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Khalidi: New Palestinian Unity Government 'Could Be Significant'

Interviewee: Rashid I. Khalidi
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
September 13, 2006

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Rashid I. Khalidi, an expert on Palestinian politics and the director of Columbia University's Middle East Institute, says the recent announcement that Fatah and Hamas factions have agreed on a unity government could be significant because it might lead to an end to the “dire economic crisis” in the Palestinian areas. He says it is also a “potential source of optimism if the formation of a new Palestinian government can be taken as an opportunity to see whether a real negotiation about the real issues could be started.”

Khalidi notes recent interest by Israeli officials in opening talks with the Palestinians, something he says has been lacking over the past five years.

The major news from the Palestinian areas this week is that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Fatah party, and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who heads the Hamas-led government, have agreed on forming a new “unity” government and they are in the process of working out the details right now. How significant is this?

It could be significant in terms of its potential for doing two things. The first is to relieve a situation of dire economic crisis in Gaza and the West Bank, which could turn into a humanitarian catastrophe. And secondly and perhaps more importantly in the long run, it could lead to an opening for exploration of whether really addressing the real root causes of this conflict and related conflicts is possible.

President Abbas said today that the Palestinians would send a delegation to the upcoming UN General Assembly session in New York to try to get the so-called "road map" talks resumed. But is there really a stomach in the Palestinian areas to get these talks going again?

It is possible in principle if they had any sense there would be reciprocal movement on the other side, in particular given the extraordinary sense of despair that prevails in the occupied territories and given the fact that a majority of Palestinians are still clearly interested in a compromise settlement with Israel. But there are so many “ifs” that frankly I’m not terribly optimistic. I’m just saying there would be an opening if other parties were willing to seize it. It would also require a great degree of unity and determination on the Palestinian side.

On the Israeli side, of course, one of the main issues is the return of the prisoner, Corporal Gilad Shalit, abducted at the end of June.

There are all kinds of rumors and reports that the Israeli military court’s [September 12] decision to release the Hamas legislators is part of a deal.

The Israeli ministry of defense and the defense establishment, which are not exactly the same thing obviously, any more than they are in our country, seem to be in agreement that the only way to get the Israeli soldier held prisoner in the Gaza Strip involves negotiations and some form of prisoner releases. There also seems to be a broader tendency in some quarters of the Israeli government recently to look to something other than force as a means of dealing with the Palestinians.

Now, for most of the last five years since some time in early 2000 or 2001, Israel has only really relied on force in dealing with the Palestinians. There was almost no attention to any serious attempt to negotiate anything of any importance on the part of any Israeli official. You didn’t hear any serious suggestions during most of Ariel Sharon’s prime ministership or when Ehud Olmert took over earlier this year. I don’t necessarily think this means the Israelis will negotiate or that they’ve decided to negotiate, but they might actually be considering doing so and I think it is in this context that you have to see the release of the Hamas legislators, you have to see the Gilad Shalit negotiations over the release of the captured Israeli soldier, and you have to see the way in which Israel seems to be looking to the formation of this Palestinian government.

Israel plays an enormous role in Palestinian politics by its interventions, by assassinations, by killing of civilians at key moments. It has directly intervened, I would argue, with premeditation in Palestinian politics to derail something they didn’t want to have happen. They have had a world view that argues the only way to deal with the Palestinians is by force, to bring them to their knees, and then perhaps deal with them later. I’m not saying this new development will necessarily go anywhere because as you suggest, this is a government in disarray, but I still think it might be worth looking at.

Do you get any indication from Washington on any interest in all of this?

I haven’t detected much American interest in the Palestinian issue for quite a while.

Is that because the administration was so focused this summer on Lebanon?

