By Khaled Diab
Palestinian reformer Mustafa Barghouti on the demise of the peace process, the death of the two-state option and the dawning of the Palestinian Spring.
Friday 4 May 2012
From beginnings as a medical doctor, Mostafa Barghouti has been a prominent Palestinian reformer, human rights activist and politician for many years. Before entering politics, he founded, and still chairs, the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, which has grown to become one of the largest and most successful medical charities in the West Bank and Gaza. During the first intifada, he also set up a think tank to research health and development issues.
A member of one of the largest West Bank families, in terms of numbers, and one known for its political activism, it was almost inevitable that Mustafa Barghouti would enter politics. One of his earliest forays into politics was when he attended the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 as a member of the Palestinian delegation, though he quickly became disillusioned with the peace process launched with the Oslo Accords. Along with other Palestinian luminaries, he established the Palestinian National Initiative (al-Mubadara al-Wataniyya al-Filistiniyya) in 2002, which has sought to reform the Palestinian political landscape by providing a third viable alternative to the PLO and Hamas. Though he has been dismissed as a ‘no hoper' and the Mubadra did badly in the previous legislative elections, Barghouti himself became Mahmoud Abbas's strongest rival for the presidency in 2005 and insists that his movement has matured and now enjoys a significant support base.
Having followed him for some time and seen him perform in debates, I was looking forward to meeting the man. Our encounter took place in his spacious office in Ramallah, at the medical NGO he set up. When introducing myself, I mentioned that I lived in Jerusalem, to which he responded by informing me that he and other West Bankers are not allowed to visit the city. I expressed my bewilderment and disappointment that I, as a foreigner, had more freedom of movement here than Palestinians. I asked him whether he, as a politician, had a permit to visit Jerusalem to which he said he didn't but that he defied what he considered to be illegal restrictions by taking back routes regularly into the Holy City – and occasionally getting detained for it.
During our interview, he talked about the peace process, the future of the two-state solution, Israeli policies, Palestinian divisions, and the coming dawn of a Palestinian Spring.
Khaled Diab: I'd like to begin with a general question: are you optimistic about the future?
Mustafa Barghouti: I am optimistic when it comes to the future of the Palestinian people – of course. I am optimistic that the system of occupation and racial discrimination will be broken, and we will gain our freedom. But if you mean to ask whether I'm optimistic about what is called the “peace process”, then the answer is no. The peace process is dead.
You were a member of the Palestinian delegation which went to the Madrid peace conference.
And I was amongst the group which included Dr Haidar Abdel-Shafi who vigorously opposed the Oslo agreement.
So you find that the Oslo Accords do not accord with the Madrid principles?
No, the Oslo agreement contravened the Madrid principles in three areas. Firstly, it accepted the notion of a transitional solution. Secondly, it accepted a partial solution. Thirdly, it accepted the resolution of the Palestinian question in isolation from the wider Arab sphere.
The other dangerous aspect of Oslo was that an agreement was signed without the cessation of settlement building. I am with Haidar Abdel-Shafi, who is also one of the co-founders of the Mubadra [Palestinian National Initiative], along with Dr Edward Said. The three of us said that there can be no agreement without a full cessation of settlement activity.
Because the settlements have created realities on the ground?
Settlements have become a weapon for destroying everything, including Oslo itself. And that is what Yossi Beilin is now talking about. But Beilin does not admit that he is also at fault and responsible for the situation, even though he is one of those who allowed the continuation of settlement building to occur.
Do you think it would have worked if, after Madrid, instead of Oslo, an attempt to forge a comprehensive deal was pursued?
With the power of the intifada behind it, yes. There was also an international consensus. I believe that the successes of the intifada were squandered when the Oslo Accords were signed.
And do you think Israel could've accepted a comprehensive solution?
Israel was losing a lot at the time. The occupation was costly. And so Israel could've compromised. We might well have been living in an independent state by now. It's also possible that we wouldn't have been. I don't know.
However, I believe it was entirely possible. I also think it was wrong for the Palestinian leadership to accept the notion of autonomy instead of full independence. Autonomy was supposed to be transitional and temporary, but the transitional has become permanent.
Why do you think that the exiled PLO leadership in Tunisia accepted this transitional agreement?
Perhaps one of the reasons is the huge international pressure that was exerted on the Palestinian leadership. Another factor was the allure of power. They began to hold on to the fantasy that the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) would enable them to change the reality on the ground. But this has been proven to be a fallacy.
Do you think that the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin affected the peace process, that if Rabin had lived things could have turned out differently?
It's possible, yes. Look, Rabin's assassination and the electing of Netanyahu together sent out a clear signal that Israeli society would not go down the road of an independent Palestinian state. And this message should have been read and understood early on. Arafat understood this in 2000 and that is why he refused to submit to the pressures at Camp David and refused to give up the claim to Jerusalem, as was being demanded of him. And this led to the second intifada.
