(Prefatory Note: Two recent interviews seek to assess the Palestinian national movement as it is unfolding at this critical time.)
Interview with R. Falk by Chronis Polychroniou, published Truth Out, Nov 6, 2014
- With the collapse of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in April there is increasing doubts about the diplomatic approach to resolving the conflict that is associated with the Oslo Approach. What is the Oslo Approach? Do these doubts lead us to believe that the Oslo approach is dead?
The Oslo Approach was initiated in 1993 when both Israel and the PLO accepted the Oslo Declaration of Principles as the diplomatic basis of resolving the conflict between the two peoples. It was iconically endorsed by the famous handshake between Rabin and Arafat on the White House Lawn. It was a flawed approach from the Palestinian perspective for several main reasons: it never confirmed the existence of the Palestinian right of self-determination; it excluded the relevance of international law from what came to be known as ‘the peace process,’ it designated the United States despite its alignment with Israel as the exclusive intermediary, and it fragmented the Palestinian territory under occupation in ways that made the day to day life of Palestinians an ordeal.
From the Israeli perspective Oslo was highly advantageous: it gave Israel over 20 years to continue the unlawful settlement building and expansion process; by excluding international law, it produced a diplomacy based on bargaining and power disparities in which Israel possessed decisive advantages; it delegated to the Palestinian Authority responsibility for many of the security functions previously the responsibility of Israel; and it contained no commitment to respect Palestinian rights under international law; as time never neutral, it allowed Israel to create abundant ‘facts on the ground’ (better interpreted as a series of unlawful acts) that could be later validated by diplomatic ratification.
Doubts about the Oslo Approach have grown in recent years, and have been reflected in indications that even the patience of the Palestinian Authority has begun to be exhausted. The last effort at direct negotiations within the Oslo framework collapsed last April despite strong American efforts to seek some progress toward an agreement. Israel’s behavior indicated a disinterest in negotiations, and a disposition toward imposing a unilateral solution to the conflict. The PA has introduced the text of a propose Security Council resolution that calls for Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank by November 2016, and although it is expected to be blocked by the United States, it suggests a new direction of Palestinian diplomacy. The flaws of the Oslo Approach are becoming more widely recognized in Europe and by world public opinion.
- After the 50 day Israel military operation in Gaza of this past summer, given the name Protective Edge by the IDF, has anything changed in relation to the underlying conflict?
The fundamentals on the ground remain the same, although some of the psycho-political dimensions have changed in important ways. On the Israeli side, there were contradictory indications of both incitements to genocide, destroying the civilian population of Gaza in the belief that this was the only way to overcome the resistance of Hamas, and a sense that Israel had lost its way in the world by engaging in such a military campaign that had devastating impacts upon both the civilian population and its infrastructure. The new Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, spoke of Israel ‘as a sick society’ that needed to recover a willingness to treat diverse ethnicities and religions with dignity.
From a Palestinian point of view, Protective Edge also had important effects. From the Palestinian activist public mounting pressure to join the International Criminal Court and press charges against Israel. Also, the effect of the military operation was the opposite of what was intended as it increased the popularity of Hamas, at least temporarily, especially in the West Bank, and to a lesser extent in Gaza. In effect, the resistance and resilience of Hamas was contrasted with the quasi-collaborationist postures so often struck by the Palestinian Authority. The casualties on both sides also destabilized the notion of ‘terrorism’ as solely attributable to Hamas: of the 70 Israelis killed, 65 were IDF soldiers, while of the more than 2100 Palestinians killed, more than 70% were civilians. It would seemthat ‘state terrorism’ is the main culprit in such a conflict.
At the same time more informed commentators recognized that Hamas wanted to perform as a political actor rather than to act as an armed resistance group treated by Israel and the United States as a terrorist entity excluded from diplomatic venues. Hamas has been making it clear ever since it won elections in 2006 that it was prepared to co-exist peacefully with Israel on a long-term basis, and has observed ceasefire agreements along its border, which were on each occasion broken by Israeli violent provocations. There was formed a few months ago a technocratic unity government that overcame the divisions between the Fatah and Hamas, and was bitterly opposed by Israel, perhaps the real explanation of the July attacks on Gaza as an expression of this opposition.
- There has been discussion as to whether the Palestinian Authority, now recognized as a state by the UN, should seek to join the International Criminal Court, and bring its grievances before this tribunal. Is this a good idea? What will it accomplish?
