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John Kerry, Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al-Thani

In a fresh bid to jumpstart long-stalled Middle East Peace talks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Arab League officials in Washington this week to discuss possible changes in the 2002 Peace Initiative that might attract the parties back to the negotiating table.  Following the meeting Monday, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, Qatar’s head of government and foreign minister, raised the possibility of land swaps.  VOA reporter Cecily Hilleary spoke with the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s representative in Washington, Maen Areikat, and asked him whether their discussion represented any breakthroughs.

Below please find a transcription of the interview. You can listen to it using the audio player below.

PLO Envoy to the US, Maen Areikat

Areikat:  There is no difference from the Arab Peace Initiative – the API is the API, as it used to be.  It was adopted at an Arab summit in 2002 and it remains the same Arab initiative that was adopted 11 years ago.  Therefore, the Arab delegation that visited and met with Vice President Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Kerry highlighted the  importance of the API and the fact that it was a historic opportunity to resolve the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, and Arabs and Israelis, and put an end to the conflict. So there seems to be interest – on the part of the Arabs, of course, there has always been interest, and interest on the part of the United States, and we will follow up and see where that interest will take us.

What we are sensing is a very, very serious effort on the part of the secretary of state, who…unequivocally expressed his commitment, President Obama’s commitment, the United States’ commitment to do something soon and to make sure that whatever they want to do will succeed.

Hilleary:  There is language that came from, I think, the Qatari prime minister about ‘minor shifts’ in the ’67 border — ‘minor shifts’ and little compromises.  What exactly was he talking about, do you know?

Areikat:  Well, this has been a Palestinian position for quite some time, that in the course of a final settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis based on the 1967 borders; the Palestinians would be ready to accommodate very minor modifications, similar in area and value in quantity and quality, without undermining the interests of the Palestinian people – i.e., whatever modifications wouldn’t result in displacing Palestinians or cutting off Palestinian areas from other areas.  And we have said for a long time that we are going to accept the principle of minor modifications in the borders, which has been later called ‘land swaps,’ and it has to be agreed upon mutually between the Palestinians and the Israelis – but again, [it] has to be equal in quantity and quality in order to be implemented.

Hilleary:  One word I’m not hearing is ‘contiguous,’ which used to be a big catch word.  I’m also hearing rumors to the effect of the settlements staying in place in exchange for land elsewhere.

An Israeli settler (front) and Palestinian demonstrators, one wearing a mask depicting U.S. President Barack Obama, scuffle during a protest against the continued closure by the Israeli army of Shuhada street to Palestinians in the West Bank city of Hebron March 20, 2013. (Reuters)

Areikat:  No.  We have not gotten into this discussion until U.N. resolutions, U.N. Security Council resolutions upon which this whole political process was based since the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, talk about resolving the conflict, ending the Israeli military occupation, and the parties agree to whatever final arrangements to the borders.  In the meeting yesterday, this was not at all brought up.

The American side did bring up the fact that the U.S. wants to see a viable and contiguous Palestinian state, and this remains to be an objective of the U.S. as well as our objective – we Palestinians have the same objective.  It has to be contiguous, viable and sovereign in order for a Palestinian state to survive.

Hilleary:  We’re not hearing much from Israel.  The Israeli negotiator, Tzipi Livni, says this is good news.  What about everybody else?  Have we heard anything from the prime minister and the other members of his coalition government?

Areikat:  You need to ask that question to the Israeli side, as I haven’t been following up on their reaction.  But one thing that I can say here is that the Israelis have, for 11 years, been ignoring this important initiative, submitted and accepted by the Arabs in 2002.  As a matter of fact, it goes beyond the Palestinian and Arab world in that 57 Muslim countries endorsed the API, without any exception.  And this could mean an opening up of an historic opportunity for Israel to end the conflict with the Palestinians and the Arabs to have normal relations with its neighbors and with the Arab world, and beyond that, with the rest of the Islamic world.  And I think it is Israel’s responsibility to take this initiative seriously and look at it as an important vehicle to end the conflict between the Palestinians and the Arabs and Israel.

Hilleary:  And a final question – do you see there being too many other windows of opportunity for peace after this?

Areikat:  Well, listen, I will tell you something:  What we are sensing is a very, very serious effort on the part of the secretary of state, who explained to us – and of course, the vice president – vouched and supported him, who unequivocally expressed his commitment, President Obama’s commitment, the United States’ commitment to do something soon and to make sure that whatever they want to do will succeed.  So there is no question about their commitment, about their sincerity.  But I think it’s very important to keep in mind that the U.S. should be prepared to also blame the party or parties who undermine U.S. efforts and who do not work in a constructive manner with the United States and with the other parties in order to see to it that this conflict come to an end – the Israeli occupation come to an end – and the region can enjoy peace, stability and security.

Listen to Cecily Hilleary’s interview with Maen Areikat:

Cecily Hilleary

Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for Dubai-TV English. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf regions, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA and MEV a keen understanding of the region's top social, cultural and political issues.

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