THE Palestinian president, Mahmud Abbas and the US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice held a joint press conference in Ramallah last Sunday in the presidential compound.
The press conference was held in the context of the failed US sponsored Israeli attack on the Lebanon to try to destroy Hezbollah, and the failed US attempt to prevent the formation of a national unity government between the Hamas and Fatah political movements.
The US has now fallen back to a position where it is prepared to discuss only with the Hamas half of the national unity government, and is seeking to gain time by its willingness to discuss the Saudi proposals for a two state solution to the Palestinian ‘problem’.
Meanwhile Israel is continuing to build the security wall, and planning to annexe the major part of the West Bank.
After bland opening statements by Abbas and Rice the gathered correspondents asked questions about the talks between the two leaders.
One asked: ‘Secretary Rice, were there any suggestions you made regarding the implementation of the Arab initiative and resuming the peace process? Thank you.’
Rice responded: ‘Yes. Well on the peace process, we were talking a great deal about how we can resume the peace process.
‘But on the Arab initiative, I’ve made very clear that it is not the position of the United States that the Arabs need to make changes to their initiative.’
She was however very wary saying: ‘I hope that it will be reactivated in some way; I hope that it will become a platform, a way for active diplomacy, but it is an Arab initiative.
‘Others will have other views and other proposals, but the important thing is to get a conversation started about how we have the prospect of a political horizon for the Palestinian people and a political horizon of peace for Arabs and Israelis in general.’
Another correspondent asked: ‘Secretary Rice, we all know what the Clinton parameters look like, we have all read the roadmap, the questions are pretty well known and the contours of a Palestinian state are relatively evident.
‘Can you explain what is different about this in-parallel approach you were trying to develop?
‘And then for President Abbas: Prime Minister Olmert said you have repeatedly promised that Corporal Shalit would be released before the unity government was formed, and you even made the promise in front of Secretary Rice last month.
‘How can you build trust with the Israelis on a broader peace deal when you are unable to free a single soldier after nine months?’
Rice answered: ‘Glen, every effort is different and we are in a different situation than in 2000.
‘I’ve said very often, in some ways it’s more complicated than 2000, in some ways it’s better than 2000.
‘We have established a basis among a broad array of states, all of the Arab states as well as Palestinians and Israelis, that a two-state solution is the way to peace.
‘That had not been established in 2000, and so I think we now are dealing from a framework that is different. The roadmap is really a kind of framework; it has a very important status because it is accepted by all the parties as a reliable guide to a two-state solution.
‘But obviously we need to be able to, in a sense, fill in some of the details about how we’re going to use the roadmap to get to the end state.
‘I’ve always believed that it is extremely important that the conditions of the roadmap be fulfilled – the natural sequence in the roadmap needs to be fulfilled, but it doesn’t prevent us from discussing the destination to which we’re going, and that really is what I hope the parallel process will begin to move us towards, and I discussed this with both parties.
‘We did this in the trilateral the last time that I was here; it was a time of some considerable uncertainty given that the Mecca agreement had just been signed.
‘Now, we are in a situation in which I think a bilateral approach, in which I talk in parallel to the parties from a common approach, is the best way.
‘We’ll use many different geometries, I’m sure, as we go through this process, but the key is to continue down this road towards a two-state solution.
‘The President has been very clear; he was very clear just a couple of days ago that he considers the establishment of a Palestinian state and peace in the Middle East, to be among one of his highest priorities, and as his Secretary of State I intend to pursue that.’
Abbas added: ‘With regard to the Israeli soldier, since he was captured we have been trying to free him alive.
‘We have a responsibility to keep him alive and to release him alive.
‘This was the reason for this long period that has passed so far without his release, yet we are sure that he is in good condition and that he is alive, and we therefore want him to return to his family alive.
‘At the same time, when we talk about the Israeli soldier we also talk about the Palestinian prisoners, and this is something we discussed at length with Prime Minister Olmert.
‘During my last visit, we discussed this issue in detail with Prime Minister Olmert and drafted some joint ideas that may help to secure his release.
‘Of course, we will keep these ideas secret until we are certain that things are going well.’
Another correspondent stated: ‘Mr President, are there demands by certain parties to modify the Arab initiative, and especially the clause pertaining to refugees?
‘Secretary Rice, actually I have two questions for you. Do you have any action plan to energise the peace process, especially as we have some Palestinian officials who say that until now your trips have achieved, thus far, nothing?
‘On the other hand, the other question: Israeli Prime Minister Olmert is saying that his future dealings with President Abbas will be on the grounds of issues related to security and humanitarian issues.
‘How are you going to kick start peace-making when you have Mr Olmert saying basically he will not be dealing with peace-making when it comes to President Abbas?’
