International Affairs Forum speaks with Dr. Mohammed Abu-Nimer about current issues in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Dr. Abu-Nimer is associate professor at the American University's School of International Service in International Peace and Conflict Resolution in Washington, DC, and Director of Peacebuilding and Development Institute, American University.
International Affairs Forum: In the recent Mecca Agreement, Fatah and Hamas agreed to establish a unified government. What do you think it’s chances of success are?
Dr. Mohammed Abu-Nimer: I think we need for first look at a few things that took place before the Agreement. In January 2006, surprising to many, Hamas won the Palestinian election and took control. This sent several very clear messages externally and internally. First, internally, the existing Fatah leadership had been unsuccessful in their agreements with Israel and clearly no progress has been made. Second, that the democratization process within Palestinian society in terms of power sharing was not effective. The governance system of the Palestinian National Authority as it was constructed through the first and second governments of Mahmood Abbas was not acceptable and ineffective in addressing economic or political issues. Also it became apparent that Hamas was ready to take a wider and more accepted or legitimate role in Palestinian politics. Third, it was clear by the election time that something needed to be done about mismanagement and corruption financially and administratively within the Fatah government. Obviously those three factors are direct result of the collapse of the Oslo process which was completed when Sharon became prime minister of Israel in 2000.
By the time Hamas took power, it was clear that they [Fatah] had lost their public legitimacy as effective negotiators with Israel. The American-Israeli-Fatah model of resolving the conflict was not going anywhere and there was public reaction that Fatah did not address the basic needs of the people, specifically: deterioration of security, an increased number of checkpoints that reduced mobility of the people, as well as economically – there were even reports of starvation coming out of Gaza. This, along with the illusion and disappointment that the Israeli unilateral withdrawal from Gaza can bring a meaningful change to the Palestinians society. The promised withdrawal from Gaza occurred in 2004 but in implementation, it made it a big prison, with guards on the outside instead of the inside. People could not leave Gaza and there is no sufficient employment opportunities in Gaza so there is no hope. Finally, there’s the issue of refugees/returnees from Lebanon and Jordan and Palestinian diaspora. The dispora did not see a serious and meaningful strategy in dealing with their status.
Considering all of the above, a form of resistance through voting took place and Hamas was elected. Unfortunately, what happened is typical of many countries in a post-Colonial context, Fatah political and armed forces would not relinquish or share power easily and they continued to fight and obstruct the possibility that Hamas can bring something to the table, something that Fatah government could not did not do. If not externally with Israel and the U.S., at least they could have built something meaningful internally.
The U.S, Israeli, and European boycott of Hamas as a strategy has also backfired. The popularity of Hamas rose after the people on the ground became affected by less mobility and less funding or aid. Moreover, there was the beginning of a Palestinian internal crisis being manifested where government employees and educators – that to some extent fueled by the struggle between Fatah and Hamas ideology and position - declared a strike that paralyzed the system of the PNA. The crisis was serious to the point that it was discussed whether the PNA should be dissolved, because it ceased to be an entity that functions or fulfills a beneficial role for Palestinians. At that point, armed confrontation was unavoidable – the internal conflict has moved form an act of resistance through voting, to an internal and external boycott, and finally the situation evolved into a military confrontation in the streets. That’s when the crisis, went out of control and over one hundred people were killed by Palestinian military groups. This development sent a message to Palestinians that the road they began taking through military confrontation was the beginning of a civil war. The Mecca Agreement mediated by the Saudi government envoy, came about in that context.
The agreement is a positive development regardless of whether it’s going to lead to improvement or restoration of the peace process wit Israel. The primary concern is whether the Mecca Agreement can put a stop to internal Palestinian fighting. And to a large extent, it has – at least for now. Since the Agreement, there haven’t seen militia in the streets and fighting has stopped.
The Mecca Agreement is also a positive step in that it illustrates to Palestinians and the rest of the world that Hamas needs to be recognized – not necessarily to agree with its ideology, but at least politically they can play a significant role. Both Fatah and Hamas have realized that they cannot run a government without making significant concessions to each others as well as to the United States and Israel. One of the most helpful components for this agreement was the fact that the PLO will serve as a mechanism to negotiate with Israel – the PLO signed the Oslo Agreement with Israel – while Hamas and Fatah run the day-to-day government. Maybe that provided an escape or arrangement in which Hamas do not publicly recognize Israel in a way that Fatah and the PLO have done. However it is clear that for a genuine peace process to succeed both Israel and Hamas will eventually have to begin their negotiation, too.
