As US officials arrived in Jerusalem last week to meet with Palestinian Authority and Israeli government officials, Nora Barrows-Friedman interviewed Ramallah-based lawyer and former PLO advisor Diana Buttu about this week’s US-brokered direct talks between the two parties for The Electronic Intifada.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: What are the realistic expectations for an outcome of the direct talks, as Israel continues to confiscate Palestinian land and expand illegal settlements, and as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces that it is the Palestinian preconditions that threaten to sabotage the talks?
Diana Buttu: The funny thing about Netanyahu’s statement on preconditions is that the preconditions are actually Israeli, rather than the other way around. They’re making it a precondition that Palestinians have to accept that Israel is going to continue its settlement activity. And if the Palestinian side says no to settlement activity, then somehow that is a precondition, and the world is not into that.
The big problem is that while there is this announcement of negotiations, here on the ground [in the occupied West Bank], there is nobody who is greeting this announcement with any happiness, because weÂ have been here before. We know what has happened in the past, and we know what is going to happen. And so, if anything, the direct talks are going to be a direct failure. Unless there is a very strong stance by the international community to stop Israel in its settlement activity, in home demolitions and in setting forth a terms of reference — that Israel is going to abide by the 1967 borders — then the talks are doomed to fail. We have been down this path before.
NBF: What is your response to how the PLO approved the talks, even though none of the non-Fatah parties approve of them? How did this happen, and what has the response been from the opposing parties?
DB: In terms of the PLO’s response, this is not new. [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas is the same man who hijacked Palestinian elections a year and a half ago, when he unilaterally declared that his term was extended. This is the same man who has failed to hold the Palestinian Legislative Council elections. This is the same individual who has canceled the municipal elections, all under the guise of, “oh, this is too difficult right now.”
So it is not at all surprising that Mahmoud Abbas, speaking on behalf of Mahmoud Abbas, comes forward and declares that the PLO has accepted such talks when they haven’t. And declares that the Palestinian people are welcoming such talks when they are not. And has the audacity to speak on behalf of Palestine and the Palestinians when he is neither elected nor legitimate any longer, and has not even bothered to ascertain the opinion of other organizations, other factions that are members of the PLO.
NBF: Will this further split and antagonize the political factions against each other, or are we seeing more unity taking place?
DB: That is the one thing that is becoming interesting out of all of this — this is no longer the isolation of Hamas. It’s becoming the isolation of Fatah, in that you see all the political factions lining up on one side, and Fatah lining up on another side.
This is not where the situation was a few years ago, or even a decade ago when the majority of Palestinian factions were, in some way, shape or form, in favor of Oslo or in favor of the negotiations process. Today, it is exactly the opposite. So, if anything, Fatah has marginalized itself, and is becoming increasingly more marginalized.
The problem is that there is no way to translate that into any real change, because of Fatah holding the key, because of its inability to hold elections, with its refusal to listen to the factions. What it simply means is that we have this rogue party that is acting on behalf of its own interests and not the interests of the Palestinian people. That is going to continue to dictate the future of Palestine.
Unless this dissent transforms itself into a real push for internal change, then I fear [Fatah is] going to continue going down this path of isolating itself and marginalizing itself, and holding Palestinians hostage to its lack of vision and lack of strategy for Palestine.
NBF: You attended a press conference on 23 August given by PA spokesperson Saeb Erekat. What was revealed in the press conference, and what are most Palestinians concerned or skeptical about in relation to the talks and what is happening on the ground?
DB: There are two things that were revealed during the press conference. The first was that Erekat was unable to explain to journalists or to the Palestinian people what had changed, why they’re entering into negotiations now. He kept referring to pithy Quartet statements — no one really cares what the Quartet says or does, because they don’t really do anything — and he kept referring to the international community and its support for the peace process. But there was nothing that he could point to to explain why now is the time for direct talks.
In other words, there was nothing that he could say — neither in the form of guarantees, nor in assurances, nor in the form of a settlement freeze, or anything that he could take to the Palestinian people and sell. It simply was the result of their utter incompetence. There was no way to explain why they were going to negotiations.
The second thing that came out during the press conference, and this was clear to the journalists who were present, is that this is a leadership of lies. If this leadership had come forward and said, “we are under tremendous amounts of international pressure, both financially and politically” (which we know is the case), then at least we would have been able to give them credit for that. Erekat didn’t say that. Moreover, if this was the same individual who came forward and said they would halt negotiations, unequivocally, in the event that Israel does not impose a complete settlement freeze — not a partial freeze, not a moratorium — and a complete halt to home demolitions, then at least we would have been able to feel that this is a leadership that is responsive, a leadership that is honest.
Instead, Erekat came forward and said that there are going to be no negotiations. In fact, he used the phrase that Netanyahu will have chosen — no negotiations — in the event that settlements and home demolitions continue. What we know is the opposite. If they have not pressed for a complete settlement freeze now, if they have not pressed for a halt in home demolitions and land confiscation now, then the PA has to explain to us that somehow, magically, on 26 September — when the so-called settlement moratorium has expired — that suddenly the Palestinian Authority and the PLO are going to get a backbone?
So rather than him making these slogans and statements, we wanted to hear the truth. And instead we are faced with a leadership that lies. It lied about the pressure that has been put upon the PLO in order to enter into negotiations, and it will be proven on 26 September that the same leadership is going to — once again — lie to us about halting negotiations if there is no settlement freeze.
NBF: What are your major concerns about the Palestinian political atmosphere right now?
DB: The major concern is that we all know that this is going to fail. It doesn’t require anyone with any particular knowledge or foresight to realize that these talks are going to fail. The real question is what is going to come afterwards, and here is where I’m most concerned. For the past 17 years, the PLO, and in particular, Fatah, has had one strategy and only one strategy: negotiations, negotiations, negotiations.
And they have had only one strategy as regards to themselves, and that is survival. We are now at a stage where we are seeing that this is going to be — and I really hope that it is — the final blow to the logic and the ideology of negotiations, that people somehow have to negotiate their freedom.
The real question is, what is this leadership going to do? Is this leadership going to continue to hold us hostage to this tired, visionless lack of strategy? Or is something different going to come?
I’m not concerned with the talks, we know they are going to fail. My bigger concern is about what is going to happen once the talks fail, and is there going to be anybody who is going to come forward with a different plan, a different strategy, a different vision? And that is my fear. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
Photo courtesy of Diana Buttu.