World & Nation

Longtime Palestinian official speaks on protests, violence, Israel and seeking peace without U.S. help

Palestinian official Nabil Shaath holds a news conference on Feb. 10, 2014.
(Bilal Khaled / Anadolu Agency)

Nabil Shaath, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ advisor on foreign affairs and international relations, has in one capacity or another been in the midst of relations with Israel and the United States for nearly 30 years.

Shaath has an extensive network of contacts around the world and has fostered the careers of many Palestinian leaders and diplomats for the Ramallah, West Bank-based authority.

For the record:
3:30 PM, May. 17, 2018 An earlier version of this article stated that the hourlong conversation with Nabil Shaath occurred Wednesday. The interview took place Tuesday.

One of his proteges is Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian envoy Abbas recalled from Washington to protest the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem on Monday and the deaths of more than 60 Palestinian protesters in the Gaza Strip, which is governed by the Islamist militant group Hamas, in border clashes with Israeli forces. There have been no reports of Israeli fatalities.

In an hourlong conversation Tuesday as Palestinians marked the Nakba, or catastrophe — their massive displacement at the time of Israel’s founding in 1948 — Shaath lamented a world of what he called “broken rules.”


Like many Palestinians and many of the United States’ Arab and European allies, Shaath blamed the Trump administration for increasing tension by moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital. Before President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the city’s status had long been considered a topic to be settled during peace talks that might result in a two-state solution.

Shaath touched on the Palestinian boycott of U.S. officials, discussed the Palestinian Authority’s plans to accuse Israel of war crimes at the International Criminal Court and weighed in on the chances for a peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians.

Here are some of his remarks, edited for length and clarity.

How do you see the situation between Israelis and Palestinians?


What happened Monday in Gaza has caused grief for all Palestinians, and we felt somehow abandoned by the world. You expect that people and their governments would act more sharply…. The condemnation took a more diplomatic shape when the Turks and the South Africans pulled their ambassadors out of Tel Aviv — that’s the kind of action you’d expect.

And also, what happened in Jerusalem [with the U.S. Embassy inauguration] brought anger and grief over Palestinian losses back to many of us. The idea of popular demonstration is that you want to avoid losses. You want to avoid killing. And you hope the world will stand by you if killing starts.

What about the protests by Palestinians, which involved improvised bombs, rock throwing and reportedly some gunfire, and the response by Israel, which included snipers, tanks and tear gas? Israel says the protests have been taken over by Hamas, which the U.S. and European Union consider a terrorist group, and pose a direct threat to Israel’s citizens and its sovereignty.

Hamas used to argue that nonviolent protests produced nothing and that you have to face Israel with violence for violence — that’s why they resorted to rockets, which led to wars in 2008, 2009 and 2014. [He declined to address violent acts during the recent Gaza protests.]

How are Palestinian Authority relations with Hamas? [The Palestinian Authority has been in a power struggle with Hamas, leading to devastating cutbacks in the availability of electricity and water controlled by the authority in the Gaza Strip.]

Unfortunately, not good. Not at all. As President Abbas said, if Jerusalem does not unite us, what on earth will?

This is the time we should go for full unity. Unfortunately, there is not much progress in that endeavor. But the president has issued a call to drop all demands and proceed to national unity. [Hamas and the Palestinian Authority announced a new reconciliation agreement in October, that, like previous attempts, foundered.]

Can anything help reduce the animosity and the violence between Israelis and Palestinians? Some Israelis denounced the government’s response to the Palestinian protests.


The question really has to do with the cost for Israel. Is there a peace movement in Israel? Does it care about international public opinion? Israel was once much more sensitive to public opinion.

Have you seen a Trump peace plan?

We have not seen any documents, no. Mr. Abbas said we didn’t need to wait to see it, it has been given to us bit by bit through Trump’s actions. He’s calling Jerusalem “the unified capital of the state of Israel,” he’s moved his embassy, he cut off contributions to [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East], he tweeted that he was “taking Jerusalem and the refugees off the negotiating table.” Then he stopped calling the territory occupied. All of this tells us what his plan is.

So what now?

The rules have been destroyed, starting with Mr. Trump’s decision to break the American commitment not to change the status of Jerusalem; his decision to undo the State Department’s standing instruction to criticize new Israeli settlements — everything is being violated now!

What other countries can step up to help bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians if you feel the U.S. is not doing what it should do?

The only alternative we have is an international multipolar world. A world in which many countries play a role, like the assembly of countries that negotiated the Iran [nuclear] deal.

Several countries involved in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — signed by Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia in addition to the U.S. and Iran — have said they will seek to keep the deal alive despite the Trump administration pulling out. Are you saying other countries instead of the U.S. — which you describe as irrelevant under Trump — must take on greater roles to help bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians?


Our dialogue with Europe has already intensified. If you want proof of my hypothesis, look at how the Europeans and the Russians and Chinese have stood together against Trump on Jerusalem and Iran. The Europeans are acting as if the world is moving towards a multipolar context, in particular when it acts without the United States. It is already happening.

You seem to have expected Arab countries to react sharply against Trump’s embassy decision on the diplomatic plane and in the streets, with massive protests. That has not happened. Is that part of the abandonment you mentioned?

Don’t expect our Arab partners to sever their relationship with the U.S., though it’s what they should have done when the U.S. moved their embassy.

The Arab countries of the gulf and even Egypt and Jordan, [the only two Arab countries that have signed peace agreements with Israel] find it very difficult to act as if the world is changing. They care very much about keeping their relationship with the U.S. as strong as possible.

You have boycotted all meetings with U.S. representatives. Have you severed ties to the U.S.?

We have a representative office in Washington, but we have no ties with this administration.

President Abbas is taking a calculated risk: It was a risk when he said he would boycott Trump, a very tough decision, but we know that the world is changing, and he is on the right side of that change. It is now a multinational arena. The world will be a safer world with a multinational consensus.

Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent.

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