In 2005, Rawhi Fattouh oversaw the transition power following the death of Yasser Arafat. The leading Fatah politician tells zenith why Mahmoud Abbas’ succession has dragged on so long – and why Israel would be wise to accept the two-state solution.
Rawhi Fattouh spoke to zenith in late December 2019 on a trip to Germany.
President Abbas announced on 26 September in front of UN General Assembly that elections would be held. Why is it taking so long?
There’s disagreement between the two Palestinian factions about the law of elections which was declared in 2007. Law 1 of 2007 states that elections in Palestine must be held according to a proportion system. Before the declaration of President Abbas, Hamas refused to abide by it. After the letter sent from President Abbas to Hanna Naser, the leader of the electoral committee, Hamas told Nasr that they agreed to participate in the election.
What have been main obstacles to holding elections?
Firstly, we’re afraid that the Israeli government will forbid us to carry out the election in Jerusalem. After that, maybe Hamas withdraws from elections. But up to now, Hamas has been positive. They told the election committee that they will participate in elections. But the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) declared that will not participate in this election.
Will these elections have a low turnout?
Participation in the next election will exceed 60%. In Gaza especially people want a new government, so participation will be high.
Will Israel allow elections in Jerusalem?
They will stop our elections; they will cancel them. If Israelis forbid us to carry out the elections in Jerusalem, we will cancel the elections. We ask the international community to put pressure on Israel in order to allow us to hold elections for Palestine in Jerusalem. After the election of President Trump, the USA recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and transferred they embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. I believe Israel will forbid us to hold elections because of this.
Why has it taken so long for elections to take place?
The Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) stopped its work in 2007. Since then there has been no meetings between the lawmakers in Palestine. It is difficult to resolve this.
President Abbas has been criticised for increasing his powers in Palestine especially since the establishment of the Constitutional Court. Why has he needed to do this?
He doesn't need to consolidate his power in Palestine. We need elections. Maybe we lose the elections, and if we do so there is no consolidation of power. The need to establish a constitutional court is mentioned in our basic law in article 103. Hamas has asked for it to be cancelled, we disagree with that.
Why has President Abbas been reluctant to call elections?
He was not obliged to have elections. According to the desire of our people and also the international community he intends to hold elections. Many obstacles will arise in the way of our elections. Like the Israelis forbidding us to hold the election in Jerusalem. Or Hamas forbidding us to hold the election the Gaza Strip. If this happens, we'll cancel the election. We are not obliged to make the election.
Why were previous elections postponed?
We stopped elections in the past because the division between the Gaza and the West Bank and also the reconciliation discussions between us and Hamas. Hamas refused all the agreements which we are agreed upon for reconciliation. Hamas forbade the PA to carry out the elections in Gaza, not only legislative elections, and also in the in syndicates, trade unions, and student unions. We discussed this matter more than ten years with Hamas with Egypt as the intermediary. Hamas refused all the agreements.
Is this move toward elections the result of international pressure?
One of the aspects of our move towards holding elections is the international community who puts pressure on us hold elections, but it not the main cause. We need this election to renew our leadership among the lawmakers of Palestinian government.
Germany has given the PA around $120 million last year. What did it get in return for that money?
A lot of countries especially Arab countries support the PA to protect the peace process. European countries have also given aid to the PA because we haven't got any income on the Palestinian side. The PA receives yearly, about 50% of its budget from the donors: Germany, France, Europe, and Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Algeria. These donations help us to continue our steps towards peace. If they are stopped, there’s no way to achieve peace.
What do you think of the German parliament's decision to equate the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign with anti-Semitism?
The French parliament also took a similar decision and I think they are both wrong. We condemn the decisions of these parliaments. During the apartheid regime in South Africa, all the international community took the same steps against it to find a solution for the people of South Africa. If the international community wants to made peace in the Middle East, then it will need to put pressure on Israel. One of the mechanisms to do this is to boycott Israel to get them to agree to the international agreements which they have signed. Which they promised to implement. It is not a means of discriminating against the Jewish people.
You've been very critical recently of the United States. Why did you call Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “a war criminal”?
