I participated in the Palestine Center’s annual conference in Washington, DC on 15 November, with the theme “The Politics of Identity in the Middle East.”
Two panels, the first with me and Bill Quandt, and the second featuring Osamah Khalil and Manal Jamal, focused specifically on the question of Palestine.
Instead of giving presentations, we answered questions posed by the moderator, engaging in lively debate with audience participation – the “Palestinian version of Crossfire,” as one moderator called it.
Here are the videos and my comments.
The “peace process” and its alternatives
In the first encounter, moderated by Dr. Eid Mustafa, William Quandt, professor of politics at the University of Virginia, and I discussed the “peace process” and alternatives to it, including the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and the growing attention to the “one-state solution.”
Quandt served as a staff member on the National Security Council (1972-1974, 1977-1979) and was actively involved in the negotiations that led to the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty.
With regard to the current US-sponsored peace talks, we were asked to address whether the US would and could successfully propose a peace plan of its own.
“I can’t imagine that Secretary [of State John] Kerry has invested as much time and energy as he has unless he has in the back of his mind that at some point in the near future, the United States will put forward some kind of bridging proposals,” Quandt said.
Such proposals would most likely resemble the “Clinton parameters” for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories Israel occupied in 1967.
Such proposals usually include an extremely limited right of return for refugees and Israeli annexation of large settlement blocs.
Quandt stressed that despite well-justified doubts and past experience, there was no other party that could do this other than the United States.
I argued that this approach was far past working, regardless of one’s views on the two-state solution.
While the Palestinian Authority would “eagerly grab at a few shreds of the West Bank and call it a state if the Israelis would offer it to them,” there was no prospect of this, I said.
“The Israelis are not looking for a deal along the 1967 lines or anything close to the 1967 lines,” I added. “Israel isn’t interested in borders. Israel is interested in expansion.”
Paraphrasing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dictum on Iran-US negotiations that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” I affirmed that:
for the Palestinians, no deal with Israel is better than a bad deal, because a bad deal would irrevocably cancel Palestinian rights. And now, the only thing protecting Palestinians from a bad deal is Israel’s intransigence.
I also noted – in a point Khalil elaborated on later drawing on his deep knowledge of US diplomatic history – that tensions between the United States and Israel over Iran would not necessarily translate into gains for Palestinians.
Rather, the US would most likely seek to appease Israeli anger with further indulgence as Israel colonizes more of the West Bank.
Quandt warned that the alternative to a diplomatic solution would be continued stagnation as Israel builds settlements. The question of Palestine could be relegated to a category which includes the Cyprus and Kashmir conflicts – intractable issues that attract few serious efforts aimed at resolving them.
Future of the Palestinian movement
In a rich discussion, moderated by journalist George Hishmeh, Osamah Khalil and Manal Jamal discussed the past and present role of Arab states in the question of Palestine, the situation of Palestinians in Syria, and the future of the Palestinian national movement.
“Let’s be clear. The PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] was dismantled after the Oslo accords,” Khalil declared early in the discussion.
“Mahmoud Abbas’ title as chairman of the PLO is an empty title. That organization does not exist. What exists of the PLO – liberation has been pulled out of the Palestine Liberation Organization. What we have instead is a Palestinian Negotiating Authority.”
Amid such stark analyses, a major topic was how Palestinians could move forward given the multiple immediate crises they face including internal divisions and the dire situations of Palestinians from Gaza to Lebanon to Syria.
In so many places Palestinians are struggling for mere “survival,” said Jamal, assistant professor of political science at James Madison University.
“We have all these crises going on and when people want to organize the next step, how do we look at the overall picture?”
Should we be discussing such issues as “one state or two states” or emphasizing the immediate crises, Jamal asked.
Jamal also affirmed that in light of the latest revelations regarding polonium poisoning, there should be an international investigation into the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s “assassination.”
While Khalil supported this, he suggested that investigations into the corrupt practices of living Palestinian Authority leaders might be more pressing.
No one will be surprised that we could not definitively resolve these issues, but these are thought-provoking discussions that touch on many questions that Palestinians everywhere are asking.
Here’s the full schedule for the Palestine Center’s 2013 conference.