The S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for a dinner and discussion on Monday, September 23, 2013, with over 50 top leaders of the American Jewish community and former American administration officials. The dinner, hosted by Center founder and chairman Dan Abraham and Center president Congressman Robert Wexler at the Plaza Hotel, was organized at the request of Abbas.
Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I am Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Mazen, President of the observer Palestinian state. I am 78 years old. I hope that I will see peace prevailing in the Middle East between us and the Israelis; I hope it will come soon. I am honored once again to be with the leaders of the American Jewish community. On July 30 we resumed negotiations on all core issues. This would not have happened without the active and constructive efforts made by President Obama and Secretary Kerry. The US will be a full partner in these negotiations. We will address all permanent status issues – Jerusalem, borders, settlements, refugees, security and prisoners. In the period of the next six to nine months we seek a comprehensive agreement including an end of claims and end of conflict. In exchange for Israel’s commitment to release 104 prisoners pre-1993, I committed not to make accession to any of the UN agencies and conventions during the 6-9 month period. We also agreed to continue fulfilling our security obligations and we will shoulder all commitments emanating from agreements signed – the road map and Arab Peace Initiative of 2002.
It should be noted that if Israel withdraws from territories occupied in 1967, 57 Arab and Muslim nations will normalize relations with Israel. Ladies and gentlemen, we want to achieve a lasting, just and comprehensive peace. We can do it. Make no mistake, no one gains more from reaching an agreement than Palestinians and no one loses more if we fail to reach an agreement. Failure is not an option. … Concerning reconciliation between the West Bank and Gaza, we will do it when Hamas accepts to go to elections – presidential and legislative. Reconciliation will not be a burden on negotiations. There is no contradiction at all between reconciliation and negotiations. Meanwhile we will continue with our institution building for the state of Palestine. I reiterate to you that the state of Palestine will be an example of democracy, human rights, women’s rights, accountability, transparency and the rule of law. On the changes in the Arab world – democracy and peace are essential. We are taking a neutral position toward Syria, Lebanon Egypt and elsewhere. We don’t interfere. …
We need your support to ensure the successful conclusion of the peace negotiations so that the state of Palestine can live side by side with the state of Israel in peace and security on the 67 borders. I urge the Israeli government to focus on building peace and not building settlements. It’s time to achieve peace in the Holy Land. It’s time for Jews, Christians and Muslims to show the similarities of the greatness of these three faiths. It is time to replace hatred, conflict, bloodshed and incitement with cooperation, building together and realizing the potential of Israelis and Palestinians in times of peace. As I said in the beginning, I am 78 years old.
You mean 78 years young.
That’s right Danny.
In trying to achieve an historical agreement with Israel that will end the conflict and end all claims I am not doing Israel a favor, I am doing it as a cardinal interest for my people. I hope and pray that Israeli leaders will act in the same way. I cannot discuss the detail of the negotiations. John Kerry is the only one who can speak about the negotiations. This is a part of the agreement and we will honor it. Thank you very much.
President Abbas, thank you very much for your comments and hard work in pursing this difficult path. I admire what you are trying to do and it is my honor to be here this evening. And Danny, thank you so much for your endless efforts on behalf of peace.
This is an important group to have a discussion with you. Everybody here stated their desire for peace. … I have to ask you a difficult question – we are all anxious to hear your thoughts on what just happened, in terms of the shooting of the Israeli soldiers. … I wanted to ask you if you can explain what happened and what can be done.
The shooting that took place a few days ago was in Hebron, in Area C but all in all any killing, any terror action, we condemn it by all means. We don’t want to provoke the situation … we don’t want anyone to be killed or injured or to be harmed. We are creating a culture of peace, we are working for it, day by night, because at the end we have to reach peace. What took place there is condemned by the Palestinian Authority. I hope that when something happens against the Palestinians it will also be condemned, Two weeks ago four young people were killed by the Israeli army near Jerusalem. No one said anything. My colleagues came to me and said we should stop negotiations. I said no, we will not interrupt our talks with the Israelis. We condemn by all means all kinds of actions, against civilian people, against anyone. About the economy, you know we have two tracks – the first is political and the second is economic. Mr. Kerry is working very hard to put the economic package on the table and to implement it as soon as he can. I know he is pushing it by all means. We will see the results. He is eager to achieve not only on political issues but on economic as well.
