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The Arab Turmoil and Palestinians

Interviewee: Rashid I. Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies, Columbia University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
February 25, 2011

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The turmoil in the Arab world, particularly the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, has "excited" most Palestinians, says Rashid Khalidi, co-director of Columbia's Center for Palestine Studies. But the U.S.-led negotiations for a two-state solution between Palestinians and Israel has foundered, which was underscored by the U.S. veto in the Security Council against a resolution to condemn Israeli settlements in the West Bank. He says the veto--the only one among Council members--will "intensify a sense in the Arab world generally and among Palestinians as well that a resolution to this conflict does not lie through this bankrupt, failed negotiation process." He says a rethink of U.S. policy in the region is necessary. "[Obama] has to make a decision on whether he wants to act on the basis of what most people would agree are American interests: a rapid resolution of this conflict and removing the impression that most people in the world have of the United States being on the wrong side of this."

Much of the attention in the Middle East in recent years has been over Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which have proceeded without achieving any breakthrough. And now, suddenly there is turmoil in the Arab world that has diverted attention away from the Israeli-Palestinian issues. How do you see this, as a Palestinian?

I think most Palestinians are very excited about what's happening because they felt that the old Arab order helped to keep them down [and] was complicit with the United States and Israel. Palestinians were thrilled with what happened in Tunisia and ecstatic about what happened in Egypt. Most Palestinians will be very happy to see [Muammar] Qaddafi bite the dust. The so-called "peace process" has not been something that most Palestinians believed in since late in the 1990's. Most Palestinians believed that this was not a process that had anything to do with peace or conflict resolution. It had to do with conflict management and expansion of occupied Israeli settlements. It was clear that these talks were not leading to self-determination or statehood. It was clear it was not leading to an end of the occupation. Most Palestinians were very disenchanted with the whole process.

Now, in the midst of the upheavals in the Arab world, the Palestinians tried to get a UN Security Council resolution (AP) passed last Friday, which would have condemned the Israeli settlements. It was approved by every member of the Security Council except the United States, which by voting no, vetoed the resolution. What's been the reaction?

I think it will intensify a sense in the Arab world generally that a resolution to this conflict does not lie through this bankrupt, failed negotiation process. We may be seeing its last days. This veto clarified matters. It shows what we've known since the days of President Harry Truman [who recognized the State of Israel in 1948 against the advice of the State Department]. Clearly, domestic [pro-Israel] concerns trump everything. People's opinions are changing. But Congress hasn't changed and the media to a very large extent hasn't changed. So, the administration responds to that [pro-Israel] sentiment. They aren't responding to reality, unfortunately. Sooner or later it's going to catch up with them. But who knows when?

At the Security Council last week, the British ambassador said that the EU was looking forward to admitting a Palestinian state to the UN by September. Is there really any possibility of a separate Palestinian state emerging?

The reality is that there has been one sovereign power since June 1967 between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and that sovereign power is Israel. And any declaration of a Palestinian state would fly in the face of that reality. European powers may be irritated enough over the U.S. policy to take a separate course, but I'll believe that when I see it.

But isn't Salem Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, working toward a Palestinian state?

A negotiation between a party under occupation and a sovereign power--which has nuclear weapons and is one of the strongest countries in the world militarily--is not a negotiation. And if the greatest superpower in the world puts its thumb on the Israeli side of the scale to boot, it's a travesty.


The whole Arab constellation is changing. We really don't know where we're going to end up in as little as a few weeks and certainly a few months. So that may have been, and may indeed still be, the intention of Fayyad. But he's also been talking about elections and reconciliation between Hamas [in Gaza] and the Palestinian Authority [on the West Bank], and I'm not sure how you square that with such a declaration. It may be that it would be something that would appeal to a coalition government after elections, but I don't know.

What about the July elections proposed by President Mahmoud Abbas? I take it Hamas is opposed to them.

Yes, and they seem to argue that you have to have an agreement before you can have elections. Given the fact that everything is changing in the Arab world, I would suggest that there may be developments in this regard yet to come. The Egyptian regime was an enormous prop of the Palestinian status quo in its closure of Gaza and in its blockade of Gaza with Israel. All this is changing now. So, I would hesitate to suggest that we could say much definitively about this right now.

Could you see an uprising in Gaza?

