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Palestinian Foreign Minister on Israel’s new government, Australia, and Diaspora Jews

Deborah Stone
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Published: 13 January 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

In an exclusive interview, RIYAD AL-MALIKI talks to DEBORAH STONE about the Israeli government that has just withdrawn his travel permit, and his expectations of international governments and even Diaspora Jews.

The Palestinian Authority expects Australia to change its relationship with Israel in the face of the new Israeli government.

In an exclusive interview with The Jewish Independent Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki said the combination of a far-Right coalition in Jerusalem and a Labor government in Canberra should mean a reset for Australia’s approach.

“It is not enough for Australia to support a two-state solution. The question is: what they have done in order to protect the two-state solution, to prevent Israel from undermining the two-state solution?

"It means you have to stop Israel from confiscating Palestinian land, from moving Israeli citizens into Palestinian occupied territory, from building illegal Israeli settlements, from demolishing Palestinian homes and Palestinian schools.

“Australia has been a good friend of Israel and Israel should listen to Australia as a good friend. Australia has to speak up loudly. Australia has to condemn Israel when Israel violates international law.

“With the new Australian government, we expect much more from Australia. We expect a stronger voice in international forums, we expect Australia to stop blindly supporting Israel in the UN and voting always in favour of Israel, knowing that Israel violates international law.

“Australia cannot vote against the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people. Australia cannot vote against the operation of international law condemning illegal settlements in the occupied territories.”

Al-Maliki meets The Jewish Independent at his Ramallah office, and we walk past rows of international flags to take our seats under twin portraits of long-time PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

The offices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with their colourful mural of Jerusalem, are eerily quiet. Al-Maliki has come in specially on a Friday to fit in an interview between his regular international travel, promoting the cause of Palestine on the world stage. 

Such trips may be curtailed now. During this past week Israel suspended the VIP pass that eased the Palestinian Foreign Minister's travel in and out of the occupied West Bank, as part of its response to the successful Palestinian move to send the issue of the occupation to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

“I am very much afraid. Maybe afraid is too little to reflect what I feel. I am really terrified, frankly speaking."

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki

Al-Maliki is passionate but scrupulously polite, a practiced politician who has held the role since 2007 — the year after parliamentary elections were last held for the Palestinian Authority.

He lays the blame for the lack of elections, and for every other internal issue we put to him, with Israel’s occupation, the topic to which he continually circles back.

The formation of Israel’s new government, with Itamar Ben-Gvir as Minister of National Security and Bezalel Smotrich as Finance Minister, has been a massive blow.

“I am very much afraid. Maybe afraid is too little to reflect what I feel. I am really terrified, frankly speaking. I think it is going to be too late before the international community will react to the atrocities that will be committed against the Palestinian people,” he said.

Ben-Gvir’s record of convictions for incitement is an indication of what Al-Maliki now expects.

 “The fact that Ben-Gvir and Smotrich insist on taking control over our destiny is an indicator of what we might expect. They behave in the same way as they used to behave as outlaws and terrorists; now they will use the same approach but with an official cover. This really is what frightens us the most.

“Even Netanyahu was not able to annex the Palestinian territories and completely alter the facts on the ground. Now he is trying to put these two Arab-haters, the most racist, fascist terrorists ever Israel had, to be in the forefront to cover himself in order to implement what he was not able to implement when he was prime minister in the previous five governments.

“We expect the international community to react strongly, to condemn it and to take action including sanctions and totally stopping all types of contact and relationship with such a government.”

Deborah Stone interviews Minister Al-Maliki in Ramallah (Raed Mansour)
Deborah Stone interviews Minister Al-Maliki in Ramallah (Raed Mansour)

One place where Al-Maliki hopes to find allies is the Jewish Diaspora. He hopes the concerns Diaspora Jews have expressed about the impact of ultranationalists on Israel’s new coalition may mean they are willing to be more supportive of the Palestinian cause.

 “We have noticed in the last few years that the Jewish Diaspora is clear about what’s happening in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. Some of them, in order to preserve and protect the state of Israel that they love, stand up against Israel.

“The Jewish Diaspora historically has been liberal and attached to international law.  I respect where they stand, not necessarily that they should be in favour of Palestine but the fact that they stand by their own principles, their morality and respecting international law. For me, that’s enough in order to start working together.

“I, as Foreign Minister of the State of Palestine, am willing to be the first Palestinian to extend the hand to work with the Jewish community everywhere for the sake of the two state solution, for the sake of the solution that will put an end to the conflict and allow the state of Israel and the state of Palestine to live side by side in peace and security,” he told The Jewish Independent.

"Even during the previous governments of Netanyahu, we never stopped security cooperation."

