Although the Palestinian Authority is planning new elections for early 2005, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom suggested Wednesday the vote will do nothing to promote the peace process, revealing for the first time that the current leadership rebuffed an offer to meet with him earlier this year.
Shalom, in a Jewish Week interview Wednesday, said that while visiting Spain a few months ago, then Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Martinos told him during dinner that Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath were coming to Madrid.
“Are you ready to meet with them tomorrow?” Martinos asked, according to Shalom.
“My flight is leaving at 10 in the morning, but if they give you a positive answer, I will do it,” Shalom said he replied.
At about 1 a.m., Shalom said he was informed that the “Palestinians are ready to have a meeting, but they would like first that I make a statement that we are going to release [Palestinian President Yasir] Arafat before this meeting will take place. So of course it was a joke. It was absurd.”
Shalom said he then knew “very well” that the Palestinian leaders are not serious about negotiating “because they know that if they do, they would be asked to fight against terrorism and incitement and violence, something that they are not willing to do.”
Efforts to reach Shaath and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat for comment were unsuccessful.
Shalom pointed out that Qureia, also known as Abu Ala, was appointed to his post a year ago and has yet to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
“He knows that his first meeting will bring the ‘road map’ [for peace] back on track, and then he will be asked by the whole international community to implement Phase One, which means that he should dismantle the infrastructure of terrorist organizations,” Shalom said. “And that is something he doesn’t want to do.”
In a phone interview from Israel, Shalom said also that even if Arafat were re-elected, it would not change Israel’s decision to expel him from the region. And he said he supports a referendum on Israel’s planned disengagement from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements, which Sharon has ruled out.
In addition, Shalom applauded the Sept. 2 UN Security Council resolution calling on Syria to withdraw its 20,000 troops from Lebanon. He said Syria would leave if the international community exerted enough pressure, paving the way for normal relations between Israel and Lebanon.
Shalom, who plans to arrive here next week for the UN General Assembly meeting that began Tuesday, said the Palestinian elections scheduled for early next year are meaningless.
“I have heard more than once that Arafat is the elected president,” he said. “My answer to that is that Saddam Hussein was elected, too. That does not say it was an open election and a democratic one. So while Arafat is running, no one is running against him.
“All the good candidates are very much afraid to run against him,” Shalom said. “So we can’t accept these kind of elections.”
Shalom pointed out that after the Aug. 31 double bus suicide bombings in Beersheva, the Israel Defense Forces killed 15 Hamas terrorists in Gaza. Qureia responded by saying that Hamas could now legitimately carry out reprisal attacks.
“That is a very, very extreme reaction by the Palestinian prime minister, and of course with every kind of suicide attack that will be carried out by Hamas, the blood of the victims will be on the hands of Abu Ala,” Shalom said.
He insisted that Qureia is not and has never been a peace partner but rather is “part of the puppet regime of Arafat.”
Shalom said the road map is on hold while Arafat is in power, explaining “there is no hope that there will be new Palestinian leadership that will be ready to talk to us.”
“If Arafat won’t be there, it will be different,” he said. “I think we should do everything in order to expel Arafat out of the territories — and the sooner the better.”
In the meantime Israel is proceeding with its disengagement plan. Shalom said he favors bringing the plan before Israeli voters in the form of a referendum, an idea backed by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but ruled out by Sharon because it would delay the withdrawal process that is scheduled to begin in March.
“I was always in favor of referendums,” Shalom said. “It should be checked seriously and if it would be possible to do it, I’m in favor of it.”
Asked if he believed the disengagement plan is reversible, Shalom replied: “The prime minister said he is very determined, so I don’t think he will give up about this plan.”
Regarding Syria, Shalom recalled that some criticized him when he first suggested eight months ago that Syria should be pressured to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. He expressed his gratitude to France and the United States for leading the way in the United Nations on this issue and said he believes that “if we push, we will put pressure on the Syrians and they will leave Lebanon. It will free Lebanon and it might bring normal relations between Israel and Lebanon.”
In addition, Shalom said the international community should “isolate Iran and Syria” because both are terrorist nations.
“The headquarters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad are still open in Damascus,” he said. “The training camps are still there. And the border between Syria and Iraq is the main entrance for terrorists who are coming to Iraq to carry out attacks against coalition forces in Iraq.”