Palestinian Rep. To U.S. Confident In New Leaders

Maen Areikat, the chief of PLO Mission in Washington DC, talks about the future of peace negotiations, now that there is new leadership in America and Israel. As of last winter, he supervised the Negotiations Support Unit and the Negotiations Secretariat, which was created to follow up on committee meetings between Israelis and Palestinians.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The Obama administration is preparing its relaunch of the Middle East peace process. Later this week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, comes to Washington. He'll meet with President Obama, just as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did last week, and just as Jordan's King Abdullah did before him. Mr. Obama plans a major address in Cairo next month.

We heard a couple of weeks ago about the peace process on this program from Israeli President Shimon Peres. And today we're going to hear the Palestinian view from the PLO's chief of mission in Washington Maen Areikat. Welcome to the program, Mr. Areikat.

Mr. MAEN AREIKAT (Chief of Mission, PLO): Thank you.

SIEGEL: President Obama wants to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinians. President Abbas says first Prime Minister Netanyahu should commit to a two-state solution. He came here, he met with the president, he didn't sign on to that aim. Does that mean no talks?

Mr. AREIKAT: I think it's becoming an international demand, not only a Palestinian demand and an American demand, but rather an international demand that we define the basis of any future peace negotiations. We cannot just embark on a process that will lead nowhere. We have to understand that there is going to be an end game to this process. And the Palestinian demand for that or the Palestinian preference for the negotiations to be started based on this clear framework is to give the two parties the opportunity to know where they are heading.

And therefore, I think that we will continue to ask the Israeli government to adhere to the previous agreements and accept the two-state solution as the only basis for any future settlement.

SIEGEL: But if President Obama - unable to have wrung that phrase out of Mr. Netanyahu - says to President Abbas, I think you should go ahead and talk just the same. We would assume that he would probably take part in negotiations.

Mr. AREIKAT: Well, our president will be arriving here tomorrow for talks with President Obama and other administration officials on Thursday. They will have a chance to discuss all these issues and figure out the best way to proceed with these peace negotiations.

SIEGEL: President Abbas has also said that Israel must stop building settlements. President Obama says Israel must stop building settlements. Israel, though, insists on a right to accommodate the natural growth of its settlements on the West Bank. Which do you see here, a meaningful shift in U.S. policy or a de facto continuation of the same policy?

Mr. AREIKAT: Well, I think it is high time for Israel to understand that settlements are a serious impediment to peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. First of all, it does not bring about security to Israel. Secondly, it fragment Palestinian territories and make the viability of future Palestinian state almost impossible. Thirdly, it's illegal, according to international law and the natural growth they are talking about.

We were very pleased with the statements that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the other day on her interview with Al Jazeera International, when they said that we are also seeking a cessation in all settlement activities including natural growth. The natural growth…

SIEGEL: The U.S. is seeking that?

Mr. AREIKAT: Yes, of course.

SIEGEL: But the Israelis don't seem to agree.

Mr. AREIKAT: Well, you know, the Israelis have to really, you know, decide very, very soon whether they want to have peace or to have the land. They cannot have both.

SIEGEL: When President Abbas meets here with President Obama, how should we regard his relationship to Hamas? That is, it seems that the Palestinian authority cannot deliver Hamas' agreement to any deal that it will reach with anyone. They don't respect the writ of the Palestinian authority in Gaza. How can he possibly negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians when the Palestinians are so divided?

Mr. AREIKAT: Well, President Abbas is the elected president of the Palestinian people. He was democratically elected. Sixty-four percent of the population voted for him in 2005. He is the chairman of the PLO Executive Committee, which is the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people anywhere including Hamas (unintelligible).

SIEGEL: (unintelligible) Hamas is outside of the PLO.

Mr. AREIKAT: Hamas is outside this…

SIEGEL: (unintelligible) not a constituent member of the PLO.

Mr. AREIKAT: But this does not nullify and make the PLO not the representative of the Palestinian people. When he comes here, he comes here as the president of the Palestinian people and not as a president of Fatah or Hamas. The problem, you know, we are having with Hamas is this exactly. We are telling them that if you want to join the government and the PLO, you have to adhere to the PLO commitments and to the program of the government that the president lay down. You cannot act as representative of Hamas.

SIEGEL: To be part of a Palestinian government of national unity, would Hamas have to explicitly renounce its charter and its dedication to the destruction of Israel?

Mr. AREIKAT: We haven't asked Hamas to do that, similar to what is happening in Israel. There are coalition partners in Israel. Lieberman party at one point, Avigdor Lieberman, the current foreign minister, called for the transfer of the Palestinians from Israel's property in 1948, Palestinians…

SIEGEL: These are Israeli citizens (unintelligible).

Mr. AREIKAT: Israeli citizens - to transfer them to Palestine or other neighboring countries. And therefore, what we are telling Hamas, if you want to join a national unity government, this government must adhere to the PLO political agenda and to the PLO commitments. It has to accept previous agreements. It has to promote a peaceful coexistence and peaceful resolution of the conflict with Israel. And therefore, this is what we are asking them to do.

SIEGEL: Mr. Areikat, I thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. AREIKAT: Thank you very much, sir.

SIEGEL: That's Maen Areikat, who is the PLO's representative, the chief of mission in Washington.

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