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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Ashrawi says Obama's policies indicate he wants to engage the Palestinians

Hanan Ashrawi, the prominent Palestinian politician, is cautiously optimistic about the impact Barack Obama, the US president-elect, and his administration will have on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

Al Jazeera attended a breakfast round-table with Ashrawi while she was visiting Doha, the capital of Qatar.

Below are her responses to the questions that were put to her.

Question: With the new US administration coming in and Hillary Clinton being appointed as US secretary of state, in your view are we likely to see a similar stance from her towards the Middle East peace process as there was under Bill Clinton's administration?

Hanan Ashrawi: First of all, we must not personalise issues. I don't think it is a matter of individuals. It's a matter, first of all, of the team as a whole and their policies. Obama's policies certainly indicate that he wants to engage. He doesn't want to postpone things until the end as [Bill] Clinton and Bush did. And secondly, he's marking a departure from the Bush administration, which was disastrous for everybody.

Now having said that, I must caution against any type of unrealistic optimism. There are constants in Amercian policy - such as the strategic alliance between the US and Israel - that are not going to be changed by individuals.

Individuals change their own positions and their own policies to serve their own interests and their own careers. Hillary Clinton was outspoken about Palestinian rights when she was First Lady, but when she ran for office in the Senate for New York she did a 180 degree turn and became not just totally supportive of Israel, but of the extreme right in Israel and hostile to Palestinians.

Later on, as she ran for the Democratic party's nomination, she gave a speech to Aipac [the Israeli lobby in the US] that could have been written by [Benjamin] Netanyahu [leader of the conservative Likud party]. Then afterwards she said that she's committed to peace and a two state solution.

The question is how is the whole team going to shape American foreign policy - what are the constants and what are their values? How do they define what is in Israeli interests?

This is a team that included Jim Jones [Barack Obama's nominee for national security adviser] who knows the realities on the ground; and Hillary Clinton who also is aware of what's happening; and Barack Obama who doesn't need to be educated and who expressed a willingness to engage. What type of engagement, we shall see.

We have to engage also -as Palestinians and Arabs - the new administration in a serious dialogue; a serious discourse about the mistakes of the past; about what is required and about the sense of urgency now that has to dominate. You cannot put the Palestinian question on the back burner. You cannot leave a political vacuum. You have to move rapidly and you have to set limits and constraints on Israeli behaviour.

Q: The Arab peace initiative was re-proposed in 2007, what do you think it will take for that initiative to be successful?

A: I think it takes a political will on the part of the Arabs who adopted this initiative to translate it into a workable process. If it remains just verbal and an initiative that moves from one document to the other and does not see concrete steps on the ground, then it's not going to be anything except one more initiative and one more document.

It should be seen for what it is - a unique historical opportunity for a solution. If they don't see it as such - if they waste it - then everybody is going to pay the price. The Palestinians foremost. So, the Arab initiative needs to be the blueprint. It's a simple one and sometimes there is virtue in simplicity.

Q: What will the Israeli elections in February mean for the peace process?

A: It's the right-wing that's on the ascendence. It's the more hardline policies that are emerging now. Very clearly Tzipi Livni [the leader of the Kadima party] is tempering her own previous public declarations about peace. Creating new red lines. The refugees - of course she's always been dead set against the right of return. Talking about peace 'in the future', talking about Jerusalem in more hardline terms. She is competing on a hardline basis.

And she is criticising Ehud Olmert [the Israeli prime minister, who stepped down as Kadima leader] for making conciliatory statements. As he is in a lame duck situation, and as he is leaving, he's trying to break a few taboos and talk about sharing Jerusalem and returning the land and saying that 'if he had time' and 'if he had stayed' then he would have done all these things.

But right now the Israeli public is moving to the right.

There are all sorts of issues - not just the Palestinian issue. The weakness of Kadima, corruption. There are domestic issues, the economy and so on. So they will make another mistake again by electing [Benjamin] Netanyahu, [leader of the Labour party]. Well, of course, you can never be certain about Israeli politics, the only thing that is certain is its unpredictability.

Q: Hamas has said it won't recognise the legitimacy of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian president after January 9th. What kind of scenarios do you see unfolding in the new year?

A: I think there's lots of talk. If they don't recognise the legitimacy of the presidency - the same way they don't recognise the legitimacy of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation] - this will further enhance the division.

I think we should have a more constructive positive attitude. We should work together and go to a serious dialogue, a substantive dialogue, on the causes of this rift with seriousness of intent, goodwill and co-operation to resolve not only as a matter of show but as a matter of undoing a lot of the damage that was done.

Q: So how can that divide between Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank be bridged?

I think there's a problem because there's a power struggle. The sharing of the spoils of power.

We have to repair the Palestinian democracy and we have to create a system where differences can be resolved in a democratic, pluralistic, inclusive system. Not by divisions and not by talking power but by understanding that Palestinian democracy means that we have peaceful means to resolve our differences.

We need to have a critical dialogue. I like the Egyptian initiative [to reconcile Hamas and Fatah], and before it the Yemeni initiative. It's important the Arabs play a constructive role and really embrace the Palestinians and move to help us resolve our differences.

We've always said we need to unite the West Bank and Gaza - not geographically, except through the corridor - but unite them institutionally, unite them administratively, unite them legally and politically through a common political system.

Of course we are one people, but if the division remains we are in danger of having a serious risk that will create two separate systems that in the future will become irreconcilable. Right now they are reconcilable and we must work on that.

Q: Can we count on you running in any upcoming election?

A: No. I've decided I'm not running. What you can count on me doing is supporting young women, young leaders, the new generation to run for office.

We need the young. People my age should know how to step aside and how to provide a system of support and solidarity for the new leaders. We have a disastrous situation of a leadership that doesn't know the meaning of a graceful exit, but I see lots of hope in the younger generation.
Source : Al Jazeera

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