Interview With UK speaker: “We Are Not About The Business of Imposing Leaders.” By Haytham Mouzahem

Interview With Gerard Russell: “We Are Not About The Business of Imposing Leaders.”
September 24, 2002



Editor’s Note: In an exclusive interview in Arabic from Al Mustaqbal newspaper and in English for EWR Gerard Russell, Britain’s Head of Media and Outreach Unit, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, responded to a range of questions from reporters Haytham Mouzahem and Ksenija Svalina on the British and European perspectives on the Middle East peace process as well as on reports that the U.S. has plans to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The interview took place on July 4th. It has been edited by EWR for length and style.


Al Mustaqbal: We noticed that the British foreign affairs minister’s point man on the Middle East, Mike O’Brien, during his visit to Ramallah and Israel on July 3rd, talked about the suffering of the Israelis but he didn’t mention the suffering of the Palestinian victims in Jenin, for instance, or other Palestinian cities. How do you qualify this unfair statement?

Russell: It’s not because these issues don’t matter; they matter greatly. Nobody who looks at what is happening today can have anything but sympathy for ordinary innocent Palestinians suffering the consequences of what is going on, just as they feel sympathy for ordinary innocent Israeli sufferings. What is actually quite clear about the government’s position is that we do not regard a life of an Israeli as having more value than the life of a Palestinian. They have equal value. Of course, what we are going to say, at a particular time and the emphasis that we are going to put on it, is going to reflect how we think that the process can be moved forward. But sometimes you don’t make progress by alienating one side or the other. We (the U.K) are donors to the Palestinian Authority and through the European Union (E.U.). If it were not for the E.U. support there would be unquestionably a great deal of more suffering and for that matter, the Palestinian Authority and [Palestinian Authority President] Yasser Arafat himself would be greatly weakened.

Mike O’Brien met Arafat during his visit and subsequently, as you say, and he made it quite clear what our view was on suicide bombings. It is a view by the way that is also adopted by Palestinian intellectuals, who of course signed this declaration of condemnation of the suicide attacks. And it is a view which President Arafat himself adopts. And he [O’Brien] also made it clear that we want an internal reform.
And I think again, our position here is not a million miles away from the ordinary Palestinians. So I think that whatever you may think of emphasis, I don’t think that the messages are unfair. There is no question either that no matter what the role of Europe is, the situation on the ground is only going to be solved by agreement between the two sides. And for that matter, that agreement between the two sides is most certainly going to require an American role. So I think that we have to be quite clear about the practicalities of how a solution can be reached.

And there is a sense of disappointment with President Arafat. The prime minister [Tony Blair] has expressed that several times and so has the foreign secretary [Jack Straw] and so has Mike O’Brien. It stems in our case from the negotiations that took place two years ago. I know that there were a lot of complexities to those negotiations. But I think that a lot of people feel somehow that President Arafat did not engage sufficiently and there was certainly a period where he appeared to be very hesitant, maybe even about whether he wanted to do a deal. I think that is what makes people a little bit unhappy about that.

But at the same time, we have made it perfectly clear that we don’t intend to be opposing the choice of the Palestinian people. Yasser Arafat is the elected leader of the Palestinian people. And no matter what we have to criticize in his performance at Taba [January 2001] and Camp David [July 2000] and in his performance as president with regard to the Authority, we also accept that he is the representative of Palestinian people and we are still dealing with him, and Mike O’Brien as I said met with him. And he said as the foreign secretary also said before him that we would like there to be other [Palestinian] representatives also, which is absolutely valid. It’s a pluralistic society [and] there should be pluralism. But you know the British Empire is not in existence anymore and we are not going around choosing people’s leaders for them anymore. They chose those leaders for themselves. That is a principle that we uphold.

Al Mustaqbal: How can the U.K and the European Union play a role to bring to an end to Israeli-Palestinian confrontations and push the two parties toward reaching a permanent peace agreement?

