PLO Delegate: Israel Still Needs To Remove Blockade

Robert Siegel speaks with Maen Rashid Areikat, the chief of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) delegation in Washington, who is, in effect, the Palestinian ambassador to the United States. Ariekat says Israel and the United States wanted Egypt to be directly involved with the talks to bring about a cease fire over Gaza. He rejects suggestions that the PLO and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have been marginalized by Hamas and the events in Gaza. Areikat says the PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and that Abbas will press ahead with a bid for recognition as a "non-member state" at the United Nations.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Maen Rashid Areikat is chief of the PLO delegation in Washington, D.C. That means he is the de facto ambassador of the Palestinian Authority in the United States. Welcome to the program.

MAEN RASHID AREIKAT: Thank you.

SIEGEL: I want to ask you first about what we just heard Leila Fadel say. Is Egypt now the guarantor of this agreement in the Gaza Strip?

AREIKAT: Well, I wouldn't say that, you know, clearly, but this is what the United States and Israel wanted to have. They wanted Egypt to be directly involved, a party to whatever agreement would emerge to end the hostility. So...

SIEGEL: Do you welcome that, that engagement?

AREIKAT: Well, Egypt's role is very important. The weight that Egypt has in the Arab world and their relation vis-a-vis the Palestinians - all the Palestinians without any distinction - I think, is very important, and it does reflect that continuation of that role.

SIEGEL: As Leila Fadel reported, President Morsi has a different political relationship with Hamas than his predecessor. We've seen the Egyptian prime minister, we've seen the Turkish leader, the people from Qatar all visit Gaza, visiting Hamas. Is the Palestinian Authority, the government that you represent, at risk right now being marginalized as Hamas take center stage?

AREIKAT: No, absolutely no. I think when it comes to Egypt, the Egyptians - the new government, the new president made it clear that Egypt will work with all Palestinian factions, would work with the Palestinian Authority with President Abbas as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. At the same time, they will maintain good relationship with other factions, so we are not concerned about that. As for the visit to Gaza, it was coordinated between the secretary general of the Arab League and President Abbas, and our foreign minister was also part of that delegation that went to the Gaza Strip.

SIEGEL: But President Abbas has been regarded, despite Secretary Clinton's visit today, as largely irrelevant to what's been happening.

AREIKAT: He can't be irrelevant. I mean, he is the elected president of the Palestinian people. He also is the chairman of the PLO executive committee, which is the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Now, the situation on the ground and the Gaza Strip, of course, we all know the realities that the PLO and the Palestinian Authority does not have much control in the Gaza Strip, but this does not mean that his influence is diminishing.

SIEGEL: It certainly didn't have control over the rocket attacks out of Gaza. With those attacks from Gaza against Israeli targets, were they reckless? Did Hamas and others in the Gaza Strip bring on Israeli retaliation on the city of Gaza?

AREIKAT: Well, the thing here is I think we should deal with the root causes. You know, what has not been agreed between the two sides is the most important aspect of this cease-fire agreement, which is how much Israel is going to be willing to ease up and to lift this blockade on 1.7 million Palestinians that have been in place for the last six years. As long as Israel continues this siege, the seeds for violence in the future will continue.

SIEGEL: But you know what people are saying, though. If, in fact, the blockade is now lifted and it's attributed to the deal that ended the most recent rocket attacks out of Gaza, people will say Hamas got the blockade lifted, and that credit will be at the expense of your government.

AREIKAT: Well, the position of the PLO, the Palestinian Authority, has always been very clear. We are in favor of lifting the blockade because it's illegitimate. It's not just, and therefore, it will alleviate the pressure on the people of the Gaza Strip.

SIEGEL: You, the Palestinian Authority, President Abbas are all in the midst of a diplomatic campaign to win admission to the United Nations as a non-member observer state, as opposed to an observer entity. First of all, does that mean a state with two governments, one in Ramallah and one in Gaza, or can you sign a reconciliation agreement soon?

AREIKAT: We are submitting the request to the United Nation General Assembly on behalf of the PLO. We are not submitting it on behalf of the Palestinian Authority nor on any other authorities that exist on the ground. The request will be submitted on behalf of the PLO in its capacity as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

SIEGEL: Again, an observation I've heard from various commentators, this looks at best legalistic, perhaps even theoretical, whereas on the other hand, there's been a real war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. They've been doing the fighting. Palestinians have been cheering them on. Is this really relevant (unintelligible) at the U.N.?

AREIKAT: Well, first of all, you know, we are all pleased that there is a cease-fire, and I hope it will hold because we want to see an end to the bloodshed in the Gaza Strip. One hundred forty Palestinians have been killed, more than thousand wounded in a week of continuous Israeli bombardment. And I think our move is political. It will actually, in the long run, enhance the standing of the Palestinian people and allow them to move forward with an end to the conflict with Israel.

SIEGEL: For some time now, Egypt has been trying to mediate some kind of Palestinian reconciliation that would end this rift between the Ramallah government and the Hamas regime in Gaza. Today, have the terms for such an agreement changed? Is Hamas now in a stronger position to get a deal that your government would have to accept because of what they've just negotiated in Egypt?

AREIKAT: I think all Palestinian factions - PLO, Palestinian Authority, Hamas and others - understand that unity is in the interest of the Palestinian people. And I don't think it will be made easier if each faction thinks that the events of the last week have enhanced their position against their other factions. So I think in order to make it happen, we have always supported the interest of the Palestinian people for and foremost.

SIEGEL: Maen Rashid Areikat, chief of the PLO delegation here in Washington, in effect, ambassador of the Palestinian Authority to the United States. Thank you very much for talking with us.

AREIKAT: Thank you, sir.

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