Hanna Siniora and Fayez Abu Rahmeh: The Palestinian-Jordanian Joint Delegation
After weeks of speculation about which Palestinians would be included in the proposed joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation, on 18 July 1985 the East Jerusalem newspaper al-Quds published the final list of names. Although Israeli Prime Minister Peres initially rejected all the names, he later reversed his position and accepted the two who are residents of the occupied territories-Hanna Siniora and Fayez Abu Rahmeh. The PLO then countered by insisting that these men would be considered consultants, but not full-fledged members of such a delegation. Below are interviews by JPS with Siniora and Abu Rahmeh, in which they discuss the list, their roles, the February 1985 Palestinian-Jordanian accord, and their views of the future.
Hanna Siniora was born in Jerusalem in 1937. After completing a B. S. in pharmacy in Benares, India in 1969, he returned to the West Bank to work in Jerusalem. In February 1974, after al-Fajr editor Yusuf Nasr was kidnapped, Siniora was asked to help with the management of the paper. He later became responsible editor and in 1983 became editor-in-chief. In 1980, he started the weekly English language al-Fajr and became its editor. He was interviewed for JPS on 26 and 27 July 1985 in Jerusalem by Khalil Shikaki, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Columbia University.
Shikaki: Israeli Prime Minister Peres reversed his position on the list of names for the Palestinian-Jordanian delegation. He now considers two names acceptable to the Israeli government. What is your assessment of the reversal?
Siniora: At first, Peres said that no nominees were from the occupied territories, then he said that he did not accept any name in the list. Finally he said he could live with names of those from the occupied territories. The change in attitude may be explained by factors related to Israel's internal politics and problems of the coalition government. Peres faces constraints from his partners in the government. He chose the two names because they are people from the occupied territories.
Shikaki: Did he choose your name because you are from the occupied territories or because he saw you as a "moderate"?
Siniora: I have been consistent in my thinking in wanting to see the end of the Israeli occupation of the territories occupied in 1967. I believe this can happen by political means and not through the use of force. Force has failed in the past to achieve a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli problem. This has been demonstrated by the failure of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which was carried out by General Sharon and backed by the Likud government. At the same time, I am realistic enough to understand that Israel is a reality, and we have to face this reality. By we, I mean the Palestinians and the PLO.
Shikaki: Are you asking the PLO to give up armed struggle?
Siniora: I believe that the only way to a solution is through the meeting of the PLO and the Israeli government. Both should sit down to negotiate- under an agreed formula-the borders of a Palestinian state and an Israeli state. I believe our two peoples are fated to live together. We-the Palestinians-have tried the military option; we relied on Arab states in 1948 and in 1967 and we lost every inch of Palestine. The Israelis, too, tried through many military campaigns to destroy the PLO and its military and other infrastructures, but they failed to achieve their aims. I want to emphasize that both sides failed to achieve their aims by relying on force. Today, the Palestinian question is still supreme; it is still an issue the whole world cannot ignore. But other ways have to be sought to achieve a settlement whereby Palestine can be a homeland for two peoples. Whether we like it or not, it is a homeland for two peoples. This applies to both sides. The political approach is the only approach now. In all sincerity, we have to give the political approach every chance to demonstrate once again to the whole world, and in particular to the Western public, that the Palestinians are making every effort to reach an agreement. Deep in our hearts we believe that there is no just peace because justice is on our side. But a realistic solution will cost us the greater part of Palestine.
Shikaki: Do you consider yourself a representative of all or most groups in the occupied territories?
Siniora: The majority of Palestinians in the occupied territories are behind the present leadership of the PLO. They have also come to understand that what Mr. Arafat is seeking is a solution that will be able to give the Palestinians a flag and soil to call their own. At the same time, they know that it will be a difficult choice, accepting the state of Israel on Palestinian soil.
Shikaki: From where do you derive your legitimacy as a representative of the Palestinian people?
Siniora: I derive my legitimacy from being a Palestinian living under occupation, working endlessly to see that this occupation is brought to an end, and trying to reflect not only my views but the views of the majority of Palestinians, as reflected by polls by local and foreign journalists.
