Interview with Abdel Jawad Saleh, former Palestinian Minister of Agriculture

On Wednesday August 5th, a new Palestinian Cabinet was announced by Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. The announcement was immediately met with controversy over the size of the new Cabinet. Ten new ministers were added bringing the total number to thirty-two, despite a law which restricts the maximum size to twenty-eight. The following day, Thursday August 6th, Dr. Hanan Ashrawi former Minister of Higher Education, and Mr. Abdel Jawad Saleh, former Minister of Agriculture, resigned from their positions in the new Cabinet. Birzeit University's Webteam spoke with Abdel Jawad Saleh about the reasons for his resignation and his opinion on the current situation inside the Palestinian government.

What is your opinion of the new cabinet? I think that the new cabinet has devastating implications. In a way it has really undermined the positive role and the potential of the Palestinian Legislative Council. It has thwarted the institution that we expected to have a real impact - that is the cabinet. In fact it will never function as a Cabinet with this huge number of members.

So the problem is one of size? My first point is about the undermining of the role of the legislature which is a very dangerous step. It really withdrew the special role which the legislature should play, whether it is by passing legislation or to check and be a restraint on the government.

What were the reasons for your resignation? Well I will tell you frankly, it goes back to the 26th June when the budget was under discussion. I rejected the budget and gave the following reasons: Firstly, there is no cabinet institution that could put forward strategies and plans to deal with the problems facing the Palestinian people, whether they be economic, social or even the question of democratization. The other reason for rejecting the budget was the absence for the respect of human rights. There has been no attempt to really tackle the violations of these rights including the practice of torture. Thirdly, this government has never really paid attention to what is going on in relation to the settlements, its role has been more like a neutral observer. I said once when we were discussing the expansionist policies of Israel that we resembled the Israeli cabinet, reviewing what was going on and our achievements in settling the land. We only reviewed what they were doing and didn't put any policies in place to confront this expansionism. We don't even stand beside our people who are the victims of the settlers whether by uprooting of their trees or burning their crops. The Authority looks at these devastating problems of the farmers with great indifference and negligence.

These are the main reasons why I rejected the budget. Before knowing what was happening with the Cabinet I had this point of view. In fact though all my meetings with the farmers it appeared that the Palestinian Authority didn't consider agriculture as an important policy. They are funding the new casino rather than the agricultural sector! This is unequivocally my position on the cabinet and the absence of a strategy from the Palestinian Authority which could really meet and deal with our problems.

Why did you choose to resign now and not earlier? Did you expect that the new Cabinet would bring some positive changes? No I didn't expect that. When people used the word change, I told them that this would be a miracle and this is not the age and time of miracles. I didn't expect any change but in fact I didn't resign because I thought I was fighting a battle within my Ministry and within the Palestinian Authority as a whole. As such, I felt that within the agricultural sector and the ministry I was achieving a lot. I opposed those that were promoted within the Ministry by Chairman Arafat and through my efforts they had nothing to do with the policies of the ministry. For example, one of the General Directors of my ministry abused the budget for research and used the money to buy a car. I referred him to court and to the general prosecutor. But the interference of the officials stopped any action or any measure being taken. I believed this was a battle that I really must fight. You know, we started in the agricultural ministry with no projects at all but I left the ministry with 12 projects in progress and a 90 million dollar budget. This is why I didn't leave. But I was fighting - in the Legislative Council I was not taking the position of a Minister but an opposition leader. Really my position was very clear.

How will the growth in the size of the Cabinet affect the functioning of the Legislative Council? You know some of these new ministers were really the most vocal people in criticizing corruption. They are now sitting with the same people who they previously accused of corruption. This will prevent them from being free in expressing their opinions. When you have such a huge number of people you can't really discuss the problems of the people. As a minister of a certain sector you can't discuss the issues confronting you because in fact 30 people in this meeting have nothing to do with these sectors. Some of them are security officers, some of them are negotiators and some of them are just visitors. The Chairman [Yasser Arafat - BZU] wanted this person to be present so he invited him. How can this mixture of people really discuss problems and find solutions? For example, I discovered a high-ranking official who wasted 5 million dollars in 1997. I sent the Chairman the subject for discussion and in this meeting one of the members referred to the matter. The Chairman said, "Ah yes, our brother Abdel Jawed has written to me about this subject." And that was the final discussion about it. How, why and what we could do about it wasn't discussed. And in fact the man himself was treated with even more privilege because the Chairman started to correspond directly with him and seek his opinions - he did not take any measures against him.

Is the change in the size and the composition of the Cabinet related to the political situation? Yes. I believe the main target was to absent these people from taking decisions and being part of the decision making process. To bypass any official Cabinet discussion around the negligence and indifference towards the problems of the people. I believe it shows that there are no real concerns about the future. If you are concerned about the future you have to mobilize the people, you have to alleviate their problems, you have to deal with their grievances and tackle them. But this is not the case. I believe the formation of the Cabinet is a very clear sign of indifference.

What is your assessment of negotiations taking place at the moment? There are no negotiations. There is just one thing - The changing of facts on the ground for the benefit of Israel. I can't believe how this Authority is just neutralizing its role just as an observer, without really trying to stop or block what is taking place.

How do you see your role in the current situation? I will continue to work inside the Legislative Council and with the people. I believe I must ring the bells of alarm about the dangers which are awaiting us and alert the people to what is really going on.

What is the strength of organization of the opposition inside and outside the Legislative Council? Well I'm really thinking seriously that we need to bring to maturity the attempts to bring together a nucleus - a hard core group - which would really take the responsibility of explaining the dangers to our people.

And outside the government? There are very negative signs. There are many factors which increase frustration and desperation amongst the people. Amongst these things - people who were real fighters were just thrown out and left in the shadow. People who were really active in collaborating with the Israelis are now in high-ranking positions. People who are selling their land are really not bothered. In fact there are rumors that when the security agents know about one of them there are negotiations about how much he should pay them. These are widespread rumors. All of these things are creating frustration and thwarting any move to enable them to bring the people to participate in controlling their future. So I believe we have a very hard job to do and hopefully we'll find many people to participate with us in this important job.

In the current situation it is very important to build unity amongst the people, yet the Cabinet and the Legislative Council is dominated by Fatah. What is your opinion on this? This is another very serious sign which I believe shows the direction of the Palestinian system towards building a police state, a one-party state and an undemocratic state. I believe these are steps in building such a system which should be very alarming to our people.

We have heard stories that Fatah was trying to interfere in your own ministry? I remember the first day after we were sworn in. One of the high-ranking officials transferred one of the General Directors of my ministry without my knowledge, without any consultation and without any reasons. They did not give the poor man any explanation. So I stopped this interference and the Chairman himself sent me a letter saying, "These people are under my jurisdiction." Concerning the case I mentioned earlier of the General Director who abused the research money, the Chairman wrote me a letter and said "I would like to remind you that he is one of my appointees". I told him, "Mr. Chairman, I didn't forget that but he is a big thief." He couldn't do anything but when I sent the man in question to the General Prosecutor he interfered through the Minister of Justice and stopped any legal procedures. Now I am trying again as a member of the Legislative Council to follow these things and if they try to interfere again I'll go to the High Court and try my best to make a case out of this.

In the final analysis how do you describe this new Cabinet - is this the Cabinet of corruption and what does this make President Arafat? I said by the formation of this new Cabinet, corruption was institutionalized in the Palestinian political system. Unfortunately, the school of corruption has really dominated.

What does this make President Arafat? He is the Principal of the school.