RAMALLAH – Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has a lot working against him: He’s 82 years old; is serving the 10th year of a four-year term; and struggles under severe economic distress and an approval rating that is barely visible. On Sunday evening, President Abbas delivered a two-hour invective in which he attacked Israeli leaders, President Trump and other American officials, while offering a revisionist history that left jaws dropping.
With each day, the discussion of who will succeed Abbas becomes increasingly urgent. The Media Line spoke with one of those whose name is frequently mentioned for that position. Ahmed Majdalani is a leading Palestinian politician, former minister and professor of political economics. This exclusive interview was conducted by Felice Friedson for The Media Line prior to the Abbas speech:
The Media Line: Mr. Madjalani, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was asked whether he believed the cash-crunch and worsening situation could cause the Palestinian Authority to collapse. He said no. You have a strong background in economics: how does the PA sustain itself?
Majdalani: The Palestinian Authority (PA) does not depend on Israel, and does not need what Netanyahu claims, that they protect the PA and provide us with everything. The trade balance between Palestine and Israel increases by four billion dollars yearly. The Palestinian GDP increases by 12 billion dollars each year. The Palestinian economy, despite the occupation, is progressing and developing, but the Israeli restrictions on it is obstructing its growth.
We do not forget that we are under occupation; we know that the occupation controls all of the natural sources. We recognize that the occupation forms the main obstacle to the Palestinian economic and social growth. What we see in Palestine is an apartheid system, and it is even worse than South Africa.
TML: You are known for your efforts to strengthen democratic institutions and to facilitate elections. Can there be a viable statehood without either of those two goals?
Majdalani: Absolutely not. Any democratic, civil and secular system in a country requires a democratic process and elections.
TML: With the drive-by killing of a Jewish Israeli last week, the debate over the American Taylor Force act has been re-ignited. [A bill that has passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate that bans US aid if the PA pays stipends to prisoners and those who committed violent acts. – Ed.] If the United States funding is cut-off because the PA pays stipends to those caught or killed while performing violent acts, can the PA absorb the loss?
Majdalani: First, let’s go back to the roots of the problem. The base is the occupation, what is most important, and before we ask who killed the settler, let’s ask what is the settler doing in the occupied West Bank? Second, the settler was killed in Area “C” [Portion of the West Bank designated by the 1993 Oslo Accords for both Israeli administrative and security control. – Ed.] If what is required from the PA is to protect settlers, well, that is not part of its duties. Taylor also was killed in Israel, not in the West Bank. His death was a result of the Israeli violence in the area. The PA can’t hire a security-person for each Palestinian to control their way of thinking and actions. Therefore, the American procedure is a punishment and that is unacceptable, it’s a form of political black-mailing. In addition, we pay expenses for the families of martyrs. In the past ten years, Israel initiated three attacks against Palestinians in the Gaza strip, thousands were killed, and we [PA] take the social responsibility for the families of these martyrs. All of these who were killed in Gaza are terrorists? All of these who are killed by the IDF are terrorists? I believe the concept is reversed. I will speak very clearly: the principle of political blackmailing is unacceptable, even if the US stops all aid. By the way, the American aid comes through the USAID agency, and half of the aid goes back to the US, to their [Americans] directors, experts from abroad and consultant agencies. They spend the money on themselves.
TML: How do you explain the stipend policy to those who have heard men who carried out the acts say they did it so their families would have an income?
Majdalani: This is an Israeli claim and I doubt it is true. It’s humiliating to the Palestinian cause and it minimizes the Palestinian resistance efforts. I don’t think any person is willing to put his/her life in danger for money, this is unacceptable.”
TML: Regarding President Abbas’s reaction to President Trump’s declaration that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital: He said no more participation in any US-led initiatives. Just how dead does this make the peace process?
Majdalani: The American administration is no longer an honest middleperson: they have lost their legitimacy. They moved from being biased toward Israel, to being a partner with Israel. The middleperson must be honest, neutral and balanced, and the United Sates does not fall under any of that. The previous political process sponsored by the US has ended. Therefore, we are looking for a new serious political peace process based on resolutions of international legitimacy, and under the umbrella of the UN. We are looking for international participation, not a monopoly by one state.
TML: Will Israel accept a peace process under a non-American aegis?
Majdalani: And we do not approve the US to be the middleperson. No one had a veto to force us here. We are talking about international legitimacy.
