

ENGEL: So it's been suspended for several months now.

SHTAYYEH: Correct.

ENGEL: So this is a hopefully an encouraging step. But if I could, and we'll look more into this as I assume you're going to publish this and you'll be putting out maybe a copy of that letter. But in the larger context, you mentioned it right at the top about Arab normalization. I just want to provide a little bit of context. In the several decades that I've been covering the Middle East, there were two countries that had relations with Israel. Two Arab countries—Jordan and Egypt. And then in last several months, really, three more have joined, and maybe others might be joining now. You had the UAE and Bahrain and Sudan. And there has not been an uproar. So these countries have made, there's not been clashes, there has not been an outcry in the Arab world. It makes the Palestinians look very isolated even as the Israelis are building more settlements, even as the U.S. is acknowledging Israel's claim to Jerusalem as its capital. The Arab states are still recognizing Israel, improving their relations with Israel, and we're not seeing cries of anger on the streets across the Middle East. So do you feel that the Arab world has forgotten you? And the Arab world is moving on beyond the Palestinian cause?

SHTAYYEH: Not really, no. Richard, look, on one hand, we have seen this as a violation of Arab resolutions. We have seen this as a violation of the Arab Peace Initiative, which had been launched in 2002 in the Beirut Arab Summit. So the issue is not only with us. The issue is with the Arab institution, with the Arab League as an institution without consensus. Part of it has to do with us because it has to do with the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. But the problem with what has happened is that this is considered to be a serious violation of the Arab Peace Initiative. That is where we come from. Now, does this really put us in an awkward situation? In a way, yes. And in a way, no. What does it mean? It means that all these Arab countries—United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan—they all said that they support the Palestinian cause, they support the two-state solution, they see themselves as still committed to the Arab Peace Initiative. I don't see that, to be frank with you. I don't see that is a commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative because the Arab Peace Initiative was clear and is clear. It talks about normalization of relations with Israel under the assumption that Israel is going to withdraw its military army from the territories occupied in 1967. That includes the Golan Heights. That includes the West Bank and Gaza and so on. This has not happened.

There are, of course, some sort of calculations for each of these Arab countries. Sudan has its own problems. The United Arab Emirates, they see things differently. Bahrain as well and so on. But the rest of the Arab countries, they are still there. They're committed to this; they're committed to Palestine. Palestine will continue to be. Richard, look, regardless of who is going to normalize relations with the Israelis, Netanyahu will wake up in the morning and he will see me sitting next door to him. Therefore, without solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there will be no real genuine peace for the Palestinians and for the Israelis. If normalization is about comforting the Israelis, it does not, because the only thing that can come for the Israelis is peace with the Palestinians and not peace with Sudan, which is in Africa, or Gulf countries that are thousands of miles away. The problem is with me, I am only a few meters away from where the Israelis live. That is what Israel should ask and that is what peace means. And peace with me is not peace for peace. Peace with me is land for peace, which is the formula that has been the basis for the Madrid Conference, for the signed agreements, for all what international legality stands for.

ENGEL: So that's my question. If land for peace, which was the only old adage, the bedrock of the peace process, if Israel is taking land, not giving land, and its claims to land are being recognized and it is being rewarded with wider relations in the Arab world, is land for peace dead because Israel is getting peace from several states so far and not giving up land?

SHTAYYEH: Not at all. Not at all, because the land for peace formula is with me. Now, I am losing maybe my Arab dibs in the struggle. You're right by saying that, but not from all—Jordan, Egypt, Algeria, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, you name it. I mean, out of twenty-two Arab countries, three are out of line—that will be corrected at a certain time. What I'm saying is that the land for peace formula is still the basis for any serious genuine peace with the Palestinians. The struggle over Palestine is not with the United Arab Emirates or with Sudan or with Bahrain. The struggle is with the Palestinians. If Israel really is keen about peace in the region, I am the partner for peace. And my request is very simple: two states on the border of '67 with East Jerusalem to be the future capital of the State of Palestine and an agreed upon solution for the Palestinian refugees. This is the formula. And this is, frankly, this is a situation in which, look, if anybody really cares about Israel, that somebody should advise the Israelis that this two-state solution is the most important win-win situation which is a compromise from our side. But still look at the demographic factors—where our they driving us? Today for the first time since 1948, Richard, the Palestinians are, by 250,000, more in numbers than Israel is living between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan for the first time since 1948. So demography, if Israel does not want to stand on geography, the Israelis will be losing on demography. And they have to choose—either/or—they cannot have the cake and eat it at the same time.

