Ibishblog readers interview Ibish on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

I receive a lot of very interesting questions through the “ask Ibish” form on the Ibishblog, and I try to answer most of them either directly via e-mail or, when warranted, through blog postings. I have a backlog of questions I think can be answered relatively briefly but deserve a public hearing, so rather than tackling each one individually, I’ve created a collective virtual interview based on a series of very recent interesting queries on matters related to Israel and the Palestinians. They are set out below in a Q&A based on the conceit that a group of Ibishblog readers is interviewing me. It seems an interesting way of answering them.

Q: What is your opinion of the pessimistic view of Mosab Hassan Yousef in his recent book “Son of Hamas” regarding the seemingly irreconcilable differences between Hamas and Fatah? How can a two state solution be negotiated with splintered factions who abhor each other? If, as he contends, the ideological core of Islam is and always will be at odds with the ideological core of Christianity and Judaism, what is the future for peace in the region?

A: I haven’t read this book, and I’m not sure I would regard it as a credible account, not because I have any illusions about Hamas, but because it seems to be mainly a commercial and ideological project, probably without a great deal of intellectual or factual integrity. We’ve seen a lot of Arab-American converts to evangelical Christianity talking an extraordinary degree of rubbish in order to make money with books, and this may or may not be another of those. I’ll be honest: zealous converts to any religion immediately have an extra burden of credibility for me because their passionate embrace of one irrational ideological perspective and rejection of another, and often the whole culture and civilization that goes along with it, strike me as a fundamentally unhealthy reaction to what admittedly may be a fundamentally unhealthy situation. It suggests not only a political but a religious agenda that could well, if not would probably, color everything with some kind of prefabricated ideas that interfere with not only sound analysis but fidelity to the truth. It just doesn’t inspire any confidence in me.

My problem with it as an account is also that there would be no way of having any sense of how much hyperbole and self-aggrandizement it represents as opposed to anything factual, and I’d note that his former Israeli employers have disputed or at least cast doubt on the veracity of key elements of his story (most notably, his own importance). Moreover, I’m very skeptical about the accuracy of any commercial projects like these that purport to tell a dramatic life story for $26.99 a pop. So because of religious, ideological and pecuniary interests that are so obvious, I’m not going to bother reading it.

That said, I don’t have any illusions about Hamas, and anyone who reads my blog or other writings will know that perfectly well, and I don’t need this somewhat dubious book to convince me. Your characterization of his view that there is something inherent in Islam there will always be at odds with Christianity and Judaism only reconfirms my lack of interest in the book. All great religions are vast social texts, equally capable of inspiring the impulse to coexistence or the impulse to conflict. In the present-day United States there is a desire to link Christianity and Judaism in an ahistorical and theologically unjustifiable manner as distinct from Islam, but in fact the three religions are completely distinct from each other and therefore equidistant. Historically, the Christian world tended to view Judaism and Islam as closer to each other than to Christianity, and now, especially in the United States, for social and political reasons, this trend has reversed with Islam seen as the outlier, Judaism rehabilitated and Christianity normative.

It’s all garbage. These are three distinct religions, although they all spring from a common source, and all three have shown the capacity to produce both coexistence and deep antipathy, and attempts to pathologize any of them in favor of the others is plainly indefensible and inadmissible. Bigots will run at you with laundry lists of arguments about why one, or two, of these three is particularly worse than one or both of the others, but neither history nor theology can sustain such claims. The only critiques worth listening to are skeptical, rationalist critiques that take a dim view of all irrational and superstitious faith-based belief systems, not those that try to pick and choose between one set of arbitrary assumptions versus another. This is the difference between rational skepticism and religious bigotry or supremacism. My irrational beliefs are better than your irrational beliefs is a pretty pathetic argument.

As to the main point, plainly Hamas and the PLO are engaged in a zero-sum contest for power among Palestinians, based on totally incompatible visions of the present situation and the future. The secular nationalists of the PLO seek a negotiated peace agreement with Israel, while Islamists led by Hamas seek armed conflict until victory or, at least, a fifty-year “hudna” (truce) followed by who knows what. Moreover, they are completely at odds on the character and nature of Palestinian society. In fact, they really don’t agree on anything at all. Now, one side or the other will win out, and one national strategy will become a consensus, and until that happens I think national reconciliation is quite impossible because there is no way to reconcile these visions.