There is much discussion as to the pros and cons of seeking to adhere to the Rome Statute that underpins the International Criminal Court by Palestine now that its statehood has been confirmed by the UN General Assembly in 2012. Palestine now has the UN status of being ‘a non-member observer state.’ It has joined UNESCO as a member and adhered to several international treaties.
The ‘cons’ of recourse to the ICC can be summarized: provoking hostile reactions from Israel, and possibly the United States; threatening the fragile unity arrangements between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, especially if the ICC chooses to focus on allegations of war crimes against Hamas; inability to secure Israeli cooperation with the proceedings, and hence an absence of any way to make those accused accountable due to the absence of enforcement capabilities.
The ‘pros’ of going to the ICC are the effects on world public opinion, raising the morale of the Palestinians seeking to make use of their soft power advantages in the conflict, and above all the opportunity to reinforce the Palestinian narrative that challenges Israel’s occupation policies (especially reliance on excessive force and the settlement phenomenon) as violations of international criminal law.
On balance, it would seem advantageous for Palestine to seek an investigation of allegations by recourse to the ICC, and the failure to do so would confirm those who attack the PA as lacking credibility to represent the Palestinian people in their quest for a just and sustainable peace.
- Recently Sweden pledged to recognize Palestinian statehood and the British House of Commons also urged the government to extend recognition. Are such diplomatic gestures of any importance and relevance to the Palestinian struggle?
It is too soon to assess the importance of these diplomatic gestures, which I would interpret as an indication of dissatisfaction with any further reliance on the Oslo Approach, especially its reliance on the role of the United States as exclusively entitled to serve as a diplomatic third party. The Swedish pledge to recognize Palestinian statehood is also important because it is accompanied by a call for resumed negotiations in accord with international law. To inject international law into the diplomatic process would be of utmost significance, offsetting Israeli hard power dominance, and allowing for Palestine to press forward in asserting their rights under international law.
If additional countries follow Sweden and the House of Commons, it will create a trend that might produce a greater role for Europe or the EU to act as a successor intermediary to the U.S. in the search for a solution. In this sense these European moves, which were greeted antagonistically in Tel Aviv and Washington, exhibit an impatience with the evident futility of pretending that Oslo still provided the best path to peace.
- If armed struggle has failed the Palestinians, international law has been ignored, and diplomacy has not worked, what is left for the Palestinians to do so as to carry on their struggle?
For several years, the Palestinian national movement has moved its center from the formal leadership provided by the PA and Hamas, to Palestinian civil society initiatives that seem to represent the real aspirations of the Palestinian people. The call for a BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) campaign in 2005 by 170 Palestinian civil society actors has been gaining momentum throughout the world, including the United States, in recent years. This civil society coalition also puts forward a three-part political program of greater relevance to a solution than anything that has emerged from the Oslo Approach: 1) withdrawal of Israel from all occupied Arab lands (including Golan Heights, fragment of Lebanon); 2) human rights based on full equality for the Palestinian minority living within Israel; 3) right of return of Palestinian refugees to their homes in accordance with international law as set forth in General Assembly Resolution 194 .
In this period of international relations, increasingly it is evident that states can no longer monopolize diplomacy. Not only are non-state actors such as the Taliban, Hamas, and others formidable participants indispensable to overcome conflict, but also civil society initiatives provide ways to achieve justice and peace with greater flexibility and legitimacy than state actors in a growing number of conflict situations.
- Some analysts have noted a change in public opinion on the conflict in the United States, but not reflected in Congress or U.S. policy of unconditional support. Why is this?
This mismatch between an American public that would welcome a more balanced approach to Israel and the conflict and the U.S. Congress that is uncritically and unconditionally supportive of Israel has become a dark shadow cast over the democratic process in the United States. It reflects in part the strength of the Israeli lobby and also the military prowess of Israel both as a strategic partner in the region but also as a valued arms supplier of an increasing number of countries. It also results from the inability of Palestinian constituencies in the United States to mobilize support sufficient to create countervailing influence in Washington. This one-sided political atmosphere makes members of Congress realize that any lessening of support for Israel will be disastrous for the political career and of no real policy significance in relation to the government approach. Despite this unfortunate mismatch, an upsurge of civil society activism, especially on university campuses and among mainstream religious organizations, is again an indication that politics is being made informally within civil society, and is more expressive of democratic sentiments and ethical principles, than are the activities of formal governmental institutions.
- In light of developments can Europe play a bigger role in shifting the balance of diplomatic forces bearing on the conflict?
Europe has an opportunity to play a much more active role in resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict, and has begun to do so by way of its recent moves to recognize Palestinian statehood and by governmental pronouncements that remind corporations and financial institutions that commercial dealings with Israeli settlements is ‘problematic under international law.’