ENGEL: It must feel more like you're more alone, though? It must feel like some of your Arab allies have turned their backs on you. Because these three—just look at what could happen tomorrow. There are reports that the foreign minister of Bahrain is going to be coming and meeting in Jerusalem. That kind of thing would have been unthinkable before. And now there's talk of several other countries, maybe even six countries normalizing relations. And you know the kind of foreign policy that Bahrain has. It's very close to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia hasn't ruled out taking a step toward normalization. It says it wants to see how it goes first. And so far for countries like the UAE and for Bahrain, it seems to be going pretty well. So from where you sit, and I completely understand what you're saying that the peace process has to be with you, you're the people that are living there, but does it feel more lonely where you are living right now?

SHTAYYEH: Not really. Look, all of Europe is standing for peace and justice for two states, for United Nations resolutions, all of Africa, all of Latin America. And there will be a change in the administration very soon, hoping that the new administration is standing for two states and calling for a resumption of talks on the basis of the signed agreements and land for peace formula and so on.  If there are two Arab countries that are going out of line, you have eighteen Arab countries that are still committed to the two-state solution, to '67 borders with Jerusalem as the capital, to all of these. Look, even Jordan and Egypt has had relations, one of them since 1978 and the other since 1994. What is it that Jordan is standing for—two states, Jerusalem, refugees? All these issues. The same for Egypt. So on one hand, if there are some sort of personnel calculations for each of these countries—Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, and so on—if they have their own individual interest out of line of Arab consensus, that doesn't mean that they are selling out the question of Palestine. That's what I'm saying.

ENGEL: You're hoping to have better relations with the next American administration under President-elect Biden. What specifically do you want? Of course you want him to reverse the U.S. decision of recognizing the Golan and the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. But do you expect that he's actually going to reverse these momentous decisions?

SHTAYYEH: Well, look, I mean, we're not politically blind. We know that the United States, Richard, has a strategic relationship with Israel, whether it is Democrats or Republicans. We know that. But by all means, there is a huge difference between what President Biden is saying and what President Trump has been doing. There is a huge difference. At least we have heard from close advisors to President Biden that things will be different. The administration is talking about resetting things, resetting international relations, resetting the relationship with China, resetting relationship with the Middle East. It's fine because we need somebody to reset things. For us, resetting things with the Palestinians, what we want, frankly, is a bilateral American-Palestinian relationship that is not Israeli centric because all the administrations before designed the relationship with us based on our relationship with Israel. This should not be the case. If we have a bilateral American-Palestinian relationship that is not Israeli centric, then it's a different story. This is one. Second, you need really from the Biden administration to reset things. There are things that are doable. There are things that might be difficult to do.

