Debate between Ali Abunimah and Malcolm Hoenlein on KPFK

On 22 August 2001, The Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah appeared on The David Corn Show, a programme on the Pacifica Network’s Los Angeles affiliate, KPFK, to debate the situation in the Middle East with Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Congress of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Broadcast time: 3pm Pacific Time.

DAVID CORN (HOST): …Joining us from Chicago to discuss the situation is Ali Abunimah, vice president of the Arab American Action Network, and joining us from New York is Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Congress of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Thank you for both being here. Let’s start with a pretty general question. Why has the peace process faltered, and violence increased in the past year? Ali, why don’t you go first?

ALI ABUNIMAH: Well, its very simple, David. The peace process was based on the principle of land for peace, contained in UN Security Council resolution 242, which set out basically that Israel would withdraw from all the territories it occupied in 1967 — East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza — with an allowance for minor adjustments, and in exchange the Palestinians would make peace with Israel as would the Arab states. Now, the Palestinians recognized Israel in 1993. Israel, though, for its part, although it said it wanted to solve problems by negotiation, continued to confiscate and settle Palestinian land. According to the Israeli group Peace Now Israel has increased the number of Jewish-only settlement units by fifty-three percent since 1993. So basically, David, you can’t negotiate if one side—to put it a simple analogy, if you and I are going to decide how to slice a pizza, and I start gobbling the pizza up as fast as I can there’s no way we can negotiate in that situation. So, with increasing despair, increasing land confiscation, increasing use of torture by Israel, house demolitions, the reality on the ground was that Israel was deepening the occupation, while talking rhetorically about loosening it.

DAVID CORN: And Malcolm I gather you have a very different take on this?

MALCOLM HOENLEIN: Well the facts are very different. He doesn’t acknowledge at all Israel’s actual concessions in giving up almost forty percent of the territory, that ninety eight percent of the Palestinians live under Palestinian control, that the major cities have all been returned as a preliminary step before the final status negotiations which Mr. Barak entered into in good faith — made an offer that would have met virtually all the aspirations of the Palestinian people despite the revisionist history that some people have attempted. The statements by President Clinton and many others indicate clearly that at Camp David there was a proposal put on table which was never responded to. Mr. Arafat never came up with a counterproposal. There was an opportunity to put this thing right and Mr. Arafat chose to walk away from Camp David and engage in violence and statements by his own ministers indicate that already months before, they’d begun to plan this escalation of violence because there is an attempt to replicate what they saw as Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon after the bloody violence of Hizbullah — that this became the symbol not that Israel lived up to a UN resolution commitment, withdrew unilaterally, fulfilling every inch of land that the UN identified even as questionable and this became a symbol then that you could drive Israel to its news through terror and creating violence and a situation that is intolerable. So rather than negotiate, he sought through violence to achieve the ends that deprived the Palestinian people of the opportunity both of having their own state and seeing their aspirations fulfilled. The statements about the confiscation of land etcetera really flies in the face of reality. The fact is that in the last two years there hasn’t been a single new permit issued, that the only construction that has taken place was construction that was authorized before by private individuals. There’s no government funding going into it. There’s so much mythology created around this to justify what in fact was a decision to resort to violence and to do nothing to contain that violence over the last year.

DAVID CORN: Let me ask you Malcolm, why do you think if that is indeed the Palestinian strategy that they’re following it? If the Israelis have lived up to their obligations and have followed through on the peace process, why would the Palestinians want to tear up that process and resort to violence?

MALCOLM HOENLEIN: Well, I don’t think its the Palestinians. I think its Chairman Arafat who made a decision together— and is today increasingly influenced by Hizbullah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, whom they are talking now about bringing into the coalition and with whom they are in complete coordination. And every morning they meet to decide and to give direction. I think he had five goals. One was to resurrect his standing amongst the Palestinian people, which was in the ten or twelve percentile with the corruption and everything building resentment among his people, with the hundreds of millions of dollars of aid having produced no benefit for the people except for his ministers and their villas. Second, I think he tried to resurrect his standing in the Arab world where despite all the lip service there is no commitment and the only ones who have ever done anything to try and give the right of self-determination to the Palestinians are the Israelis. They didn’t have it under Jordan and they didn’t have it under Egypt when they occupied Gaza. Third, I think he tried to resurrect his standing in the international community. After Camp David he visited thirty capitals and he was rejected in every one of them. Fourth, I think he was trying to reestablish himself and to hurt Israel and to bring Israel to the negotiating table not through a process of negotiation, but through a process of violence that would dictate and bring in the international community, have international observers and try to dictate an outcome rather than negotiate one.

DAVID CORN: And Ali, let me put a similar question to you. After engaging in the peace process why do you think they’re not acting in good faith?

