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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

Town Hall Conference Call with Hanna Siniora and Amjad Atallah

Unity or Civil War? The Unraveling of Palestinian Politics and the US Role

On Sunday, November 5, 2006, Mr. Siniora, Co-director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research (IPCRI), and Mr. Atallah, founder and President of Strategic Assessments Initiative (SAI), spoke about the influences shaping Palestinian politics and what they believe needs to happen next. Below is the text from their addresses.

Hannah Siniora:

I would like my opening statement to relate not to the dangerous situation on the ground, especially in Gaza and the West Bank, but I really seek public support for the peace process, ways to promote peace instead of accusations and recriminations. I would like to start by saying something we have all long realized, that the peace making process has been at a virtual standstill for a few years. The unending pattern of violence, which varies in intensity, but is a constant reality, is matched by a breakdown in the conflict resolution process particularly at the governmental level.

We can still hope that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians regard the achievement of peace as a desirable and achievable goal. I don't know for how long. But there can be no doubt that the recent violence in Lebanon and ongoing in Gaza, have strengthened attitudes of hatred, cynicism and doubt about achieving peace on both sides. The region finds itself in what is clearly one of its worst crises in its long history of crises. The peace process appears to be locked on hold. More and more voices from the Israeli side, the Palestinian side, regionally and globally, call attention to the fact that the Lebanese war and its outcome, have given new impetus and immediacy to the search for Palestinian and Israeli peace and indeed for a regional conflict resolution process. Wider and wider circles emphasize the importance of the need to resolve this conflict once and for all.

I hope so. The spiraling continuation of Israeli Palestinian violence leads to a growing awareness that it leads to a dead end for both sides. The need to renew the peace process has never been more critical for the future of the region and indeed the globe. Its relevance for Israel and Palestine has never been more sharply evident. The need to think outside the box as well as along classic and accepted routes has never been more prescient, particularly in the view of the apparent paralysis both in thoughts and in action of the governmental political agencies.

Human society can make a most important contribution to the renewal of the peace process. To do so is a moral imperative. To do so effectively and quickly are imperatives of the immediacy of the dangers which are our daily reality. The Palestinian Israeli civil societies have frequently played an important role in the political peace process. The initiation of dialogue and the interaction between Israelis and Palestinians was largely the work of civil society. Significant negotiations were carried out by civil society groupings. The political powers have frequently turned to civil society in the so-called 'second tier diplomacy' for the furtherance of political interaction. More so, civil society has offered to impact and even point direction in the political peace process, with some measure of success. Now, in simple terms, it is imperative to mobilize civil society on a global basis, as a force exerting effective pressure for the immediate revival of the Israeli Palestinian peace process, and for the achievement of peace in our region.

At the heart of this revitalization certainly will be Israeli Palestinian civil society organizations and groupings which have been central to conflict resolution activities, but will extend outward to include other civil society bodies both at the regional and global level, who share the same goals. The broad objective will be to create and maintain concerted, coherent and coordinated pressure of significance in scope and intensity similar in the quality and standing of our opponents and in their effective utilization of all relevant channels, from the glare of the media to the intimacy of private conversation so as to achieve the renewal of the peace process in the near future.

Present circumstances require new out of the box approaches of how to renew the peace process. This does not imply the abandonment of other possibilities for the achievement of this goal, it only hopes to add a new and hopefully significant approach and a group of layers acting together in a variety of ways at local, regional, and international levels. Seeing the world civil society as such a player and mobilizing its capacity to play that role is out an out of the box approach. Civil society organizations, groups, and individuals, will be part of the initiative and they will come from a variety of political and ideological backgrounds. Recognition of this diversity does not act as a deterrent to working together to achieve the intended goals. Yet there is an assumption they do share a framework of approach to the issue of Israeli Palestinian peace.

One may say the boundary conditions of this approach would be those of the two-state solution. Today, thank God, there is still a majority, in Israel and Palestine, for a solution based on the two state solution, and would fall out within the parameters set out by many initiatives, for example the Quartet Road map, the Clinton parameters of 2000, the Arab League initiative of 2002, the Geneva initiative and the Ayalon-Nusseibeh agreement. Although these differ, they share a wide range of commonalities. Palestinian and Israeli governmental and political bodies have voiced approval for at least one of these. It is suggested that this approach characterize the initiative as a whole, and that it serve as one of the guidelines for civil society partners and public statements.