Let me give you an example. Opening the Palestine office in Washington, DC. It's doable, it doesn't cost anything. Reopening the American consulate in East Jerusalem. It is doable. Bringing back finances to the United Nations to the [inaudible]. It is doable. Bringing back assistance to the Palestinians. It is doable. These are things that are easy to do because they were designed to put pressure on the Palestinian leadership in order for the administration, the Trump administration, to push us, to defeat us so we surrender and accept the ultimate deal. We didn't—we are not defeated. We did not surrender. We did not accept. Now we know that when every American president goes out of office, his political ideas or initiative goes with him. So therefore, we assume that the ultimate deal will go out of the White House with outgoing President Trump, hoping that President Biden—I know, we might not be a priority, Richard. He has local priorities. He has corona. He has the economy. He has relations with neighboring countries. He has China. He has the Middle East as a whole. Maybe Palestine and Israel is not a priority. But I think if he really wants serious progress, I think President Biden is capable because he was sitting there as vice president to President Obama. And I was one of the people who negotiated things with John Kerry, President Obama, and so on. And I think there is good ground. The problem is they might not have a partner in Israel. And that might be the serious problem where the Biden administration would be stuck. So they can do a lot of things to reset the tune to redesign things in a way, one, to respect international law. To also, what is happening as you rightly said, Pompeo, Secretary Pompeo is going to visit the Psagot Jewish settlement simply because he is visiting a winery that has produced a bottle of wine named after him. If international relations are designed on a bottle of wine, to hell with international relations.

So I think that the Biden administration, for sure, will not review Jewish settlement in Palestine as legal entities because everybody knows, and international law is very clear on this issue, that these settlements are illegal under international law—are illegal. Look what John Kerry did. John Kerry said to Israeli television, to the Israelis, after forty-six rounds of talks, he said, "If you continue building settlements on the area that is supposed to be the State of Palestine, then you don't mean to reach a peaceful solution." Look what James Baker did in 1991. He took his business card, threw it on the table to Yitzhak Shamir and he told him, "Mr. Prime Minister, if you want peace, call me. This is my business card. We will not allow any funding for Israel if you continue to build settlements." So you need somebody really to make a serious paradigm shift. Let me be—

ENGEL: You think that the Biden administration is going to do that—take the decisive stances that you refer to from the past?

SHTAYYEH: I'm not sure. I'm not sure. I hope so. But I'm not sure. President Trump, by the way, and his team, they tried a serious and damaging paradigm shift because what they did is that they employed every measure of pressure against us. It didn't work. It didn't work. Now, we hope that there will be a serious, if there is a decision on the side of the American president, to really reach a solution for Palestine and Israel. It is doable because they Israeli public, I think, they also want to see a solution. The Palestinian public, the Palestinian leadership—we all want to see a solution but at least a fair and just solution and not at the expense of the Palestinian right and not like expensive Israeli security.

ENGEL: All right, so we have about two minutes, maybe just under two minutes before we're going to open this up to questions. Earlier we had at least three hundred participants so there's probably a lot of people who want to weigh in with questions. If you can, as quickly as possible, however, before we get to that, you made a very important point, a historic point, if you will, about demographics. That there is this demographic shift with many, many Palestinians living amongst the Israelis. And if they want to have peace and security and some sort of comfortable life, they're going to have to address this fact. There are many Palestinians, intellectuals and politicians who I've spoken to who think it's time not to have a two-state solution but to have a one-state solution, say we want to be part of one state in which Palestinians, as you say, have a lot of demographic strength, and have them be part of a future state. And that you can, instead of trying to fight for a state of your own, you can be part of a larger whole with it with a very strong population base. Is that even in your calculation? It is something I hear increasingly from Palestinian friends, some of whom take this issue very seriously and have spent their lives thinking about it? And then we'll open it up.

SHTAYYEH: Thank you. Thank you, Richard. That's an important question. Look, the issue for us really, the Palestinians want a solution. Two states, I am ready to live with. One state, I am ready to live with. Not only me, including our president, including the Palestinian leadership. The question is the following: Israel does not want two states and Israel does not want one state. All what the current Israeli government wants is a continuation of the status quo, which is unsustainable. Now, why is it we are for two states? For the following—there is a Palestinian consensus in two states, including Hamas, by the way. There is an Arab consensus on two states including Emirates and Bahrain and Sudan. There is a European consensus in two states. And in Israel, the Israelis are divided. The Israeli public is divided between this and that and so on. So it took us fifty years to reach this sort of Palestinian-Arab regional international consensus on two states. The Palestinian public—

ENGEL: It seems to be breaking right now—you called them three outliers—the three outliers who've jumped on this movement in the last couple of months and haven't faced a major backlash. That's what I'm saying. I think the paradigm is shifted on you already.