So Mecca Agreement is a positive step, it stopped the fighting and allows people to return to a “level of normalcy” of living under occupation. It may also provide an outlet for the PLO to take a more significant role politically and allow Fatah and Hamas to illustrate that a unified government, even temporarily, might work.
Externally, however, the possibility of moving forward beyond this point is in the hands of the United States, Israel, and Europe. Mahmood Abbas is currently in Europe trying to convince them that the unified government, to some extent, made sufficient changes to reopen economic aid from Europe and the United States; and for Israel to begin negotiations with the PLO. Unfortunately, the message has not been positive from Israel, the U.S., or Europe so far. There’s the possibility that there will be some movement from Europe but if the United States and Israel continue to insist that this government is not a partner for negotiations, the boycott will continue. That would put a damper on the unified government possibilities of success in Palestine. But I think it will allow the Palestinian people to at least survive politically until the next election. It’s hard to say whether the Agreement will be completely successful or a failure but I think it has an important function to fill.
IA-Forum: Do you think there could be, on some level, a schism between Europe and America over the unified government and how to treat it?
Dr. Abu Nimer: At least historically speaking, U.S. foreign policy and European foreign policy towards Palestine has some differences but those differences have been reduced since the Roadmap was launched. In the last three to four years European views have been increasingly synchronized with those of America’s over Palestine. The U.S. and Europe had the same policy in boycotting Hamas and had the same conditions for Hamas to comply with, and both avoided exercising any pressure on Israel ot make any significant concessions in the process or even to stop its collective punishment policy. There are some forces in Europe who might be convinced in the need for a unified Palestinian government and at least agree to let humanitarian aid in to Palestine. But my expectation, based on the last few years, is that the Americans and Europeans major foreign policy will continue to be in sync and refuse to deal with a government that has any element of Hamas in it, especially one that does not fulfill all the conditions the American government demanded.
This is an ironic political development because when Hamas came to power, it was under the PNA so that’s really a defacto recognition of the Oslo agreement and its entire range of agreements. They also declared a unilateral ceasefire for over a year. Hamas was, in effect, driving the car that was constructed and devised by Israel and America. So the notion of insisting the Hamas go publicly in accepting Israel and denouncing terrorism is perceived on the ground by many Palestinians and Arabs as an excuse not the engage in genuine negotiations with Palestinians. There have been enough hints from Hamas and the unified government that they are willing to allow negotiations to continue, and are willing to move forward with Oslo. Also Hamas publicly declared this twice in the last two years and have stopped military action against Israeli civilians. Obviously there are some armed groups on the ground that are hard to control, but Hamas, as a political entity, has issued several statements that they will respect a unilateral ceasefire and are willing to allow negotiations to continue and support a resolution that provides a Palestinian state according to 1967 borders. If we were pragmatic in dealing with this, that would be enough of a base to move on with negotiations if indeed, the American and Israeli are seriously interested in working to resolve this crisis.
For many Palestinians and analysts from the Arab world, it is even more ironic because before Hamas took control, Mahmood Abbas was in power for a year and a half during which time he recognized Israel and complied with all terms Israel and American foreign policy wanted (from Hamas or from Fatah) yet neither USA or Israeli leaders even met with Abbas. Such approach to Abbas sent a clear message that all these imposed conditions on Hamas or other Palestinians leaders are not necessarily set to resolve the conflict, on the contrary they are aimed at delaying permenant peaceful settlement and provide time for creating facts on the ground which Palestinians will eventually have to accept or negotiate (expansion of settlement, settlement of refugees, annexation of Jerusalem, etc.). Considering this policy, if you’re a Palestinian who follows either Fatah or Hamas, why would you believe that if Hamas writes it in Arabic, English, or Hebrew that ‘we recognize Israel’ such statement will actually solve the issue or make a difference?