Abbas responded: ‘With regard to your first question, you know that when the Arab initiative was launched it was well received in various Arab and international circles and especially in Israeli circles.
‘This initiative has become an important part of the roadmap, which was adopted by the Quartet.
‘The roadmap has become part of UN Security Council Resolution 1515. I did not hear anyone telling us: you must modify, change, or exchange any of the Arab initiative’s clauses.’
Rice said: ‘Well let’s see, I’ve been here four times in four months, but of course this conflict is decades old.
‘So I assume that if somebody could have resolved it before me they would have done it by now. What I am doing is I’m devoted to trying to bring about the President’s two-state solution.
‘I think we sometimes underestimate how much progress really has been made over these decades.
We are a long way from where we were when this conflict started; there have been a number of efforts for peace that have resolved, for instance, the Egyptian-Israeli conflict, the Jordanian-Israeli conflict.
‘Indeed, the efforts after Madrid that lead to Oslo, giving us the basis on which really I’m standing here talking to the president today.
‘The President’s speech in which he said that a Palestinian state should exist, I think he even called it Palestine, that as policy for the United States moved this clearly forward, as did the speech of Prime Minister Sharon, which talked about the need for painful compromises on the part of Israel to divide the land and to share the land.
‘I think sometimes we don’t recognise that we have been through a steady series of steps forward. Sometimes there have also been steps backwards, that is always the case with big historical changes.
‘But it is really the obligation of each and every one of us who finds themselves in a position, like I now find myself, to try and push forward, to try and move the ball forward, to try to move the Palestinian state forward. And one day, I certainly hope soon, we’re going to fully succeed. But this is a hard problem. There are a lot of difficult issues, a lot of emotional issues, a lot of practical issues as well.
‘What I hope to do is to take some of the lessons of the past, and one of those lessons is that you need to prepare the ground well. You need to spend time with the parties, you need to understand what is tolerable for each side, and then you have to have a commitment by the President of United States, the international community, the Arab states, which have to be committed to this process and have to be willing to do what it will take to get a Palestinian state.
‘I think if we all search very deep now and ask ourselves to look back and to say what has not worked, and now to look forward and to say what can we do to succeed this time, then we have a real chance.
But I am optimistic that with a real effort by all parties we can succeed. The other part was…. can you remind me?
The correspondent obliged saying: ‘The other part has to do with Mr Olmert’s remarks.’
Rice continued: ‘Yes, yes. Well, I think that it is extremely important that there be a political horizon for the Palestinian people.
‘I understand fully that this comes in the context of the roadmap, that there are obligations in the roadmap that, anyone can see, will have to be met before there can be the establishment of the Palestinian state.
‘You would have to have a renunciation of violence as the foundational principals for peace.
‘Obviously, you would have to recognise the right of the other party to exist. It would be important to build on past agreements, that goes without saying.
‘The roadmap has a series of obligations that will have to be met, but I think it can help all of us to have a destination in mind to which we are going, and that is really what is meant by political horizon.
‘I think this time it is best to talk about that political horizon in parallel, but I sincerely hope that in the future the parties themselves can talk about the political horizon among themselves.’
Another correspondent said: ‘President Abbas, Secretary Rice has again tonight outlined her new approach of parallel discussion of Israelis and Palestinians to define a common approach to your problems and differences.
‘Would you like to see a more forceful US role in bringing Israel back into full and direct negotiations to resolve those problems, and would you welcome Secretary Rice’s own ideas for how to advance the peace process?
‘And for Secretary Rice, you said you want to come up with a set of issues to raise with both Palestinians and Israelis; has President Abbas given you such a set of ideas to take to the Israeli side?’
Abbas answered: ‘I believe that we agree with Secretary Rice regarding the method in which she is dealing with both sides.
‘We therefore say that we are extremely content with this method, which we hope will yield tangible results on the ground in the near future.’
Rice continued to support a parallel process with the US as its conductor carrying its version of the different ‘political horizons’ to and fro between Palestine and Israel, in place of direct talks between the Palestinian and Israeli governments.
She also insisted that there must be secret diplomacy.
She said: ‘President Abbas and I are going to have a number of discussions over, I think, an extended period of time.
‘What I don’t intend to do is to go to the press and say exactly what he said to me. I think that would not help to build confidence between us, it will not help to build confidence between me and Prime Minister Olmert, were I to do that. I do think that it is now important that we have discussions in which the president and the prime minister can be as open and as candid as they would like to be about what, in this long-standing conflict, it will take, what issues have to be resolved, in order to resolve this long-standing conflict.
‘And so I can tell you that the commitment of the United States is to using this approach now, and to using various approaches as we go along, so that we can realise the President’s vision of two-states living side-by-side. . . Thank you.’