Palestinian Foreign Minister speaks in Tel Aviv

It may be the first time it has ever happened.

Certainly, it’s the first time in a very, very long time.  A Palestinian Minister addressed a predominantly Israeli audience in Tel Aviv last night.

Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki addressed an overflow audience at a Tel Aviv conference on Thursday evening.

The conference in Tel Aviv was convened to discuss the “Annapolis Middle East Peace Conference – a Diverse Range of Perspectives”, and was co-organized by the Peres Peace Center and by the Herzliya office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. The discussion was moderated by the Peres Center’s Dr. Ron Pundak, who was one of the chief Israeli participants, together with Palestinian representatives Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qurei, in secret talks that were sponsored by Norway and that opened the way to Israeli-PLO recognition in September 1993 and the Oslo process of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.  As a result, the Palestinian Authority was established in the West Bank and Gaza – which the Olso Accords say are a single territorial unit.

As it happened, while the public conference was taking place at Tel Aviv University on Thursday evening, the heads of the Palestinian and Israeli negotiating teams — Ahmed Qurei and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, respectively — were also meeting elsewhere in Tel Aviv, in private session.

Apparently, in the wake of the struggle that left Hamas in charge of Gaza but kicked out of a Palestinian National Unity government, the charm offensive toward Mahmoud Abbas’ Ramallah-based administration, some things have eased for some Palestinians: all ministers in Hamas-free emergency government now have permits to enter Israel anytime. These permits, initially issued for a three-month period, have since been extended another three months, until the end of the year. The Ramallah-based Ministers can enter Israel freely, but must just inform the Israeli soldiers of their passage at the “border crossing” checkpoint they use.

Maliki told his audience that: “I do represent the government that it is clear about its own obligations – then it will demand of Israel to do the same” . Al-Maliki, who spoke in English, said that “We are a government that comes to cooperate and not to compete – I am referring to security here. Our success in security will be an Israeli success, too.”

Earlier in the day, in an interview in Ramallah, the Palestinian Minister for Detainees and ex-Detainee Affairs, Ashraf al-Ajrami, complained that just the launch of a campaign by a re-built Palestinian security services to impose security and collect unauthorized weaponry in Nablus and in the neighboring Balata refugee camp earlier in the week, the Israeli Defense forces had then also entered Balata and “did everything to confuse our effort”.

Ajrami said that the U.S. security advisor Lt. General Dayton subsequently came to see the situation in Nablus and visited all the Palestinian security centers there – and then, Ajrami said he believed, General Dayton explained to the Israelis that it had been a mistake for their forces to enter Balata after the Palestinian security services had acted there. Ajrami also said he believed that Dayton had also urged the Israelis to refrain from interfering, or from undermining what was a “good and positive” Palestinian step.

The Palestinian operation in Nablus was the first move in a campaign that will be extended to all cities, towns and villages, Ajrami said.

In Tel Aviv on Thursday evening, Maliki said that “Israel cannot have security if Palestinians cannot have their own state within 1967 borders”. Maliki insisted that “these two issues are intertwined, and one cannot be put before the other – both should go in parallel”.

The Palestinian Foreign Minister observed that “Israel has passed through 60 years [of existence], and it is still asking for its security today – maybe we’ll still be looking for another 60 years”.

Maliki argued: “Why is there no security? Israel did not allow an independent Palestinian state to be created.” Many of the members of the audience visibly shifted in their seats as he said these words. Maliki then stated that “An independent Palestinian state is the guarantee of Israeli security. We are looking for a win-win situation.”

Maliki said at the public conference that “What we want from Annapolis is a set-up to create a process, a real process, that can take us, through time, through six stations – borders, settlements, Jerusalem, refugees, security, and water. Ultimately, when we arrive at the end of these six stations, we will arrive at a peace agreement that will try to put an end to the conflict”. Then, he stated, “we will have a peace agreement we can sign, and the conflict will be over”.

However, Maliki noted, while the Palestinians are talking about a document, the Israelis are talking about a declaration, which they want to have three parts: (1) a preamble, with the Road Map and the Bush vision as terms of reference – while, Maliki said, the Palestinians are insisting that the Arab Peace initiative also be included; (2) the six core or pending issues, or “stations” mentioned above; and (3) a description of what comes later — and this, Maliki added, is a point “that really worries us – including the nature and magnitude of the actions on the ground that really should be implemented, the obligations and commitments. While we want to start with our own obligations, before asking Israel to do its obligations, we do want to see that the attitude and mentality is changing on the ground”.

Maliki explained that “We cannot go back to Oslo, and we should not be involved again in such a process. We should learn the lessons from it … We need to end the suffering of our people, and establish a independent, contiguous Palestinian state next to a secure state of Israel”.

Maliki also said that any agreement arising out of the Annapolis process would be put to a referendum of Palestinian voters.

Other speakers at the conference were former Palestinian Minister for Detainees and ex-Detainee Affairs, Hisham Abdel-Razeq (who apparently arrived directly from Gaza for the conference and returned immediately afterwards); Israeli Minister without Portfolio Ami Ayalon; and former Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

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