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Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad: "We Can No Longer be Dismissed as Unworthy"

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Previously published in Metro

They've been talking about it. They've been negotiating about it. Some have used violence to achieve it. Now, say Palestinians, they'll finally become a state. For the past two years the Palestinian National Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has been building government institutions in the West Bank -- to show the world that Palestinians are capable of running a functioning, peaceful state. On September 20, they'll ask the UN General Assembly to recognize the State of Palestine.

Metro met Dr. Fayyad for an exclusive interview in visited Ramallah, the de-facto capital of the West Bank. Fayyad, a congenial a former World Bank economist who enjoys wide international support, has transformed the West Bank with his focus on building infrastructure. During the interview, which took place during Ramadan in a typically hot Ramallah, Fayyad offered me water but -- following the rule of the Muslim fast -- had none himself.

Will there be a state of Palestine on September 20?
At the United Nations countries recognize each other. As you know, many countries have already recognized Palestine since we declared statehood in 1988, and that number has been growing recently. A number of other countries, including the United States and European countries, have upgraded the Palestinian representation in their capitals. All of this is consistent with the kind of progression we'd like to see happen, leading to a fully sovereign state of Palestine.

When I say "a fully sovereign state of Palestine", it assumes an end to the Israeli occupation. That's a key element. By necessity, this requires that Israel be brought into the international consensus leading to an end to this conflict. It is the occupying power. There's a lot more involved than people think. People say, rather summarily, "the Palestinians are going to the United Nations to have their state recognized" or something like that. We have all those considerations in mind, but we're also considering the activity that will follow the UN vote.

What do you hope will follow the UN vote?
There will obviously be activities following the UN General Assembly. Clearly something has to happen afterwards. A UN vote is not an end in and of itself. The only thing that's an end in and of itself is ending the Israeli occupation. What we're looking for this time around, and I've been saying this all along, is a genuinely sovereign state of Palestine, not yet another declaration of Palestinian statehood. What our people urgently need and want is to be able to live as free people with dignity in a country of their own. That's what matters.

The West Bank is relatively peaceful and is building up financial institutions. Gaza, on the other constantly clashes with Israel. Can't you just build a Palestinian state on the West Bank?
No. It's not possible for us Palestinians to have a fully sovereign state of our own unless it includes Gaza. This is not a political statement or an emotional one, though we have to consider the people who live in Gaza and their needs. It's an analytical statement. Ask Israelis who are in favor of a two-state solution what their rationale is for taking that position, and you'll see that their argument goes back many years. Shimon Peres long ago said that Palestinian state is as much an Israeli need as a Palestinian need. He based his argument on demographics: in the future there will be as many Arabs as Jews living in this area. Since then the same argument has been used by many Israeli officials to explain the need for a two-state solution.

This is not my argument; it's an Israeli argument. But for a two-state solution to materialize it has to have the consent of both parties. If demographics is at the root of the Israel argument in favor a two-state solution, then consider how much weaker the argument will be if Gaza is not in the mix. As a result, I don't see how we can get a state of our own unless Gaza is part of it. It's not possible to have a Palestinian state without Gaza. It's not even plausible. The state of Palestine has to consist of both Gaza and the West Bank and it has to emerge on territory that Israel occupied in 1967. It has to include East Jerusalem, which will be the capital of our state.

Israel says that negotiations should resume with true partners on the Palestinian side. The international community views you as a moderate, but even so the negotiations are stalling. Is that evidence that being a moderate Palestinian leader just doesn't work?

I don't want to jump to conclusions like "this is not going to work, so let's try something completely different". I don't approach this with alternative strategies. It's one strategy, and I think we're on the right path. Yes, the process has been very complicated and has left many people, both Israelis and Palestinians, disillusioned. But I believe that what we Palestinians have been able to accomplish under adversity over the past few years -- and projecting the reality of Palestinian statehood on the ground as a reality that can't be ignored by anyone -- will serve us very well in our quest for freedom. It's an approach that I believe will help us accomplish that which has eluded us for so long: a Palestinian state.

I'm not about to give in and say, "it's over, nobody takes us seriously, etcetera". There are times, of course, when one can't resist the heavy weight of pessimism that forces itself on one. But my job is to resist that. And we're on the right path; we'll reach our goal. Right now it's a question of getting more attention paid to the substance of negotiations. There has been a substantial erosion in effort because principles were confused with arrangements and assurances. Negotiations should be about arrangements and assurances, not principles. We need to address this erosion. Way too much has been said about the 1967 lines. Here we are in 2011, many years after [the 1993] Oslo [agreements]. The process has to be righted.