Because Pompeo declared that the settlements in the West Bank do not violate international law. If we look at the Geneva or Rome Agreements, transferring people from their land and to put other people there instead is criminal. It’s a crime. We ask Pompeo to take back this statement. He has also encouraged Israel to continue to enlarge their settlements and their building in the West Bank. We condemn everything.
Is a solution possible with the current relationship between the US and Israel?
The US refused to reach a peace agreement between us because there is a change in the US’ interest in our area. President Trump has contradicted all the former positions of the American presidents on the peace process, like those of Obama, George W Bush or Clinton. Instead, he recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital which the former presidents refused to do. He transferred the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He cancelled aid to UNWRA. He also closed our PLO office in Washington. And now the declaration about the settlements in the West Bank which violates international law. So, the US administration removed everything from the table. There’s nothing left to discuss with Israel. There are no discussions with the US except for the security channels because is a protocol agreed upon between the Palestinian security and the Americans to deal with terrorism.
Do you think that future Israeli elections will affect the holding of the Palestinian elections?
Likud and the others both encourage the enlargement of settlements. Both want to annex the Jordan Valley. There is no difference between them. The Israeli encourages the right-wing and extreme elements.
What about the Netanyahu indictment? Will that have any impact?
It’s a matter for Israel which has no impact on us. We wish to remove Netanyahu from the Israeli government. We don't want Netanyahu to continue as a prime minister of Israel. But the indictment of Netanyahu is a matter for the Israelis not the Palestinians.
Would Benny Ganz be preferable to Netanyahu?
Anybody is better than Netanyahu.
Regardless of who emerges as the prime minister of Israel. Is the two-state solution still viable going forward?
Yes, of course, because this was our agreement with the Israelis in the Oslo Accords when we recognised the existence of Israel. If there is no two-state solution it will be a one state solution; it will be apartheid. There’ll be discrimination between the Jews and the Arabs. The one state solution is against the Israelis, not against the Palestinians. In the long run it will be in our interest not Israel’s. So, I advise the Israelis to agree to the two-state solution.
Who are the main candidates to become PA president?
Our candidate is President Mahmoud Abbas. From Fatah's side, the only candidate is Mahmoud Abbas. I believe the majority of the Palestinians will elect Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem. Because there is no alternative. Any change of leadership within Fatah will happen at our eighth conference in 2021. Our seventh conference was in 2016, in which my colleagues and I were elected, and we will continue in our roles until the next conference.
What was the PA’s response to the flare up in tensions between Gaza and Israel in November?
We refuse the undeclared agreement between Hamas and Israel Hamas seeks to make peace with Israel, so fund facilities for the Palestinians. Every month the PA pays about $100 million to the Gaza Strip for electricity, water, sewage and medicine.
Why haven’t PA employees in Gaza been paid since 2006 in the Gaza Strip?
We are trying our best to resolve this.
What do you say to accusation made in a recent Human Rights Watch report that the PA is mistreating those in its prisons?
Why don't they criticise Hamas? And what is does to our people in Gaza not only in the prisons but also in the street.
Would you consider putting yourself forward as a candidate for the presidency?
I had my chance, now it’s time for others. When I was interim president, I was so afraid because I wanted the hand over the authority to the incoming president to be smooth and peaceful. I spent about 65 days, horrible days, doing so. But I am proud now that I was able to hand over the government quickly and peacefully without any problems. It was difficult to govern but I focused on myself and took it step by step.
How was it to follow Yasser Arafat?
The charisma of Yasser Arafat was different from any Palestinian leader. Up until now we can reach the same charisma of Arafat. When Mahmoud Abbas, who I was supportive of, won the election I advised him about that. Because even now the children of Palestine admire Arafat. I believe that Abu Mazen is the last person who can make peace with Israel and after him it is going to be difficult to find another leader.
Rahwi Fattouh, 70, is currently a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, responsible for international affairs, a position he has held since 2016. He served as the speaker of Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) from 2004 to 2006 and following the death of Yasser Arafat he was the interim president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) for two months in 2005. Between 2006 and 2016 he was the personal representative to the PA president, Mahmoud Abbas.