Shikaki: Should all Palestinian groups be involved in decision making regarding a settlement?
Siniora: I believe the democratic process should be the means by which the Palestinians participate in decision making. All groups should be allowed to express their views. Majority rule should be tried and accepted. If there is any opposition, it should be a loyal one to help the majority. I believe that all the Palestinians want is to remove the Israeli occupation from all the territories occupied in 1967. If this is the aim, then those who can should be allowed to try; if they fail, the loyal opposition can still carry the flag forward, and the Palestinian cause will not be accused of not having tried.
Shikaki: What is your position regarding the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories?
Siniora: Israel should relinquish all settlements in the occupied territories and hand them over intact to the future Palestinian state to be used as absorption stations for Palestinians returning to the Palestinian state.
Shikaki: Should the settlers stay?
Siniora: A small minority of Israelis who want to live in the state of Palestine should first of all be accepted by the Palestinians. They should then ask for Palestinian citizenship and agree to live and abide by Palestinian regulations. Every state has a small foreign community in its midst. I believe a Palestinian state that believes in democracy will also accept a small contingent of other people who want to identify with it. I don't believe there would be more than a few thousand.
Shikaki: How do you see the proposed confederation with Jordan?
Siniora: Every Arab at a certain stage of thinking is a Pan-Arabist. I believe this sense of belonging is more accentuated among Palestinians. If we can help, through the example of a Palestinian-Jordanian confederation, then this is a first step in the right direction. Even if we solve the problem of Palestine, we, the Arabs of the whole region, still cherish the dream of consolidating Arab nationalism. I believe if we can succeed in developing a joint relationship based on understanding, cooperation, and equal partnership, we can find other Arab states that will join this confederation. But, of course, it is still too early to look for this because the Jordanian- Palestinian confederation is in the talking stage and can be realized only when the Palestinians have their own state and then of their own will join with the state of Jordan in the proposed confederation, based on a treaty of partnership and equality. That is how I interpret the Palestinian-Jordanian accord which was ratified in Amman between the PLO and the Jordanian government. Both sides have to reassure and build confidence in the other side because the past relationship has been full of conflicts-take, for example, the September 1970 confrontation between the Palestinians and Jordanians. Both parties should make every effort to repair the damages and to instill confidence between the two sides.
Shikaki: Could you cite an historical example of a situation resembling the proposed confederation?
Siniora: The proposed confederation is a unique one – one that is based on coordination, with each side trying to assure the other of its intentions.
Shikaki: Would the monarchy remain?
Siniora: Each state should accept the political systems of the other, but democracy should prevail in all parts of the confederation. We should not interfere in the internal affairs of any Arab state, but we encourage evolutionary change.
Shikaki: Do you consider yourself a member of the PLO?
Siniora: No Palestinian in the occupied territories can say that he is a member of the PLO. If I acknowledged being a member of the PLO, I might go to jail. But as a Palestinian journalist, I do not see any difference between the PLO and the Palestinian people. All Palestinians consider the PLO to be their representative.
Shikaki: What PLO do you have in mind?
Siniora: There is only one PLO. It is the one that started and held its first session in 1964. There has always been dissent in the PLO, and this is a natural phenomenon in a democracy. We have a parliament, that is, the PNC, and final authority rests there. It gives approval to the Executive Committee of the PLO. The council, with that approval, speaks for us.
Shikaki: Has the U.S. approached you directly on the question of your participation in the delegation?
Siniora: I have had no direct contacts with the U.S. government.
Shikaki: The PLO?
Siniora: No. The Jordanian government has no contacts with PLO supporters in the occupied territories.
Shikaki: Have you had any official confirmation that your name is on the list?
Siniora: No. But I have seen the list of names from a diplomatic source . . . a West European embassy.
Shikaki: Abu Iyad said yesterday that people from the occupied territories would be part of the delegation only as consultants. How do you respond?
Siniora: We have to wait until a statement is made by the Executive Committee of the PLO. What is being said now is mere speculation. Nomination can be confirmed when a public statement is issued.
Shikaki: Do you believe that the Peres government is strong and stable enough to negotiate with a Palestinian-Jordanian delegation and able to make genuine concessions?