SHTAYYEH: Let me just continue with this. Palestinian youth, in particular, they are the ones who seem to think that two states is not any more attainable. Now, the issue for us is that you don't want to lose two states for the sake of something that's a mirage. Israel will not allow a one state because Israel will lose its demographic character as a Jewish state, and it will lose its character as a "democratic state," quote-unquote. So therefore, two states is something that is possible to do for them and for us.

Now, back to your question. What if things have not been the way we want. Today, Richard, we are living in one state because Israel controls the Palestinian territory from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea. We and Israel we are living in one state in which we are an autonomous area within the one state. Now, the problem for the Israelis, as I said, is demography. If Israel will continue with this colonization program, with this intensification of the colonization program, it is not only that Israel will lose on demography, but Israel will, first, lose its Jewish character, second, lose its quote-unquote "democratic character." And the third important issue, the question of Palestine, there will be a total comprehensive South Africanization of the Palestinian question in which Israel will be an apartheid state by de jure and by de facto. And that is where the problem is. And that is where Israel has to choose. And that is where the Israeli leadership is blind on this issue. And that is where we are serious when we say we want two states because all solutions from 1937 to the 1947 Partition Plan [Resolution] 242, to the Madrid Peace Conference, which is the land for peace formula, all solutions were based on dividing the land. Dividing the land means two states. There is no way that Israel wants one state.

I remember one important thing when Václav Havel was visiting Israel and he asked Ehud Barak and he told him, "Why don't you live with the Palestinians in one state?" Ehud Barak told him, "My mother came all the way from Europe rejecting to live with the Europeans, for sure she does not want to live with the Arabs." So therefore, Israel says they don't want to live with us. What is the question? It's a dilemma for them and for us. It's a dilemma for them. If they don't want two states. If they don't want one state. If they don't know where the borders of Israel are. If they don't consider us as human beings with legitimate rights, including the right of self-determination to live in an independent, secure, sovereign contiguous state, then what do they want? Israel has never come up with a peace plan since 1967. The Israelis had never said what they want. The Israelis had never shown anybody in the world what is the map of Israel. So the issue for us, we are very clear, Richard. We are saying we want the two states on the borders of '67 with East Jerusalem as our capital. And we are ready to share Jerusalem as one city if that is needed to be a solution. And we need an agreed upon solution for the Palestinian refugees. We are the most clear people at this table. We have been very clear, we have been consistent, and we do enjoy the international support for this solution.

ENGEL: All right, let's open it up to some questions. So Kayla, I leave it to you.

STAFF: [Gives queuing instructions.] We will take the first question from Hank Cohen.

Q: Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister, for your presentation. It was very interesting. I'm a retired U.S. Ambassador who specialized in Africa and I spent a lot of time in Sudan, which is going through a very delicate situation right now. I live in Washington, DC, very close to the former Palestinian mission, and it's still empty. So I hope you could come back under the Biden administration. But my question is, there's a historic term that we've always associated with the Palestinians, which is the "right of return." Could you clarify that for us? What is the real meaning of that?

SHTAYYEH: Kayla, do you want me to answer questions one by one or you want to take them as a package?

STAFF: One by one, please.

SHTAYYEH: One by one. Look, Mr. Cohen. They issue of right to return, the origin of this conflict, is land and people. Palestinian have been made refugees since 1948. 950,000 Palestinians were made refugees in 1948. They are still there in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, in Gaza, in the West Bank, in Egypt, Saudi Arabia—everywhere. When we speak about right of return, we speak about solving the refugee problem. Solving the refugee problem according to The Arab Peace Initiative has to be agreed upon between us and the Israelis. And we have offered Israel options and we are ready. We said Palestinians can choose to stay wherever they are with compensation if they choose to do so. Palestinians can go to a third country if they choose to do so with compensation. Palestinians can come to the State of Palestine within the borders of '67 with compensation if they choose to do so. And we and the Israelis will agree on the number of Palestinian refugees who choose to go back to their original homes. So it is with these options that we have given the Israelis.