Now to go to the civil society summit. The initial proposed step for the achievement of all objectives utilizing global civil society as an important factor in the renewal of the peace process and in the achievement of peace is the holding of an Israeli Palestinian international civil society summit. The summit would bring together a wide range of local regional and international organizations and individuals who do things to give voice to the importance of the peace process and the importance of peace; secondly, to adopt a program of future joint activity to further the achievement of these goals. Clearly it is hoped that the summit will be a meeting of major international significance in terms of its participant list, in terms of its impact on the global community, and on national and international leadership, and in terms of the coverage it achieves in the media. Further, and of major significance, it is hoped that the summit and the activities which follow will impact the thinking and outlook of the Israeli and Palestinian public and on the Israeli and Palestinian governmental powers that be. This is in short what I would like to introduce to the listening public in the United States.

Amjad Atallah:

First of all it's always a great pleasure to speak to a Brit Tzedek audience. Again, I appreciate that in the United States you are one of the few grassroots organizations working on actually promoting the peace process, and at a time when -- I'm sorry, I even used the wrong language -- not promoting the peace process, promoting peace. We have far too much process and far too little peace. And so it's always a pleasure to speak to you.

I am going to be providing more analysis than advocacy -- I don't necessarily have a particular perspective on what should happen. What I want to do actually is talk about Palestinian politics and what they're responding to. And basically in my opinion, Palestinian internal politics right now are responding to three overwhelming external parameters, which are dictating the scope of Palestinian reaction to each other. So, Hamas and Fatah are responding to each other but they are responding to each other because of things that are happening outside of their own involvement.

The first element is the occupation. And when I say the occupation I mean, the word unfortunately, we use it all the time now, and it's sort of lost specific meaning, particularly for a non-Palestinian audience that doesn't live under occupation, so let me describe it this way: the fact that Israel has complete and total domination over every aspect of Palestinian life is by default the primary diktat that makes Palestinian reaction respond in a particular way. Israel controls the finances of the Palestinians, primarily through collection of Palestinian taxes, and then withholding of those taxes. 60% of the Palestinian budget actually comes from those taxes; if Israel chooses not to pay them then Palestinians go without salaries and right now the majority of the Palestinian public is being punished into poverty, primarily because of that. Israel controls water, it controls electricity, it controls freedom of movement of Palestinians, within towns, around towns, from village to town, and inside and outside of the occupied territory. So no matter what happens as a Palestinian when you look up you see Israel.

Now the second element that is the external parameter is the paradigm shift in Israel away from a negotiated solution. The Israeli government when Sharon took power effectively began a concerted attempt to recreate the playing field so that a negotiated permanent status agreement would no longer be possible. Now that was continued after Sharon's coma with Olmert, and now that we have an Olmert-Lieberman government, we can expect that Lieberman, I suspect that Lieberman will be far more effective in the Israeli government than Peretz was from Labor in terms of directing the government in one direction or the other. Now this shift away from a permanent status negotiated solution, final status agreement, has effectively thrown Palestinian politics into disarray because Palestinian politics were based primarily on that presumption.

The third one, and this is the one the Palestinians missed at their peril, was the US paradigm shift away from a negotiated solution being in the national security interests of the United states, to one that basically relies on the domination methodology. And it basically says that the United States can even actively intervene in the conflict in order to push the conflict further in order to achieve victory over peace. We have always worked under the assumption - those of us in the peace process have always worked under the assumption - that peace had to be a negotiated compromise in which both parties were going to be giving in some elements in order to have a win-win situation that would benefit both parties. The US government policy at the moment is one of absolute victory.

And it's not just in Palestine. The United States takes this perspective in Iraq, in Afghanistan, it's taking it in Somalia and elsewhere. And the assumption is that the political players that the United States has not agreed to must be defeated. They must be unambiguously defeated, the United States must be the unambiguous leader, and it's effectively the same policy we had after World War II in the cold war when we and the Soviets began jockeying for position around the world. There is no other power in the world right now, except the Chinese maybe which are doing it in a much less aggressive and much less militaristic fashion than we are, but it's happening in the Israel-Palestinian context --probably, outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, that's where [in the occupied territories] we see the consequences the most dramatically.

Now, the Fatah response versus the Hamas response to these three external factors - and I'm going to of course be concise and summarize this: for Fatah in my opinion, the policy was from when the PLO was first contracted to administer the occupation during the Oslo years, the Fatah response was to ignore the occupation and to ignore good governance. The assumption was that Fatah had won, the PLO had succeeded in coming back to the occupied territory, and that in itself was a victory, and that Fatah therefore like other Arab political parties that came to power after the colonial period would be allowed to rule forever. The occupation, even for example questions like the settlements, was very difficult to focus Fatah leaders on. So for example people like President Arafat in many negotiations no matter how many of his advisors told him the lead issue to talk about was the settlements, would discuss things that pertain more directly to PLO control, PLO access, the ability of PLO leaders to travel, etc., and it was very difficult to focus in on Israel's colonization of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Fatah position was: we are going to remove any excuse the Israelis may have for non-negotiation; we will support, unilaterally, non-violence; we will support, unilaterally, recognition of Israel -- because Israel has never recognized Palestine's right to exist; we will recognize US interests in the region; and recognize that we will be part of the American security apparatus. And if we do these things, the United States and Europe will work with us to nudge Israel back to the negotiating table.