In the meanwhile, everything Hamas does is refracted through the lens of a single goal: to marginalize, replace or take over the PLO and ensure that the Palestinian movement and society become an Islamist one. Everything else is secondary, and this explains why even though they are fully aware that independence in the occupied territories is the maximal achievable Palestinian national goal, they will not accede to the Quartet demands even though this comes at a very heavy price to them. If they did accept the Quartet’s terms and rehabilitate themselves as a legitimate actor, they would be presenting Palestinians a choice between two parties seeking the same national goal, but one of them secular and the other Islamist. Obviously, extreme religious and social conservatism alone is not a path to power among Palestinians under the present circumstances. So, Hamas has to yoke its social agenda to a nationalist one and continuously outbid everybody else in order to have any appeal beyond its base which is certainly not more than 18%, and probably not more than 15% of Palestinians in the occupied territories.

This isn’t as much of a barrier to negotiations as many people like to think since there is no question from a legal and political point of view who is authorized to represent the Palestinians in negotiations. Every single Palestinian, Arab and international document, including most notably the Letters of Mutual Recognition signed during the Oslo process with Israel, state that the PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Even Hamas recognizes this, although they call for the restructuring of the PLO (by which they mean they should take it over). So in his capacity as Chairman of the PLO, Mahmoud Abbas is plainly authorized to lead the negotiations with Israel. The question is not about negotiations but about implementation of an agreement.

I think it’s clear that Hamas’ future will be largely determined in the West Bank, and not in Gaza. It’s true that Hamas only rules in Gaza now by force of arms and its popularity across the Palestinian territories has absolutely tanked, and for good reason. In the latest opinion poll, they registered 15% total support as opposed to 53% backing for Fatah. Nonetheless, if the PLO strategy of seeking a negotiated peace agreement with Israel permanently collapses over the next 10-15 years and the PA state building enterprise in the West Bank similarly fails, I don’t think there will be much standing in the way of an Islamist takeover of the Palestinian national movement, which would be a disaster and possibly the end of the movement as such. If however the state building project proceeds apace and negotiations begin to bear fruit, I think it will be very difficult for Hamas to maintain its position of power in Gaza, and this issue can be resolved without too much difficulty one way or the other in order to implement an agreement that covers all of the occupied territories.

Of course, the only reasonable, rational and fair means for Palestinian national reconciliation is through new elections. The core problem, of course, is that there were two elections following the death of Arafat, a presidential election in 2005 won by Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas, and a parliamentary election in 2006 in which Hamas backed candidates won a majority. Government cohabitation proved impossible because of the vast differences on all issues and the present situation was initiated by Hamas’ violent takeover of Gaza in 2007. The terms of both the elected president and parliament have, by the way, expired. It’s obviously long since time for a new election, both parliamentary and presidential, but Hamas is absolutely blocking that because of the political realities and poll numbers I outlined in the last paragraph. The PA wanted to hold elections in January according to Palestinian law and Hamas refused. The Egyptians presented a national reconciliation agreement allowing for elections in July, and while Fatah signed, Hamas refused. For very good reasons the PA doesn’t want to hold national elections in the West Bank only, so as not to reify the distinction and division between the West Bank and Gaza, but they did schedule local, municipal elections, which don’t have national implications, for this July, and Hamas has again denounced this and told everyone not to participate. Obviously Hamas is profoundly opposed to elections, which they don’t believe in anyway as a matter of principle, because they know how badly they will be defeated.

Meanwhile, while its grip on power in Gaza is secured by a monopoly of arms and the indefensible and politically counterproductive blockade which it uses to consolidate its rule, Hamas is facing a political and financial crisis due to lack of money and credibility. Its leaders are openly fretting about the prospects of a popular revolt due to new onerous taxation and other unacceptable policies, and they’re being harassed by Al Qaeda style extremists on their right flank. This is a window on where things can go in the future regarding their stranglehold on Gaza. If the contrast persists between the results of their policies and those of the PA and the PLO, and if diplomacy begins to move the Palestinians meaningfully towards independence in the West Bank, Hamas will be presented with a simple choice: the train is leaving the station, are you getting on or are you staying behind? I can’t believe the people of Gaza will put up with a situation in which West Bank is visibly and seriously moving towards independence while they continue to languish under an endless siege.