You're optimistic about the future. What's your optimism based on?

In terms of what we Palestinians have been able to do, I really believe it's an enormously positive thing. Nobody can be dismissive of what we've been able to accomplish, especially given that many people -- including many Palestinians -- looked at what we were trying to do and said it was impossible. People were skeptical, even cynical. But we've reached our goal, setting up well-functioning state institutions, before our goal of September 2011. In July in Brussels we got the "birth certificate" of Palestine. Donor states assembled there and endorsed the findings by the World Bank, the IMF and the United Nations, which state that we've passed readiness for statehood. September 2011 arrived two months early. That's a huge accomplishment. Is there anything that anyone can find objectionable in a resolution by the UN General Assembly that politically validates this finding by the World Bank and the IMF? Remember that it's something that everybody, including Israel, has expressed enthusiasm about.

The Israeli government calls the Palestinian bid for UN recognition unilateral...

I don't know how going to the United Nations can be unilateral. If we look at the elements that might be included in the UN resolution, I don't believe there's any country that would be adverse to it. It's simply a political validation by the world community of a Palestinian effort that has succeeded in projecting the reality of Palestinian statehood on the ground, a hugely positive thing. The problem when politicians too hastily characterize things is that they box themselves into a corner and have great difficulty maneuvering themselves out. What's so negative, ex ante, about Palestinians taking their case to the international community through all kinds of forums, including the United Nations? What we're saying is, "This is what we've done. We can no longer be dismissed as unworthy of having a state of our own. This is about something as fundamental as our right to self-determination. That's a universally accepted right. Recently the world community recognized South Sudan as an independent country.

I'm just disappointed that there's so much negative anxiety, as opposed to positive anticipation, on the part of the Israeli government. Now we're on the homestretch on our road to freedom and we have to contend with this negative anxiety rather than positive anticipation. There's still time to turn it around. We don't want to exclude anyone. After all, Israel is the country we want to make peace and co-exist with. Its consent is essential. Therefore, by definition we can't be exclusive towards Israel. This is how diplomacy is supposed to work. It's not "my way or no way". That's not what we Palestinians are doing, and I think it's only fair to expect others to show the same openmindedness. Negotiations are not the only way to reach a peaceful two-state solution.

If the UN General Assembly votes in favor of Palestinian statehood, what will change on the ground?
Nothing. That's why the UN vote is not and end in itself. Nothing is, except an end to the Israeli occupation. For that we need negotiations, but that doesn't mean that the political process only consists of negotiations. We have to make our case. We have to deal with a reality where Israel continues to expand settlements on occupied territory. What's so extraordinary for us to engage in diplomatic activity to help us get closer to freedom? That doesn't mean we will abandon negotiations. This is not about winning an argument -- it's about winning freedom for our people. Everything we do must be subordinate to that objective -- genuine freedom and statehood, not another declaration. We're very sincere about this. It bothers me when our efforts are being dismissed as an act of hostility. I'm certain there will be complete unanimity in the international community that our efforts are a hugely positive development.

Do you believe that traditional Israeli allies like the U.S. will vote to recognize Palestine?
Our bid for recognition is something that all humanity can relate to. It's about a missing sense of justice that won't be dealt with until we Palestinians, who have been dispossessed for so long and denied the most basic rights, are able to live with dignity in a country of our own. This is a universal need, which is why it's significant to the whole world. Walls [a reference to Israel's "security barrier" on the West Bank] do come down, and our time will come. We just have to keep creating positive facts on the ground. We're only asking for something that people around the world consider to be a natural right, which is why we believe they'll have complete sympathy with us, especially since we're trying to reach our goal in a completely non-violent way.

The Olympics are happening next year. Will Palestine have a squad?
We will. For us it will be huge just to be there. Inshallah, we'll win medals too! We're advancing in sports. Our men's soccer squad is doing very well, and our women's soccer team is making great strides, too.

You play soccer, too, isn't that right?
I do! Sometimes, when I go to soccer matches I have to shake hands with a lot of dignitaries, but all I really want to do is kick the ball! I'm like a kid again. It's a tremendous temptation to just run in and kick the ball. Of course, the reality is that it's many years since I was a good soccer player. But in my mind, I'm still that person! When I see a soccer game I feel inside that I can do what those players are doing, even though I obviously know that it's impossible. A while back I had heart surgery, but I'm getting back in shape. In a couple of weeks I'm going to one of our West Bank soccer pitches, and then I'll show the guys that I still know how to kick a ball!