The only demonstrations have been in Ramallah [the capital of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank], and they haven't been opposing the authority but were calling for Palestinian reconciliation. I'm sure that any attempts to demonstrate in Gaza would be repressed. But the ground is moving under the feet of these two weak authorities, both of which lack legitimacy. I don't think the Gaza/Hamas authority is very popular, and I know the Ramallah authority is not popular either. That's not to say that those two parties are not going to do well in elections. They have the party machines to get out votes and know how to raise an election.

Are there some Palestinian leaders who we don't know about who are more popular?

A large chunk of Palestinian leadership at any moment is either under administrative detention, on trial, or have been sentenced or awaiting sentence. And there are a lot of people in prison. Americans and Westerners are dying to see a new Palestinian leader. The most irritating question I've gotten about Egypt is, "Who are the leaders? Where are the leaders? Why don't we see the leaders?" Well, it seems to me that one of the things that people who have been organizing this uprising in Egypt have been careful to do is to avoid appearing as leaders. In fact, somebody said on Egyptian television that the days of Egyptian strongmen are over. That period in Arab history has passed. Perhaps it's an exaggeration, but I think that what you're seeing in both Tunisia and Egypt is a fairly well-organized movement that has been very reluctant to produce a charismatic leader. I'm not sure that's germane to the Palestinian case, but I don't think we should necessarily be looking for a new leader, although many potential leaders are in prison.

I take it that George Mitchell's peace mission is dead, right?

It very much depends on what the president directs [Mitchell] to do. If he tells him to keep doing what he's been doing, I can't see that there's much point to it. A negotiation between a party under occupation and a sovereign power--which has nuclear weapons and is one of the strongest countries in the world militarily--is not a negotiation. And if the greatest superpower in the world puts its thumb on the Israeli side of the scale to boot, it's a travesty. It's not even in the realm of negotiations.

That has been the policy since Secretary of State James Baker in 1990-91, and it has just not worked. In 1991, there were a couple hundred thousand settlers, and now there's well over half a million. That has been the policy that the president essentially asked Mitchell to continue. It is a policy whereby the United States essentially endorses whatever Israel chooses to throw in the way of the Palestinians, and if the Palestinians don't accept it, then the United States wanders off and pays attention in another two months. There's no point to anyone continuing with that. That is not a peace process. That is not a negotiation. That is not going to resolve the conflict. That is simply a means of enabling Israel to continue the expansion of its settlement and occupation, which is now in its forty-fourth year [since the 1967 war]. I think it's insane for both American and Israeli interests. It's obviously not good for the Palestinians, and allowing it to continue for two years of the Obama presidency leaves a bad mark on this presidency.

If Obama called you and asked for advice on what to do, what would you recommend?

I would suggest that a fundamental rethinking of the U.S. approach is necessary. [Obama] has to make a decision on whether he wants to act on the basis of what most people would agree are American interests: a rapid resolution of this conflict and removing the impression that most people in the world have of the United States being on the wrong side of this, [which is] that we're in favor of settlement, in favor of unending occupation, and in favor of Israel dictating terms. I would suggest to him that we have to decide whether we really believe that following a policy that would serve the interest of the United States as well as the interests of Israelis and Palestinians would, in fact, lose him votes. I would be very surprised if it didn't win him votes. It would serve the national interests of the United States and the Middle East. And I would say to him that there's a huge untapped reservoir of support for a just, equitable, rapid solution of this conflict.

What would be the basis of an equitable settlement in your mind?

You would have to say settlement and occupation are illegal and should be ended as rapidly as possible. That's how you have to start it. You take note of Resolution 242, which ended the 1967 war and called an end to "territories occupied," and you take the Fourth Geneva Convention against moving populations to occupied territories. That would be a very simple and clear way to start. And how you work from there to a settlement, I don't know. But I think status quo is the starting point.

Talk about the Israeli settlements.

The settlements are illegal. Forcing Israelis to face the fact that they have to obey international law may shake up the people in Israel who really are not in favor of the settlement or the settlers. The majority of Israelis don't really believe that the settlements are in Israel's interests. But they don't get any support from the United States. The settlers get support from the United States. The only people in Israel who are happy with this U.S. veto were the settlers. The United States is in support of the settlers and not in support of the Israeli majority that's against settlement? That's what our policy, in effect, says.

But hasn't Obama inveighed pretty strongly against the settlements?

His speeches are one thing and his Security Council veto is another thing. I think his veto has a lot more weight than a lot of hot air, don't you?

 

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