Q: What is your opinion of the potential of the two state solution as outlined in the most recent Regional Peace Plan based on the original Geneva Accord?

A: As my regular readers will know, I think the two state solution is the only available option other than continued conflict and occupation, leading to increased violence and intensified warfare, which will be increasingly religious and intractable. However, I am sorry to say that I also think it is the less likely of the two. I think the two state solution is still possible because it is in everyone’s interests and majorities on both sides say they would accept it and have every reason to accept it. But it’s going to be very difficult.

I think the Geneva Accord and the subsequent Regional Peace Plan are excellent efforts at outlining some of the details of what could be possible in a two state agreement. The Accord was particularly important in that it showed at a crucial time that there were partners on both sides and that progress in good faith really could be made, even if it was only an intellectual and academic exercise rather than an actual negotiation. In full disclosure, my ATFP colleague and friend, Ghaith Al-Omari, was the lead Palestinian drafter of the Geneva Accord with Daniel Levy as his principle Israeli interlocutor. But I certainly think that document, the Clinton parameters, and many other draft plans or similar ideas all point to the same direction: a two state agreement involving an end to the occupation, a limited land swap to account for anomalies and some settlement blocs, a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, and an agreement on refugees that provides many benefits but not the mass return of millions of Palestinians to Israel. It’s no coincidence all serious, critical thinking leads in this direction: it’s the only set of ideas that can possibly work because it addresses the minimal national requirements of both parties. As I say, I’m not an optimist and it’s going to be difficult to make it work, but our task is to find a way to make it work because it is plausibly achievable and it is the only way out of a desperately dangerous situation.

Q: How do you respond to recent polling results that indicate: residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip are opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders with some land exchange as part of a final solution to the current impasse with Israel, according to a poll by An-Najah National University. 66.7 per cent of respondents reject this notion. In addition, 77.4 per cent of respondents reject making Jerusalem the capital for both an eventual Palestinian state and Israel.

A: I’m not convinced at all about this poll, which is greatly at odds with all other polling on these questions over the past 20 years. I cited a poll above about Palestinian partisan politics, but it’s consistent with all other polling in recent months. Any individual poll is always suspect, because polling is a deeply inexact art (I hesitate to call it a science at all). The only way polling is really useful is if multiple polls done by multiple entities with multiple methodologies over an extended period of time produce a similar set of results or mark a notable trend in a similar direction. Under such circumstances we can say that the polling is giving us a real indication of what people actually think. But this poll comes at us out of left field, and doesn’t correspond with the results of almost all the other polls. So I’d say that it’s a phenomenon that’s well-known in polling: an anomaly that doesn’t disprove or even cast serious doubt on the well-established pattern of all the other polls. However, if a series of polls comes out over the next few months that reflects similar, or even remotely similar numbers on these issues, then I think we have to take note very carefully. If not, and I don’t expect it, then this poll has to be taken with the same fistful of salt any individual poll always has to be. None of them ever stand alone with any validity.

Q: What are the prospects for the Palestinian Arab towns that are located in Israel, but adjacent to the green line, to be incorporated into a future Palestinian state. As negotiations resume in the coming days, do you expect this to become an issue for discussion, perhaps as part of a settlements’ deal?

A: I think this is an extremely dangerous idea, although it’s one dear to the heart of the current Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who openly wishes to decrease the number of Palestinian citizens of Israel through this kind of land swap. I suppose it’s possible that a very small number of Palestinians in Israel are living in areas that might be included in a land swap, and I think in that case the maximum possible accommodation for them from both states needs to mitigate the fact that their land will change sovereignty without their explicit permission. But I think it’s very important to try to find as uninhabited areas as possible, and indeed this is possible, in order to make the land swap as smooth as possible and avoid these problems. I don’t think the Palestinian towns and villages in Israel can be compared to the settlements, and I don’t think they should be part of the negotiations either, except insofar as the necessary land swap involves places that are sparsely rather than totally uninhabited. Honestly, I don’t think this is going to be a big deal unless the Israelis try to offload some significantly populated areas, in which case I think the Palestinians would do well to insist that this is not acceptable. In any case, I don’t anticipate this eventuality.

