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Obama Should Consider Inviting Arab Nations to Help Solve Israeli-Palestinian Issues

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewee: Mohammad Yaghi, Lafer International Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy
January 5, 2009

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Mohammad Yaghi, a veteran Palestinian political expert based in Toronto, says the current fighting between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that governs Gaza, wasn't necessary. Yaghi proposes that the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama call a meeting bringing together Arab states and Israel to overcome Hamas' refusal to negotiate with Israel. "The time for bilateral negotiations between Palestine and Israel has come to its end," Yaghi says. "The Palestinians and the Israels won't come to agreement because [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas lacks legitimacy and he's very weak and because Hamas is very extreme and they don't want negotiations with Israel. The only way to bring peace to that area is to make an overall agreement with the Arab countries including a deal to end the Palestinian-Israel conflict."

You're an experienced Palestinian observer who was born in the West Bank city of Ramallah. What has struck you the most about the current fighting between Israel and Hamas? Is there something different or is this the same as in the past?

It's very different--very, very different actually. First of all, it wasn't a war of necessity. Hamas was contained in Gaza prior to the war, and the only thing that Hamas wanted was the ending of the economic siege on Gaza. Renewing the truce [a six-month truce that began in mid-June 2008] was very possible. The war wasn't necessary. Actually, prior to the war, the situation in Gaza was very severe on the Palestinians so Hamas was facing a choice--either to renew the truce, or to make an improved one that allowed the [Gaza-Israel border] crossings to be open, or to resume its attacks on Israel. That was the situation when Israel launched its operations in Gaza.

But hadn't Hamas allowed the rockets to begin to fire into Israel right after the truce expired in mid-December?

Yes, they allowed it because they were seeking an improved truce. They wanted an improved one. They didn't want the same truce that had been implemented. They said this truce neither benefits Hamas nor the Palestinians in Gaza. They wanted to pressure Israel to open the crossings.

So do you think Hamas was surprised by the strong Israeli military attack?

I can't say this. Their officials all the time declare that they knew that this would happen. They say Hamas was prepared for this, so I can't say that they didn't expect this.

It's been going on now for ten days. Have you been surprised so far at the reaction in the Arab world?

Not at all. What's new in this conflict actually is that those who are leading the conflict with Israel are not the forces of the secular Palestinian Liberation Organization [PLO]. It's the Islamic movement in Gaza, represented by Hamas. And the Islamic movement in Gaza has huge support in the Arab and Islamic worlds. It's part of the Muslim Brotherhood, which enjoys a lot of support and which has popularity in the Arab world. Actually, they are the only opposition in the Arab countries that has a chance to rule in the Arab world, so I'm not that surprised by the huge support for the Palestinians in Gaza or for Hamas in Gaza. In fact, if I didn't see this, I would say that the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world was very weak, but I know that they are very strong.

I meant the reaction of the Arab governments, not the people in the street.

The position of the Arab governments actually didn't surprise me. Egypt and the Palestinian Authority had interest in the Israeli operation in Gaza. Egypt sees Hamas as a big threat to its regime and actually, Hamas accused Egypt and the Palestinian Authority of knowing about and helping organize this attack with Israel. So it was expected that the moderate Arab countries--Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and also the Palestinian Authority--will try to give Israel as much time as possible in its mission. We have seen this before actually when Israel attacked Hezbollah in Lebanon two years ago.

Israel of course claims that Hamas and Hezbollah are both supported by Iran. Many of the Arab countries are quite fearful of Iran's influence, yes?

That's very true. Hezbollah and Hamas are supported by Iran and they are supported by Syria. The moderate Arab countries want to reduce the Iran position in the Middle East, and that's how we can understand their behavior. And since the Islamic movement in the Arab world is the only opposition to the moderate governments, they have interest in putting down Hamas.

Let's talk a bit about the Palestinian Authority. This is a very complicated question because President Mahmoud Abbas's term officially ends at the end of this week. What's going to happen?