Israel seems to be moving toward a unilateral resolution of the conflict by taking substantial control over the West Bank and Jerusalem, and leaving Gaza as a hostile alien territory, which may make international diplomacy useless at this stage. In any event, Israel and the United States will use all the leverage at their disposal to prevent any move away from the Oslo Approach that continues to serve their somewhat divergent purposes. The US Government is primarily interested in keeping ‘the game’ of Oslo going to uphold their claim that a viable peace process continues to exist. For Israel, retaining Oslo is also helpful as part of a favorable scenario of delay that serves expansionist purposes until Tel Aviv explicitly declares ‘game over,’ and converts the occupation of Palestine into a full-scale or partial annexation of what is called by Israeli law experts ‘disputed sovereignty.’
- Why did the Arab neighbors of Israel, especially Saudi Arabia, seem to support Israel during the recent attack on Gaza?
The regional situation in the Arab world has changed dramatically since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Arab Spring upheavals of 2011. The Iraqi occupation tactics of the United States rested on regime change with a sectarian orientation, shifting leadership of the country from its Sunni identity in the Saddam Hussein period to that of Shiite dominance. This shift, including the purge of the Iraqi armed forces of its Sunni corps, leading indirectly also to Islamic extremism in the region, especially the emergence in 2014 of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria that is partially staffed by former Iraqi military officers dismissed as a result of American occupation policy.
The Arab Spring upheavals had a second effect, which was to overthrow authoritarian leadership that had long suppressed political Islam as powerful domestic presences. Especially in Egypt, but also in several other countries, the anti-authoritarian movements, resulted in a political situation where in the new political setting, the strongest national political presence was associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Gulf monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia, were deeply threatened by these changes, and despite their own Islamic orientation, preferred secular leadership in the region to political Islam that emerged democratically. In this sense, Israel’s effort to crush Hamas, viewed by the threatened monarchies as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, corresponded with the priorities of most Arab governments in the region. Israel was the enemy of their primary enemy, and hence ‘a friend,’ at least temporarily.
Whether this situation persists is uncertain. What seems clear at present is that two separate strands of transnational tension exist in the region: first, the Sunni-Shiite divide; and secondly, the tensions between established governments and political Islam that is based on a societal movement. Surprisingly, the second concerns outweighs the first. Saudi Arabia supported strongly the 2013 coup led by General Sisi against the elected Sunni oriented leadership of Mohammed Morsi.
Süreç Analiz (Süreç Research Centter in Istanbul)
In Dubious Battle: Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Interview Questions for R. Falk
- How do you assess the essential dynamics of Israeli-Palestinian Conflict? Which forces of internal and external nature did make the conflict more problematic and enigmatic?
I think it is important to appreciate that the conflict has reached a new stage with two important developments. First, the Oslo Approach based on direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, with the United States as the exclusive intermediary, after more than 20 years of futile diplomacy has lost its relevance; secondly, both sides are taking unilateral steps to attain their goals, Israel by continuing to expand the settlements and consolidating control over the whole of Jerusalem, and the PA by moving toward establishing Palestinian statehood in the West Bank, with the symbolic endorsement of the international community.
- Do you think a great opportunity for the resolution of Palestinian- Israeli conflict was missed as the Oslo peace process remained inconclusive?
Israel for some years uses the Oslo peace process as a delaying tactic while it pursues the maximal version of the Zionist Project. As such, it harms the Palestinians, and helps the Israelis. Time is not neutral. Israel poses unrealistic demands that if accepted would leave the Palestinians with a Bantustan that would not satisfy even minimal claims for Palestinian self-determination, which depend on a viable sovereign state with 1967 borders and some acknowledgement the right of refugees to return to their homes.
- After the end of Oslo peace process, we see greater influence of Hamas in Palestinian politics. How do you explain the growing influence of Hamas in the Palestinian political scene?
The surge of Hamas popularity is partly a reflection of the failures of PA quasi-collaborationist diplomacy and partly an expression of solidarity with Hamas because of their impressive posture of resistance during the Israeli attacks of July and August. In actuality, the leadership of the Palestinian national struggle has been moving toward recognition of Palestinian civil society, and building support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
- This summer’s war between Israel and Hamas is the third violent conflict between them since 2008. How do you explain these frequent cycles of violent conflict between Israel and Hamas?
