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(Note: The prime minister´s responses are through an interpreter unless otherwise indicated.)
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KATIE COURIC: On Close-up this morning: The Middle East peace process. In just a few hours, President Bush will welcome Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to the White House. The prime minister, whose English is fine, was more comfortable speaking Arabic. He said he wanted to ensure his words were not misinterpreted.
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I began by asking him, given the terrible cycle of violence that has ensued over the last 33 months -- 2,400 Palestinians killed, 800 Israelis -- if there was now reason to be optimistic that the peace process could work. (Begin videotape.)
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PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: If we look at public opinion polls among both peoples, we find that they indeed want peace, which means that there is hope for the people that peace is necessary and that peace can be achieved. And that is why both peoples are holding on to this opportunity.
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MS. COURIC: You´ve met Ariel Sharon four times. In your view, can he be trusted?
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PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: We have to judge him based on the actions that he takes. So far, no real progress on the ground has been achieved.
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MS. COURIC: So at this point you do not trust him.
PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: I cannot say that. However, I would like to take my time and wait and see what he will do in the coming weeks.
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MS. COURIC: So you´re reserving judgment.
MS. COURIC: Do you think you´ve won his trust? Have you done everything you can do to stamp out terrorism and incitement?
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PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: We have eliminated a lot of the issues that the Israelis were complaining about. And Sharon confessed that the level of terrorism has decreased dramatically.
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MS. COURIC: What is the most important thing Israel could do right now to move the peace process forward?
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PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: First of all, the issue of freezing settlements and putting an end to the wall of separation -- this is quite necessary -- and then releasing the prisoners.
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MS. COURIC: So stop settlement activity and release the estimated 6,000 prisoners.
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PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: (In English.) They are 6,000.
MS. COURIC: The Israelis have released about 300, and they say that number constitutes a significant gesture to the Palestinians.
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PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: (In English.) No, they didn´t release any. They released one man and 100 detainees.
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MS. COURIC: What about the 300 number?
MS. COURIC: If that number is released, does that not satisfy you?
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PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: (In English.) No, of course that doesn´t satisfy us.
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MS. COURIC: Do you believe the Bush administration will push the Israelis in the direction you want them to go in?
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PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: We would like the U.S. administration to push the Israeli government to fulfill its commitment. And I do not object to have the administration use the same thing with us if we did not fulfill those commitments on our end.
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MS. COURIC: Sounds as if you´re quite frustrated.
PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: Sometimes yes, because if progress is not achieved, the frustration that will hit the people, the disappointment will have an impact on us in our government.
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MS. COURIC: You successfully brokered a three-month cease-fire with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It ends at the end of September. The Israelis are frustrated that you have not been more successful disarming terrorist organizations, in their view.
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PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: The cease-fire is only -- not even three weeks old. And we have started from zero. In order for us to implement the law, we need capabilities and resources. And honestly, we will not enter a civil war with Palestinian organizations.
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MS. COURIC: It´s been said that you´d rather work through persuasion than armed conflict.
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PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: Yes, that is better and this methodology is better. If I can bring them by persuading them, why should I confront them?
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MS. COURIC: Is that why you´d like to see Hamas and Islamic Jihad become a legitimate political entity?
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PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: I have no objection to that. If they make political parties and they practice their political work, there´s no shame to that.
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MS. COURIC: Do you believe members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad are responsible, law-abiding citizens who want peace?
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MS. COURIC: Many people will have a hard time believing that.
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PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: At least those whom I have seen, I have met with, I have discussed with, my feeling was that they feel responsible.
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MS. COURIC: Are you concerned, when the cease-fire ends at the end of September, there will be a return to violence and suicide bombings?
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PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: This will depend on Israeli behavior. The more they respond to our demands, the more the cease-fire will become permanent until we reach permanent peace.
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MS. COURIC: You talk a lot about what you´d like the Israelis to do. But what concessions are you willing to make, and what will you tell President Bush about that?
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PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: We are prepared for peace and stability and security with Israel.
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MS. COURIC: Yasser Arafat -- there are some who believe he is still in control and they fear that you are simply his puppet.
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PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: (In English.) I am puppet? No. (Resumption of interpreter.) Yasser Arafat is still a leader who is liked by the Palestinian people. However, I do have my own mind, my own reason. I will not do something I´m not convinced of.
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MS. COURIC: Are you going to ask President Bush to lift travel restrictions against him?
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PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: Yes. I have come here with this government to present a policy of peace. But if I don´t receive in exchange from the Israeli side, it means that my policy has failed and I will go away. However, peace will be in danger then. END. (MSNBC © 2003 07/25/03)
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