It’s not just that. There is an ideological bent in this administration which is quite sympathetic to the argument that the only thing these people understand is force. And whether that is the Lebanese or the Iranians or the Iraqis or the Palestinians, basically that is a profoundly held belief among most of the people who are in decision-making positions in this administration. Most of them put it somewhat less bluntly than that, but they don’t seem to be very interested in the idea that you actually are going to get in there and negotiate the details of a Palestinian-Israeli agreement or do anything involving the Palestinians. I know there are people in the State Department who may feel differently and I don’t think they necessarily have an enormous amount of influence with this administration.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he’s looking forward to meeting with Abbas and presumably after this new government is settled there will be some meetings.

It also depends on who comes on the Israeli side. I would assume the foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, but she was kept away from certain negotiations during the Lebanon war. It is a very interesting and peculiar political balance within that government having to do with the fact that the foreign minister is in fact a potential challenger to the prime minister in his own party.

Lets talk about internal Palestinian politics for a moment because when we had our talk after the Palestinian elections you were saying Fatah needed to purge itself of a lot of corrupt individuals. So what has happened, have there been any changes?

Of course not. Quite the contrary, I think they have been encouraged in many of their own worst tendencies by the way events have gone, by the fact there is an almost wall-to-wall international coalition committed to bringing down their Hamas rivals. And Fatah has been encouraged by popular dissatisfaction with the situation generally as manifested in this ongoing strike of public service workers, teachers, and so forth in the occupied territories. So I don’t think Fatah frankly has done anything like what I would argue it absolutely has to do if it is to remain relevant in the long term in Palestinian politics.

Has Hamas moderated its position to get this unity government off the ground?

Actually, since we last talked, Hamas did at least one of the things I thought was a precondition for anybody taking them seriously, which is that they accepted the so-called prisoner’s document [a document issued by Palestinian political prisoners in Israel which called for negotiating with Israel to regain lands lost in the 1967 war] in May and came to an agreement with Abbas on a political platform, which involved movement on the part of Hamas toward the idea of accepting Israel and negotiating and so forth. This was largely ignored partly because the Israelis pounded the living daylights out of Gaza, I would argue, in order to make sure nobody paid any attention to this. This started the escalation of violence which ultimately led to the capture of Shalit.

In other words, you don’t accept the view that a radical faction of Hamas, based in Damascus, ordered the kidnapping to undercut the move toward unity with Fatah?

I’m not suggesting that’s not true at all, I’m simply suggesting you need to wind the reel back several weeks to the prisoner’s document, the very important movements that were going on inside Palestinian politics and look what Israel did in response to see how you got up to the capture of the soldier. The capture of the soldier was very possibly carried out, as many observers suggest, by people linked to the Damascus leadership of Hamas.

I’m not suggesting that’s not the case; it may very well have been. But you have to go back just a few weeks earlier to see what was going in Gaza. The number of people killed in Gaza between the relatively peaceful situation in which the prisoners’ document was issued and the agreement between Hamas and Fatah took place, and the kidnapping of the soldier. The whole ridiculous narrative of the conflict which portrays a regional superpower [Israel] as a victim and a totally atomized, occupied, almost devastated society as the aggressor would not be sustainable, but then the world would be a different place.

So, coming back to where we started, are you optimistic?

I have expressed optimism on two scores. The first is a disastrous humanitarian crisis that would stay on the conscience of the United States, Europe, and Israel may be averted if people respond appropriately and if the Palestinians act appropriately in terms of this government. In other words, starving the Palestinians to the death in the Gaza Strip, which is imminent sooner or later and destroying Palestinian society, might be averted if people take this as an opportunity. It’s entirely up to the United States, the European Union, and Israel on how they want to respond to this. I know most people here don’t give a hoot in hell but it is of importance to the United States in the long term if the United States is seen as killing a lot of Palestinians by its policies even if indirectly. And secondly, I would argue it’s a potential source of optimism if the formation of a new Palestinian government can be taken as an opportunity to see whether a real negotiation about the real issues could be started. Obviously that would require the Palestinians to get their act together in a way that in my view they haven’t yet. It would require the Israeli government to do things I would argue it hasn’t done in five years and it certainly would require a different approach on the part of Washington, which I’m frankly the most pessimistic about, but anything is possible.

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