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki

While Al-Maliki is articulate on the failures of Israeli and international institutions, he deflects international and internal concerns about governance in the Palestinian Authority.

Concern about corruption in the PA is widespread, Al-Jazeera reported last year that the death of a 16-year-old cancer patient was denied admission to a Ramallah hospital had revived accusations of favouritism and mismanagement. Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Lind even expressed concerns about continuing Sweden’s longstanding aid because of the level of corruption.  

According to a recent public opinion poll, 81% of Palestinians corruption is a problem in Palestinian Authority institutions. But Al-Maliki denies any problem, attacking Dr Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) which conducted the poll, for receiving support from Washington. He then directed the conversation back to Israel.  

“I don’t see any corruption. That’s not true. We don’t have money. How will you be corrupt if there’s no money?” he said.

“When I look at the situation in Israel, I see presidents being put in jail for corruption, I see ministers being put in prison and being prevented from being ministers for corruption and no one is talking about Israel as a corrupt state.

“In Palestine where there is no corruption, they want to connect us with corruption in order to draw a picture where Palestine is a corrupted society and the government is really corrupted and the people are not really supporting the leadership.”

He is similarly unconcerned about PSR figures which show only 23% of Palestinians support the leadership of PA President Mahmoud Abbas and just under a third support the PA agenda of a two-state solution.

As for the fact that the PA has not held elections for 16 years, the minister both downplays the importance of elections and blames Israel for standing the in the way of Palestinian elections in East Jerusalem.

“Democracy is not only elections. You can see democracy in different ways and different forms. No one can teach us about democracy because we know it. We have seen what President Trump has done with the Capitol. We have seen when you hold five elections in four years [in Israel]. That is not good democracy. This is a really bad system.

“We did not give away the whole idea of giving elections to the contrary. We are not thinking about holding elections because the international community has asked us. We want to hold them because it is part of our own thinking.”

Elections were scheduled for May 2021 but were abandoned after conflict over voting in East Jerusalem. The PA insist its elections must include Palestinians in East Jerusalem, but Israel, which annexed East Jerusalem in 1980, refused to facilitate elections in the city.

“Israel is the one who is hijacking our democracy. It’s not us that doesn’t want to hold elections. We have pleaded with the international community to help us to pressure Israel to allow us to hold elections in East Jerusalem.

“We cannot hold elections in the rest of the Palestinian Occupied Territories without holding elections in East Jerusalem because if we do so then we are acknowledging the de facto situation that East Jerusalem is annexed to the state of Israel. We cannot do that,” said Al-Maliki.

Another issue concerning both Israel and the international community is the payments the PA makes to the families of terrorists.

Al-Maliki’s first response is to question whether those who commit acts against Israel should be classed as terrorists.

“From the Israeli perspective, we are all terrorists. That’s why we are not allowed to go to Jerusalem, we are not allowed to travel, that’s why they put so many Palestinians in preventative detention. If the Palestinians who are committing acts against the Israelis are terrorists, what about the Israelis committing acts against the Palestinians? Are they terrorists? Or are they soldiers? Or settlers?

“From a Palestinian perspective, a person who fights for the freedom of his country is not a terrorist? My goodness. That’s a freedom fighter.”

He said the payments made to the families of those imprisoned by Israel function as social welfare.

“The Israeli Court, as an enemy, has decided that a person should spend 10 years or 20 years in an Israeli prison. That person is paying the price for what he has committed. Should we punish the family too? The wife and five children? What should we do: kick them to street? Or we should provide some social assistance to such families?”

The PA continues to support and promote the two-state solution but in doing so it is increasingly isolated, squeezed between a hawkish Israeli government and its own people, more than two thirds of whom believe a two-state solution is no longer feasible due to Israeli settlement expansion.

With little hope for peace talks, the real question for now is whether a major explosion of violence can be avoided. For many years, security co-operation between the PA and Israel has kept the lid on such violence.

Will security co-operation continue?

“Frankly speaking I have no idea because it depends how the Israeli government will act and how the Israeli government will look at us. Even during the previous governments of Netanyahu, we never stopped security cooperation. During the Bennett and Lapid governments, we did not have any form of negotiations, but security cooperation continued. Now the situation may stay the same, but it might be different. It’s up to how the Israeli side behaves. But we are anticipating the worst.”

Photo: Palestinian Foreign Affairs Minister Riyad Al-Maliki (Deborah Stone)

About the author

Deborah Stone

Deborah Stone is Editor-in-Chief of TJI. She has more than 30 years experience as a journalist and editor, including as a reporter and feature writer on The Age and The Sunday Age, as Editor of the Australian Jewish News and as Editor of ArtsHub.

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