Interview: Sufian Abu Zaida

The Arab negotiator explains why there is real cause for optimism over the current round of talks

By Simon Round, September 21, 2010
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) meets the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas for negotiations in Egypt.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) meets the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas for negotiations in Egypt.

The history of peace negotiations between Israelis and the Palestinians does not inspire a huge amount of confidence that the present talks will lead to agreement. However, there are those on both sides who continue to hope, if not believe, that this time an agreement will be reached.

Once such man is Sufian Abu Zaida. The Gaza-born Palestinian has been involved in negotiations since 1993 when he was among those thrashing out the agreements in Oslo, and he also participated in the Camp David and Annapolis summits. If there is to be peace in the region, Israel will have to reach agreement with people like Abu Zaida. Although he has no illusions about the difficulty of the task, he thinks progress can be made.

Abu Zaida looks older than his 50 years, but then he has not had an easy life. Born and brought up in Gaza's Jabalya refugee camp, he became a PLO activist and spent 12 years in Israeli prisons on charges of participating in terrorist activities. After his release, he joined the Palestinian negotiating team and has dedicated himself to reaching agreement with Israel, to the extent that he has a master's degree in conflict resolution from Bradford University. He was also
a minister in the Palestinian government for five years between 1999-2004.

Abu Zaida is in Britain at the invitation of the pro-Israel lobbying organisation Bicom to talk about the peace process. Although he represents the Palestinian cause, he is anxious to connect with Jews in the diaspora. Speaking in fluent but heavily accented English, he talks persuasively about the need to reach a quick solution.

"We are ready for peace. We know that there are
a lot of difficulties on both sides, we know that there are extremists on both sides trying to disturb the process of achieving reconciliation between the two peoples. But I think the majority of Palestinians and, I hope, a majority of Israelis support talks towards
a peace deal."

"We shouldn’t talk about who is wrong or right,” says Sufian Abu Zaida

"We shouldn’t talk about who is wrong or right,” says Sufian Abu Zaida

He feels that Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu is serious about reaching an agreement and that his conversion to a two-state solution is real. But he adds that he believes Netanyahu has given himself problems. "I am not here to blame or accuse but one of the problems is that Netanyahu decided to make his life more difficult when he chose the Israeli extreme right to be his partners in the coalition. So he can blame only himself if he has difficulties with the settlers."

Abu Zaida also cites Hamas as an obstacle. "The position of Hamas is a problem, but it's not the main problem. Hamas is an Islamic extremist organisation which doesn't believe in negotiations at all. For them the real conflict is not for land, it is between Islam and Judaism. Not for me - I have no problem with Judaism. I have a problem with the occupation."

It is in Israel's interests to come to a deal as quickly as possible, he believes. "Because of demographics, time is running out for a two-state solution. It's more in the Israeli interest to establish a Palestinian state than it is for the Palestinians themselves. Personally
I have no problem with a one-state solution. If you look at natural growth in the two populations, the highest growing populations are the Arabs and religious Jews. If there is a single state it will be filled with Charedim and Arabs. It will be interesting," he says, deadpan.

Abu Zaida is unwilling to get into the specifics of any deal. He will not, for example, specify how many Palestinian refugees should be granted the "right of return" - a key Palestinian demand. He also feels that too much is made of the stipulation that Jerusalem be the capital of any Palestinian state. "The attitude of the Palestinians is that East Jerusalem should be the capital of Palestine. That does not mean that there should be walls or divisions between the two capitals. We should talk about sovereignty, not physical division of the city. There should be special arrangements for the sacred sites. There should be freedom to worship for everyone."

On the issue of the settlers, Abu Zaida's view differs, he says, from most Palestinians. "As one who considers himself expert in Israeli politics,
I would say that some settlers might, from an ideological and a religious point of view, prefer to stay in Palestine under Palestinian law with all the dangers in that."

He adds that the best thing for both sides might be, like a warring married couple, to arrange an amicable divorce. "We need time in order to trust each other even after a solution. First of all we need to separate. After that if everything going OK between the two sides, we will have free borders, free movement and free choice."

Also, unlike many, he feels that the Israeli government will have little difficulty in removing the 20 per cent of settlers who may find themselves within the borders of a new Palestinian state on the West Bank. "It will be easier than in Gaza," he says.

Abu Zaida is also very reluctant to discuss his attitude to past conflicts. His answer seems to owe much to his conflict resolution degree.

"It's not wise to go back for history. We shouldn't talk about who is wrong and who is right. Rather, we must hope for good leadership from both sides to lead us to an agreement soon - within a month, not a year."

He says that he trusts Abbas to deliver on the Palestinian side. I ask him whether he thinks Abbas could turn out to be the Palestinian equivalent of Nelson Mandela. For the first time in the interview he breaks into
a broad smile. "I don't want this to be taken the wrong way, but Nelson Mandela was very lucky that he did not come from our region."

Last updated: 11:29am, October 5 2010