Siniora: My firm belief is that the present Israeli coalition is not ready to negotiate. Take, for example, the lesser issue of Taba: the Israeli government is incapable of reaching an agreement. Needless to say, on major issues such as peace with the Palestinians there is no consensus. The present structure of the Israeli government does not allow for negotiation with a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation.
Shikaki: Do you see a difference between a Labor versus a Likud government?
Siniora: There is a difference in attitude. While the Likud wants to keep every single inch [of land], Labor has in its platform the Jordan option, which calls for keeping around 40 percent of the West Bank and returning the rest to Jordan. This is unacceptable to the Palestinian side. If the Labor attitude is not changed, there are no real prospects. The Palestinians are ready for a settlement based on the 16th and 17th PNC resolutions, which stated that lands occupied during the 1967 June War should be returned, foremost among them East Jerusalem.
Shikaki: What is your position on the future borders of the Palestinian state?
Siniora: I believe that at the moment we need to open a dialogue with the U.S. administration. If this process is successfully completed, then a different delegation has to be assembled as a result of the new reality. The PLO will have to participate in the second stage. An international conference must then be held, during which this second delegation can set up the borders of the Palestinian state.
Shikaki: What, then, is the purpose of the first stage? What is the immediate purpose of the meeting between a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation and U. S. officials?
Siniora: The main topic entrusted to the Palestinian side in its dialogue with U.S. officials is to normalize the situation between the U.S. and the Palestinians. In plain words, it is to get recognition of the PLO by the U.S.
Shikaki: What concessions are you willing to grant the U. S. in order to obtain that recognition?
Siniora: The U.S. demands that we accept Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 in return for its recognition of the PLO. Arafat has consistently come out with statements accepting all UN resolutions, both from the Security Council and the General Assembly. He has also stated that if the U.S. would accept the right of the Palestinians to self-determination, then the PLO would accept resolution 242. I believe this is the major hurdle for the delegation. We need to find a way acceptable to both parties.
Shikaki: [U. S. Special Middle East Envoy] Murphy said that the U. S. meeting with the delegation was to be a first step to be followed by direct negotiations between Israel and a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation . . .
Siniora: The aim of the peace process is to have both the Israelis and the Palestinians sit down and negotiate a peace settlement. The Americans want the negotiations to be held under their auspices, while the Palestinians and the Arab states have said that they are willing to go along, but under the auspices of an international conference. Until now, by grossly favoring Israel, the U.S. has given every indication that it is not a neutral party. This is the second hurdle to be tackled in the second stage.
Shikaki: Who is controlling the present process and preparations for the future negotiations between the Arabs, Israelis, and Americans?
Siniora: On the Arab side, Mr. Arafat is directly involved in choosing the names of the Palestinian delegates from PNC members. He, in cooperation with Jordan, is setting the conditions acceptable to the Palestinian side.
Shikaki: What are your thoughts on the Hussein-Arafat accord, and how do you read the West Bankers' reaction to it?
Siniora: Personally, I see it as an agreement showing that both sides need each other. We, as Palestinians, have realized that to hasten political talks we need a Jordanian partner. At the same time, the king and government of Jordan realize that to claim back the territories lost in 1967, they need the blessing and cooperation of the PLO. The present realism and pragmatism of the leadership of both sides has helped surmount mutual suspicions and past violent conflicts. Hopefully, this will serve the Palestinian cause and send a strong signal to the West that the Arabs are making sincere efforts to encourage the peace process.
The Palestinians in the occupied territories cannot forget Black September of 1970; yet, they also understand the wisdom behind such cooperation and can accept downplaying past feuds if they can thereby achieve fruitful results like ending the Israeli occupation of all territories occupied in 1967. There is, however, opposition [to the accord] among a minority of Palestinians based on ideological grounds. So far, the majority is giving its backing to the accord and is waiting to assess the results.
Shikaki: Would you consider the signing of the accord a sign of the success or the failure of the policies of the PLO in general, and Fateh in particular?
Siniora: The accord cannot be judged as a triumph or success because it is a political move. More appropriately, it is an important signal to the West that the Arabs are willing to work together and travel the thorny road of political settlement despite their basic differences-in this case, between the Palestinians and the Jordanians.