President Abbas, it’s very good to see you again. I have an observation and a question – we have all been saying for so long that this is the last chance for a two state solution. It has become a tired cliché. Buy I must say it is beyond my capacity to figure out how we can conceivably move in that direction of this enterprise fails. My first point is you carry with you our respect and our hope that this will succeed because I do believe this is our last chance. Number two, I don’t think the regional strategic situation has ever been better for peace, for either the Palestinians or Israelis. For the Palestinians, you have a supportive government in Egypt, Hamas is weakened. For Israel, Hamas is weakened, Hizbullah is tied down, Syria may implode but it is certainly not now a threat to Israel and Iran, I have always believed that if Israel made peace with the Palestinians it would strengthen its hand with Iran. This is the best situation that has existed for peace in many years. I hope that will be taken into account. In addition, the Gulf Arabs are aligned with both Israel and Palestine on many of these issues. My last point, it’s extremely important that both you and Prime Minister Netanyahu reach out to the people of the other side. Here in NY this week you have a real opportunity to do that in your speech at UNGA, to reach out to the Israeli people and make clear that you are the statesman that you are and that you are a partner for peace. I think that would be a real step forward.
You will listen to my speech the day after tomorrow. I used to meet with the leaders of Israel and the Jewish community, in Palestine, almost every week I receive a delegation from Israel to talk about peace. I want to convey my real message to the Israelis so they know exactly what is the position of the Palestinian leaders.
About my speech to the UN, it will be addressed to the Palestinian people and the Israeli people at the same time. When we talk we have one language. When we talk to the Israelis or Palestinians we say we want peace with Israel. I have a position, every other day they come to the street to deplore me for negotiating with the Israelis but it doesn’t matter. I believe that it may be the last chance. Maybe, who knows. We want to achieve piece within this period and we can do it with Mr. Netanyahu. It is not impossible. We are working very hard with the American administration. They are very serious and sincere in achieving peace. I spoke about the culture of peace. In the second intifada everything was destroyed. After that we worked very hard to change the atmosphere, to change the culture of the people. We don’t want anymore intifada. But if they want to protest peacefully in the street it’s their right to do so. But not with weapons. I can claim that maybe 80% of the people in the West Bank and Gaza are for peace. We want to take this opportunity now … around us there are revolutions. If we do it now it is a huge opportunity to make peace.
My question is directed more toward the Americans at the table. No one missed the fact that our government is polarized. What President Obama wants to do the other party doesn’t want to do. I personally suggested that John Kerry be nominated for sainthood, I’m not sure that religious allusion fits anywere in this table … my point is that this is the time. My question is, what can the Americans at this table do to strengthen the hand that John Kerry has, to help both sides make the peace that is in the interests of both sides?
The Americans are helping us … we are proud of our security apparatus. America is helping us with economic projects. They are helping us implement these projects in our territories.
We have issues we need to put on the table like we did before. We are ready for practical solutions. I cannot talk about the details, only Mr. Kerry. But we are ready to do everything in order to achieve peace.
I’m glad you mentioned the textbook study. It represents progress in a difficult area … I would point out that the study also showed many problems that neither countries’ textbooks showed positive images of people on the other side. In Palestinian textbooks Israel is not present and in too few Israeli textbooks Palestine isn’t mentioned … on Syria, this is a crisis situation that threatens to spill out beyond its borders to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and other countries. How do you see the impact of this on the peace negotiations?
Concerning the incitement, we used to ask that we have a trilateral committee formed in 2000 – we want this committee to be revived. The situation in Syria is very critical. From the beginning we told everyone we don’t want to interfere … the first thing we suggested to President Assad is that he can deal with people in a different way … the only solution for Syria is Geneva II. And they have a proposal for Geneva II, accepted by the regime, accepted by 90% of the opposition. They can unite the opposition. Russia accepted the proposal. It is the only way to save Syria. Otherwise Syria will be divided to four or five states. The civil war will take place in Syria for decades. Either they go to Geneva II or the alternative is splits and separation. It reflects on Lebanon. We have 1 million Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria. From the very beginning I told my people to stay away from the conflict – neither support for the regime or the opposition … I hope they can make up their minds and decide that there is no other solution but Geneva II.