Q: What is the official PA posture on existing Jewish villages in Yesha? On the one hand, the diplomatic track has anticipated their dismantlement. On the other hand, high ranking individuals within the PA – including Salam Fayaad – have indicated the villages will be incorporated into a Palestinian state. Still, on other days you’ll find the same Salam Fayaad burning economic products produced in the settlements. Please shed some light on Palestinians expectations and intentions in with regard to settlements outside the three or four major settlement blocks near the green line.

A: The PLO doesn’t have, as far as I know, an “official position” in writing on what the reader calls “existing Jewish villages in Yesha,” which are otherwise known as the settlements, except that this is a central permanent status issue to be negotiated. Generally speaking and historically the Palestinian expectation and PLO rhetorical demand has been for the dismantling and evacuation of all the settlements, but the reader is absolutely correct that this is not an official position and that numerous Palestinian officials including several senior PLO leaders and PA Prime Minister Fayyad have repeatedly stated that there is no reason why Jewish Israelis whose settlements are not annexed to Israel in a land swap should have to leave the new Palestinian state. This is a very important principle that I think needs to be maintained at all costs. There are Palestinian citizens of Israel, and there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be Jewish citizens of Palestine, or dual citizens of Israel and Palestine, or possibly even Jewish Israeli residents of Palestine. All of these are possible arrangements. The Palestinian state must be a pluralistic one, since it will include Muslim, Christian and other Palestinians, and must be open to complete citizenship and/or equal treatment for a Jewish minority as well. This is a matter of values and principles, and I think it has to be held onto at all costs.

However, I would think it is extremely unlikely for there to be a Jewish Israeli minority in a Palestinian state, but not because of a Palestinian position but rather because of what any Israeli government is likely to feel is necessary to maintain an agreement. It strikes me that it would be politically untenable for an Israeli government to really keep hands off if Jewish Israelis in a Palestinian state began to have extreme difficulties with their neighbors and the authorities. Given the attitudes of some of the settlers such as those in Kiryat Arba in Hebron, for example, which will certainly be part of a Palestinian state, such difficulties are almost inevitable. There are plenty of settlers who I’m sure are capable of living in a reasonable relationship with their Palestinian neighbors and the new Palestinian authorities. But there are others about whom I’m extremely skeptical, and I’m sure the Israeli government, which has had to deal with some of these people, would be skeptical as well. Indeed, it would be an obvious way for extremist settlers to sabotage the long-term viability of any agreement to provoke all kinds of confrontations with Palestinian neighbors or the Palestinian state in order to demand that Israel come to the rescue, thereby abrogating and possibly scuppering the agreement in toto. Imagine the domestic political difficulties faced by any Israeli government that refused to come to the rescue of settlers facing severe difficulties, even if it was of their own making.

I suppose it’s possible that Israeli society might ultimately turn to the settlers choosing to stay in a new Palestinian state in spite of many requests that they do not and say, in effect, “you’re on your own, good luck and don’t ask us for any help.” But I find that very hard to imagine. So my sense of things is that there actually won’t be any Jewish Israelis left in a Palestinian state at first because the Israeli government will insist on that. I think the best-case scenario is that after a peaceful period, when coexistence is well established, that Israelis could, for religious and cultural reasons, begin to take up residency in places like Hebron under Palestinian law and protection. I can imagine that, but I can’t imagine the Israeli government leaving some of the present settlers exactly where they are at the outset of a two-state agreement if they really want it to work.

Q: Please tell me why it is in Israel’s interest to negotiate and make concessions when the place they will ultimately get to is the deal made at Taba, or, even better for the Palestinians, the Olmert deal. What is the goal if even those former offers are not acceptable?

A: First of all, I’d suggest the reader look at my recent Ibishblog posting on whether or not the Palestinians made a mistake in declining the Camp David and Olmert proposals made by Israel. I don’t think the Palestinian goal is unclear at all, and I outlined it above. If both parties agree on the essential structures of informal agreements such as the Geneva Accord and international proposals such as the Clinton parameters, and then it becomes a matter of negotiating the details, and negotiators from both sides suggest that at Taba and between Abbas-Olmert it was the details and not the broad outlines that were being seriously negotiated. As I tried to demonstrate, progress has been made at every stage from Oslo to Camp David to Taba to Abbas-Olmert, and I think this demonstrates that future progress can, in fact, be made if both parties approach the talks in good faith in order to negotiate the details of the kind of arrangement cited above. I’m sure the reader understands why it’s in Israel’s interest to have a negotiated agreement, and I’ve spent a good deal of the past few years of my life repeating ad nauseum why it is in the Palestinian and American interests as well. If anybody wants more clarity on this, many of the postings on the Ibishblog deal with this question and you can also take a look, for free, at my book on the one state agenda, which also contains detailed arguments about the importance of a two-state agreement, either on the Ibishblog or on the ATFP website.