And by the way, Mr. Cohen, with Shlomo Ben-Ami and with Ehud Barak in Camp David, this issue was discussed. And I will tell you when President Clinton asked Yasser Arafat what is the priority for you, Yasser Arafat told him the top priority for me is Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon because the Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon were denied the right to work in eight to six different jobs. A Palestinian in Lebanon cannot buy a flat even though he has been living there since 1948. A Palestinian in Lebanon cannot open a medical clinic. A Palestinian in Lebanon, an engineer, a graduate from the American University of Beirut, cannot have an engineering office, and so on and so forth. So, Clinton asked Arafat how many are there. [Arafat] said around 400,000. So President Clinton looked at Ehud Barak and he told him around 380,000 or 400,000 over fifteen years. Do you accept that? Ehud Barak stayed silent. And then later on after the collapse of Camp David with Shlomo Ben-Ami, we were discussing the issue of Palestinian refugees. So what I'm telling you, Mr. Cohen, is that we are very realistic people. If now there are eight million Palestinians who are living in diaspora, it doesn't mean that the Palestinians are calling for eight million Palestinians to influx into Haifa, Jaffa, and all the regions. We are talking about an agreed upon solution to the Palestinian refugee problem with the options open for the individual right of every single person to choose what does he want or what does she want.

STAFF: We'll take our next question from Sarah Leah Whitson.

Q: Hi. This is Sarah Leah Whitson from Democracy for the Arab World Now and my question is there was recent announcement that you would be holding elections. Is there a timetable for elections and do you agree that your legitimacy as representatives of the Palestinian people has expired since there have been no elections for so long? And also, recognizing the international consensus for a two-state solution, for recognizing that there is no path forward and that consensus is deteriorating, what is the PLO's Plan B for achieving rights for Palestinians?

SHTAYYEH: Thanks, Sarah. We have called for elections, yes. Today, actually, today, this today, today, there is a delegation from our side also talking to the Egyptians on Egypt to help us facilitate conducting and carrying the elections forward. You know, we are not the only players when it comes to elections. Hamas is in control of Gaza. Israel is in control of Jerusalem. According to the Israeli-Palestinian agreement, Palestinians have the right to run and vote for any Palestinian elections, especially for those who are living in Jerusalem. So when we call for elections, we assume that Israel will facilitate the participation of Palestinians in this election, especially those who live in Jerusalem. And of course we want this election to be a door opening for ending the split between us and Hamas on the basis of respecting international law, on the basis of the Palestine political platform, which is two states, nonviolence, and all other matters that goes.

By all means, you are right. Of course, our time has expired. We are beyond the time. But the question is, what shall we do? If Hamas is not accepting elections and if Israel is not allowing us to have elections in Jerusalem, then we are stuck. We cannot have elections for the West Bank only because it is politically suicidal. Because it means that we are accepting a new reality that Jerusalem is not part of Palestine and that Hamas is controlling Gaza and then all what we are doing is we're just simply in control over a relative tiny territory called the West Bank. So therefore, we have waited for a reconciliation to take place, it didn't, and today, yesterday and tomorrow are a crucial few days in which we are waiting for Hamas to send a letter to our president to say they are ready for elections. If Israel does not allow us to have elections in Jerusalem, there is the Palestinian election system that is about one constituency. That means proportional representation so we will find a way, either technical voting or online voting for our people in Jerusalem. We will find a technical way to allow them to participate.

Now, what is our Plan B? Look, our Plan B is always our Plan A. We only have one plan. The issue is not about Plan A or plan B. We are calling for our right to self-determination. There is no compromise on Plan A or plan B. Maybe tactical, yes. But our strategy is very clear, we want two states through peaceful means. On the negotiating table, we are ready for three things. One, an international conference on the basis of international law under the auspices of the Quartet. We are ready for that. If President Biden is ready for this, we will be more than happy to attend. Second option—we and the Israelis are ready to resume talks starting tomorrow if Israel is ready for resuming these talks from where they ended in 2014. And what was the agenda of these talks—Jerusalem, refugees, borders, security and water. The third, as I said earlier in the initial remarks to Richard, is that the moment Israel is ready to respect the agreements, we are ready to engage. Very simple. Now Israel said that they are ready to respect the agreements, we can engage with them.