ALI ABUNIMAH: Well, Mr. Hoenlein put a lot out. I’d like a chance to respond to some of the issues. After the Oslo accords, Israel didn’t withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza. What they did do is divide it into three parts — area A, B and C. It’s only Area A under which—in which the Palestinian Authority has ostensible control. which amounts to no more than seventeen percent of the West Bank today, the city centers. And its true, as Mr. Hoenlein said, that something like over ninety percent of Palestinians live in these areas. This is exactly what we are talking about. We’re talking about the creation of ghettos and bantustans in which the Palestinian population is corralled, entirely surrounded by the occupation army and settlers, who continue to devour Palestinian land. Its just not true that Israel has not been building new settlements. Israel has been building new settlements every single day, demolishing houses every single day and…

MALCOLM HOENLEIN: Could you name one new settlement?

ALI ABUNIMAH: Regarding Camp David — Mr. Hoenlein spoke for quite a while so I will answer him. Regarding Camp David, Mr. Barak wrote on May 24, 2001 in The New York Times that he offered no more than eighty five percent of the West Bank and this would be divided into cantons, bantustans, completely surrounded by Israeli settler roads and settlements, with the Israeli army occupying the Jordan Valley, controlling Palestinian airspace, water, exit and entry. This so-called Palestinian state would have no external borders. Now what that is is its a form of autonomy, perhaps, within a greater Israel. Its not independence. It’s not freedom. It’s not an end to the occupation. And the Palestinians have a right to expect no less than full freedom — exactly what the Israelis want for themselves — and are under no obligation to feel grateful that Israel made this derisory offer.

DAVID CORN: Ali Abunimah let me ask you to come back to my question. Why do you — if you think the Israelis are acting in bad faith, what do you think their motives are here?

ALI ABUNIMAH: Well I think their motives are very clear. Its been the consistent policy of Israeli governments from the birth of the state, but particularly since 1967, to try to annex the land of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but without the people. The reason for that is that Israel is a state— an ethnic state that gives rights to people not based on their membership in the human family, but based on their ethnicity. So to have too many Arabs threatens the Jewish majority in the state. So Israel has been trying to annex the land without the people, which is why it wants to give them some form of autonomy in broken up bantustans, so it can continue to spread in the West Bank and Gaza. Its been very clear policy. And if, as Mr. Hoenlein said, its been Arafat’s strategy, his plan was to use violence, I would ask him two questions. First, why did the Mitchell Committee, headed by former senator George Mitchell, say that Israel was able to present absolutely no evidence whatsoever that that was the case. And if Israel is so sure of this, so sure that this violence, which has killed six hundred unarmed, largely unarmed Palestinian civilians, is instigated by the Palestinians, why does Israel reject international monitors? What does Israel have to hide in the occupied territories? That’s what people need to ask. Why is Israel so…

DAVID CORN: Okay, okay, okay

ALI ABUNIMAH: …afraid that people will see what its settlers and army are doing?

DAVID CORN: Okay, Malcolm Hoenlein, I’m going to give you a chance to answer those questions, then as host I’m going to give you a question, so go ahead.

MALCOLM HOENLEIN: First of all if Israel wanted to annex the land in sixty seven they could have and they didn’t. Second of all, Israel has offered —the positions that he is outlining were initial negotiating positions. The fact that is was divided into areas A, B and C was the result of a negotiating process with the Palestinians and that the initial step gave the people control over the cities. Barak offered contiguity. They offered roads that would give connection between Gaza— and bypass roads so that you wouldn’t have a problem with settlers with anything else to do. You would have had total control over—There were all sorts of proposals put forward in November, December by President Clinton which Israel accepted and consistently Arafat rejected and you only have to look at the words of his minister of information and the others who themselves said this was long planned even before Camp David. Mitchell did not say that there was no evidence of this…

ALI ABUNIMAH: It did say that. It did say that [unintelligible]

DAVID CORN: One at a time please.

ALI ABUNIMAH: It did say that. Don’t misrepresent what Mitchell said.

DAVID CORN: Ali, you’ll get your chance, please.

MALCOLM HOENLEIN: What the Mitchell Commission called for and which Israel accepted and Israel again initiated a unilateral ceasefire—there have been sixty eight cease-fires, everyone violated by Chairman Arafat just as he’s violated all the eleven agreements he’s signed by not arresting the terrorists, by releasing them, by not confiscating weapons — all of the other conditions which were established which Mr. Abunimah doesn’t want to acknowledge. What the Mitchell Commission report said — there has to be a cessation of violence and that Arafat is capable of doing that. Then you have a period of quiet and you begin the confidence-building measures which would enable everyone to get back to negotiating table. What…


MALCOLM HOENLEIN: [unintelligible]

DAVID CORN: Finish up.