Shikaki: If the current initiative fails, what alternative do you see for the PLO and the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip?
Siniora: The liberation struggle has not ceased; we are opening a new front, a political front. If we fail in this road we must fall back on activating all possible kinds of military struggle to demonstrate to Israel and the whole world that the Palestinians will never cease their struggle until they achieve their goal. Our opening of the political front aims at lessening the heavy cost that both sides have to pay. We also thereby tell the world that failure will not be for lack of trying on the Palestinian side. If the present course fails, it can only be blamed on Israel.
Shikaki: If you have hopes that the present process may yield fruitful results, how does the future look to you?
Siniora: I see a glimmer of hope but cannot underestimate the hurdles we have to face. However, we should ceaselessly try every possibility. If we succeed, this will bring peace and stability. If we fail, no one can blame us; our cause will not lose.
Shikaki: What is the future for the Palestinians?
Siniora: In the next few years there is a strong possibility that a Palestinian state will be established in the West Bank and Gaza. This state will need a great deal of help from its Arab neighbors. It will not be the state that all the Palestinians want, but it will be a place they can call their own. I have no idea what final borders the state may have; that is a matter for the PLO to decide in negotiations with Israel. But I do believe that East Jerusalem will have to be part of that state. It will not be a militarily strong state, but I think this is the price we have to pay to set up a Palestinian state.
Shikaki: What role, if any, could Syria and Palestinian dissident groups play in the current initiative?
Siniora: We would welcome constructive opposition in both the Palestinian movement and the Arab world because this would strengthen those who are willing to negotiate. Constructive opposition would also allow those in the opposition to take the forefront if present policies fail. However, I strongly oppose any opposition that tries character assassination and violent threats, which I perceive to be the present role of some dissident groups in the Palestinian camp.
Shikaki: Could you give us an update regarding the recent Israeli military administration rule according to which Palestinian papers published in Jerusalem would have to publish certain Israeli announcements?
Siniora: Recently, the military administration issued the new Military Order 1140, according to which all Palestinian newspapers that are distributed in the occupied territories have to publish announcements made by the civil administration and its subsidiaries. Refusal to publish these announcements would result in the abrogation of the rights of these papers to be distributed in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian Journalists Association has consulted legal advisors on the matter and may take the case to the Israeli High Court if advice shows that this move may succeed. So far, legal advice indicates that all previous military rules have withstood legal abrogation by the courts, and this may be the case in this issue as well. The Palestinian press and the Palestinian Journalists Association are against the new regulation. We oppose this regulation, like others directed against Palestinian educational institutions-like Military Order 854, which interfered in academic freedom-and we will express our opposition in the local media and through all means available to us. The battle against the new regulation is exactly the same as the battle against occupation. It can be won if and when the occupation is ended.
Shikaki: The Kuwaiti Parliament has recently voted to cancel funds for Syria, Jordan, and the PLO. What is your reaction?
Siniora: I believe we cannot interfere in the internal affairs of Arab countries, but I express strong objection to the cutting of funds that an Arab summit conference assigned to Jordan, the PLO, and Syria. Those decisions by the Arab summit can be changed when a future Arab summit conference agrees on a different formula. I believe that many Arab states have reneged on their commitments to the PLO and the Joint Committee. It is the duty of the Arab countries to try to support their brothers under occupation.
Fayez Abu Rahmeh was born in Gaza in 1929. He graduated from Fu'ad I (now Cairo) University with a B.A. degree in law in 1951. Since 1955 he has had his own private legal office, and until February 1985 he was the chairman of the Gaza Strip Bar Association. He has been a member of the PNC since its founding in 1964 but has not participated in its conferences since the June 1967 War. He was interviewed for JPS on 26 July in Jerusalem and 4 August in Gaza by Khalil Shikaki, a Ph. D. candidate in political science at Columbia University.
Shikaki: After an initial rejection of all the names on the list, Prime Minister Peres reversed his position and accepted two. How do you explain the reversal and how do you explain his acceptance of those two in particular?
