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The Tragedy of Palestinian Divisions

Interviewee: Rashid I. Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies, Columbia University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
October 29, 2009

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A leading expert on Palestinian affairs, Rashid Khalidi, says it is crucial for the Palestinian rivals, Hamas, in Gaza, and Fatah, in the West Bank, to reconcile and create a unified negotiating position with Israel. "This is not something that's impossible," he says. "Fatah and Hamas have agreed three times in the past, only to have those agreements collapse." Khalidi also urges the Obama administration to change its policy of isolating Hamas, which he says is counterproductive to the Mideast peace mission it has vowed to pursue. Khalidi says, despite his frustration, he has not given up on Obama's peace efforts. "I don't think that the moment has entirely passed when something can be done," he says. "I do not believe that it is too late to bring about a two-state solution. "

Egypt has been trying to mediate between Hamas and Fatah to reconcile and come together for elections next summer. But these efforts have now failed and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has called for new elections in mid-January. Hamas says it won't participate. So unless there is a compromise, there will only be elections in the West Bank, and not in Gaza. What's caused this collapse of unity efforts?

The collapse is caused by a lot of internal factors. Both Fatah and Hamas in a certain way are comfortable with their control of a small portion of Palestinian terrirory--Hamas controlling Gaza, which is still under siege and cut off from the outside world but where it has established very firm control; and the Palestinian Authority under President Abbas controlling parts of the West Bank with the assistance of the Israelis and having used its newly reinforced security forces to take control of the cities where a degree of security has now been established and where these forces are also helping Israelis in hunting down Hamas. So both have a sort of comfort with the status quo.

The way to get a consensus is to agree on a minimal position whereby both parties authorize the PA to negotiate and per se that will be a tougher negotiating position which is, of course, why the Israelis are horrified.

Can either side prevail?

Part of the problem, of course, is that they're both too feeble to do anything. Abbas is too feeble to negotiate because the Israelis disdain him: they say he's weak, he has no support, he controls a fraction of territory of the occupied territories partly with the aid of Israel.  Hamas is also too weak to carry out its chosen strategy of what it calls "resistance" --they haven't fired a rocket in almost nine months since the Israeli attack on Gaza ended in January. And so really this is a totally unsatisfactory situation. The focus ought to be on the failure of outside actors to do anything to change this.

Some people have said that the Obama administration is making a big mistake in following the lead of the Bush administration in not recognizing Hamas and as a result, there's really no dialogue with Hamas. Do you think Obama's made a mistake?

The issue is, is it possible to have any kind of movement and to change the status quo without the Palestinians having a consensus on how to proceed and without Fatah and Hamas being reconciled? There were credible reports that the United States told Abbas not to agree with Hamas when the Egyptians were pressing him to agree to a deal. I don't know if those reports are true but it would be consistent with the pattern of the last ten months of this administration and the last several years of the Bush administration where the United States has done almost everything possible to divide the Palestinians. Dividing the Palestinians in fact entrenches the status quo, makes it impossible to change the situation where Israel is making negotiations impossible by expanding settlements and so on and so forth.

The Palestinians have to have a unified consensus position. This is not something that's impossible. Fatah and Hamas have agreed three times in the past, only to have those agreements collapse partly under the impact of internal pressures and pressures from countries like Syria and Iran in certain cases.  I would also argue that the United States and Israel apparently don't want the Palestinians to get their act together. And that's short-sighted and stupid. It helps Israel maintain indefinite control over the occupied territories and expanding settlements but I don't see how it helps the Obama administration's stated aims which are to get a negotiation going and to stop the growth of settlements.

How popular is the Abbas leadership?

Two good recent polls show that Mahmoud Abbas has the support of 12 percent of the Palestinians. That's as low as you can get.

And what about Hamas, how popular are they?

Hamas is not as popular as Fatah strangely enough. Fatah does better in these two polls, the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center and Khalil Shikaki's Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, which are completely different institutions coming up with more or less the same results.

Is there a more popular Fatah leader in the background to replace Abbas?

What happened at the Fatah conference over the summer in August rejuvenated the Fatah leadership and may have encouraged people to think that one of several Fatah leaders, whether Marwan Barghouti, who's currently in Israeli prison, or whether a couple of others might eventually emerge to replace Abbas. The point here is not that Fatah or Hamas are terribly popular -- in fact neither is terribly popular and if you ask the question, the majority of Palestinians would vote for neither. The point here is that you can't get anywhere without a Palestinian consensus. The way to get a consensus is to agree on a minimal position whereby both parties authorize the PA to negotiate and per se that will be a tougher negotiating position which is, of course, why the Israelis are horrified. They're not willing to meet the terms that Abbas has already put forward; they're certainly not going to meet the consensus terms that the Palestinians might come up with.

What would be the minimal consensus terms for the Palestinians?

The minimal consensus terms would probably be a return to or very close to the pre-1967 frontiers; the removal of all Israeli settlements, the establishment of East Jerusalem as a capital of a Palestinian state, the return of water resources to Palestinian control, the removal of Israeli control of the Jordan River Valley. These are things that the Israelis are very reluctant to give up on, things that they have camouflaged as their "basic position." There should also be a resolution of the refugee issue stemming from the 1948 War of Independence when thousands of Palestinians fled. That would demonstrate some acceptance by Israel of Israeli responsibility, and should include extremely generous compensation and return of some Palestinians to Israel as well as the return of all who desire to return to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

You don't think they can work out a deal where the major Israeli settlements could remain in the West Bank and the equivalent territory from Israel would be transferred to the West Bank?

