REALISM AND STATE BUILDING IN PALESTINE: INTERVIEW WITH HUSSEIN IBISH

By Charles de la Cruz
Contributing Writer

As another decade is added to the over half-century of conflict in Israel and Palestine, optimism continues to be crushed under the weight of time. The breakdown of direct negotiations last September that resulted from Israel’s refusal to continue the freeze on settlements only made the future bleaker. No matter what side of the issue one sits on, it is clear that the approaches of both sides have failed to produce real solutions. New ideas and approaches are necessary if the conflict is going to be resolved in the foreseeable future.

Hussein Ibish, a Senior Research Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, was invited to speak at UCSD to present what he considers realistic solutions for Israel and Palestine in an atmosphere of diplomatic stagnation. Although the necessity of more effective diplomatic cooperation at the highest level is clear, Ibish seeks to supplement this “top-down” approach with the “bottom-up” approach of Palestinian state building. This state building process, he argues, can produce beneficial results despite the limitations of unpleasant but undeniable political realities.

Necessary coordination with the occupation is the only way forward. Even if the occupation is unjust, it is also undeniably a reality that must be accounted for. This issue is illustrated well by the Palestinian Authority’s plan to build a road to a Palestinian town within Israeli-occupied territory. Without communicating with Israeli forces, the $250,000 road was built and then promptly torn up by Israeli soldiers. Following the destruction, plans for an even more expensive road were drafted by the PA. Although they may be completely justified in building the road, to deny the reality of Israeli antagonism and build it anyway is unproductive.

Mr. Ibish’s vision of Palestinian state building is based on the establishment of an independent Palestine through the development of its economy and police forces, despite Israeli occupation. It is about working within the confines of an unjust reality to change it from the inside, not waiting for diplomatic resolutions from above.

After his presentation Mr. Ibish sat down with PROSPECT.
PROSPECT: Let’s begin with your New York Times article. Using that as an example of the ideological middle ground possible [between Israeli and Palestinian viewpoints]—that is, you writing that with Jeffrey Goldberg—what did you find that you had to give up in writing that article? What concessions did you have to make to reach agreement?

IBISH: That’s an interesting point. I think that the two things that were most difficult were some of his language on what Palestinians should say to Israelis. I probably would have put it in a different language—that they have to have better messaging that acknowledges the historical ties and deep attachment of Jews to Israel and Palestine. That’s a good thing to do. He put it in different language, but I think there’s no point in having me tell the Palestinians what they should tell the Israelis when I have a Jewish-American guy right here. He should be the one to tell that, and similarly I should be the one to define what the Israelis should tell the Palestinians.

The second one was a lot of stuff we said in trying to make the case that Prime Minister Netanyahu has shifted in the direction of supporting a peace agreement. Had I written it on my own, I would have been less generous to the Israeli prime minister. I am not as convinced as he is that PM Netanyahu has changed on the question of peace. I have strong misgivings given history, but I think it is possible for people to change and there is every reason for Israeli leaders to reconsider opposition to a two-state agreement.

PROSPECT: You talked about the dissonance between what people want intellectually and what they want emotionally. Do you see that as a problem that needs to be overcome before a solution is possible, or as one that will only be solved after a solution is found?

IBISH: I think in terms of reconciliation, it comes after. But in terms of buying into the kind of compromises that will be required of Israel and the Palestinians, I think it comes before, during and after. It is going to require Palestinians to make some very serious compromises, especially in regards to the refugees. There is no way the Israeli government is going to sign off on the return of refugees that will change the demographics of Israel. On the other hand, Israel is going to have a very hard time agreeing to a red line for Palestinians, which is Jerusalem. Palestinians are not going to accept a peace agreement that does not have the Palestinian capitol in East Jerusalem. There will be some areas that are retained by Israel, but the big majority of East Jerusalem is Arab and Palestinian, 80 percent. Clearly that’s where the Palestinian capitol has to be, and it’s just non-negotiable.

These are very difficult positions. If someone says they are for a two-state agreement but then they want to put a red line that they can’t compromise on, then you’re talking about someone who has accepted something in theory but in practice rejects it. It is clear that no Israeli is going to sign a deal [in which] millions of Palestinian refugees will get to go back to their homes in Israel, and no Palestinian is going to sign a deal which doesn’t include Jerusalem. That’s what I mean when I talk about the dissonance between the intellectual and the emotional. There is a divide between accepting something intellectually and accepting it as a practical matter. That means buying into the notion of compromise on painful things.