TML: What would change that?
Majdalani: The international position; Israel will not remain above the international law. In addition, the United States will not continue to provide the political cover for Israel; the world is changing.
TML: Why is the Trump declaration so devastating if it does not rule out a Palestinian presence in east Jerusalem? Is the Palestinian position that Israel cannot share Jerusalem?
Majdalani: This is part of the American misinformation. If Trump was honest and aware, he would have said “West Jerusalem is the Israeli capital, and East Jerusalem is the Palestinian capital.” We are talking here about east Jerusalem as defined in the UN decision 242.
TML: There are several nations that would love to take over the American role as interlocutor of the peace process. But are there any nations that could do so and command the presence the US does?
Majdalani: No one is thinking to take the US role in the peace process. Recently, I visited Russia and China, and neither country is thinking about taking the US role. They are seeking an international partnership with the United States as well as the Europeans. The American individualization in the peace process has lead us to the trouble we are facing right now. All the Unites States has been providing is support to Israel. I want to remind you with tens of agreements with Israel that the United States has sponsored, the Americans did not pressure Israel to commit to the terms of these agreements. Not because they can’t, but they don’t want to.
TML: As an economist, tell me a little bit about where the economy stands today. It has gone down, what do you tribute that to? And what is the government doing to try to make it better?
Majdalani: There is a political crisis in the country, but the indicators of the Palestinian economy are good and promising. Maybe what causes the drop in these indicators is the situation in Gaza. Although, in the West Bank the economic growth is between 3.5% and 4%. And that is a really good rate if we compare it to the developing neighboring countries. If you have a look at the stock market exchange, you will notice the indicators that proves that the Palestinian economy is improving.
TML: Hamas and Fatah have not come together despite your many attempts to make that happen. How do you envision a state coming together with the bifurcation continuing?
Majdalani: There are more than ten years of division, which has created a situation that we can’t get over easily. We started with serious and practical steps; there are some case that can be solved shortly, while there are other cases that need time. Trump’s decision accelerated the Palestinian reconciliation. I believe his decision has provided opportunities for the Palestinians. One of them is pushing the Palestinian reconciliation forward, so we can improve the internal situation to face the external challenges. The process [reconciliation] is going well so far, we recognize that it goes slowly sometimes, but there are two difficult issues – we are trying to process, the PA employees in Gaza and the security file. We already finished a big part of the process in solving these issues. I believe Hamas and [Islamic] Jihad will participate in the Central Committee meeting this month; their participation is an indicator that the reconciliation is moving forward. [Subsequent to this interview, the Hamas contingent failed to attend the meeting – Ed.]
TML: Where to from here? Suppose that when the octogenarian Abbas finally steps down, Ahmed Madjalani ascends to the presidency. Where to, Mr. President?
Majdalani: I do not imagine myself as the Palestinian president, it’s not an easy thing; no one envies Abbas for his position. We are pressuring to have both presidency and public elections before the end of this year. We believe that the Palestinian society needs to refresh and restart, and that must happen within a democratic process, which is elections. The every four years elections for the municipalities is not enough to refresh the life for the Palestinians. Most important is the political election, which would give greater participation for youth in the society. The Palestinian society is young, and if you look at the Palestinian politicians, they are old. We want the new generation to have the bigger participation.
TML: Are you training any of the younger people to take the position?
Majdalani: Four years ago, I made a decision with my political party to recruit half of the leadership from youth (35 and less) of both genders. We are noticing the change in the society, the bet on the youth is the bet on the future. We must prepare the situation for the youth, and then the democratic process will lead them to the right place.
TML: In negotiations, there is compromise, in business deals there is compromise, what compromises are the Palestinians willing to take to achieve a two-state solution? Do the Palestinians take responsibility to for the things they do wrong?
Majdalani: We already compromised, we approved the two-state solution, we approved to have a state on the borders of 1967, and we entered a negotiation process with the Israelis for 27-years. In addition, we formed a transition government, on the bases that this government will transfer the Palestinian from being under occupation to have an independent Palestinian state. We didn’t form the government to be a subcontractor to the occupation. Therefore, we provided all the compromises, unless the compromises you mean is to approve everything the United States wants. For instance, forget about Jerusalem? The Palestinian refugees? The settlements? The borders? Then what have left to negotiate for? Well this is surrender not peace.
Dima Abumaria contributed to this report.