BEIRUT - As 2016 neared its end, a piece of good news shifted world attention to the Palestinian issue that seemingly had been regulated to oblivion, having been overshadowed by the turmoil and raging wars in the Arab region.
The UN Security Council adopted a resolution on December 23rd condemning Israeli settlements as illegal after the Obama administration stunningly abstained.
Such a move, which was followed by a warning from US Secretary of State John Kerry that Israel’s continued settlement growth threatened the prospect of a final peace deal based on the two-state solution — is likely to be a short-lived victory for the Palestinians.
Israel was expected to defiantly continue building more settlements and US President-elect Donald Trump threatened that “things will be different” after he is sworn in on January 20th. Trump’s choice of David Friedman as ambassador to Israel means that the new administration in Washington will likely proceed with its stated intention to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“It will get so much worse for the Palestinians under Trump,” Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American historian of the Middle East and the Edward Said professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, said in an interview with The Arab Weekly in Beirut.
Khalidi, a passionate defender of Palestinian rights whose relationship in 2003 with then-senator Barack Obama stirred a storm when the latter was elected president in 2008, said he had no hopes Obama would do something for the Palestinians.
Despite that Obama’s first call to a foreign leader on his first day in office was to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and that he was quick in appointing former senator George Mitchell as special envoy for Middle East peace, Obama soon realised the difficulty of bringing peace to the Arab region and ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Obama, Khalidi said, has always been “a politician who saw what he considered the limits of the possible”.
Mitchell, who wanted to involve all Palestinian factions — including Hamas — in the negotiations the way he had done with the Irish Republican Army (IRA), saw his efforts — in Khalidi’s characterisation — “sabotaged” by then-secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her adviser Dennis Ross and blocked by the Congress.
“At that point or soon after, Obama decided there was nothing that could be done,” Khalidi said.
With Trump preparing to enter the White House, the Palestinians must put their differences and divisions aside and formulate a new strategy to remind the world about their ordeal.
“As long as the Palestinian national movement is in its current state of disarray, I don’t think we can expect any significant change,” Khalidi said.
He referred to the division between Fatah and Hamas, which, he said, were two completely stagnant movements with huge patronage operations, providing employment and security to hundreds of thousands of people but “probably unrepresentative” to most Palestinians.
“They (Fatah and Hamas) have no strategy: No strategy for the liberation of Palestine, no strategy for challenging the (Israeli) occupation, no strategy for a diplomacy nor for resistance,” Khalidi pointed out.
He blamed both the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Hamas for pursuing respectively in the 1970s and in the 1980s “a narrow or more diplomatic-based strategy focused on two-state solution to which both of these parties are completely committed blindly” while most Palestinians understand that it is very unlikely there will be a Palestinian state.
“The two leaderships are too blind and too unwilling to admit that everything they are doing and have been doing is probably mistaken,” Khalidi noted. “We are in a trap. Our Palestinian leadership has led us blindly not intentionally into that trap.”
A new paradigm is needed, he said, emphasising that it was up to the Palestinians — not Trump — to figure out a strategy, change the status quo and say what they want and what they are going to do with the Israelis and the occupation.
He also called for getting away from the “illusion” that what is being built in the occupied territories is “a nucleus of a state” because “it is not”.
He recalled as “a huge achievement” the launch of the Palestinian national movement in 1968 when the Palestinians put themselves on the map by adopting “a strategy of resistance” and the first Palestinian intifada against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which lasted from December 1987 to the conclusion of the Oslo peace accords in 1993.
“The 1987 intifada was a huge victory not just because we looked good or we liked the idea of kids throwing stones on tanks but because the Israeli public was forced to change its view of the occupation and the Israeli leadership to negotiate with the Palestinians,” Khalidi explained.
“We changed the balance of forces and we did not do that by shooting, by killing more Israelis than Palestinians were killed. We changed the balance of forces because there was an actual sense of strategy of how to change international public opinion and Israeli public opinion.”
Lamenting the Palestinian leadership for not exploiting sufficiently the gains of the intifada, throwing away the “sacrifices” of those who fought for it and thus engaging in peace negotiations that led to the Oslo accords, Khalidi said Palestinians need to re-establish a national movement.
“You have to find a strategy that makes you stronger and makes the enemy weaker and hitting them (Israelis) frankly doesn’t make them weaker… not this people,” he said. “We suffered 1,500 dead in Gaza and they suffered a few and they believe seriously that they are victims. They actually believe they are victims. That’s the enemy we have to deal with.”
He argued that the use of force is justified in national liberation struggles by an oppressed people as long as it is used within the terms of international law. Attacking civilians would be “politically stupid, immorally wrong and illegal”, he said, adding: “You can trace especially over the past 10-20 years how the use of force has unified the Israelis and divided the Palestinians in the end.”
Giving the examples of the 1954-62 Algeria war of independence from France and the 1954-75 Vietnam war against the United States, Khalidi argued that the Palestinians should opt for a “tactic” in “which they resist and make it more difficult on the Israelis what they are trying to do in a way that forces them to think and change their views”.
But what do Palestinians want for themselves? What would they offer to the Israelis, what would they do with those who have been for five generations on Palestinian soil and how would they fight them and force them to stop doing what they are doing? These are a few of many questions raised by Khalidi, who said the Israelis made the two-state solution “null, void and unfeasible”.
“For decades now, there are 650,000 Israelis living in the West Bank and Jerusalem… So, where is the Palestinians’ state? Where will you put it? This is a reality which both Palestinians actually understand, including the people outside and inside,” he said.
With the Arab world “being played from the outside”, raging wars in once-unified Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq and the prospects of them being broken up as well the “artificial struggle” between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, putting the Palestine question forward at this time is “very, very hard”, Khalidi said.
US public opinion is changing but the Trump administration represents “what Americans still think: That the Israelis are good and the Palestinians are bad.”
“It is finally time to understand that you will not get anything out of the US government unless you address the American people and change the public opinion there,” he said. “You have to change them and this is not impossible.”
As for Russia, the Palestinians should expect nothing from it despite its ascending and expanding role in the Middle East.
“They (Russians) have very good relations with Israel,” Khalidi noted.
The Israelis are not “asleep” as they understand that there is a change in America and thus are working on improving relations with India, China, Russia, Eastern Europe, East Asia and South-East Asia.
“They are way ahead of us. The Arab countries are sitting there, fighting this medieval Sunni- Shia stupid conflict and Israel is in the 21st century doing deals and technology and military hardware with the whole world,” he concluded.
Dalal Saoud is the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of The Arab Weekly. She is based in Beirut.
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