Dr. Abdul-Shafi is a former chief Palestinian negotiator in talks with Israel. The following interview was done in his office at the Red Crescent Society in Gaza City on November 18, 1997, by Roger Gaess, a freelance journalist based in New York.
GAESS: Why did you resign from the legislature?
DR. ABDUL-SHAFI: It's a gesture of protest, because the council was marginalized in the sense that its resolutions have not been implemented or respected by the executive authority. So the council was unable to perform its duty as the representative of the people and as an instrument for realizing democratic change in Palestinian society. My resignation was a sort of message to the electorate, to the people, to be aware of the reality of the situation.
Q: Arafat in negotiations with Israel had pushed very hard for a self-rule legislative council with actual legislative authority as opposed to just consultative authority, and for a large-size legislature as opposed to one of only a few dozen members, as the Israelis had initially wanted. What accounts for the redirection from what seemed to be high expectations for the council to its apparent marginalization right now? What have the council members seen as the role of the council, and what has Arafat seen as the council's role?
A: As stipulated in the Oslo agreement itself, the elected council is supposed to be the real authority during the interim period, and it has both legislative and executive powers. It delegates its executive powers to an executive authority but really it has both legislative and executive powers. That means it has the right to supervise the conduct of the government and to pose questions, as is the case with parliaments all over the world. But all this understanding was violated. The attitude of Arafat, right from the beginning, was to retain decision making for himself. This was a situation that was not acceptable, especially in light of the council's report [in July 1997] revealing financial abuse within the executive authority. Many members of the council were dissatisfied and they spoke of taking a stance, but they failed to arrive at a collective position. That's why I decided to resign. I thought it was very important for the public to know what was really happening.
Q: Perhaps we can talk about this in the context of the Basic Law. What's the purpose of the Basic Law?
A: The Basic Law is the main item that will regulate the functions of the Palestinian Authority in its three branches, the executive, legislative and judiciary, during the interim period. Once the interim period is finished, then all the legislative council's work, including progress on the Basic Law, will have to be dealt with anew. If we get to the stage of having an independent Palestinian state, then the Basic Law will be called the constitution of the Palestinian state.
Q: So the Basic Law is the framework, the foundation, for the interim period?
A: Exactly. The Basic Law was the first item that the council wanted to address. But also here, from the beginning, Arafat adopted an obstructive attitude, saying that the council is not entitled to deal with this issue, that the Basic Law fell within the domain of the Palestine National Council. This was. not logical. Conceding that the PNC is the highest organ in the PLO, it has really nothing to do with this interim period. It is the legislative council that was to have authority. Up to now there is no Basic Law. And that's been one of the serious problems, because it means that the council is working without a legal framework to guide it. It has legislated other laws, but to legislate before having a Basic Law is sometimes a source of trouble because contradictions could arise here and there. Whenever you legislate for a subsidiary law, you have to be sure that it doesn't contradict specifications in the Basic Law. This whole situation was very frustrating, and this was aside from the fact that council resolutions were not implemented - releasing all prisoners who are being detained by the Palestinian Authority without any legal basis.
Resolutions also were adopted about the political process. The council for a long time has called for a suspension of negotiations with Israel because they're not going anywhere. Finally the report was released that detailed the extent of corruption within the executive, and the council passed a resolution calling on the chairman to dissolve the present cabinet. Of course it was not implemented. Arafat retained decision making for himself.
Q: When the council adopted those resolutions, what were its expectations? Were they seen as a test of council power or did the council expect Arafat to honor its decisions?
A: Certainly when these decisions were made, they were done in the sincere hope that they were going to be implemented. I think the council, immediately after it was elected and got to work, did so in an expectant mood that things would proceed in all seriousness.
Q: Did factions or blocs emerge in the legislature? ·
A: The majority of the council members are from the Fatah party, the party of Arafat, but they didn't act as a bloc, and there were no other blocs. We addressed our task in a very relaxed way. And there were agreements in points of view between Fatah members and independent members. We addressed our duties almost as though we were all independents. And that was healthy, in my opinion. But the attitude of the executive branch fouled everything up. And so the whole practice was a complete disappointment.
Q: What does Arafat want the council, the legislature, to be?
A: He simply hasn't cared whether there is a council or there is no council, or whether it has adopted resolutions or not.
Q: Does the Palestine National Council exist in any real sense now?
A: No, and I've been critical of this. At a time when crucial things are going on in the negotiating process, the Palestine National Council acts as though it's not in existence.
Q: How effective has the Palestinian Authority's Council of Ministers been?
