Abu Ala and Uri Savir sat across from one another at the pivotal Oslo peace talks in 1993. These veteran negotiators recently discussed Jerusalem’s future with Vision publisher David Hulme.
Abu Ala is Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council and represented Palestinian interests in the Oslo peace talks.
DH What is the importance of Jerusalem in relation to Palestinian identity?
AA Jerusalem is the capital of the Palestinian state. It is the head, the heart of the Palestinian state—the heart of the Palestinian identity. Without Jerusalem, I don’t think peace will be achieved. Therefore, this is the most important element of the peace process.
DH Has the Palestinian position on Jerusalem shifted somewhat, since you are willing to say, “We don’t want the city to be divided ever again”?
AA We never said it would never be divided; we said it may be an open city. The nonnegotiable issue in the conflict over Jerusalem is sovereignty. Sovereignty is not negotiable. Modalities can be negotiated: what kind of security, how to reach the religious places, transportation, taxes—even municipal wards can be negotiated. But the matter of sovereignty is nonnegotiable. We have an ideological solution for that: When I, as a Palestinian, take my car and can go all over Jerusalem—East and West—and feel that it is my city, and the Israeli can take his car and go wherever—East and West—and feel it is his city, and you come from Europe, the United States or any other place and feel that there is a special status to this city and that you are at home—I think then we can have a permanent solution to Jerusalem. Otherwise it will be a time bomb. It can be quiet today, but nobody can guarantee that after some days or some years it will remain that way. This is what the negotiators and the decision makers should take into consideration if they want to find a real solution.
DH Are you talking about joint sovereignty?
AA No, I’m speaking about sovereignty in East Jerusalem for the Palestinians and in West Jerusalem for the Israelis. Sovereignty in East Jerusalem is not negotiable for the Palestinians. After that, cooperation with regard to special status, tourism, economy, joint ventures in East and West, taxes, municipal wards, coexistence, transportation—the details can be negotiated and can be agreed upon. But sovereignty is a matter that is nonnegotiable. I say this because I know the leaders’ positions very well, and I know the people’s positions.
DH When you talk about East and West, where does the Old City fit into the discussion?
AA It’s in the East—in East Jerusalem.
DH Is the idea of an internationalized city foreign to you?
AA We cannot forgive even one centimeter of the 1967 borders, whether in Jerusalem or outside Jerusalem. The Palestinians still have many interests and properties in West Jerusalem—many Palestinian villages. They are the property of the people and should be discussed. I think this is our duty.
DH Is Jerusalem a more important issue than other final-status issues that are on the table?
AA All the issues are important. I cannot go for an agreement without solving the problem of settlements, of borders, of Jerusalem. I cannot go for an agreement without solving the most difficult and important issue for the Palestinian: the refugee problem. How to solve it? The right of return has been recognized by the United Nations—by UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East], which maintains this as a problem that should be solved. The mandate of UNRWA has been renewed annually, and all the world supports it. Therefore, this is the main problem. There are about 4,500,000 Palestinians abroad. How to solve their problems—this is the challenge. If we are able to face this problem, then we will be able to settle others. The territorial problem: it’s important. The refugee problem: it’s very important. Future relations: very important. All the issues surrounding permanent status are very important.
DH Are you optimistic about the future of Jerusalem?
AA I’m optimistic. There are difficulties; I cannot underestimate the difficulties, but I am optimistic. Otherwise, I should go home.
DH What about Abu Dis as the Palestinian capital? Some Palestinians say it is an insult to suggest that it should be the capital. There are others who say that semantically it may well be part of Jerusalem if we go to some expanded idea of the city.
AA I don’t want to comment about what anybody said. Abu Dis is a village two kilometers from Jerusalem. It’s part of East Jerusalem, not an alternative to Jerusalem. Abu Dis without Jerusalem is zero; it is nothing. Abu Dis is part of Jerusalem.
DH When you are negotiating, of course, the Arab states are looking over your shoulder because Jerusalem is important to them.
AA That’s true, and we cannot make the decision alone without consulting the Arabs and the Muslims in the world. Jerusalem is not only for the Palestinians. Muslims everywhere look to Jerusalem like they look to Mecca. It’s the holy place of all Muslims and Arabs; therefore, it is a Palestinian decision, but with Arab and Muslim support—and Christian. The Christians, the Muslims and the Arabs must support the solution; otherwise it will not survive. We cannot avoid it. Like the problem of the refugees: we cannot solve it without consultation and agreement with the refugees’ host countries—Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and others.
DH Is Israeli identity changing somewhat?
AA Well, no doubt there are changes in Israeli society toward the Palestinians—even among the leaders. If I compare how it is today and how it was in 1993 and ’94, there is a big difference. But I think we can do it on an equal basis—not just as a father who helps his children. We can do it. We, the Palestinians, have experience in construction, economy, business, etc. We can cooperate. They have something to give, and we also have many things to give.
DH Shimon Peres told me that the Palestinians are highly intelligent people and if we don’t both use our brains together in this area of the world, a world that is becoming more and more borderless because of technology, then we miss a great opportunity.
AA Yes, I would agree with Mr. Peres. He is a good friend; I know his perspective. He has a broad vision and he knows, even in his vision for the security of Israel, that peace with the Palestinians is very important and that future cooperation is one of the prerequisites to support this peace.
DH There appears to be great moderation on both sides, and those of you who are talking to each other, and in the committees, seem to me to represent either a very changed position or the emergence of a more reasonable, enlightened, moderate position on this whole issue.
AA I think that the people on both sides are more ripe than at any other time for reaching a conclusion to live together. We are two people in one land—one small land. The Palestinians are like a cancer in the Israelis’ stomach, and the Israelis are riding on our shoulders. Whether they will be able to take the cancer out and live, and whether we will be able to take them off our shoulders—I think it will be difficult to reach an agreement. If this is taken into consideration, I think there is a possibility. The Palestinians can be the most important element of security. And the Israelis—we can never underestimate how they also are an important element of the peace in the region.
DH Is the whole question not moral in nature?
AA No doubt there is a very important moral side in this. It is not only the tanks and the armies and the missiles. No, there is a moral side. There is also demography, which is very important. We are a fact in this land. Nobody can avoid this fact.