Thank you for your words of optimism. Notwithstanding the rather heroic efforts of our Secretary of State and our President to simulate these negotiations, there is still tremendous pessimism and cynicism in this resulting in an agreement. I think what you heard from former Secretary of State Albright and former national security advisor Berger, and others, the importance of this week at the UN of dispelling this sense of pessimism and cynicism.
The question I have is this – You have been pursuing this peace process throughout your life. If you were to offer as an analysis one or two factors that have impeded the progress that we know that you want and that PM Netanyahu says that he wants, what would you indentify as the one or two critical obstacles, whether they are in the negotiations or in the psychology surrounding the negotiations.
About optimism and pessimism, It is not my job alone to remove pessimism. I can talk but talking is not enough. We have to work, not me alone, but also Mr. Netanyahu and others. Second, I cannot say this point or that point were the obstacle. I gave you an example of when we negotiated for 8 months with Mr. Olmert we were 90% close to the solution. Because we handled all the core issues. There were understandings about all the core issues except some detail here and there that we could have solved. From that time until now when we talk about settlement activity … in spite of it we went to negotiations. We are against settlement activity as a whole but if we say either he stops it or we won’t go we will never go. I told Secretary Kerry to keep it aside. Let us talk about one item. Are we negotiating on 67 borders or not? He said yes it’s ok. Let us go ahead. Now we are working on that. The estimation of the talks I cannot talk about. The only man who can talk about what’s happening for the past month and a half is only Mr. Kerry.
Do you agree with Sandy, that this is a good time for these negotiations to go forward?
And the second question – you said you were insisting on a settlement freeze before and now you’re saying let’s go forward with a settlement freeze. Was there something that made you make that decision? That was always a line you weren’t willing to cross. I think you decided we will not make that a precondition for negotiations. What made you make that decision?
… We believe that settlements are illegal. We have our territories on the 67 border and everything that is built there from our point of view is illegal. But either we stick to this point and say we are not going to negotiations unless they stop the settlements everywhere … some people lost their hope of the two state solution. Why? Because they see settlements everywhere. Everywhere. I’m afraid that tomorrow morning I’ll come to the muqata and find an outpost in my muqata. Many people, especially the young generation, which is very dangerous, our looking for some other solution. One of them is my son. I tell them all the time – we are committed to the two state solution, to live side by side with Israel in peace and security. That is our policy. We will not change our policy. If I didn’t ask two months ago, Mr. Kerry please either stop settlements or I will not go – it was difficult. I put it on my shoulder. Everyone attacked me. From Saeb to others. All the leadership. We have one condition to stop settlement activity. I said we will talk about it in the future. Let us move forward, otherwise we will wait for decades and we will not get a Palestinian state.
To your second question, we are working with the Arabs. I wanted to see the Arab follow up committee. They met with me, 18 countries, they said we are with you. We have to take advantage to go ahead with peace because maybe peace will help them contain what is going on in their countries.
If only the people at this table were responsible for making peace I think we would have peace. Virtually everyone here is opposed to Israel’s settlement policy and wishes it would end. …
My question is this – Bill Clinton once said to me in a conversation, the real problems is, dammit Israel is a democracy and the PA is a democracy. Therefore before you make peace both sides have to persuade their constituents. And sometimes good things produce bad results. Let me give you an example. Many of us in this room were very active in bringing a million Soviet Jews to Israel. That was a great thing but it produced an extreme right wing in Israel which made peace more difficult. My question to you is how do you and we together work to persuade the constituencies on both sides that are opposed to the two state solution that it is in their interest to bring about a two state solution. How can we use democracy to help us rather than serve as a barrier to peace?
We need to make them understand the benefit of peace but I can assure you that polls show that 70% from both sides are for peace. If you ask someone from Hamas of course he opposes peace but more than 70% of people in Gaza are for peace with Israel. The same in the West Bank and the same in Israel. We leaders need to convince ourselves that peace is our choice and to sign an agreement and go to a referendum. Either they accept or they reject.
I wanted to follow up on what you said moments ago, that your son had questions about the two state solution. Can you tell me as a father, what do you say to your son about why as a Palestinian a one state solution is not something you think is best for Palestinians. We Jews speak a lot about why we think that would be problematic for Israel. And I’d really like to know why you think it’s a problem for Palestinians.