That's something to be negotiated. The point is, though, that settlements were designed expressly to make a negotiated resolution of this conflict impossible. We have to accept this. They're not just there because they happened to grow like mushrooms on hilltops. They were scientifically planned so as to cut Jerusalem off from its hinterland. They were scientifically planned to cut the West Bank into pieces. They were scientifically planned to prevent movement from point A to point B. As long as these objectives are achieved, there's not a West Bank state. There is not sovereignty, there is not contiguity, there is not economic viability. These huge settlements have to either be removed or enormously shrunk or subjected to some other arrangement whereby the objectives for which they were established are defeated. I'm sure it would be hard for an Israeli government but otherwise you won't have a deal, or you'll have a deal that collapses immediately and then everybody will go back and say "well we told you so." I'm telling you now, if you don't deal with the root issues caused by the settlements you won't have a viable deal.

And the Arab world is just watching right now, right? Except for Egypt, no country is really trying to do anything.

The Arab world has not played an enormously responsible role in all of this. The Egyptians have actually supported the Israeli siege of Gaza. This is a gross violation of international law and that's despicable. What Israel, with the support of the United States and Europe and Egypt, has done is to punish the civilian population for the political choices made by its leaders. And that is unconscionable. A million and a half people are living in almost subhuman existence, not able to rebuild after the war, not able to import and export, not able to move because they're being punished. It's collective punishment, it's a gross violation of international law. I frankly think this administration is as responsible as the previous one. Now, since we've been complicit for eleven months, this is A) unconscionable, and it's B) politically stupid. It's not going to bring Hamas down, which is the nominal objective. So all of this has to be reconsidered from an American point of view if we're going to get anywhere.  I understand the political difficulties of doing these things but if you don't do these things you're going to fail and the political difficulties of failure should be considered very, very seriously because they are inevitable if this policy is pursued.

I'm telling you now, if you don't deal with the root issues caused by the settlements you won't have a viable deal.

If U.S. mediator George Mitchell called you up tomorrow, and said "Come with on my next trip, give me some advice," what would you tell him?

I would tell him that the problem is in Washington and not in the region. I'm sure he's perfectly competent to deal with both the Palestinians and the Israelis. The directives that he's getting in Washington and the political inhibitions he has in dealing with some aspects of this issue are the real problems that he has. I would say to him, you've got to figure out what this administration wants and make sure that it's something that's achievable before you go out to the region.

Let's go back to the Egyptian mediation effort. Hamas' problem with it, as I have read, was because it didn't like the fact that Abbas had delayed acting on the Goldstone report.

The Goldstone report was a political disaster for Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority by acceding to American pressure.

So then what happened?

What happened was that in the United Nations Human Rights Council, the PA basically helped torpedo this, saying "we don't think this should be dealt with now. Let's postpone it for six months."

This was at the urging of the United States?

That's what all reports indicate. The United States, responding to Israeli pressure, pressured Abbas apparently and he knuckled under. The reaction to this in Palestine and among Palestinians and people in the Arab world was unprecedented. I've not actually seen anything like this in a couple of years. The enormity of what's been done by both Abbas and Hamas for the past several years, to harm Palestinian national interest should have been enough to make Palestinians really angry but this really, really hit a nerve. People were just outraged that an authority, purportedly representative of the Palestinians, should in effect be shilling for the Israelis and preventing investigation of alleged war crimes by Israel, as well as alleged war crimes by Hamas.  When you see Abbas getting 12 percent in a poll, this is partly the reason.

He's since changed his mind?

Yes, he reversed course under this enormous pressure, mainly from within Fatah. The new Fatah Central Committee has shown itself to have a certain degree of independence. The fact that many of his own supporters, his own prime minister, the Central Committee of Fatah, all expressed great distress at this, forced him to reverse course.

And the Israelis?

I actually think that the Israelis are going to authorize an inquiry. The latest news out of Israel indicates that they probably will go along with this. They would be foolish not to. They have nothing to lose. They can continue an inquiry until the cows come home and thereby take the pressure off themselves.

So are the status of peace efforts in the Middle East now almost dead?

No, I actually don't think they're almost dead. Everybody seems to want instant results from the Obama administration and I have been quite harsh in my criticism of everything that they've done as far as Arab-Israeli issues are concerned thus far, but expecting instant results on complex issues like this is naïve and foolish. And I don't think that the moment has entirely passed when something can be done. I do not believe that it is too late to bring about a two-state solution.  Israeli governments for 42 years have built in the West Bank, creating a half a million Israeli strong network of colonies; that can in principle be reversed. I don't know how you're going to separate these two peoples or how you're going to organize them to live together because they don't really want to live together. But, I think it's worth an effort, and I don't think that it's entirely too late to try. This president has three more years in this term, he may get re-elected and this conflict is pretty complex and has been going on for a very long time.

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