Russell: The easy answer to this question is that Europe is actually directing a practical role, mainly and most easily by the provision of aid. Now that probably doesn’t sound like something appropriate to talk about. I think that it is actually very important because political issues in the end are really about people, ordinary people -- poor people very often. As things currently stand, the Palestinians cannot travel from one city to another. Unemployment has rocketed. People cannot easily get work and the economy is desperate. It is extremely important, therefore, that Britain has made contributions to the Palestinian people through aid agencies. We have given about 25 million pounds [$39,240,000] for this year as well as money through the E.U. We are also careful that it goes to the people who really need it. It’s a large part of what British aid is about. I have to say that it is not really a political move. Aid is given on the basis of need. Aid is given not in order to buy contracts but support is given because people need money.

However, when it comes to the political side, Europe occasionally does have the chance to play a role. Britain did contribute to the ending of the siege of Ramallah, and I know that things have moved on, things always move on in the Middle East from day to day. And I have to be honest as well, I don’t think that it is our job to deceive you and give you any illusion that Europe is going to come in on a white charger and save the day. The truth is that it isn’t going to happen. If it were going to happen, it would have happened. You’ve really got two peoples on the ground that feel that somehow their backs are against the wall and you’re not going to get either of them to change those positions just by talking to them, if you are not in a position, as America is, to carry some weight.

Now Europe gives money, but Europe does not actually offer particularly much financial assistance to Israel -- and Israel is undoubtedly the stronger party between Israel and the Palestinians. I think that people would be wrong to imagine that the American role could be replaced by a European role. Europe does indeed play a role and that role partly consists of talking to the parties. There are people out there who are involved in negotiating because they are trusted by both sides. In the course of the meetings that Mike O’Brien had, he would be talking about the political situation and the intention of that is to try and resolve the crisis. And we are not doing that necessarily for our political gain, or because stability in the region is important to our interests. It’s not just about interests. We have to value the lives of whoever they are, whatever their religion or nation, equally.

And that means that we have to think of Israelis’ lives too. You cannot think of only one side.

Al Mustaqbal: You have talked about the necessity for Palestinians to implement reforms. But no one is talking about Israel ending its occupation of West Bank cities? Why is that? Would you agree with some experts that Israel has been given a green light?

Russell: There is definitely no green light. There is no question of a green light. It has always been clear that we expect Israel to behave with restraint and we do not believe that force is the answer. You remember when Israelis went into the West Bank about Easter time [March 29th], to initiate the reoccupation of a series of cities in the West Bank, and we made it clear from the very first days of those operations that we oppose them. We called for the immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces, we called for an end to those occupations. Look at the Seville Declaration, which took place two weeks ago; it is a very important document and it is well worth reading. I don’t think that anyone who reads that could imagine the position adopted there is unbalanced. It calls for an end to terrorism, it calls for an end to settlement activities, it calls for an end to the occupation, it calls for a just settlement of the refugee problem, and it calls for a just solution to the issue of Jerusalem. It commits the European Union to continue its aid to the Palestinian people. And it is, I think, a document of the utmost balance. It encapsulates the European position.

The [U.K.] prime minister has been publicly insistent about this idea that there has to be a political solution. There has to be a political strategy. And that really means from our experience, for example, Northern Ireland. We dealt with a situation there where there were two sides apparently irreconcilable. And the way to do it, you could never do it by force alone, you always had to be offering a political solution that could accommodate to some degree both sides’ demands. And it has become clear in this case that the solution is the solution of two states living side by side, mutually respecting each other’s security, enjoying full independence and sovereignty. And that was also clear from the Seville Declaration.


Al Mustaqbal: But a political solution would require the international community to exert some pressure on Israel. It is seen by many in the Middle East that the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is unwilling to negotiate a permanent peace agreement, something that the Palestinians are actually willing to do. Don’t you think that Sharon and U.S President George W. Bush have set harsh conditions for the Palestinian Authority: a total end to violence and reforms? Where is the light at the end of the tunnel?


Russell: But we do put pressure on Israel, as well as the Palestinians. There has to be a political process alongside effective action against terrorism. This is why the Seville declaration called for an international summit to address political, military and other aspects to the crisis. If we were talking about Israel being unwilling to reach a settlement, being unwilling to grant Palestinian independence -- now that’s different. But if we’re talking about a demand for reform, the Palestinians have been demanding reform for years. I understand that people view this with suspicion…but it is worth looking at. Because, I think, to be honest, reform is actually there in the Oslo Agreements, which the Palestinian Authority signed up to. Here are certain rules that people signed up to and I think that people should respect their agreements. But President Bush has endorsed the call and so has the European Union. And we welcomed the Palestinian Authority’s 100-day plan and its promise to hold new elections.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw commented on what happened in Jenin at the time, that it would cast a long shadow on events for a long time to come. So I think that people are very concerned about what happened in Jenin. People do notice what is going on, they are not unaware of it. They are not unsympathetic.