But for us engaging has four directions—political, security, economic and financial, and legal. So we will sit down with the Israelis and see where things are going. As I said, Sarah, the two-state solution is the only option for both of us because the rest of it is a disaster for us and for the Israelis. It is not sustainable for them. It is not sustainable for us. Today, there are 750,000 Jewish settlers who are living in the West Bank, including Jerusalem. They make 25 percent of the total population. Tomorrow it will be too late when it comes to demography and land expropriation. So therefore, our option is two states. That's our option A, that's our option B. On tactical, how do we achieve this? We are committed to direct negotiations or we are ready for an international conference. So this is where we stand on these issues.

STAFF: We'll take the next question from Sander Gerber.

Q: Hi, thank you, Mr. Prime Minister. As part of taking care of the Palestinian people, the PA law gives $350 million a year to prisoners and families of martyrs. Now Israel calls them terrorists, the PA calls them favored sons, these payments are calibrated by action against Israel. They're not based upon financial need. So my question to you is regardless whether they are favored sons or terrorists, do these payments to prisoners and martyrs reward and encourage violence against Israel? Thank you.

SHTAYYEH: Thanks, Mr. Gerber for the question. Look, my dear friend, Yigal Amir, who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, is getting social pension from the State of Israel. The man in Norway who killed seventy-six people is getting a social pension from the Norwegian government. We are responsible people. Look, put yourself in our shoes. What do you do? What do you do with orphans? You know, what you call terrorists, whatever you want to call them, they have kids. The kids of a killed man, whoever he is or she is, his kids are called orphans. They lost their father. What do you do with kids? Either you take care of them and give them good education and let them be part of the mosaic of the society or leave them victims to radicals—leave them victims to Hamas and the Iranians and so on and so forth. Second, what do you do with a family that the father has been arrested because he did something harming the Israeli security, and all of a sudden, the family's house is destroyed by the Israeli army and the whole family, in a collective punishment, become homeless? What do you do with them? You give them some money to rent a house, you give them some money to buy furniture, you give them some money to take care of their kids and so on. What do you do with the family of a person who is in jail serving a life sentence? What do you do with a family of a person who is serving for fifteen years? What do you do with them? You don't give them any assistance? We are giving people assistance. We are not encouraging people to kill more Israelis.

Let me, Mr. Gerber, tell you one important thing. I looked at the data. Ask the Israelis how many Palestinians who were in jail and have been released after they served their sentence, how many of them reengaged in violence against the Israelis? You know how many Palestinians have been in Israeli prisons since 1967—one million people. One million Palestinians have been put in jail at various times since 1967. What do you do with these people? We are helping people. We are taking care of the education of their kids. We are taking care of the health of their kids. When this man, he or she, when this man is out of jail and instead of him reengaging in violence, we rent a house for him. We help him get married. We help him to settle. You should thank us for doing that. Ask the Israeli security.

I will tell you one important thing, Mr. Gerber. We pay 2.6 million shekels every month for the canteen of these Palestinian prisoners in the Israeli prisons. Two months ago, we didn't pay this canteen. You know who called us? Who called me asking me please pay the canteen? The Israeli military governor of the West Bank. They are telling us to pay because this is part of their security arrangement. So therefore, don't look at this issue of paying prisoners and martyrs if Israel is ready to stop collective punishment. If the person who is put in jail, all his family, they are not allowed to travel. Their house is destroyed. His kids are not going to go anywhere. What do you do with that? In the United States, you are the model of democracy in the world, hoping for this election to be settled very soon in a democratic way. What do you do with somebody who is in jail? What do you do with his family? What do you do with his family? You tell me. I need your advice. Really. Tell us, what shall we do with these people? What do we do with the person whose father is killed? What do we do with the wife, the widow, who is unemployed? What do you do with his kids? Tell us, really, advise us. If we are doing it wrong, advise us. One thing I want to assure you—

Q: Well, Mr. Prime Minister, these payments are not based upon financial need. They are only based upon action.

