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Nabil Shaath, a longtime top aide to Yasser Arafat, is the foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority. He spoke with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels from his home in Ramallah on Monday.

Nathan Gardels: What did you make of the Bush-Blair statement last week about restarting the Middle East peace process?

Nabil Shaath: It indicated both a concern and interest, mainly stimulated by Prime Minister Blair, to whom the President Bush owes a big favor, in giving new life to the peace process. Blair possessed the clarity of how to move forward with new ideas, including his idea of an international conference with all parties. Bush just focused on democracy and the responsibilities of the Palestinians and said very little about the responsibilities of the Israelis and Prime Minister Sharon.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Blair would not have gone to such lengths discussing a new peace process if there was not some willingness on the part of Bush to have these ideas aired while standing there facing the world together.

Gardels: What about Bush's statement that the United States would "spend its political capital" to ensure the establishment of a Palestinian state?

Shaath: Of course, this was encouraging, like Bush's earlier statements about a two-state solution. The question is whether he will use that political capital not just to pressure us, but to pressure Sharon.

Gardels: What is it that Bush must pressure Sharon to do in order to make democratic elections and a democratic Palestine possible?

Shaath: Bush is right that we need support on elections. One of the things we need most in this respect is to get the Israelis out of the Palestinian towns and villages so that elections can go forward fairly without obstacles and intimidation. In fact, the Israelis need to start implementing the road map immediately by agreeing to a joint cease fire and evacuate the places they have occupied since the invasion in 2000.

Moreover, the Israelis must stop talking their nonsense about Palestinians in Jerusalem not having the right to vote. This flies against all past agreements and the practicalities of Palestinian life. Palestinians in Jerusalem must have the right to vote.

If we are going to take on the responsibility of holding elections, Israel must take on the responsibility of making those elections possible.

Gardels: Two of PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' bodyguards were killed on Sunday in an apparent attempt by radical Palestinians to intimidate the new leader. Will the Palestinian Authority be able to establish the requisite stability and security among Palestinians to hold elections?

Shaath: Yes, it is our responsibility to create a stable and secure environment among our own people. We cannot use Sharon as an excuse not to do that.

We need to move as quickly as possible to dominate the security scene so that elections can be prepared and go forward without intimidation of some Palestinians against others. The Palestinian Authority must do that not only by its own use of force to establish law and order — also against crime, by the way — but through political dialogue with those who on Sunday used force of arms for political purposes.

It is urgent that we have a dialogue — which we have begun — among all those Palestinians who have fought against Israelis — whether with methods we approve of or don't approve of, such as suicide bombings. We need to speed up this dialogue so we will be able to honor our own commitments on any cease fire.

Gardels: Do Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the major Islamist groups, want to join the election process?

Shaath: Absolutely. Yes, they do. They will play by the rules.

Gardels: So, you are talking about renegade elements outside these organized groups that need to be brought under control?

Shaath: That is correct.

Gardels: There has been some calls among Palestinians for the Israelis to release Marwan Barghouti, the popular resistance leader among the young engaged in the intifada, so he can run in the elections for president. Do you see that happening?

Shaath: It is not very likely the Israelis will release him. In any case, Abbas is the prime candidate. There is a large consensus around him in Fatah (Arafat's main power base and the largest organization in the PLO — ed).

(c) 2004, Global Viewpoint
Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC. (Distributed 11/15/04)