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Exclusive Interview With Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas: a Humble Moment in History

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had just delivered the most important speech in his life and he is now sitting with his aides, his jacket and neck tie removed, cutting his steak amidst silence after the storm. It is Friday, September 23, and he had just returned from the United Nations General Assembly where he received roaring applause for submitting Palestine's request for full membership in the UN despite American threats to veto the request and punish the Palestinians financially. He is now in a small cluttered living room at his hotel across the UN. Minutes before, world leaders were competing to congratulate him and the world media was chasing him. He is neither ecstatic nor gloating. He is simply having his lunch with his aides quietly and humbly absorbing a moment in history.

The man who had just reclaimed ownership of the future of Palestine and changed the rules of making peace with Israel looks confident, content in his skin. "Pull up a chair," he told me, pointing to a space immediately to his left. I sat down unsure whether he was too tight for time and wanted to talk during lunch. But he was not in a hurry.

We dined and had small talk. Everyone at the table was in awe of the historic moment that had just passed yet no one spoke of it. There was an aura of a sense of a collective arrival. Their leader had just stunned the world, delivering on his promise that he will no longer await a promised process of peace to consume his leadership. He has just been transformed from a recipient of a "process" to a statesman who can state his own terms for making peace. He reshuffled the traditional rules of the game and shook the foundation of business as usual. Mahmoud Abbas had just stunned the world and had American, European, Israeli, Turkish and Arab leaderships IN A panic. He recaptured his people's confidence and faith. He is the man of the hour and I am to his left, having small talk, eating lunch -- a humbling moment in life.

When we sat later on for the interview he was clear in his message: "We want a State of our own, just like other people have their own State." He was clear that "We want to return to negotiations but not without '67 borders as a basis and not with the continuation of building settlements."

He said that the "United States, the bastion of democracy, would do wrong to the Palestinian people if it denies them the right to liberty and self-determination. It will have to bear responsibility for its own actions." He expressed disappointment in President Barack Obama because "It is he who spoke of the necessity to halt settlement and it is he who spoke of the 67 borders. He has to fulfill his words."

He spoke with disappointment about the Quartet -- US, Russia, EU and UN -- and said it had "failed" and even retracted from earlier positions. The Quartet envoy, Tony Blair, carried to Abbas rehashed American preconditions and demands "that the Quartet itself had rejected." Abbas made clear to Blair he would not accept his proposals. "And I told President Obama that we reject totally such preconditions." He was referring to Israeli demands that the Palestinians recognize at the outset that Israel is a "Jewish State," that there must be no further talk demanding a freeze of Israeli settlements before resuming negotiations, and that negotiations will not be based on the 1967 borders, amongst others.

What the Palestinian president said is that the US and the Quartet were retracting from the agreed terms of reference for the peace process that envisioned an independent and contiguous Palestinian State living in peace and security next to Israel. He had no other choice but to correct the course and re-state the terms of reference. He threw the ball in the court of the US and Israel and said " We are patient. We will wait."

Mahmoud Abbas did not seem in the least afraid or worried. He had always opposed a violent Intifada and instead turned to building the infrastructure of the Palestinian State. His strategic choice has consistently been negotiations and peaceful resistance. Hamas hated him for it and was sure to attack him as he delivered a speech applauded by a great majority of world leaders. "The world understood the speech but they chose to misunderstand it," he said.

He pointed to the virtue of peaceful demonstrations and said "Palestinians and Israelis are side by side in those demonstrations weekly and daily and we encourage them to go on. Those demonstrations are not against international law. They are against occupation through peaceful means."

He smiled : "We are the ones who taught our Arab brother how to get to their Spring by peaceful demonstrations. This is the best way for anyone to get their rights."

Abbas is not worried about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamen Netanyahu's threats or military revenge. "He is in a position to do, rather than threat. He can do militarily whatever he wishes because we are incapable of facing him militarily. And we do not want to face him militarily."

Why is Mahmoud Abbas not afraid? "Of whom should I be afraid? If Netanyahu wants to attack us, welcome. If he wants to annul agreements, welcome. He is free to do whatever he wishes because he is the occupier, not us. He controls our land through occupying it and he is able to do what he wants. But we will not submit to what he wants. We will oppose him by all peaceful means."

The interview ended and a picture is to be taken. Mahmoud Abbas slowly puts on his tie and jacket because my 21-year-old daughter wants her picture taken with him. "Let me go to your left. It is my better side," she says. He gently and firmly keeps her to his right and says smiling "as it happens, it is my better side too."

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