In a wide-ranging conversation about the Palestinians, peace and history, Ahmed Qurei says that he has no regrets regarding his attempts to create a whole new Middle East back in 1992.”I am only sorry that it didn’t work out,” the 80-year old Palestinian known to everyone as Abu Alaa explains.
Without Abu Alaa, the world would not have seen the peace negotiations which later became known as the Oslo process. Qurei, who soon afterwards became Prime Minister, had flown in complete secrecy to Norway to conduct the negotiations that eventually led to the peace accord which was signed on the White House lawn in 1993.
Today, 25 years later, Palestinians and Israelis are further away from peace than at any time since. No Palestinian state is on the horizon, but Abu Alaa, drawing on long lines of history back to the Crusades, offers advice to the Israelis. He cannot see why Israel wouldn’t want to negotiate a permanent peace these days, especially, he says because Israel will not be strong forever.
“I can’t even understand them,” he tells me. “Today we are weak and they are strong. But even the strongest empires collapse. France had a million men in Algeria, but they had a great leader, De Gaulle, who saw the big picture. And look at the Crusaders. Do you know how long they were here? Only a hundred years.” He lights his first cigarette.
Abu Alaa has no warm words to say about the upcoming “deal of the century”, US President Donald Trump’s expected peace plan. He says that the Palestinians will reject it outright, waving his right hand as if he is dismissing something meaningless. “Without Jerusalem, we will never sign. Never.”
We are talking in his office in Abu Dis, a Palestinian village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Today he is in charge of Jerusalem affairs in the Palestinian government. The eight metre high cement wall that Israel built in Jerusalem 11 years ago passes just three hundred metres from his office. He is on the outside of that wall.
“I was born here in Abu Dis, and I used to walk into Jerusalem every day to go to school. My family were farmers; we used to have land all the way down to the Dead Sea, including where the settlement of Maale Adumim is today.” One day, he promises, the wall will be dismantled.
The Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs is on the ground floor of an anonymous office building off the main street. No guard is standing by the entrance. As you enter, you see Abu Alaa’s office immediately on the right-hand side. His door is open, and he is sitting behind the desk. As a representative of a regime that is regarded as oppressive and far from democratic, where free speech can easily land you in jail, nobody seems to fear any popular uprising.
The occupied West Bank, though, is not Gaza. While the Islamist Hamas has run the Gaza Strip for 11 years, having won the 2006 Palestinian elections in both locations, on the West Bank the Israeli occupation troops are never far away. President Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen, may well be dependent on the very same Israeli occupation that he wants to be removed, otherwise, Hamas might be governing the West Bank too.
“We never thought it would end up like this,” Abu Alaa points out. “Back in 1993, we were certain a Palestinian state was just a few years away. And from that moment onwards we expected to live, two states side by side, in peace and prosperity.”
He pulls out his second cigarette.
“Do you smoke?”
“Big mistake.” He laughs.
For Abu Alaa to get a feeling of the journey that he and other Palestinian leaders have taken, all he needs to do is step out of his office. There, on the main road, is a monument showing the map of historic Palestine, and behind it is a massive key, the famous Palestinian symbol signifying the homes left behind in the 1948 war.
“We were ready for a historic compromise with Israel,” he tells me, recalling the dramatic, yet top-secret days in Oslo. “At one point, Uri Savir, the Israeli negotiator, gave me a list of 60 questions he wanted to be answered. I said I don’t intend to answer them, I am not under interrogation. ‘But this is from Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin,’ he said. OK, I said, I won’t answer them, but I will take the list to Yasser Arafat.”
When Arafat saw the list, he noted that the Palestinians now had direct communication with the Israeli leaders. “I will answer these,” said Arafat, and sat down with the questions, one by one. This, says Abu Alaa, was the historic breakthrough.
The Oslo peace process collapsed with the sudden assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by an Israeli fundamentalist in 1995. Less well known, though, is that Abu Alaa kept holding secret negotiations with the next Israeli leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, from 1996 until 1999.
“Each time we met in his house in Jerusalem. We would sit for hours. Netanyahu always wants to give an impression that he wants an agreement. But we also got to know each other. Once we sat in his garden, it was maybe one or two o’clock at night, and we made so much noise that the neighbours complained to the police the following day.” He laughs again.
Of all the Israeli Prime Ministers that he has negotiated with, Abu Alaa says that they were closest to a deal with Likud leader Ehud Olmert back in 2008. “We had basically dealt with everything, and within maybe two months we would have been done. But then Olmert was forced to resign following a series of corruption scandals.”
Abu Alaa and several other Palestinian leaders have also been suspected of involvement in dubious affairs. In 2004, Al-Quds Cement Factory, a company owned by Abu Alaa, was reported to have sold the cement used by Israel to build the very wall that the Palestinians were condemning. He denies any involvement. In a report by Palestinian legislators the same year, however, it was revealed that Arafat knew that his close associates had “made millions” on the cement sales to the Israelis while he condemned what he called the Apartheid Wall. When Arafat passed away in November 2004, his government was seen by many Palestinians as corrupt, creating a fear that the future Palestinian state, and the dream for which they were struggling, would turn out to be just another corrupt Arab regime.
Not much is left of that Palestinian dream. The new parliament building that the Palestinians built in Abu Dis back in the 1990s is today abandoned and closed off, just a stone’s throw from Abu Alaa’s office.
“The Israelis feel that they are the most powerful in the region, so they say, ‘Why go for an agreement with the Palestinians?’ But they don’t realise we are here, and they will never get rid of us.” The Palestinians learned the lessons from 1948 and he insists that they will never leave their land again. “And the Israelis,” concludes Abu Alaa, “will regret that they lost opportunities to make peace with us, because a day will come when they will no longer be so strong.”
He lights his last cigarette.