DESPITE THE STALLED peace process, Ahmed Qurei (known by his nom de guerre, Abu Ala) still believes in a twostate solution. There’s no choice, he tells The Jerusalem Report. Otherwise, things will be very bad.
Israeli policies leave him frustrated. “Every day I hear about and see new buildings in the settlements and laws passed in the Knesset that send us a clear message – a message that Israel does not want to make any progress in the peace process,” he says.
As long as the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah and Gaza was viable, Abu Ala’s leadership among the Palestinians in Ramallah remained strong. Even after the bloody al-Aqsa intifada in 2000, Yasser Arafat’s death six years ago, and the PA’s loss of control in Gaza, Abu Ala tried to save the peace process.
But he wasn’t able to. His leadership weakened and withered, like the peace process itself. Only a few years ago (until 2006) he was prime minister of the Palestinian government, chairman of the Parliament and a serious challenger to Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as heir to the role of the Palestinian president. He still holds various positions in the PA, in Palestinian national institutions and in the PLO – but his stature and position are not what they once were.
For many months, he headed the drawn-out negotiations with Tzipi Livni, when she served as Israel’s foreign minister. Afterwards, he lost in the internal elections in Fatah and relinquished his position on the Central Council. His voice is heard in public much less now.
A short, balding man, he smiles frequently. His body language is decisive. He suffered a heart attack years ago and underwent prolonged treatments but he continues to smoke. He says he can’t stop.
He was born in the town of Abu Dis, now part of Jerusalem, in 1937. After completing his studies, he worked for years as an economist and banker in Saudi Arabia. During the 1967 Six-Day War, he joined Fatah and soon took on key roles as an economist and financial expert, reaching the position of head of the economic department of the PLO. He wandered with Arafat and the Palestinian leadership from Beirut to Tunis, where he was selected for the PLO Central Committee, and, together with Abbas, headed the Palestinian negotiating teams for the Oslo agreement.
Ever since his return from Tunis, in 1994, and the establishment of the PA in Ramallah, he has lived in Abu Dis and filled several senior positions in the Palestinian government. In 1996, he was elected by a large margin to the Palestinian Parliament and then as chairman of the Parliament. In 2003, he was appointed by Arafat to be prime minister, a position he held until Fatah’s defeat by Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006.
He was replaced by Ismail Haniyeh, a representative of Hamas, who established a shortlived unity government. Today in the PA, there are two governments: one in Ramallah, headed by Salaam Fayyad, and the Hamas-led government in Gaza, headed by Haniyeh. (In Ramallah, they refer to the government in Gaza as the government that was “fired.”)
ABU DIS IS ESSENTIALLY a suburb of East Jerusalem. At one time, to reach Qurei’s home and nearby office from within Jerusalem, it was possible to take the road over Mount Scopus toward Jericho, a distance of some 15 minutes from the Damascus Gate. But that traditional road is now blocked by the eight-meter-high security barrier, which cuts across Abu Dis. Abu Dis and the next town over, Eizariya, are part of Area B, in which the Palestinians have control over civilian issues, but security remains in the Israelis’ hands. As a result, in order to reach Abu Dis today, it is necessary to take the new road to Jericho, go through the tunnel under Mount Scopus, cross the “Zeitim” checkpoint on the road that leads down to the Dead Sea, and pass by the entrance to Ma’aleh Adumim. From there, turning right, back onto the old road to Jerusalem, past the crowded marketplaces of Eizariya and the church that marks the place where Jesus resurrected Elazar (Lazarus), one reaches, after a minute or two traveling southward, the offices of Abu Ala.
Abu Ala quickly gives the impression that he is a man who has been disappointed. He explains that ever since the 1991 Madrid peace conference and the 1993 Oslo Accords, Palestinian representatives have negotiated with no fewer than eight Israeli prime ministers. And, each time, they had to start nearly from scratch. Even when he began the long series of meetings with Livni, she told him to forget about what had been in the past and start with a clean slate. They talked and talked, established committees for the important topics, but couldn’t reach any conclusions. “Our progress wasn’t bad, but we weren’t able to conclude anything. Ehud Olmert as prime minister negotiated with Chairman Abu Mazen, and they made progress too, but couldn’t reach an agreement.” The result, he says, is that the political process, the negotiations, are completely stuck. The Israelis and Palestinians are unable to agree on almost anything.”
