Talking Peace on Israel’s Terms

In late August, U.S. officials announced the resumption of “peace” talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). These talks are the latest stage in a so-called “peace” process, launched with the Oslo Accords, that began nearly two decades ago.

I talked with Naseer Aruri, author of Dishonest Broker: America’s Role in Israel and Palestine and Palestine and Palestinians: A Social and Political History, about whether these talks will achieve the long-deferred national aspirations of the Palestinian people.

WHY DID the U.S. and Israel push for this new round of talks?

LET’S BEGIN with some background. The U.S. envoy to the Middle East, former Sen. George Mitchell, who is in charge of trying to bring about a settlement of the Palestine/Israel conflict, has totally failed to reach any kind of agreement. He had been engaged in so-called proximity talks.

Mitchell would go to Jerusalem and sit with the Israelis, then he would go to Ramallah and sit with the Palestinians, and he would try to see if he could bring the two together. There were no results and nothing to really brag about. So the U.S. decided that it was necessary to change the approach, and it came up with the idea of direct negotiations.

These negotiations won’t make any difference. In fact, if they do make any difference, they will only make things worse.

The Obama administration has agreed to Israeli terms for the talks. The president recently took a very different position than he did in previous meetings with the Israelis in March and May. At that time, Netanyahu was in a weak position, but at the July meetings, Netanyahu was in a good position to get the U.S. to agree to Israel’s conditions for talks.

The July meeting between Obama and Netanyahu revealed the weakness on the part of Obama. The whole ambience was different: the press was allowed in; Mr. Obama praised Mr. Netanyahu–for reasons I don’t know–for aiding the “peace process”; and they agreed that there would be no preconditions for peace talks.

Yet in the July meeting, they in fact created preconditions. They want the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which means that the million and a half Palestinians who live in Israel will move from second-class citizens to third-class citizens. It’s like saying that the United States should be recognized as a Christian state, and so the non-Christians are not part of it and not included in the distribution of rights.

Netanyahu also managed to get Obama to drop the request to end the moratorium on building new settlements. So Netanyahu managed to get preconditions while stymieing Palestinian efforts to set preconditions, such as compliance with UN resolutions–in particular Resolution 242, on the need to end the occupation.

In agreeing to Israeli terms, the Obama administration departed from the global consensus. You can see this in the contrast between statements from the U.S. about the talks and those of the so-called Quartet–the U.S., the UN, Russia and the European Union.

The Quartet’s position is much less destructive than that of the U.S. You find nothing in the U.S. position that calls for an end to the occupation. You find nothing that affirms the Palestinian right to self-determination.

On the other hand, the Quartet position speaks of the end of the occupation, which is remarkable compared to the U.S. position. However, the Israelis are in the habit of getting a concession that in talks and negotiations, the Americans will have more say than other parties–in this case, the Quartet. They have done this in many such talks held over the past 20 years.

It’s hard to believe that a Palestinian leader would be drawn to talks loaded with new conditions that are not consistent with the global consensus on Palestinian rights and on how to solve the issue and bring about peace in the region. It does not bode well for the Palestinians.

WHAT EXPLAINS the shift in the Obama administration’s position from making demands on Israelis to now basically rubberstamping the Israeli position coming into the talks?

OBAMA BEGAN his presidency with a relatively benign approach to the problem, an approach that was not inconsistent with the global consensus, which says end the occupation and create two states based on equality. He gave speeches addressed to the Islamic world and chose two important Islamic spots–one in Cairo, Egypt, and the other in Istanbul, Turkey. His message to the Muslim world was that the U.S. wants to have good relations with you and is not at war with you about terrorism.

He went so far as to criticize Israel’s settlement policy. Obama even gained some support from the U.S. military. Gen. David Petraeus went so far as to imply that Israel is not exactly a strategic asset. Those were not his exact words, but the meaning was clear–that Israel was costly to the U.S. in the Middle East. Israel makes more and more enemies in the region.

The military’s position has a lot to do with the weakened condition the U.S. is in throughout the Middle East after its disastrous occupation of Iraq. They are concerned about alienating Arab states and the potential of causing more problems in the region at a time when the U.S. is not in a position to act.

But gradually, the Obama position started to wane under pressure coming from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which supported Netanyahu at least 100 percent. Basically, Obama knuckled under. He moved from talking about ending the settlements to now praising Netanyahu, the defender of the settlements, for making a contribution to the peace process.

Most likely, Obama feared that his pressure on Israel would become a domestic issue and cost Democrats support in the upcoming congressional elections. AIPAC demonstrated to him that he couldn’t really keep pushing Netanyahu to comply with international law and the global consensus. Obama then capitulated and accepted Netanyahu’s preconditions for the current talks.

WHAT DO the Israelis hope to accomplish through the talks?

THEY WANT to end this problem with a major victory for the Zionist movement and for Israel. Netanyahu thinks he can sell Mitchell and possibly the Palestinians an agreement that is based on the creation of a Palestinian Bantustan similar to the Bantustans that apartheid South Africa imposed on that country’s Black majority.

Netanyahu does not intend to relinquish even a particle of sovereignty in the area that lies between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. He knows there is an Israeli consensus that includes the left, right and center, which is that throughout this area, there is room for only one sovereign state–Israel.

Of course, they might allow the Palestinians to have a “state.” Everyone will call it a state, but it ain’t a state–it will be a Bantustan with no real sovereignty. It will have the trappings of a state, such as uniforms, postage stamps and a flag–things that symbolize a state–but it will not look that different from the PA today.