PROPSECT: Israel recently claimed that their limitations on the movement of a settler are legal because the settler was under international and not Israeli civil law. What are the implications of this claim?

IBISH: It’s an interesting point. What the army said was that in his appeal to be allowed to travel throughout the settlements and to give his incendiary speeches, they were there in an international capacity and that it was international law that applied. If international law applied, all the settlements are illegal and all the settlers have to go back to Israeli territory. Article 49 of the fourth Geneva Convention is very clear: occupying powers cannot transfer any portion of their population into areas under occupation. The fourth Geneva Convention is a human rights instrument for protecting civilians during time of war. There is no question that Israel is the occupying power. There is a mountain of UN Security Council resolutions that establish that. Only the Israelis dispute it, and even then they know very well that it’s true. Given that they are the occupying power, the whole settlement project is not only as Obama and Clinton call it, “illegitimate,” it’s unlawful. It is a breach of international law.

Here’s the thing—negotiations are not conducted strictly on the basis of law. There is also the factor of power, and there’s also the factor of realism. Under such circumstances it is sensible to look for a land swap in which Israel can keep a significant percentage of the occupied territories, in which a majority of settlers are concentrated in exchange for sparsely or unpopulated land in Israel that is adjacent to the northern west bank. There would be a territorial swap there, keeping roughly 22 percent of the entire area a Palestinian state and 78 percent remaining Israel, with an adjustment to the 1949 armistice.

PROSPECT: What are the implications of the recent official recognitions of the Palestinian state by Latin American countries?

IBISH: It’s another bunch of international recognitions of Palestine, full diplomatic recognitions. Abbas just went to Brasilia and laid the cornerstone for the Palestinian embassy in Brazil, which is a very significant country internationally. You’ve got them backed up by their rivals in Argentina, and then by Argentina’s rivals in Chile, and all these rivals are agreeing on this thing.

It’s not a game changer. It basically just sends a message to Israel that the international community is not going to take “no” for an answer on Palestinian statehood, and that ultimately it will not be a decision left entirely to the Israelis themselves. But from a practical point of view, there are only two states that really count: Israel and the United States. These two decisive countries, one of which is pursuing the issue but in a very guarded way, and the other which is taking two steps forward and two steps backward—particularly when it comes to settlement activity.

International recognition does not force Israel to rethink its strategic approach at all, but it adds voices in a significant way saying, “We really insist on Palestinian statehood. It’s important to us. We are going to recognize it whether you like it or not.” It hints at the eventual development of an international climate in which there is a replacement of the American role with a multilateral UN role. The Israelis will recall that the UN basically created Israel through the partition plan. They would remember that Palestinians did not ever agree to this and that it was created in international organizations, then created on the ground, and then recognized by the UN.

If the international community is united in acknowledging a fact that isn’t fully realized, it becomes extremely difficult for the Israelis to remain on good terms with everybody. If there is an international consensus that this is important, and the Israelis are perceived as the primary obstacle, this is a very bad thing for them.

PROSPECT: Do you think that a move to UN-sponsored, rather than U.S.-sponsored, negotiations are a realistic possibility in the near future?

IBISH: No, I don’t. I think there are a couple reasons for that. First, only the United States wants to play this role. No one is actually vying with the United States to be the broker. It’s a booby prize people are willing to leave to the U.S. That’s reason number one.

Number two, there isn’t any other power or structure that the Israelis trust, and that’s an important reality. It is assumed by Palestinians and other Arabs, and this is probably not wrong, that the United States can really help deliver Israel. For a long time, Palestinians and their friends in the U.S. thought that the mission was to defeat the pro-Israel lobby in the United States and to begin to undermine or even completely eliminate the special relationship between Israel and the United States based on Israel’s security. I think the understanding grew over the past fifteen years that, first of all, it’s really not possible to “defeat” the Israel lobby because there are no laws in the U.S. against giving money to congressmen and there are no laws against petitioning the government for redress of grievance. In fact, it’s protected by the first amendment. The overwhelming majority of what the pro-Israel lobby does is legitimate and protected under U.S. law.

The other thing is that it’s not necessary because Israel needs this peace treaty and the United States needs this peace treaty. The understanding at this point is more that the special relationship is something that could be leveraged to help deliver Israel, rather than an obstacle. It may be an obstacle, but it is an obstacle that needs to be utilized. It cannot be overcome. It is something that is a reality now. It is not open for debate, so that is something that we will have to work around. I think for the moment, U.S.-brokered diplomatic talks are the only game in town, for better or worse. It’s just the reality.

Photo courtesy of lia2007.

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