Abu Rahmeh: Palestinian representation is for the Palestinians to decide. I do not see any room for an Israeli objection, especially since the Israeli government is not the immediate [negotiating] partner. However, Peres is a realist, and he has to adopt what is wise. He has selected the two who are from the occupied territories.
Shikaki: Do you think that he chose you because he sees you as a "moderate"?
Abu Rahmeh: I describe myself as a moderate. I am a person who believes in the right of this people to self-determination and to live happily. Through moderation and the abandonment of fanaticism, we can live together.
Shikaki: Do you see room for the use of force?
Abu Rahmeh: I would like to see a peaceful solution to our problem. Any means that puts an end to this tragedy without bloodshed and violence should be adopted. It is time we seek peaceful channels to end the conflict.
Shikaki: Are you calling for an end to armed struggle?
Abu Rahmeh: Since 1964, I have been a firm believer in Gandhism. We have had enough violence from both sides. We, the Palestinians, have been victims of violence; we have been slaughtered by everyone. We need peace; and so do the Israelis. But we need it more than anyone else. We are not secure now: we are the subject of all sorts of discrimination. We need a homeland. We are a nation of 4.5 million people and are entitled to a homeland.
Shikaki: As a Palestinian representative, a member of a joint Palestinian- Jordanian delegation, from where do you derive your legitimacy?
Abu Rahmeh: My legitimacy derives from the decision made by the PLO leadership [to select me]. The PLO, of course, is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
Shikaki: Do you see yourself as representing the interests of all the people in the occupied territories?
Abu Rahmeh: I represent a good majority of them. I represent those who favor the present policies of the PLO. There are, of course, groups that see the present initiative as a fruitless one, since the U.S. supports Israeli policies. I believe that majority rule should apply [among the Palestinians].
Shikaki: What is your position on Israeli settlements in the occupied territories? Could they remain after an Israeli withdrawal?
Abu Rahmeh: All settlements are illegal; Israeli settlers have plenty of other land. These settlements, if allowed to remain, would deprive the Palestinian population of the possibilities of developing their communities and agriculture. Forty-five percent of Gaza, for example, has been taken for settlements. Today there are half a million people in Gaza. There will be no room for us to develop our land if settlements continue to exist.
Shikaki: What is your position on a confederation with Jordan?
Abu Rahmeh: The proposed Jordanian-Palestinian confederation presupposes a certain Palestinian state that would join Jordan in a confederation. The two parts of the Palestinian state, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, should be linked together, and free access should be guaranteed.
Shikaki: As a lawyer, do you anticipate any legal problems regarding the Gaza Strip, since it was under Egyptian rule before 1967?
Abu Rahmeh: No. Egypt is not seeking sovereignty over the Gaza Strip.
Shikaki: Could you elaborate more on your vision of the proposed confederation. For example, would the monarchy remain?
Abu Rahmeh: The Hussein-Arafat accord is not a coup d'etat against the king. A certain equality would have to be instituted. But it will be a royal confederation, with the king as its monarch.
Shikaki: Could you cite an historical example of a similar situation in the past, or would you consider the proposed confederation a unique one?
Abu Rahmeh: It will be a unique one.
Shikaki: What borders do you envisage for the Palestinian state?
Abu Rahmeh: These matters are to be negotiated. They could be the partition borders, the 1967 borders . . . all should be considered in negotiations with the Israelis.
Shikaki: Would you allow the presence of Israeli military posts in the West Bank?
Abu Rahmeh: An international force, yes. But no Israeli posts.
Shikaki: What are your thoughts on the Hussein-Arafat accord? Do you support it? And how would you assess the reaction of Palestinians in the occupied territories to it?
Abu Rahmeh: I support it, and the majority of Palestinians support it. We are faced with all kinds of serious problems: our status is shrinking; the occupation has now completed its 18th year, and it is a great shame on the human race that we are under military occupation.
Shikaki: How does the accord help relieve the plight of the Palestinians?
Abu Rahmeh: The Palestinian leadership has always been accused of saying "no." Yet, if we say "yes," we face problems as well. Nobody has the power to solve this conflict by military means. This accord is a step on the long road to solving the problem by political means. It is the only direction.
Shikaki: Would you consider the accord a success for the PLO? Or does it reflect weakness on its part?