A: It's hopeless to talk about a Council of Ministers because they never convened for a single time as a separate body. They are always convened with members of the Executive Committee of the PLO. So there is a mixing of responsibilities, and this, under the circumstances, is immaterial because decisions are made by Arafat. It doesn't matter who is there.
Q: In terms of accountability, is Arafat accountable to anyone for his actions?
A: No. He should be accountable to the legislative council. The Council of Ministers should have a collective responsibility. But often, the Council of Ministers has reacted to violations committed here and there as though they are not concerned. They've taken the position that it's the function of this or that particular minister to deal with, when actually the Council of Ministers has collective responsibility. So the general situation has been one of disarray and confusion.
Q: To return to the status of the Basic Law for a moment; to what degree has the Basic Law approached its final form?
A: After I left the legislative council I came to understand that the Basic Law was finalized in a third reading and sent to the executive, Chairman Arafat, to declare it a law. That was [in October], and he has not acted on it. According to the Rules of Order, the legislative council's internal rules, if you send a law that has passed a third reading to the executive to declare as a law and they don't do so within one month, then it automatically becomes a law. So I presume that the Basic Law is now binding. But it remains to be seen whether Arafat accepts that or not.
Q: You've been at the center of a Palestinian pro-democracy movement that you helped form in 1995. What role should democracy play in shaping the Palestinians' future?
A: Democracy is a must for our future, for our national rights. If we are not able to realize this democratic change, I think we will be stymied in our goals and remain in a state of disarray. I was one among others who established what we call the Movement for Building Democracy in the Palestinian Society. And it's been slow going because of the restrictions on physical movement - people in Gaza can't go to the West Bank and vice versa - and lack of funds. It's not a political party. It's not a movement that seeks to gain authority. The basic objective of this national movement is to educate Palestinian people about the importance of democracy in their lives and to their national aims. We hope we can make people aware enough of the importance of moving to democracy that they will start to be active in this cause. Unless there is a strong popular movement that insists on democracy, I'm afraid we will remain captive to the situation that we are in.
Q: How is that being done? Through committees and public discussions?
A: Yes, the plan is to be very active and to have regular meetings in different places and with different people to propagate the importance of the idea so that it becomes fixed in the minds and hearts of the people. Once there is enough awareness, then it could move to another stage and become more politically active. And then probably it should progress from a movement to a party.
Q: How is democracy related to nation building? Some people have said, for instance, that if Palestinians firm up their democratic framework. then they'll have more respect in the international community. Can a democratic framework help in terms of negotiations with Israel?
A: Indeed. I think this is crucial. Palestinian people are very opinionated and they stick to what they believe is the right thing. In our situation, loaded with all kinds of problems, there are almost as many points of view as there are people. This is almost paralyzing. There will be no meeting of minds between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority from today till doomsday. So what is the solution? We have to commit ourselves to democracy. We are badly in need of being united around a point of view and being committed to it. This of course will be decided by the majority. It's of no value for one side or one person to insist on their viewpoint. You have to accept and implement the majority point of view. So democracy is a must for us. We need the support and the ability of all Palestinians wherever they are. We are in serious trouble. And the only thing that will enable us to exploit whatever potential we have is democratic change.
Q: When I've spoken with Hamas leaders, they've emphasized that Hamas will not force anything on the people. Yet there's another point of view within Hamas that seems to say that there's no possibility of a two-state solution. With regard to the immediate moment, how can Hamas play a constructive role?
A: It won't. Hamas will stick to its own point of view, and the others will stick to their points of view, so there can be no meeting except on a democratic basis. Without committing ourselves to the democratic idea, we will not get anywhere.
Q: Given your resignation from the Palestinian Legislative Council, what do you see as your own political future?
A: I don't have any personal political ambitions. All I'm concerned about is to be able to help us get out of our serious predicament. For that reason I remain committed to promoting democracy, with respect for the points of view of all people in all parties.
Q: How can the peace process be put back on track? How would you evaluate the U.S. performance to date in terms of its applying pressure on Israel?
A: The main obstacle to progress towards a just and durable peace is the continued denial of the Palestinian right to self-determination by Israel. Also, the U.S. government has no qualification as a sponsor and promoter of the peace process because it is prejudiced towards Israel. But of course nobody is saying anything about that. Unless this changes, the peace process will ultimately be destroyed, because Israel is claiming all Palestinian territory. They're continuing with their settlement activity, confiscating Palestinian land and establishing physical facts on the ground, and the United States is doing nothing to stop them.
