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P.A. prime minister: 'Not time to start peace talks'
Washington Jewish Week / October 26, 2011

By Larry Luxner

Salam Fayyad, prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority, told a roomful of some of the nation’s most influential Arab-Americans last week that a resumption of negotiations with Israel would be pointless right now.

Speaking Oct. 19 at the American Task Force on Palestine’s Sixth Annual Gala — held at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington — Fayyad said talks between the Fatah-led PA and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had gone nowhere.

“We do not underestimate the importance of dialogue, but conditions are not right for a resumption of talks at this time, in a way that’s capable of producing the outcome we all want to see,” he said. “It’s like trying to push an elephant through a needle. The elephant is too big, and the needle is too small.”

Fayyad’s speech to 650 diplomats, dignitaries, lobbyists and other movers and shakers — most of whom had paid $250 each to be there — came three years after his last keynote address to the ATFP, which according to its mission statement “advocates the establishment of a democratic state of Palestine living in peace and security alongside Israel in the territories occupied in 1967, in accordance with international law and the relevant United Nations resolutions.”

It also followed a widely publicized split between ATFP’s president, Dr. Ziad Asali, and the Palestinian Authority, after Asali published an article in Foreign Affairs magazine criticizing efforts by PA President Mahmoud Abbas to have an independent state of Palestine recognized by the United Nations.

Nevertheless, Fayyad’s speech was received warmly by his largely sympathetic audience, which included 17 foreign ambassadors, some of whom — like Albania’s Gilbert Galanxhi, St. Lucia’s Michael Louis and the Dominican Republic’s Anibal de Castro — had met Fayyad in August during a trip to Israel and the West Bank sponsored by The Israel Project. All three attended the ATFP dinner as guests of The Israel Project, said the organization’s co-founder and president, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who sponsored an entire table.

Several Israeli Embassy diplomats were also on the guest list, as was Aharon Barnea, correspondent for Israel’s Channel 2, and a handful of senior Obama administration officials. The gloom of the prime minister’s keynote speech contrasted with event’s otherwise festive mood and the lavish dinner of spiced butternut squash soup, medallion of veal, roasted seasonal root vegetables, mandarin orange sorbet and chocolate crumble.

Fayyad, insisting that “all we are looking for is a viable, sovereign state on 22% of British Mandate Palestine,” said the current dismal outlook doesn’t mean Israelis and Palestinians should stop trying to reach out to each other. “However, he said, “all it’s likely to produce under current conditions is defensiveness.”

“If we don’t get what we want, who is going to prevent this struggle from becoming a struggle for equal voting rights? What we want is freedom from Israel, not the right to vote in Israel. We need all the help we can get.”

Fayyad, 59, assumed his current post in June 2007. An internationally respected economist, he is widely seen as pro-Western. In introducing the prime minister, ATFP’s Asali called him a “man of courage, principle and conviction” who would work tirelessly for an independent state of Palestine.

Yet Fayyad urged his audience not to be “misled” by Netanyahu’s insistence that all both sides need to do is sit down and talk.

“It’s not for lack of talking,” he argued. “What we Palestinians would like is some assurance what exactly the prime minister of Israel has in mind when he talks of a Palestinian state. We’re past the point of saying ‘we’re ready to negotiate.’ It troubles me that the language he uses continues to be, ‘We do not wish to have control over the lives of Palestinians.’

“Language like this was good years ago, but now we need more specifics,” he continued. “There is not going to be a solution acceptable to Palestinians that does not include Jerusalem as the permanent capital of the state of Palestine.”

Fayyad blasted the Netanyahu government’s recent decision to build 2,610 new apartment units in a development south of East Jerusalem — and said the Israel Defense Forces must do a better job of controlling Jewish settlers who engage in violence against their Arab neighbors in the West Bank.

“A much greater effort must be made by the Israeli Army to prevent acts of violence against Palestinians. After all, they are the occupying power,” Fayyad said in reference to a recent spate attacks against Palestinian villages and the torching of mosques by ultra-Orthodox Jews. “Those responsible for these actions must be held accountable. We see very little of that.”

Fayyad noted a “massive improvement” in the security situation on the ground, a reality he said has also been recognized by the Israeli government.

“So why does the army continue to send its troops into our villages?” he asked. “We have a strong presence and can actually improve security conditions in areas under PA control. Those raids must stop. Apart from the obvious damage they do, they also undermine the authority of the PA.”

Despite the obstacles imposed by Israel’s occupation, said Fayyad, said the poverty rate in the West Bank dropped substantially from 2007 to 2009, “more than enough to compensate for the rise in poverty from 2006 to 2007” — to the point where the poverty rate in PA-controlled areas is below what it was in 2004.

He added that since its inception in 1994, the PA has received $3.465 billion in U.S. aid, 70% of that from 2007 to 2011. Nearly $900 million was in the form of cash assistance, “a sign of confidence by the U.S. Congress in our ability to manage, corruption-free, large sums of money.” Yet in Gaza, which is under Hamas control, 34% of inhabitants live below the poverty line, nearly double that of the West Bank.

“The majority on both sides believes in a two-state solution. To some extent, there has been a major transformation on both sides. Many Israelis follow what we have been trying to do, building a state of Palestine based on the foundations and principles similar to the great values of this great nation,” said Fayyad, adding: “I believe it’s just a matter of time before the Israeli occupation ends — not only because it’s oppressive to us, but also because it’s corrosive to the Israelis.”

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