In my personal view, the message was already clear in 1996 and the duty at the time should have been to tell the world that the process is over. I believe that the establishment of the PA played a negative role because now the leadership is preoccupied with the trappings of power rather than the liberation movement. Israel has exploited the Oslo agreement to empty the liberation movement of its content and has transformed the PLO into little more than a cost item in the PA's expenses.
This has had the effect of weakening Palestinian unity and has created enormous fractures in the Palestinian arena in two areas: between the supporters and opponents of Oslo, and between the internal and external dimensions, weakening the ability of exiled Palestinians to support the national struggle internally.
After the second intifada, the pro-Oslo camp – who built their election platform around the continuation of the Oslo process based on the false conclusion that it had failed due to our own errors and if we correct our ways everything will be fine – have been trying to revive the process since 2005 and to no effect. It is all an illusion planted by the international community and the United States in support of Israel.
The reality is that the Zionist movement has not accepted since its creation and until now the right of Palestinians to establish an independent state. But it is an intelligent movement. It procrastinates and delays to the fullest, accepting certain things temporarily while working towards its ultimate goals. But it has always kept a tight rein on maintaining the strategic initiative.
What do you say to those on the Israeli side who counter that the Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”?
Firstly, these are Israeli lies. For example, they say that in 1947 the partition plan failed because the Palestinians refused to accept it. There are documents that prove that Ben Gurion intended to continue his plan, even if the Palestinians had accepted partition. Even if we assume that what they say is true, why did they not stop at the borders set by the partition? These are lies. Even now, they had the chance to permit the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, who has prevented them from doing so? The Palestinians? On the contrary.
So are there no rejectionists on the Palestinian side to the establishment of two states?
No, the vast majority are with the two-state solution. Even Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
But Hamas and Islamic Jihad were opposed to it at first.
Yes, but today, they support it. Who has prevented the establishment of an independent state? Israel.
You were among the biggest supporters of the two-state solution. In light of the current situation, do you still have faith in it?
Look, I believe in the freedom of the Palestinian people, and its right to independence and self-determination, and its right to end its subservience to Israel, either in the framework of two states or a single state.
But what I witness around me is that the Israelis have destroyed the two-state solution. Right now, we are in a grey area where it is difficult to determine empirically whether the two-state solution has actually died or is about to. Have we crossed the red line or are we about to cross it? In either case, it is clear that Israel, with the density of its settlement activity and its policies and the inability of the United States to exert pressure, is preparing to kill off the two-state option.
Under these circumstances, I say that the Palestinian people are not without options. One option is a single, fully democratic state in which every citizen has full and equal rights. However, for the time being, we must not allow differences of opinion over the one- or two-state solution to divide us once again.
Our slogan must be the freedom of the Palestinian people, whether in two states or one. When we reach the moment of truth, then we can decide. We cannot allow this to become another cause of internal division in the Palestinian ranks. Secondly, when we shift from one option to another, the decision must be a collective and unified one. Thirdly, we must not allow Israel to forfeit, this time, its responsibility for destroying the two-state option.
If Palestinians, Israelis and the international community wish to salvage the two-state solution, what needs to be done?
Firstly, pressure needs to be exerted to change the Netanyahu government. Military and economic aid to Israel must be stopped. Israel must pay a price for its occupation. There must be a clear resolve on the cessation of settlement activity and the removal of settlements. And there must be a clear reference to the 1967 borders. I do not accept the idea of land swaps and see it as a trap for the Palestinians. First, there'll be talk of swaps, then of larger swaps. The settlements are illegitimate and so they must be removed – just as they were removed from Gaza.
The remove of the settlers or the settlements too?
It's up to them whether they take the infrastructure or leave it behind, but the colonisation must end.
What do you think of the idea that if some of the Israeli settlers wished to stay on the land…?
If they are there in a legitimate fashion…
As Palestinian citizens?
If the place where they are living is not stolen from the Palestinians, then they are welcome to acquire Palestinian citizenship. But they cannot stay with us as Israeli citizens, like ‘Joha's nail'.
So, you're saying they should either become Palestinians or return to Israel?
Yes. They cannot stay here as Israeli citizens.
If Palestinians choose to go down the road of the single state, what strategy should they pursue?
The peaceful popular resistance that we are currently employing, the struggle for our rights.
Your civil rights?
Not just our civil rights. All our rights. Citizenship rights. Our national rights too. This has to be recognised. If we are to have a single state, this state must recognise the Arabic language and the Palestinian people. This is fundamental.
Popular resistance is a successful formula because it works both in the case of two states or one. In my opinion, the strategic choice before us is made up of four elements: the escalation of popular resistance, the BDS campaign, revamping all domestic Palestinian economic policies to focus them on reinforcing the people's steadfastness instead of drowning them in debts, taxes and consumerism, rejecting the distinction between Areas A, B and C, and fourthly, national unity. We must end our divisions and form a unified leadership pursuing a unified strategy.
Do you think, in practical terms, with all the cracks in the Palestinian ranks, they can agree on a unified position?
Our destiny depends on it. Perhaps the deepening level of division has reached an untenable level. This could prove to be an opportunity to change the status quo, but the continuation of the current divisions will weaken us all and weaken our national cause. It will also cause enormous losses in popularity both for Fatah and Hamas.