Before the war in Gaza, Hamas was preparing to declare him an illegitimate president. They said his term will have expired [on January 9] and they won't deal with him anymore. That was the situation and Hamas believed that part of the goal of this war is to extend the term of Abbas's presidency. Now, what's going to happen depends on the war right now in Gaza. If Hamas is defeated, if Hamas surrenders, Abbas will have more chances to serve and he will force Hamas to accept his terms. If Hamas emerges stronger than before the war, then Abbas will have to bow down and to accept Hamas's terms for a unity government.

What would Israel have to do to defeat Hamas? Or is it not even possible?

I'm not sure this is possible actually because when there is a popular movement, you can't defeat it by war. You can defeat it only by direct election. The main mistake actually was that of  the Palestinian Authority.  From the beginning, it should have allowed Hamas to rule after Hamas won the parliamentary election in 2006. Since the West was not going to finance the Palestinian Authority after this election, Hamas wouldn't have been able to provide the people with services and wouldn't  [have been] able to implement its reform agenda. The next round of elections was going to be in 2010 and the people would have replaced Hamas. Unfortunately, the Palestinians acted in a rush; they wanted to oust Hamas very quickly. That's why we are at this point right now.

What would you recommend to U.S. President-elect Barack Obama when he takes office in two weeks?

He will be in a situation that's very difficult, but he has to face the realities. The realities are that first of all, this conflict is complicating the situation in the Middle East, but at the same time he needs to recognize that Abbas is not the only power in Palestinian politics. In fact, he lacks the legitimacy to sign and implement any agreement. The only option for Obama is to facilitate talks between the Arab countries as a whole and Israel. The time for bilateral negotiations between Palestine and Israel has come to its end. The Palestinians and the Israelis won't come to agreement because [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas lacks legitimacy and he's very weak and because Hamas is very extreme and they don't want negotiation with Israel. The only way to bring peace to that area is to make an overall agreement with the Arab countries, including a deal to end the Palestinian-Israel conflict. Hamas won't be able to defy Syria and most of the Arab countries, and will accept an agreement approved by the Arab countries.

Do you think this is really possible?

There are two problems. [One is] how to represent the Palestinians in the negotiations. But the Arab League can find a formula. Maybe they can be in a committee that advises Arabs on the negotiations or the Arabs can negotiate and defer to this committee in which Hamas and Fatah would be represented, for example. The second issue is, who is going to negotiate on behalf of the Arabs? The Arab League can find a way. For example, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Jordan would do this negotiation.

I don't know if Israel is even interested in such a proposal.

It's much better for them because Israel is facing Hamas in the south; they are facing Hezbollah in the north. The issue that Israel should focus on is how to weaken Iran's influence in the Middle East. In the coming years, or even right now, Iran is trying to influence everyone in the Middle East to step into the conflict with Israel. So Israel has enormous interest in neutralizing Iran, and preventing many of the Arab countries from being allied with Iran. It's in the Israeli interest to have allies in the Arab world against Iran.

Some other people propose this general approach. The Arab League itself has, hasn't it?

The Arab countries proposed this initiative in 2002 and this initiative entails negotiation with Israel. How can we implement this initative when there are no negotiations? Initially, the Arabs were in favor for this position and I have doubts that they will object to it.

Do you think the fighting and all the casualities in Gaza have increased the support of Palestinians in Gaza for Hamas or do you think Hamas is losing some of its popularity?

I don't want to speculate actually, but with those TV images from Gaza, it's hard to tell. You see, prior to the war, Hamas was able to gather 300,000 people on its anniversary, just one week before the conflict broke out. I believe Hamas has deep roots in Gaza and the Palestinians will support Hamas especially because they have no place to go. You see, the borders of Egypt are closed, the borders with Israel are closed, and Israel is bombing Gaza more heavily than since 1967, and what are the people in Gaza supposed to do? I wouldn't say that the people would say that Hamas is to be blamed. I would say the people are going to blame Israel.

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