Abu Rahmeh: The Jordanians and the Palestinians are members of one nation. The Palestinians are the majority, even in Jordan. Both people are of the same origin. Our mutual interests and support strengthen us, and the accord is a necessity to protect the interests of both sides. Indeed, any move that helps is welcomed.
Shikaki: Is the accord a success for the PLO?
Abu Rahmeh: It is a good, clever, and wise move on the part of Arafat.
Shikaki: Has the U. S. approached you directly regarding your membership in the delegation?
Abu Rahmeh: No. I had no direct contact with the U.S.
Shikaki: The PLO?
Abu Rahmeh: No.
Abu Rahmeh: No.
Shikaki: Abu Iyad said that members from the occupied territories would serve [in such a delegation] only as consultants. How do you respond?
Abu Rahmeh: I heard the statement, but I am not sure of its accuracy. We have not yet been officially informed of our nomination. We have to wait to verify the accuracy of the statement. I cannot comment on my role, as I have not yet received official word.
Shikaki: Do you think the Israeli government under Peres is strong and stable enough to commit itself to peace with the Palestinians?
Abu Rahmeh: My personal belief is that the present government, if left to its own will, is incapable of making or taking a brave and peaceful step. Therefore, great pressure must be exerted on the Israeli government. In this respect, the call for an international conference is a wise call and is needed to get all parties to participate, and that includes all the concerned parties, large and small.
Shikaki: How does the nature of the coalition government fit into this picture?
Abu Rahmeh: The Israeli government is a very rigid coalition. The prime minister is like the husband of many wives: he has to please every one of them. But the Israelis should realize that peace is more precious than anything else. It has no price. Peace is far more important than land.
Shikaki: Are you talking to the Palestinians as well?
Abu Rahmeh: The Palestinians should understand that peace requires moderation, and in a settlement no one gets all he wants. The Palestinians were ignored for too long by the international community. This community is required to compensate the Palestinians and press for Palestinian self-determination.
Shikaki: What is the immediate purpose of the Palestinian-Jordanian-American dialogue? Murphy said that it was to prepare for direct negotiations between the Palestinian-Jordanian delegation and Israel. Khalid al-Hasan said it aimed at getting the U.S. to recognize the PLO. What do you say?
Abu Rahmeh: I was astonished to hear Murphy's statement. I think both Murphy and al-Hasan are wrong. The meeting with the U. S. will be for the exchange of ideas. The meetings will lead to the discovery of many things. They will take a long time. We need to talk about the two topics [direct negotiations with Israel, and U.S. recognition of the PLO] but with no preconditions. Preconditions will impair flexibility and depart from the rules of negotiations.
Shikaki: Who is behind this whole initiative?
Abu Rahmeh: As far as the delegation is concerned, the Jordanians and the Palestinians are cooperating.
Shikaki: Are you a PLO member?
Abu Rahmeh: The PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians. Membership is not needed.
Shikaki: Why did the PLO choose you?
Abu Rahmeh: Ask them. I am a citizen who has devoted his life to the service of his people.
Shikaki: If the present initiative fails, what future do you see for the PLO and the West Bank?
Abu Rahmeh: I see that there should be a real international campaign by the international community to put pressure on Israel to put an end to the plight of the Palestinians. But I am an optimist, irrespective of all the clouds that shroud the situation.
Shikaki: If, as you say, you are an optimist, how does the future look to you? Could you describe to us a possible scenario for the near future?
Abu Rahmeh: First of all, our problem is difficult and unique. It requires special medicine. We should employ peaceful means and negotiate with the U.S.; and the U.S. should put pressure on Israel. If the Palestinian representation question is resolved, the Israelis and the PLO should agree on mutual recognition. There can be no settlement without such recognition. It has to be simultaneous between the two sides, with certain guarantees for the respect of Palestinian rights.
Shikaki: What roles do you envisage for Syria, the Soviet Union, and other states?
Abu Rahmeh: The superpowers and Syria should attend the international conference. This would guarantee the comprehensive nature of the settlement. The superpowers should make it clear to the small powers that the Palestinians should be free of any interference from their neighbors.