What would happen if the process fails? Will the PA fall apart? Qurei says it’s possible. “Abu Mazen has said several times that he will not continue in his position, and the fate of the PA is unclear. The PA might definitely come apart, which would leave, in my opinion, two possibilities: either there will be general chaos or there will be a Hamas-led government. The faouda (chaos, in Arabic) won’t be like it was in the year 2000; it will be much worse. It could be a catastrophe for us. I don’t know, maybe the right-wing government in Israel wants this to happen. That’s why we have to do everything to ensure that it doesn’t.”
Qurei does not believe that Hamas could take over the West Bank – unless. “At this time, Hamas doesn’t have a majority in the West Bank. That’s what all the surveys show, and that’s the general sense of the public. But Hamas has succeeded in Gaza. Their government is stable. They were able to get rid of the chaos that had taken over Gaza and to install law and order. Hamas has money and support from abroad, from Iran. In terms of the Iranians, Hamas in Gaza and Hizballah in Lebanon are two success stories. It’s the first time in modern history that Iran has a foothold in the Mediterranean and they want to keep it.” But if the peace process comes to a full halt, he continues, then Hamas has a real chance. After all, if there’s no peace process, then no one needs Fatah or Abbas, and Hamas will prevail. The PLO is what is needed for negotiations; Hamas is what is needed for the struggle.
He further explains that radical Islam is the central problem not only of the Arab world. Extremist Muslim groups can be found from Indonesia to Europe. In Saudi Arabia, ostensibly aligned with the West, dozens of extremist terrorist cells were just recently exposed.
And the conflict with Israel aids those extremists, he adds. “The conflict with Israel is not the main reason for the rise of Muslim fundamentalism, but it is definitely an important contribution. If we solve the conflict here, it could definitely quiet things down.”
He believes that the issue of the refugees from 1948, which is anathema to the Israelis and continues to be a central obstacle to the resolution of the conflict, should be solved “individually and not collectively. That is, every descendant of a family of refugees should know that as far as he is concerned, the problem has been solved, finally. Families of refugees are scattered in Israel and the Palestinian territories, in the Arab states and throughout the entire world. I propose that we develop a personal questionnaire and ask them, how, in their opinion, the problem should be solved. It’s fairly clear to me that only a very few of them will say that the only way is to return to their homes and property within the State of Israel. The vast majority will suggest rehabilitation and compensation – so actually, Israel has nothing to worry about. In that way, the refugees will have a feeling that their issue has been taken care of and the problem will be solved once and for all.”
Qurei is currently head of the Jerusalem Department of the PLO, but besides the name of the portfolio, he has little power. His predecessor was the renowned Faisal el-Husseini, who controlled the Orient House in Jerusalem. From the windows of his home and office, he has a view of the immense building that was supposed to house the Palestinian Parliament and is now abandoned and neglected, al-Quds University, and, beyond them, the security barrier and the slopes of the Mount of Olives towards the Gate of Mercy on the eastern side of the Old City.
When asked if the Palestinians will agree to leave the blocs of settlements surrounding Jerusalem in Israeli hands, he answers definitively, “You have to understand how much damage the huge settler-city of Ma’aleh Adumim has caused us because it closes off Palestinian Jerusalem from the east. The future Palestinian state must be based on the tourism industry. We don’t have any other economic resources,” he says.
“The millions of tourists who will come here in the future will want to visit the holy places, in Jerusalem and its surroundings. They will come from the east, from Jordan, Christians and Muslims. If Ma’aleh Adumim and the Israeli settlements block their way, they just won’t come. All of the publications regarding retaining the blocs of settlements talk about percentages – what percentage of the West Bank will remain in Israel and what percentage of territory will the Palestinians receive in return. That’s the wrong approach. The question is the quality and location of those territories. Like the human body – a certain percentage of a hand is not equal to the same percentage of the heart – and Jerusalem and its surroundings are, of course, our heart.”