Israel has provoked tensions in relation to each of these three military operations, and has maintained for the past seven years a regime of sustained collective punishment that has cruelly locked the civilian population of Gaza into the combat zone. When the periodic massacres of the sort that occurred this past summer take place even women and children are denied the default option of becoming refugees or seeking a sanctuary outside the combat zone. When they took shelter in UN buildings these structures were attacked. Israeli justifications for such action purport to be ‘defensive,’ but such claims overlook the refusal of Israel to abide by ceasefire arrangements or to offer responses to Hamas proposals for long-term peaceful coexistence. Israel relies on keeping its own people in a constant state of fear and of projecting their force disproportionately as a deterrent to other political actors that might at some future time contemplate an attack.
- Around 75% of the casualties of the latest conflict were civilians according to UN data. As Hamas blames Israel for directly targeting civilians, Israel blames Hamas for using civilians as human shields. What is your opinion about this issue?
The facts are difficult to obtain as there are conflicting contentions. As far as I can tell both sides made some use of human shields in combat situations, but Israel did so more frequently. The casualty ratio of civilians to military personnel is more objective, and illuminating. Not only were 75% of Palestinian casualties civilians, with over 500 children killed, but Israeli casualties of 70 killed were composed of 65 IDF soldiers and 5 Israeli civilians. If the essence of terrorism is violence against civilians, then it raises the question as to why Israeli state terrorism receives so little attention. In this recent military confrontation the terrorist tactics of Israel were far more lethal than those of Hamas.
- After the ceasefire was achieved via the mediation of Egypt, both Israel and Hamas declared that they were ‘victorious’. Who do you think has won the war and what do you think the reason is behind both sides declaring victory?
Each side uses different measures to evaluate the outcome. Israel uses its capability to inflict death and destruction, and stop Hamas from firing rockets. Hamas uses more symbolic criteria such as world public opinion and its own political stature associated with refusing to give in and obtaining a ceasefire agreement that appears to be favorable to its claims, and avoids Israel’s demands for the demilitarization of Hamas.
- How do you evaluate the ceasefire conditions?
Israel is supposed to lift the blockade and loosen restrictions on fishing off the Gaza coast, as well as shrink the buffer zone on the Gazan side of the border. Whether it will comply is doubtful, given its failure to uphold similar commitments after the 2012 ceasefire. It seems that Israeli policy continues to be based on ‘mowing the lawn’ every couple of years, a grotesque metaphor to describe military massacres inflicted on a totally vulnerable population.
- Do you think the unity government formed by Hamas and Fatah will be successful and sustainable? Why?
It is difficult to tell. It seemed to withstand Israeli pressure. One interpretation of the Protective Edge attack is as a reprisal for the PA defiance of Israel’s opposition to such a unity government and all moves to incorporate Hamas into the Palestinian governing process. At the same time, strains persist. Hamas leadership neither trust nor agree with the American oriented approach favored by Ramallah, and reject passivity in the face of Israeli provocations.
- How do you evaluate the response of the international organizations and Arab and Muslim countries response towards the latest round of conflict?
This realignment of the Arab world is problematic from the Palestinian perspective. It expresses the political priority given by the Gulf monarchies and Egypt, in particular, to the destruction of the Muslim Brotherhood as a political force. In this sense, Arab countries seem to make regime stability for themselves a higher policy priority than solidarity with the Palestinian struggle or the wellbeing of Muslim political entities. The monarchies, although Islamic in orientation, are deeply opposed to political Islam that bases its claims on grassroots or popular support. Only Islam from above is acceptable.
- Do you think a just and peaceful solution can be achieved for the Palestinian- Israeli conflict in the future? What kind of a solution do you think can be accepted by the both sides?
A political solution is not presently apparent on the political horizon. Both sides are moving in unilateral and contradictory directions, especially in relation to territory, with Israel seeking to annex substantial portions of the West Bank and the PA seeking to expel Israel from the West Bank and establish a state of their own. It may be that the best solution will be fashioned by Palestinian civil society activism that is leaning toward the establishment of a bi-national secular state based on the equality of the two peoples. I have outlined my belief that the only solution that can be envisioned must be preceded by a recalculation of interests on the part of the Israeli leadership, a dynamic that took place unexpectedly in South Africa to make possible a peaceful transformation from apartheid to constitutional democracy. Each situation is different, but it would appear that Israel will not budge until the global solidarity movement together with Palestinian resilience imposes unacceptable costs on Zionist maximalism. In the end, the Zionist insistence on ‘a Jewish state’ will have to be abandoned, and replaced by homelands of equal receptivity to Jews and Palestinians wherever they may fine themselves.