SHTAYYEH: My dear friend, let me know tell you, we are paying this to help these people sustain a dignified life. If I am paying this money to encourage violence against Israel, how many cases—look, we stopped security coordination since May 19 until today. How many Israelis have been hurt or wounded and so on and so forth? Look at the record. Don't look at what the Israeli propaganda is telling you. Look at the record. Look at the facts. Look at the statistics. Look, I am sure you are a scientific man. Look at the figures. I am here to make sure that things are peaceful. And we are, I assure you, that if there is any, you know, any article in the prisoners' law that needs to be changed, we will do it. We will change it. Because I don't want anybody to misunderstand us. All what we do is we are here to help people—orphan kids, families, and so on. If Israel is ready to stop collective punishment on these people, it's a different story.

ENGEL: All this is wonderful. We have only seven minutes left, however, so Mr. Prime Minister please keep that perhaps in mind so we could try and get a couple of questions in the final seven minutes and then I have one final question before we go. So back to you, Kayla, and thank you very much.

STAFF: Thank you. We'll take the next question from Kip Ward.

Q: Good afternoon, Mr. Prime Minister. I'm William Ward, former U.S. security coordinator to Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 2005.

SHTAYYEH: I know you. Good to see.

Q: One of the things that you just alluded to is this notion of security. We know that some of the foundational requirements to resolving the guarantees to the security situation is in fact that notion of security. When I was there, obviously working to promote what we call competence building, what steps do you see today are critical with respect to promoting these confidence building measures regarding security that are necessary to bring about confidence on the part of both parties that clearly would underwrite further progress? Thank you, sir.

SHTAYYEH: Thank you, General. I mean, I'm happy to hear that you're there. And I'm happy to hear that you are listening. My dear friend, you worked hard on this issue. We all appreciated your contribution. You know very well the problems. But let me tell you one important thing. Referring to CBMs—confidence building measures—when it comes to security. You know, General, very well, that security cannot be maintained only by security measures. Economic development is an important contribution to security. Inciting statements are very important to security. Removing checkpoints from the Palestinian Authority so people will move freely within the Palestinian territory is important. Access and movement is important. Not to humiliating people at the checkpoints is important. These are not confiscating people's land that are the only source of livelihood for them, you know, when you see settlers cutting olive trees that are hundreds of years old and these olive trees are the only source of income for quite a number of peasants and farmers, that is a contribution to security. So therefore, in the case of this conflict, there is no way that you can have only security measures. You will need to handle the security within the psychological, economic, confidence building measures—altogether they contribute to security. One major issue for us that I will answer directly to you, General, is the issue of settlements. Settlements, settlements, settlements is a crucial, important element in the confidence building measures. Israel has to stop construction settlements illegally and illegitimately on our territory. They are the inflaming the tensions. They are the source of violence between the settlers and our people. And they are the source of violence because the Israeli army is protecting the settlers and therefore clashes are continuing every day. Settlers, settlements, settlements, settlements is an important confidence building measure between us and the Israelis.

Q: Thank you, sir.

STAFF: We'll take our next question from Christina Davis.

Q: Hello, thank you for fascinating remarks. My name is Christina Davis. I'm a professor of government at Harvard University. As Palestine has sought recognition from the international community and benefits for its people, it has joined international organizations, with access to become a member of UNESCO and the International Criminal Court. But it remains a participant in many other organizations—the United Nations and the World Health Organization. Do you believe now in the midst of the COVID pandemic it is important for Palestine to become a full member of the World Health Organization? And is this a priority for your government?