My son’s argument is that Israel doesn’t stop building settlements. He says, “We don’t have land to build our state on.” I tell him, this is not the end of the game, we have to wait and work with them. At the end we’ll have our land for our state. Now I don’t want to be an Israeli citizen. I want to be Palestinian in my state, but I want to live with Israel on the other side. That’s why I want a two state solution. By the way, from 1988, it was the first time that the PNC took a very brave and courageous decision that we want a two state solution on 67 borders. From that time I didn’t change my conviction. I believe till now that this is convenient for me and for the Israelis, to live in two states, not one state. My son was not convinced that it’s the best solution for him to live in one state but he sees everyday that they are building everywhere. Really, it’s awful. Why are you building a near Ramallah, 1.5 kilometer? To convince me you can keep it? Peace is more precious than settlements.
Thank you Mr. President for your honesty. I’m very moved by your talk about the next generation. I have a 25 year old, Gabriella. I spoke with her today and told her I was coming to this dinner … she asked me why I go to these dinners. I told her I really believe in a two state solution. I asked her what question should I ask? She said this – ask really respectfully why should she, the next generation, have any hope. But not policy, tell a story. Any story. Because my generation, she said, we don’t think about principles, about abstract ideas, we think about stories. Tell me any story that I can tell her that will give her any hope.
I have 8 grandchildren. Six of them attended the Seeds of Peace camp. One of them told me he will go again and again and again. They built good relations with Israelis. Until now they have these relations. How can we change the culture … if you ask me this question during the intifada I didn’t have an answer. Hatred, guns, killing destroyed everything. Now I can say we have something to talk about. When we talk about living side by side many people listen. I send my grandchildren every year, they go there to talk and build good relations.
Rabbi Marc Schnier:
Mr. President, it’s wonderful to see you. I want to explore a comment you made – when you said you’re working closely with the other Arab countries. Several months ago in Washington the PM of Qatar who was accompanied by leaders from Saudi Arabia, UAE, spoke about land swaps in terms of arriving at a viable solution, getting back to pre-67 borders. Is there any territory or land that you would see to be excluded from this concept of land swaps and in particular, Jerusalem is a very highly emotionally charged issue, particularly for the Jewish people. Would any parts of Jerusalem be excluded from the concept of land swaps or is Jerusalem off the table?
East Jerusalem is from our point of view an occupied territory. We are not asking to re-divide Jerusalem. Jerusalem will be an open city. They can come and go freely. There will be a municipality here and there and a coordinating body.
Abby Joseph Cohen:
Mr. President, we’ve had some very interesting comments this evening about policy and politics. I’d like to take it down to a very pragmatic level of business and commerce. In an ultimate two state solution one would think there could be good commercial and economic relationship between Palestine and Israel … can you give us some sense of what your vision would be in terms of building those strong and friendly relationships.
We know that Israel is a very strong country and we are very weak. I heard something from Mr. Shimon Peres more than 15 years ago. He said if your neighbor is weak you have to help him as much as you can to get him out of the weakness. This is the only way to be neighbors and live in peace. I don’t think the Israelis need to be convinced that the two state solution is good for them. All the polls – I didn’t see that 10% of Israelis are in favor of one state solution. They don’t want to occupy another nation. As the Israelis believe in peace and a two state solution and we believe. What else? What are we in need for? To sit together in good faith and find solutions. I know it is very difficult. There are obstacles but we have to find solutions and creative ideas.
I apologize for coming in late. I was anchoring my show. Mr. President, I want you to know, I’m Wolf Blitzer and you’re in the Sitaution Room. I hope someday you will be in my situation room. It would be good to have you on CNN at some point so you can explain what’s going on. The basic question I have – is there still hope that there can be a peace treaty between the Israelis and Palestinians?
Some people ask me if I’m optimistic or pessimistic. I say I have hope. I still have hope. Believe me if I didn’t have hope you wouldn’t see me here. If I have no hope I will leave. Do you remember Oslo? We spent 8 months, the last night we solved about 7 problems on the phone and the next day we initialed the agreement. We have to keep hope for our people. If we lose hope no one knows what will happen.