Now Hamas took it in a different direction. Hamas said we are only going to concentrate on the occupation and good governance because that will be the best way to have advantage over Fatah. The advantage of Fatah is the peace process, our advantage will be resisting the occupation, attempting to obtain Palestinian freedom, and establishing good governance. Now, when Sharon came to power, Hamas basically had an ally, because it accepted the new paradigm that Sharon and Olmert were putting forward, which was no negotiations. Hamas supported that position because it too did not want the hard choices and the hard compromises that would be necessary in a final status agreement and accepted that a unilateral withdrawal by Israel would in fact be the best way forward. And it assumed that it would be able to cut a quick quid pro quo especially after Sharon was out of the picture with Olmert, in order to have a long term ceasefire, or hudna, in which Israel and Hamas could continue to hate each other, but would coordinate with each other, and would stay out of each other's hair for a long period of time. And the assumption was that with Hamas aside the United States and Europe would follow Israel's lead. So if Israel decided it wanted to do this, just like Sharon decided he wanted to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip as a response to the Geneva accords, the US went along and then Europe went grudgingly along, the assumption by Hamas was that whatever Israel asks the United States to do the United States will do.

In these responses I think both Fatah and Hamas ignored, or missed, the paradigm shift in US policy. Now, the US policy to put a point on it - because I'm living in the United States, and I think the audience on the phone call are Americans as well. The US policy is the same now in Palestine or Somalia as it was in Nicaragua in the 1980's. Basically the idea is that we will support pro-US paramilitary attacks on forces that we oppose. If necessary we'll have sanctions to starve the population, plunge them into poverty to let them recognize that if they don't go along with the political party we want in place we will starve them. We did this in Nicaragua with the contras attacking military and civilian targets; in Nicaragua we mined the harbors; we had an embargo on them etc., until they actually had elections in which they voted the Sandinistas out of office. In Somalia we supported secular warlords who have done such a lousy job that they forced the business community in Somalia to provide funding to the Islamist militias so that the Islamist militias could bring some order to the chaos, and the Islamist militias have largely succeeded in doing that - they have reopened the airport in Mogadishu for the first time in four years to humanitarian aid and business deliveries. But because that isn't of course the outcome the United States wanted, we seem to be supporting the Ethiopian government's invasion of Somalia now, much in the same way we were supporting Israel's intervention in the Gaza Strip.

Now neither Fatah nor Hamas has articulated a reasonable response, I think, to the Palestinian public, in terms of the US paradigm shift. It's become obvious that the United States is the dominant player. The United States is more dominant than Israel. It used to be the myth in the Arab world was that Israel controlled the United States, but now when people see the pressure the United States put on Israel in order to go to war in Lebanon, the pressure they put on Israel to continue the war in Lebanon, the pressure they put on Israel not to negotiate with Syria, the pressure they put on Israel not to negotiate with Hamas, has shown that the United States is actually the dominant partner and Israel is the second fiddle now.

In that paradigm, Fatah is playing the role of the contras basically, saying that, ok, if we do this the US will endorse permanent status talks once we come to power, and that will justify our cooperation with the United States. The Palestinian public will forgive us because we will feed them afterwards. Now, as we know in Nicaragua, 80% of the public lives below the poverty line. It is the second poorest country after Haiti in the western hemisphere. So the United States after overthrowing the Sandinistas, unfortunately, never actually came through with the economic aid and promises that it gave. I strongly suspect the United States, even if Fatah is successful in taking over from Hamas undemocratically, I still feel the United States will not engage in permanent status negotiations automatically.

And Hamas did not have a Plan B either and has fallen back on its original rhetoric. It had tried to moderate its position very significantly after the election, however, once it became clear to them after Abu Mazen visited the United States that the United States would not allow a unity government to be created they are falling back on their more extreme rhetoric from the past. So both are in desperate need of a Plan B and it's a Plan B that needs to respond to the realities of the United States policy, and I think for those involved in peace activism in the United States we too also need to have a Plan B. Even if on Tuesday the Democrats take the House that does not necessarily mean there is going to be a policy shift in Middle East policy. And so I think there is going to need to be a Plan B on our side to figure out how to respond to the destabilizing policies the United States is implementing in the region right now.

Q&A followed this address, and is available for listening on our website.

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