Sometimes people say that there is a conspiracy against Muslims, that the West hates the Muslims. This is not the case. Now if the Arab world believes that our position is unfair, then it has the right to say so. It has the right to use democratic means to change those positions. These are the positions we are taking. And I think that the Seville Declaration is widely welcomed in the Arab world and I know it is. This call for reform is what the Palestinians actually believe in. Reform should be a democratic decision.

We all want to see an end to the occupation. I believe that the Israelis themselves want to see an end to the occupation. We have called for an end to the occupation. If reform is the price for the end of the occupation, then I think that I think that it is the price that people should pay. What do the Palestinians gain by postponing reform? What harm does reform do?

Al Mustaqbal: Don’t you think that what the Palestinians need now is an end to the occupation before reforms? People in the Arab world generally believe that these are not true reforms. They think that it is a conspiracy against the Palestinian leadership in order to set up a person suitable to the needs and desires of the U.S. and Israel.

Russell: Well, let’s wait and see. As far as we are concerned, it is not about imposing undemocratic solutions. It is allowing the voice of the Palestinian people to be heard. Now, I do strongly believe that the Palestinian people want reform. They have always wanted reform. This isn’t meant to be an insult to President Arafat, he is no stranger to Downing Street, he is no stranger to the British consul-general in Jerusalem and this isn’t intended as some conspiracy against him. It is not intended as an insult but it is intended to reflect the reality that you need to have a transparent system. And I would say that there is something about that that can change without demolishing Palestinian democracy. Lets see where this takes us.

Al Mustaqbal: Do you believe that a new leadership and “democratic reforms” of the Palestinian Authority would ensure trust between Israelis and Palestinians? And would it in the long term ensure justice in this part of the world according to the objectives and aims of your democratic reforms?

Russell: Yes, although I wouldn’t call it our reforms. The Palestinians are going to be in charge of that process. There hasn’t been a list presented to the Palestinians saying this is what you have to do. I think absolutely that the purpose is to create trust. I think that trust is the key to unlocking this whole process. There has quite obviously been a breakdown in trust between the two sides. And I think that if internal reform is going to help rebuild it, then it is an excellent thing.

Al Mustaqbal: But we have questions of Russian Jewish immigration into Israel, so what can the international law and the role of the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) do in order to ensure that power politics and the impact of international major powers’ will is controlled in order to arrive to a fair deal? What in your opinion is the fair deal?

Russell: Let me distinguish between the immigration into Israel territories and into some of the occupied territories: the immigration of individuals into state territories is not something which international law can object to, but the building of settlements in the occupied territories we condemn and regard them as illegal. They are illegal under international law. It is illegal to transplant members of one population into occupied territories. This has been the British government’s position for a long time. They are illegal and an obstacle to peace.

On the issue of the I.C.C., I do not know to be honest that the I.C.C. would necessarily deal with an issue like settlements. But there is no doubt at all and you know that we are strong supporters of the establishment of this court. We believe that it will be a very strong contribution to the building of international justice. We have seen some progress in this regard. The intervention of the international community in the former Yugoslavia, the trial of [former Yugoslavian President Slobodan] Milosevic. It is the most recent example of the international community contributing to the cause of justice. I feel that it is important to remind people of that because I think that it is very easy for people to focus on the Palestinians. I do think that there are other issues that has [shown] that the international community has not always been slow to come to the aid of Muslims. The international community has also been slow at responding as in the East Timor occupation of 24 years, but there were times [also] when the international intervention was successful. This is not a perfect world and we are not saying that we are going to be able to change the world.

Al Mustaqbal: If the Palestinians enact these reforms, can the international community guarantee an end to the Israeli occupation?

