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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom
Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
Town Hall Conference Call with Dr. Rashid KhalidiThe U.S. Connection: The Palestinian Unity Government and Final-Status Peace Talks
On Monday, March 26, 2007, Dr. Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at the Middle East Institute of Columbia University, discussed why he believes the U.S. should strongly support the new unity government and encourage immediate direct Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian final status peace talks. This call was part of Brit Tzedek’s "Let's Talk" Town Hall conference call series.
I suggest that we talk about the Palestinian unity government, simply because I think it is a hook for two things that have to be talked about. The first is if ever there is going to be a resolution to this conflict it is going to have to bring in major political forces of Palestinian politics. Whether one likes it or not one of those major forces is Hamas. They’ve actually won an election, a democratic election, one that President Carter and other international observers certified as having been free and fair. They have the support of a sizeable proportion of Palestinian public opinion, and the idea that it would be possible to achieve a settlement without them is illusory.
Now it may be that it will be impossible to achieve a settlement for a variety of reasons, but if there is going to be a settlement, the idea that you can somehow exclude a major political faction is ludicrous, it essentially means that you don’t want a settlement. And I don’t think you can get around that. I think you can say this or that action of this or that group, the Israeli government, or Fatah, or Hamas, or whoever else is objectionable, and one can try to deal with that, but the way to do it is not to say we won’t talk unless everybody does exactly as we say. That is my first point, and I think we are very much tied, hand and foot, as Americans, by the legislation driven through our Congress by people who thought they probably were doing a good thing but have turned various groups like Hamas into pariahs in terms of how the United States can and cannot deal with them.
I think, secondly, that we may or may not have a chance for a settlement in the short run, but I think we should look very coldly at what the alternatives to trying to figure out some way to have a negotiation now are. There are powerful processes, I would call them inexorable processes that are going on in the occupied territories, and have been going on for two generations, forty years, since 1967, when control of the territories was taken over by Israel. Since that time some trends have started which may have been reversible ten or fifteen or twenty years ago, but some of them may now in fact be irreversible. And by this I’m talking about mechanisms of control over the Palestinians, by this I’m talking about seizure of land, by this I’m talking about how Israelis imagined Israel and how much of the West Bank and Gaza, certainly the West Bank, is seen as inalienably theirs – through the building of what are now in some cases very large towns and cities or extensions of Jerusalem northwards, eastwards, and southwards into the West Bank.
These things may have made a settlement impossible, and I think that anybody who argues for further delay argues for the continuation of these inexorable processes. In fact anyone who doesn’t argue for the immediate reversal of these processes should be very clear on what they are calling for. They are calling for a one state solution. They are calling for one sovereign state, the Israeli state, between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, which will treat 3 million people like helots with no rights for the indefinite future, which obviously is unsustainable, unjust, and ultimately an explosive situation, or will be forced to change its nature. Not by external pressure but by the internal pressure that will build up because of Israel’s complete absolute and total control of the entire territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river. Which is and has been the situation since June 1967.
I think there may be a small opportunity right now. It is an opportunity that is afforded partly by the weakness of our Administration. It is afforded partly because of the weakness of the Israel government, and partly because of the weakness of the Palestinian Authority. Those factors may also not work in our favor. It is afforded by the Israeli failure of the war in Lebanon last summer, it is an opportunity afforded by the upcoming re-endorsement by an Arab summit of an Arab peace plan which meets on almost every score the maximal aspirations of most Israelis for peace and normalization with the Arab world, even though there are features of the settlement as far as the Palestinians are concerned which I think most Israelis are concerned, but in any case this is an offer. This is obviously negotiable. The terms of a settlement would be negotiable between the parties.
And I think we have a real problem in this country which is that we are bound hand and foot by law, we are bound hand and foot by the limitation of what can be said in public discourse, we are bound hand and foot by the binding and gagging of our elected representatives who are terrified to say anything but read off a script written by people who are somewhat to the right of Genghis Kahn where these kind of issues are concerned, and who don’t represent – I would say with some hesitation – who don’t represent the bulk of the American Jewish community. But the people who have laid down these lines which our elected representatives are in most cases very afraid to cross, I think can claim to be representative – I don’t think they are – but they can make a claim to be representative and say ‘we’re the presidents of major American Jewish organizations, we’re the heads of groups like ADL, American Jewish Committee, AIPAC,’ and so on and so forth. If we as Americans can’t break loose of the strictures imposed by a very right wing agenda, pervading without exception from those very mainstream organizations, we may not take advantage of whatever opportunity may be coming up here with regard to this new Palestinian government, with regard to this Arab summit initiative, with regard to the peculiar conjuncture where both Iran and Saudi Arabia seem to be willing, in Lebanon and in Palestine, to try and tamp down conflict.