With this asymmetry in terms of power between the Israelis and the Palestinians, it is of no help for the United States to say that nobody should interfere and that the parties should be left to reach an agreement on their own. This will not get us anywhere. We can negotiate forever and Israel will only be establishing more obstacles to peace and there will be no solution. This is a situation where a third party is very much needed to see that legalities are implemented. There are many U.N. resolutions pertaining to the peace process that are being neglected and violated. How can we talk about a peace process under these circumstances? The Security Council condemned Israel's settlement process right from its inception after 1967, and world opinion unanimously said settlements are obstacles to peace. However, Israel continued its settlement activity as the world looked on without taking any action. The United States obstructed action from being taken, accommodating Israel indirectly.
The Sadat initiative posed the most crucial test to the credibility of Israel's talk of peace. After Israel established a peace treaty with Egypt, the biggest and strongest Arab country, one thought that Israel would be more amenable to the requirements of a comprehensive peace. But they exploited this by starting their broad settlement program in the West Bank. Before this peace treaty, Israel was reluctant to invest so much in the West Bank. But once they got a peace treaty with Egypt and safeguarded their southern borders, they embarked on more aggression. Two years later they waged an unprovoked war on Lebanon. In November 1988, we made a far-reaching concession by accepting the two-state principle as a basis for a resolution. That meant we accepted, finally, the reality of Israel as an independent state. Israel rejected this, because they claim the whole territory [of historic Palestine].
Q: Can the Europeans do anything?
A: Indeed. There is much that they can do, but I think they feel constrained by considerations of their relations with the United States. The Europeans are supporting our right to self-determination, but in practice they are not doing anything. Despite Israel's record of violations of legal and human-rights principles, the Europeans are accommodating Israel in every way by having diplomatic, economic, cultural and scientific relations with it. Europe could do much more for peace by taking practical measures to force Israel to be respectful of the requirements of peace.
Q: When you went to the opening of the peace conference in Madrid in 1991, what were your hopes at that time?
A: After the Gulf War, where America, through Security Council resolutions, waged a war to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation I thought, by necessity, there should be some response for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in which there is a 30-year occupation and many Security Council resolutions to be implemented. I was hoping that the Americans would help out in this matter. But my hope was frustrated early enough during the negotiating process.
Q: At first the Idea was that peace would involve the slow building of trust and that Israel would begin to feel secure enough to make the necessary concessions. Now there is talk of speeding up the whole process and moving directly lo final-status talks. Is there a new opportunity here? Arafat talked recently about declaring statehood al the end of the jive years. Do you think anything positive will emerge?
A: No, Israel is using its military power, not heeding any call for helping out the peace process. And they will not stop unless they are forced to.
I would like to relate something that has relevance to much that has happened. When it was decided to convene the Madrid conference, the Palestinians agreed to participate, but it was not unanimous. Hamas and the other opposition parties were against our participation. On the eve of the Madrid conference, those opposition parties called on the people here in the occupied territories to demonstrate against it. The people did the contrary, they demonstrated in support of Madrid. That meant that the people made a definite choice that they wanted peace. So we went to the conference. The opposition was surprised to find that they were mistaken about the stance of the majority of the people. But out of respect for the choice of the people, the opposition parties were forced to take a low-profile attitude.
During the 20 months of negotiations in Washington that were at an impasse, without any progress, not a single act of violence took place. In other words, Hamas and the other opposition parties remained respectful of the choice of the people. What more convincing proof was there about the intentions of the Palestinian people? What more proof could there be for Israel to know that the present actions of Hamas are simply because the peace process is obstructed by Israel. Israel pressed Arafat to crack down on Hamas, and he did, in a very violent manner. But if Hamas wants to commit more acts of terror, they will do so, and no party can stop them except the people - people who feel that they have a stake in what's going on. Israel has made a point of focusing attention on terrorist acts, and the international community has failed to see that Israel is responsible for these acts through its obstruction of the peace process.
Q: What should Arafat do, what should the Palestinians do, in terms of a negotiating strategy right now?
A: I don't think it is at all credible to continue with the negotiating process under these circumstances; Israel is only exploiting the fact of negotiations by continuing to confiscate land and establish settlements. Sitting at the negotiating table conveys the impression to the international community that there is an actual peace process going on and so there is nothing to worry about. I think the Palestinians should suspend negotiations. At the same time, they should make very clear that they are not boycotting the peace process - that they remain committed to the principle of peace but from now on they don't want to negotiate except under clear conditions. And these are that Israel should stop all aspects of its settlement activity and should also recognize officially and openly the basic rights of the Palestinian people. I know that Israel is not going to accept these conditions. But at least we should make our position clear. We cannot continue in a process where Israel is preempting the final resolution.