IA-Forum: Getting back to the international reaction when Hamas won the elections, the boycott, and its repercussions…
Dr. Abu-Nimer: I think it was a major political mistake in the sense there was a new development, and in a way, an opportunity for the international community, including Israel and the U.S,. to engage a militant Islamic movement in the way it deals with the conflict. After twelve years of Oslo, Hamas came to a point where they wanted to get involved in this process. They asked for a seat and even took a leading role. Instead the international committee said they wouldn’t work with them because Hamas wouldn’t accept certain conditions, and therefore Palestinians (as society and people) would be collectively punished until Hamas comply with these conditions. But as mentioned earlier, Fatah, Abbas, and Arafat complied with those conditions and nothing happened. So Palestinians question whether there’s truly any hope regardless of complying or not. Economic Boycotting and embargo on Hamas government in such context means that Palestinians in refugee camps and elsewhere have not receive much needed relief and aid. Embargo in this context means that Palestinians are being punished for exercising their rights to elect their own political representatives.
The decision to boycott Hamas was cited by many Palestinians and Arabs as a reflection of the hypocrisy of the European and American policy in the region. Many argued that when Israeli elected Sahron in 2000 or Natanyahoo in 1996, who both (defacto) rejected Oslo and worked to destroy its implementation. They both did not recognize the historic rights of Palestinians to the land, both endorsed military actions against civilians, nevertheless, European or americna governments did not boycutt or denounce the Israeli public right to elect their right wing representatives. Furthermore, when Israeli cabinet included minsters who called for population transfer or adopted militant measures against Palestinians, the European or Americna govenremnt did not boycut or cease to deal with the Israeli government. Thus why is it when Palestinians elected Hamas, there are new conditions and harsh measurement to reverse the election results.
Instead of boycotting, what’s needed is for the international community to continue with aid and work with the unified government while peace talks are engaged through the PLO. I think the process backfired primarily because of the War on Terrorism mentality in Washington where many voices called to lump Hamas with Al Quaeda. But what you have with Hamas is an Islamic political group operating out of nationalistic motivations, it’s not a global terrorist group targeting American interest in the region, so the treatment of such a group should be different from Al Qaeda.
There is a need to have a more constructive strategy in dealing with groups like Hamas. We need to engage them rather than increased their political alienation. That’s what I think should happen in the next few years. If Mahmood Abbas wins the next elections with a majority of fifty-five to sixty percent of the vote, nevertheless, there’s still the forty to forty-five percent of Palestinian opposition. So in any situation, leaving Hamas out of the process as an opposition or as member of a unified government, would be a mistake. The election of Hamas should have been seen as an opportunity rather than as a disaster or militant radicalization.
Finally, let me be clear that the strategy of sending missiles into Israel, planting bombs in Israel, or any attacks on civilians by Hamas or other groups should be denounced and condemned by all sides. However, US foreign policy makers should be able to make a distinction between the Hamas that refused to negotiate and be involved in any process and the new version that is willing to negotiate and even lead a political government.
IA-Forum: In his recent book, President Carter was critical of the current Bush administration in its lack of involvement in working towards a workable peace agreement in Palestine. Recently however, steps were made when Condoleezza Rice visited Jerusalem to meet with leaders from Israel and Palestine. How would you grade the current administration?
Dr. Abu-Nimer: It’s a positive development that Condoleezza Rice visited the region. She is a hands-on person and is working through shuttle diplomacy between the two sides and that’s positive. What’s unfortunate however is that between 2000 and 2007, the Israeli Palestinian conflict was unattended and unaddressed by this administration. The earlier “hands-off policy” gave Israel permission to use its military power, and to try to crush any form of Palestinian resistance. That policy is disastrous for U.S. foreign policy. The consensus of analysts is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be unattended.
This year, to some degree, it seems that the administration has finally realized, probably due to the situation in the war in Iraq and in Afghanistan, its policy is going to be limited, underappreciated, and perceived as hypocratic if nothing is moving on the Palestinian Israeli track. The Palestinian issue has certainly been the core conflict that many of the political secular and Islamic groups are concerned with.