Q: When you keep talking about the siege of Gaza (and I do agree, it doesn’t help the Israelis, only Hamas), why do you and everyone else seem to forget that Egypt has a common border? If the Arab brothers of the Palestinians aren’t opening the border, why should Israel, the target of rockets and terror attacks, be expected to open their border?

A: I certainly don’t forget Egypt’s border with Gaza, and I’ve written about the problem on numerous occasions. They are two issues here: is anyone expecting Israel to simply open its border with Gaza, and why does Egypt keep the Gaza border closed? First, while I think the blockade is terrible, morally unjustifiable and politically counterproductive as you agree, I wouldn’t expect Israel to throw open its border crossings to Gaza as long as it’s under Hamas control and Hamas maintains the policies it has today. But at the same time I think it’s crucial that all the crossings, including the Egyptian border crossing, are opened as soon as possible. There is a way to do this: a return to the status quo ante at the borders, which would mean PA security forces on the Palestinian side of all the crossings with international monitoring and participation, and a renewed and intensified effort to close all the tunnels. This is undoubtedly the way to proceed and it has the added benefit of placing Hamas in the position of either agreeing to this means of allowing the Palestinians of Gaza to breathe again or being the ones responsible for taking the ultimate decision that the siege must stay in place rather than cede any power anywhere in Gaza to the PA. They probably wouldn’t accept the idea, but I think they need to be put in the position of publicly refusing it and taking full, complete and final ownership of the siege. If they did agree to it, all the better.

For all your rhetoric about “Arab brothers,” I’m sure you understand why the Egyptians don’t want to open their border to Gaza. I once counted the reasons that were obvious to me, and they went beyond 10, and I won’t bother you with all of them. Suffice it to say that the Egyptians are absolutely paranoid about the prospect of being sucked back into responsibility for Gaza again and it is without doubt the number one foreign policy priority for the Egyptian state not to have that happen. Look at the contortions they are tying themselves into and the political damage they are incurring in order to ensure that that doesn’t happen. The reasons for this are obvious, and it is a long-standing ambition of right-wing Israelis to ensure that Egypt is forced to take control of Gaza and Jordan of parts of the West Bank Israel does not wish to annex in order to foreclose Palestinian statehood and avoid any need to negotiate an end to the occupation with the Palestinians. This is very strongly against the Egyptian, the Jordanian and, above all, the Palestinian national interest and none of the three will accept it. The bottom line is that Israel is still legally, technically and in fact the occupying power in Gaza, the unilateral redeployment notwithstanding, and that therefore Israel has still has primary responsibility for the civilian population there, not Egypt. I certainly agree that Hamas has to bear its responsibility and share the blame for the present situation, but I don’t think it’s the fault of Egypt in a meaningful way.

For the Egyptians, there are many additional concerns, mostly arising from the fact that Hamas is a Muslim Brotherhood party connected and in some way subordinate to the Egyptian MB “mother party,” which is the primary opposition group seeking to overthrow the Egyptian government. The idea of Palestinian Muslim Brothers in Gaza linking up with the Egyptian Muslim Brothers is something of a national security nightmare for the present Egyptian regime. In addition, Hamas’ strong relationship with Iran provides another source of extreme anxiety for the Egyptians. It is a source of instability, potential insecurity and very grave concern, and there’s no way the Egyptians are going to allow the Israelis to manipulate them into getting sucked back into Gaza again. No way. As long as Israel is the occupying power, it’s not going to be able to pass the buck to anyone, except maybe Hamas. But since the siege only strengthens Hamas’ grip on power in Gaza, it’s high time to revisit the border crossing issue with at the very least the proposal I mention, which would be a step in so many right directions.