The PA has no less than 60 undersecretaries in the administration, and you wonder for what? What is all this bureaucracy doing? In fact, there is no real sovereign state that they are overseeing. The Palestinians at best would be getting the trappings of a state and continue to suffer the denial of their right to self-determination.

WHY HAS Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to talks that are really on Israeli terms?

ABBAS’ STRATEGY from the first day he succeeded Arafat as the president of the PA has been to depend on the Americans. You can see this strategy in every policy he has adopted. For example, when the Israelis build more settlements, he registers a complaint with Washington.

Of course, he knows very well that nothing will come of it. Abbas knows his position is very weak, so he thinks that he cannot dare to stand up against the Americans. So when Mitchell and Obama want him in direct negotiations with Israel, he feels that he cannot say no.

Yet he is in a dilemma. He is caught between the Americans and most of the Palestinian people and their political representatives, including his closest allies in his party, Fatah. A good number of the latter are now saying that these negotiations are a disaster in the making. Outside of Fatah, there is even more opposition. All sorts of forces have come together to plan demonstrations in Ramallah against the talks. These demonstrations will coincide with the opening of the so-called negotiations on September 2.

Abbas has responded by trying to obstruct the opposition. For example, his intelligence services tried to disrupt a meeting in Ramallah called by figures from the opposition, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the People’s Party (which used to be the Communist Party), and the undifferentiated public.

The forces in the meeting all voiced opposition to the negotiations and are the ones who have called the demonstration against the negotiations. Abbas packed the meeting with thugs from the PA’s Intelligence Services. They whistled, heckled and prevented people from speaking. They effectively stopped the meeting from happening. In response, people left the hall and went to the streets in a demonstration. Abbas then backtracked and promised to open a question of inquiry into the events on the insistence of the opposition.

WHAT HAS been the response of Hamas in Gaza to the talks?

HAMAS DECLARED publicly that it is opposed to these talks. It urged the people not to support the talks and not to participate in anything that might benefit this endeavor. This position is unequivocal, and Hamas took it as soon as Abbas decided to accept the negotiations and their Israeli preconditions.

To my knowledge, none of the Quartet members has even agreed to invite Hamas to the talks. Abbas himself has no interest in having Hamas join the talks. So there is a consensus between the big powers and Abbas to exclude Hamas. Thus, the U.S. is orchestrating talks with only half the Palestinians represented. Beyond that, most of the Palestinians are expressing their misgivings about the whole process. So Mahmoud Abbas is going to the talks with hardly any Palestinian backing.

THE TALKS themselves seem like an effort to legitimize a sham two-state solution. How do you see the increasing demand for a one-state solution fitting into this situation?

IN MANY Palestinian circles, the idea of a single state has gained ground in the past year and a half. At the same time, we find that the idea is gaining ground among the Israeli right wing. This is pretty amazing. Most people have been astonished that the right wing is calling for a single state. But we have to keep in mind that the right wing in Israel has embraced a single state not based on equality.

Their single state would in fact continue the occupation. It would extend the status quo under the name of a single state. On the other side, more and more Palestinians now advocate a single bi-national state with civil equality and the right of Palestinian refugees to return as the only solution. So we have a situation of dueling concepts of a single state.

More ideas and strategies for Palestinians will hopefully come out of the demonstration on September 2 in Ramallah. We should recall the First and Second Intifadas. We have seen countless similar talks that produced very few results (and sometimes bad results) for Palestinians. And at the same time, they produced a new resistance. The First Intifada (1987-1993) produced a brand new approach to the political struggle for national Palestinian rights. We need to be on the watch for statements, ideas and forces emanating from the demonstrations in Ramallah.

WHAT DO you think will be the likely result of the talks?

I WOULDN’T be surprised if the U.S. delegation pushes for a settlement that would be signed, but defer implementation over a period stretching for seven or eight years. That is what they tried in the Annapolis meeting. In other words, they will collect the signatures, but are not in a position to implement anything because the Israelis are not going to agree to make Jerusalem the capital of two states.

They are not going to agree to let the refugees go back to their homes. And they are not going to agree with full sovereignty and full contiguity for the Palestinian state. So I would not be surprised if they postpone these parts of the discussion. There may be signatures and celebrations, but nothing substantive will take place and nothing that could be described as a diplomatic breakthrough. And the entire process is not set up in the interests of Palestinians.

HOW SHOULD the newly emerging movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) respond to the talks taking place?

I THINK this movement would be inclined to oppose the negotiations. They know that these negotiations are at variance with their goals and objectives. The negotiations are designed to establish a Palestinian Bantustan while the BDS movement’s goals are the liberation of the Palestinian people based on increasingly isolating Israel and forcing it to concede to Palestinian rights to self-determination.

So the BDS movement should grow and prosper because it is going to have more and more support from what seems an opposition that is reforming and trying to reestablish itself inside Palestine. The international BDS movement hopefully will be able to link up with the new opposition expressed in the demonstrations in Ramallah against the talks. We need to cultivate solidarity between the international BDS movement with any emergent Palestinian opposition to Abbas and these talks.

ASHLEY SMITH writes for the Socialist Worker, where this interview originally appeared.

Ashley Smith is a socialist writer and activist in Burlington, Vermont. He has written for various publications including Harper’s, Truthout, Jacobin, and New Politics.