Hopefully, this administration is sincere in its efforts for its remaining term of office to turnaround its policy towards Israel-Palestine issue. There have been many promises in the past – President Bush said that within three to five years, there would be a Palestinian state – something that has seen as lip service. The frustration is that there has been no real progress and no pressure on Israel to put forward any meaningful steps in that direction. Unfortunately, for six years, little was done by this administration. In fact, on the contrary, the U.S. supported Israel’s policy of expansion and provided unchecked aid to Israel. The U.S. denounced Arafat and participated in his siege, when he died, President Bush described as the problem of the region was gone. As a successor, Mahmood Abbas, was someone who was willing to negotiate with Israel, even with Sharon and Olmert. But, as I mentioned, no progress was made with Abbas in power. It wasn’t until Hamas came into office that the U.S. administration realized that some mistakes in Middle East policy had been made. Hopefully, Condoleezza Rice will manage to push this administration to make some significant steps such as dismantling of the some of the sites in the West Bank, opening the gates of Gaza for increased mobility, opening the airport and port in Gaza, providing people a secure sense of relief and mobility. There are a number of ground level conditions that the U.S. could do something with.
IA-Forum: Saudi Arabia was instrumental in brokering the Mecca Agreement. What do you see as the role of the Arab League, Arab states to help further the peace process?
Dr. Abu-Nimer: Saudi Arabia’s participation was very helpful in forming the Mecca Agreement and they brought promises for aid. But I think the Saudi role was even more significant earlier, with the Lebanon Declaration when the Saudi’s said publicly they were in favor of a two-state solution. That was a very significant development but the opportunities presented by it were missed because the U.S. and Israel did not capitalize on it. Still it was a positive development and two main Arab countries, have progressed to the effect that Syria is interested in negotiations and the Saudis have led that initiative.
In theory, when a third party becomes involved in a conflict resolution process, the third party should have some leverage. The Saudis and Arab countries have leverage but it’s limited because of the influence of the U.S. In addition, they are not activating their power base to convince the U.S. and Israel to continue negotiations. So the Arab countries provide moral support and can broker negotiations but they are very limited in what they can achieve unless the U.S. adopts the same direction.
The U.S. has the ultimate leverage on Israel but it remains to be seen whether they are truly interested in taking the steps to help solve this conflict by using that leverage. When that change takes place in the Administration, I think they’ll be progress. There has been a shift in U.S. policy over that last decade or so that started with the George Bush Sr. Administration and then the Clinton Administration that had a different vision and commitment to solve this issue. There was an historical movement towards a peace process, six-seven years of some level of negotiation. Even, between 1993 and 1995 there was some serious progress between Israelis and Palestinians. Unfortunately, since the present Bush Administration, and Sharon and Olmert took control, there has been nothing but regression. Now, in 2007, we’re in a place where the state of the conflict has shifted to pre Oslo, 1992 reality and dynamics. In fact, there’s a higher level of animosity, higher level of distrust, and the two communities are very polarized. I think that’s a result of U.S. foreign policy that hasn’t acted in a positive way.
Another point on the Arab regimes involvement, some have argued over the last fifty years that some Arab regimes were interested in maybe keeping the Israeli-Arab conflict active but not destructive, a point to where the regimes divert their internal crises to this. The Palestinian conflict has provided such a function for many regimes – Egypt, Jordan, Saudi, Lebanon, and Iraq. Having this conflict continue at a low-level intensity has assisted regimes to de-legitimize any internal oppositions and demands for democratization.
In summary, the Arab states can play a more constructive role if they activate their bases of influence. For example, Egypt and Jordan have signed political agreements with Israel but they, along with Saudi Arabia, have not acted in an assertive way between 2000 to present to display to the Americans and Israelis that they’re sincere about using their leverage. For example, embassies continue to operate, diplomatic relations continue, and economic ties continue to be constructed.
IA-Forum: Any final thoughts?
Dr. Abu-Nimer: In terms of civil society and peace groups, I think the role of those groups has not been addressed and recognized. Within Israel and Palestine, there are groups and individuals who are working for peace, for a local capacity, and battling the polarization of their societies. They should be recognized and supported internationally. These small peace groups have been working for the last ten to fifteen years to convince Palestinian and Israeli people that violence, led by their political leaders, is not going to get them anywhere and that the negotiation table is the best place to handle this type of conflict. U.S. foreign policy would benefit from supporting them and giving them a wider voice
A withdrawal of Israel from the West Bank and creating a viable Palestinian state is best guarantee for Israel’s security and integration in the Middle East. These peace groups, on both sides, are working towards that.
IA-Forum: Thank you, Dr. Abu-Nimer.
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