Until you reach this fork in the road where you must choose between the two options, what should be the demands of the popular resistance movement?
Security co-ordination with Israel must end. The PA's security role must be terminated. The PA cannot play a security role at a time when Israel mistreats us.
Before we started recording, you told me that the number of demonstrators on Land Day was greater than expected. Is this a sign that popular resistance can truly be stepped up and become a new intifada or revolution as has occurred in other countries?
I believe that we are heading towards a Palestinian Spring and it is inevitable that there will be another intifada.
Do you think the next intifada will be like the first one, peaceful, or…
Peaceful. I'm sure of it.
Do you think it will happen in the near future or…
It's hard to say. But what we are seeing is a gradual escalation, as we expected. This phase of popular resistance began 10 years ago.
There are those who say that the Palestinians have already tried to mount their revolution during the first intifada, and its failure led to a sort of disillusionment.
No, the first intifada was a success. It was the political leadership which failed to consolidate the gains of the intifada.
Do you think the “Palestinian Spring”, as you called it, will have a clear leadership or will it be largely leaderless like the other Arab uprisings?
Ideally, there should be a unified leadership. But life goes on even in a vacuum. If the politicians fail to forge a unified leadership, then the intifada will create its own grassroots leadership.
You were a co-founder of the Mubadra and you took part in the previous presidential elections, where you came second to Mahmoud Abbas. Do you intend to enter the forthcoming presidential race?
Firstly, there are no elections. And when elections are called, we need to know elections for what, for the presidency of a country or the presidency of a Bantustan. If it is to lead a Bantustan, then I have no interest or desire – I don't even accept the principle. If it is for the presidency of a country, then we can debate it closer to the time.
The danger is that the Palestinian Authority is without authority. It has no real existence. That is why we insist that, if elections are to take place, they must include the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem without exception. It should also include the Palestinian diaspora. The elections need to be both for the PLO and the PA simultaneously. We must never accept that the PA becomes the government of a Bantustan.
You personally scored well in the presidential elections in 2005, but the Mubadra only gained three seats, if I recall correctly. Is this a true reflection of the Mubadra's power?
No, at the time, the Mubadra was still a new movement, so when we entered the legislative elections, we had not yet built a strong and effective organisational presence. Today, the situation is different. This is reflected in the results of the university elections, where the Mubadra has collected between 13 and 20% of the votes. These are decent gains.
Life has proven that the Mubadra is a necessary movement. Many new movements have been established but the only movement that has endured and survived and proven its capabilities, and has become the third power in the Palestinian arena, is the Mubadra. This is proof that this movement possesses a manifesto that is vital and needed. It is also the most youthful movement, and has a great future ahead of it.
What distinguishes the Mubadra are four things. Firstly, the popular resistance it has called for since its inception, and now everyone has adopted this strategy. It also stands out for its stance on domestic democracy, and that is why we do not participate in any government except a national unity one. It is also distinguished by its constructive role in unifying Palestinian ranks. We were the mediators in the most important agreements, namely the national unity government and the most recent Cairo accord, with the help of our Egyptian brothers, of course. Fourthly, the Mubadra upholds the principle of social justice. In addition to its vision for the liberation of the Palestinian people, the Mubadra also possesses an equitable social vision which takes into account the interests of the poor and the needs of Palestinian society. In addition, we are against party fanaticism and factionalism. Despite the hostility we sometimes face, we insist on remaining a unifying influence.
So, in your view, the Mubadra truly represents a third way in Palestinian politics?
Yes, and its ability to play a unifying and mediating role is linked to the fact that it is fully independent of both Fatah and Hamas.
You are in favour of peaceful resistance but there are others who criticise non-violent resistance and say that it has no future.
I am in favour of resistance as a principle. And the Palestinian people have the right to resist in every form. But it must comply with international and humanitarian law. We are not against other forms of resistance but we say that, in light of the current situation, the best, most appropriate and most effective means is Palestinian popular resistance. The evidence of this is that all the Palestinian political forces have adopted this strategy without exception.
I read in the papers that elections in May or June are impractical, and it would even be tough to organise elections in 2012.
True. I now believe that elections will be impossible as long as Gaza and the West Bank are divided. How can you have credible elections in the presence of this division? How can there be credible elections in the absence of the freedom to engage in political activities?
But in the absence of elections, there is also a democratic deficit?
That is exactly what I have said. We have regressed a lot, whereas we were once at the forefront of the Arab world. In 2005 and 2006, the Palestinian people were in the lead. I was the only Arab who ran against the president of the established order and did not go to jail, unlike Ayman Nour in Egypt and others. Unfortunately, the refusal to recognise the Palestinian unity government and the results of the elections divided Palestinian ranks.
So, the international community played a major role in this?
Israel and the international community were the main culprits behind the loss of democracy. That is why we insist on national unity, not for the sake of unity in itself. We are in favour of political pluralism and the right of Palestinians to choose but we cannot regain democracy without a transitional phase of reconciliation and national unity.