MALCOLM HOENLEIN: The second question was about why Israel rejected the international monitors. The reason is very simple. Number one they do not contribute to peace as we see all over the world. Second of all what you would have is international monitors not where the acts of violence and terrorism take place, but only when Israel tries to respond. And Israel has chosen to try to do it in the most limited restrained fashion —to take over a building, to go in and take out individuals who are engaged in terrorist acts so as to avoid civilian casualties. The civilian casualties were not deliberate policy or people who were targeted. They came about generally as collateral damage or virtue of exchanges of fire and putting mortars and other things in civilian areas to draw fire onto civilian populations because that was Arafat’s goal to have massive civilian casualties in order to draw in the international community. And its disingenuous to try to say that the situation was otherwise. The Mitchell Commission is very clear in what it directs to be done and unfortunately the Palestinian Authority has refused ‘til now to exercise that control, to stop — it doesn’t mean they can stop every single guy who wants to explode himself, but they can do a lot and they haven’t …


MALCOLM HOENLEIN: They haven’t confiscated the weapons. They haven’t arrested the known terrorists. These are all things the American government has demanded of them, the international community has demanded of them.

DAVID CORN: Okay, Malcolm, let me get Ali in and ask him a question about a point he raised and try to look beyond the next few weeks and the next few months. And Arnon Sofer, who is a demographer at Haifa University in Israel put out a study recently that you probably both are aware of. He predicts that by the year 2020, Israel and the territory it occupied will be fifty eight percent Arab and perhaps more importantly he says that one third of the population within Israel proper will be Arab by the year 2020 as well. What does this say about the long-term dimensions of the conflict between Palestinians and Israel? Ali Abunimah of the Arab American Action Network take that one first.

ALI ABUNIMAH: What it says is that we have to find a way to relate to each other as human beings not as ethnicities. Israel is a state which grants rights to people based on whether or not it defines them as Jews. You have to imagine the analogy would be if the United States gave rights only to white people or to Christians. Now in that context of an apartheid-like situation as in South Africa, then if you have the non-ruling ethnic group growing in numbers too fast that threatens the rule of the ethnic group and then they have to look for solutions such as apartheid or bantustanization as Israel is trying to do — defacto annexation without the people — putting them under some form of autonomy. So the challenge is for us to find a way where people can live together based on their humanity rather than their ethnicity. It’s only a challenge, this so-called demographic threat, if you consider people of another religion to be anathema to you and to be people you wouldn’t want to live with. I have no problem as a Palestinian, as someone whose family is living now under this brutal hell of Israeli occupation every single day — our houses are being raided —my elderly aunt the other day was brutalized by thirteen Israeli soldiers who entered her house in the middle of the night —regardless of that, I can contemplate living together with Jews, with Israelis in my country, provided we have equal rights, provided that no one can come and take my land away from me or demolish my house just because they don’t consider me equal. That’s what we have to move towards.

DAVID CORN: Malcolm Hoenlein, will Israel have to retreat within well-defined borders in which Jews remain a great majority if this demographic trend is true?

MALCOLM HOENLEIN: Well I think Israel should have defined borders, internationally-recognized borders for its own security. I do agree with Mr. Abunimah that we have to find ways to relate as human beings to one another both between Palestinians and Israelis and people in the region. The first step has to be that people accept the right of Israel to exist and the right of Jews to remain in the area, not to continue the threats to destroy all of the Jews and drive them into the sea. The fact is that tens of thousands of Arabs have flowed into Israel. If the situation is so terrible why have fifty thousand come into the Galilee alone in the last three or fours years.

ALI ABUNIMAH: Because it’s their own country…

MALCOLM HOENLEIN: There are Arabs in the Knesset. It’s not to say that there isn’t there isn’t…

ALI ABUNIMAH: It’s their country.

DAVID CORN: Let him finish please.

MALCOLM HOENLEIN: It is not to say that there shouldn’t be an improvement in the condition of Arabs living within Israel. Its a commitment of the government. It’s been a commitment of previous governments and I would like to see more done in that regard as well. But I do believe that Israel perhaps unilaterally will have to set up its borders and say this is what it is, when you’re ready to negotiate we’ll talk further and create a situation where Palestinians will be able to live in their land and exercise their control over the daily lives and Israel live in security.

DAVID CORN: Ali, is that day going to come?

ALI ABUNIMAH: Well, you know…

DAVID CORN: Briefly, briefly please we have a few seconds.

ALI ABUNIMAH: The plan is there. Its Security Council resolution 242. Israel doesn’t have to do anything unilaterally if it doesn’t want to. It can withdraw to the line of June 4, 1967, which from the Palestinian perspective is a massive compromise because the West Bank and Gaza comprise only twenty two percent of the country of Palestine which Palestinians overwhelmingly dominated two decades —generations ago.


ALI ABUNIMAH: [unintelligible]

DAVID CORN: I’m gonna have to cut you off and Malcolm I know you want another word, but he gets the last word because that’s all the time we have.

MALCOLM HOENLEIN: If the Palestinians, if the Arabs hadn’t rejected the [unintelligible] in forty seven that Israel did accept. I think that there are opportunities for peace…

DAVID CORN: Okay, okay…

MALCOLM HOENLEIN: End to violence is the first precondition.

ALI ABUNIMAH: An end to occupation.

DAVID CORN: That’s it. Okay, thank you. You each had the last word there. That gives me some optimism for the future. I’ve been joined by Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Congress of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and Ali Abunimah, the vice president of the Arab American Action Network. Thank you both for joining us.