Russell: Israel is not our toy -- we don’t choose what Israel does. We have been demanding the return to negotiations by both sides. Quite clearly, the Palestinians go through the process of reform, they go through the process of getting a grip on the internal situation, not only with their agenda but it will also bring enormous support from the international community. I don’t think that you need to go much further than President Bush’s speech to see that. I don’t think that the Europeans would refuse to intervene in the event of a U.S. intervention, because the Europeans have been intervening and the U.S. has been encouraging both sides to go to the table and talk. Europe has its position, just look at the Seville Declaration.

Al Mustaqbal: When the Palestinians resist the Israeli occupation and when some parties use suicide bombs against the occupation you demand that they stop and you call it terrorism. But when the Palestinians ask for help from the international community in what can be seen as state terrorism, as the East Timorese did, you say that you cannot guarantee that Israel is not a tool. What is your comment?

Russell: To be honest, it is quite difficult to look back and say here is the time of total peace before the [second] Intifada. I remember when I was dealing with this issue in 1996 -- and that was the high point of the peace process -- and it was destroyed by the two bombs that killed large numbers of people in Tel Aviv; that significantly changed the course of the peace process, no doubt about that. I think that if we come to the East Timor example, it did take 24 years to resolve, which is quite a long time. International justice is not perfect and the Israelis will always be able to point to various things to say that this lead to that. The Madrid conference led to the Oslo process, which was the Israelis and the Palestinians signing an agreement which they then began to apply. It was going in the right direction and to be honest, I would not want to assign blame particularly. I know that when we talk about Palestinian terrorist groups that yes, there are also Jewish terrorist groups.

I want to point to 1996 because it is important to know that there have been incidents like that when the course of peace has been disrupted by small group sometimes for internal political reasons and as a means of derailing the process.

We’ve made it clear, look at what [British Ambassador to the United Nations] Jeremy Greenstock said after the Jenin incident and after Israel refused to allow a fact-finding mission to enter. And he said that the Israeli behavior is a condemnation of themselves, he used extremely strong language, and he said that it is defiance of the Security Council. You know we haven’t held back from saying these things and it hasn’t necessarily changed Israel’s position. As I said, we don’t pull their strings.

Al Mustaqbal: I read a report that the U.K. and Germany are seeking to persuade the European Union to put Hizballah on its list of terrorist organizations, is that true?

Russell: We regard Hizballah as having a terrorist organization. We call it the External Security Organization and it operates outside Lebanon. But we do not regard the whole of Hizballah as a terrorist organisation. We have a formal dialogue with Hizballah. The [British] Ambassador [Richard Kinchen] to Lebanon met with [Hizballah’s Secretary-General] Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

Al Mustaqbal: Is Britain going to participate in a U.S. led strike against Iraq and what is your position with regard to a “regime change” of President Saddam Hussein’s government?

Russell: Let me speak on behalf of the U.K. Some people do exaggerate a little bit the degree to which we can decide people’s future. The British Empire was ended a long time ago and even when the British Empire was in place it wasn’t always that easy to impose solutions against people’s will. Palestine is a case in point. We do have to work with people on the ground with regard to the peace process.

I will just tell you about the British position. We don’t have a policy of regime change [in Iraq]. We believe that the Iraqi people would probably be a great deal better off if it wasn’t for [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein. As I say, we are not about the business of actually imposing leaders.

Al Mustaqbal: Why are you going to strike Iraq because of a hypothesis? I am worried about the consequences that such an attack could have on the Iraqi people…

Russell: Strike Iraq? There is no campaign going now. What there is, of course, are planes flying over Iraq and being fired at by Iraqi anti-aircrafts on the ground The Iraqis also recently claimed that they developed some new special weapon. It’s not a situation where the Iraqis sit on the ground while there are planes flying above them. I have just alluded to the fact that you will sometimes read Iraqi claims that there is something going on. This is the result of the no-fly zones. I made a point earlier about respecting peoples’ lives and I do believe that applies also Iraq. We do believe that there has to be a change in attitude.

Al Mustaqbal: How would you describe U.K.-Iranian relations and will your government play a role in bridging a gap between Washington and Tehran?
Russell: It’s a growing relationship. It’s a lot better than it used to be. There are still issues. Europe has what is called a critical dialogue. I actually saw an Iranian delegation last week. We are talking about a British delegation visiting Iran. We frankly appreciate what [Iranian President Mohammed] Khatami has done.

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