So the last thing I want to say with this twenty minutes is to talk about two other things. I think people who are really interested in this should have a careful look at the statement made by this unity government, the statement on the basis of which it was formed. It has a couple of features that I find particularly interesting which I think people should think about quite carefully. A lot of focus is put on the fact that it did not meet the conditions that the United States and Israel had placed on Hamas and on the PA for having the ban on them lifted by the United Sates and by the Israeli government. But a couple of interesting things are in it. One of them is that this government communiqué, Fatah and Hamas, authorize the president of the PA, Mahmoud Abbas, to negotiate with Israel on the basis of prior agreements which this government will respect and subject to only one proviso – that the agreement he reaches with Israel, a comprehensive agreement, they call for, be subject to a Palestinian referendum. This is unprecedented. Never before has a Palestinian government, or the PLO for that matter, the PA or the PLO before that, said that any deal negotiated by Palestinian negotiators and by the Palestinian leadership would have to be subject to a referendum by the entire Palestinian people. They specify in this government statement that this be both Palestinians in the occupied territories and Palestinians in the diaspora.
I find this interesting and important. And I find that it touches on a point that I made at the onset of my remarks, which is that if you want a deal you have to bring everyone on board, or at least a majority of the population on board, which is to say not just Fatah, not just one of the major Palestinian political factions – and this is as true of Palestinians inside as it is of Palestinians outside. In other words, the agreement has to be one that is accepted not just by Palestinians in the occupied territories but also by all other Palestinians elsewhere. Because if we are talking about a comprehensive permanent settlement it has to address the aspirations of the entire Palestinian people, including those who live in the diaspora, including those who are refugees, including those who may not see themselves as refugees but see themselves as Palestinians.
There are some that say no, what we’d rather have is a deal that is made with the Palestinian leadership and be shoved down people’s throats. That’s not going to last. What you need is a referendum. What you need is open free campaigning on whatever deal hopefully would be reached. And ideally, hopefully, that deal would be endorsed by a majority and that would give the deal a kind of legitimacy and give whatever compromises resulting from negotiation with Israel the kind of legitimate basis that really might make for a lasting and ideally just peace. We’re very far away from that. One reason we’re very far away from that is because of the resistance of our own government. Another reason we’re far away from that is that this Palestinian agreement is very fragile and there are strong forces that are not interested in a negotiated settlement, strong Palestinian forces. Finally, is all the problems in Israel, which some of you may be more familiar with than I am, some resulting from the nature of this government, the coalition government, some resulting from the summer war in Lebanon, some resulting from the scandals and so on so forth, and their effects on members of the government. But I don’t think that any of those, except the problems that we have as Americans with the policies of the current Administration, are necessarily insuperable obstacles to a possible resolution of this.
So while I am not personally an enormous fan of Hamas, while I am not personally happy with the failures of both Hamas and Fatah over the past year and a bit, since the elections of January 2006, to come up with a common strategy for dealing with the agony of the Palestinian people, while I think that both of them have behaved extremely irresponsibly both up to the elections and since the elections in different ways both of these major Palestinian factions have behaved terribly irresponsibly, I think that belatedly they have done the right thing by coming to terms with one another, by producing an agreement that hopefully has put an end to the internal bloodletting among Palestinians and which hopefully could be the basis for both a lasting ceasefire which Fatah and Hamas are offering and for serious negotiations which I think would have to be a negotiation of all the major final status issues – borders, sovereignty, water, settlements, refugees, Jerusalem, the big issues, all of the big issues. I don’t think there is any space for another interim agreement. I don’t think there is a single Palestinian, I think, on earth who believes for a minute that another interim agreement would be anything but a snare and a delusion to allow the continuation of the eating up of Palestinian territory, this stealing of land, the alienation of people from their land, the fencing off of Palestinian territory, and the incarceration of the Palestinians for more time. You have to end the occupation and you have to negotiate a settlement and you have to do it as quickly as possible, and anything that moves us toward that I think would strengthen the positive forces in Palestinian society and everything that moves us away from that moves us in the direction of the abyss. Everything that expands and strengthens the occupation, and it has expanded and strengthened for forty years, increases the likelihood of violence – increases the worst tendencies in Palestinian society coming out – and there is a small opportunity here.
I know there have been some interesting views that have been expressed in Israel about the opportunities that are available here, both vis-à-vis the Palestinians and vis-à-vis the Syrians. I think there are enormous opportunities vis-à-vis the Syrians, but the most important issue is not between Israel and Syria but between the Palestinians and Israel. The resolution of all these issues, the Palestinian most importantly but also the Syrian, would in turn completely change the dynamic vis-à-vis Iran. It wouldn’t change the Iranian regime, it wouldn’t change some Iranian ambitions, but it would certainly pull the rug out from under a great deal of Iranian involvement in this, because the Iranians have sad this: if the Palestinians accept something we can’t be more Palestinian than the Palestinians. Incidentally, that has also been the position of Hezbollah.
So a Palestinian-Israeli accord, which involved all the major Palestinian factions, a Palestinian-Israeli accord that had gone through a referendum, would put the Iranians in a situation that I think would very much limit what they might be able to do in certain ways in terms of intervening in this conflict. This wouldn’t necessarily end the problem between Iran and Israel, because these are two regional superpowers, one of which has been a nuclear power for 30 or 40 years and the other which may well be becoming a nuclear power whether we like it or not, whether we go to war with them or not, whether someone tries to bomb them or not – I think that if the Iranians set their minds on it they may be able to do that and that is a problem. I think that nuclear proliferation in this region is a terrifying problem. But I do think that nevertheless attempting to reach a peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis and Israel and Syria would very much change that dynamic.Q&A followed this address, and is available for listening on our website.