SHTAYYEH: Thanks very much, Christina. Well look, you know, when we applied for membership for ICC, we were punished. When we applied to get membership in UNESCO, we were punished. The United States has withdrawn its funding for UNESCO. When we applied for ICC, we were also punished by Israel to stop sending our taxes to our government and the United States has threatened us to cut funding and so on. We did not invent ICC. We did not invent UNESCO. We did not invent the United Nations. These are standing multilateral organizations, we found them there and we applied to them to be a member. Why is it that we are banished because we applied for this organization or that? Today, the whole world is facing serious problems—the pandemic, coronavirus, and so on. By the way, we are receiving assistance from WHO. There is a WHO office here in Palestine, we are coordinating with them on a daily basis. Now that the United States has decided to withdraw, I am happy that President Biden is going to go back to WHO, I think is important. But it is our right to continue our approach and membership with these organizations. We will decide on the time, when and how to approach all of them.

ENGEL: And that brings me to my final question. Thank you for this very interesting discussion. Thank you all for the questions. And my last question before we let you get back to your very important work is related to COVID. You held up a piece of paper earlier on, a paper that was so important you had to delay this this conversation. That is an agreement that allows for practical contacts with Israel that had been suspended for a number of months. As we enter into, hopefully, a new phase of this pandemic when vaccines are going to be rolling out, are you going to cooperate with Israel? Are we going to see an image of Israelis and Palestinians working together, opening checkpoints, handing out vaccines? Could this be a moment? You said, yes. Could you give us a little more?

SHTAYYEH: Yes, the answer is yes. Look, Richard, let me make your day. Look, there is no way that checkpoints can prevent viruses. Checkpoints cannot prevent viruses spreading viruses. Walls that Israel is constructing does not prevent viruses. Because there are 750,000 Jewish settlers who live in the Palestinian territory. There are 200,000 Palestinian workers who commute to Israel. There are 1.9 million Palestinians who are living in Haifa, Jaffa, Nazareth, and so on. And these people have relatives in the West Bank. Our life is so interconnected between us and the Israelis and there is no way that we can fight viruses by ourselves only. I will tell you one important thing. We have recorded a successful story in our fighting this coronavirus between March 5 until June 1. Why? Because Israel has allowed our police to be stationed on the borders of '67. Our police was there regulating the flow of workers into the Israeli labor market, regulating the entry to Palestine, regulating exits on the borders with Jordan and with Egypt and so on.

When the ultimate deal was announced, and Israel intended to annex the Palestinian territory, we decided to freeze our relationship with Israel and therefore immediately the Israelis have pushed us out of the borders and we lost control. Now we need the coordination on vaccines, on fighting corona, on regulating the movement of labor and so on and so forth—that is needed. I hope that we don't limit our relationship on coronavirus but also get rid of all other “coronas,” including the colonization programs, including occupation, including having Palestinians to enjoy a moment of truth, a moment of freedom. The Palestinians deserve to live in a state. Palestinians have contributed tremendously to the development of the region. There are a successful stories wherever they are. We have been denied access to the Mediterranean Sea. We have been denied access to the Dead Sea. We have no place to go to. We have no place to take our kids for vacation. We are stuck between checkpoints. We are stuck between walls. We are living in very difficult conditions. We don't have access to 62 percent of our territory that's called Area C. The Palestinians are the highest educated people in the region. They have managed to build other people's home. It is time to build their own state. And I hope that the prime minister of Israel is ready to stand up and say he is ready to end occupation that has occurred in Palestine on 6/19/67. We are hopeful that the new Biden administration will take things to a totally different direction. And we are hopeful that you, the people who believe in two states, in peace and justice for all the region, to continue standing with us to achieve this holy goal for peace and justice for the Palestinians, for the Israelis, for the region, even though there is a new dynamic in the whole political arena and the Middle East, but I am sure things are not stagnant. We will move into a better tomorrow. I hope so.

ENGEL: All right. Thank you very much. And I appreciate that. I think we all enjoyed a very lively and interesting conversation. Thank you.

SHTAYYEH: Thank you, Richard, for sharing this.


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