Robert Danin
Middle East Progress (Interview)
September 14, 2010 - 12:00am

September 14, 2010

Last time we spoke, you were head of the Office of the Quartet Representative, and you just recently returned from that posting. What are the main things that you learned from that experience?

I’ve developed a greater appreciation for a number of things. One, I developed a very clear sense that the majority of both Israelis and Palestinians generally want peace and coexistence. Yet at the same time, there is a very deep mutual sense of distrust generated and greatly exacerbated by the second intifada. I had not appreciated just how much damage the second intifada caused, not only in terms of bloodshed, violence and loss of life, but it also really killed hope about the possibilities for peaceful reconciliation on both sides. So I’m left with a real sense that a majority of the people wants peace and yet they are almost without hope. There is a strong sense of mutual betrayal.

Nonetheless, what also struck me, and this leads me to the second point, is that when outsiders, such as myself, would lay out a vision or possibilities for peace, Israelis and Palestinians were very receptive to that message. Rather than tell me that I was naive and mistaken, as had been my experience decades ago, instead they wanted to be convinced that they were wrong. That is why I think it’s so important that their leaders provide alternative positive visions of what the future could hold, and not just manage the status quo. It also means that the ground is very fertile for outside players and international leaders to appeal directly to Israelis and Palestinians, to the people, almost over the heads of their leaders and their very cynical media, and explain why we, who believe that peace is possible, see possibilities.

Third, I took away a very strong sense that given the sort of realities that I laid out—that people want peace and don’t see where the possibilities are—they need to be shown that things can improve and that things are improving. It reinforces the importance of not just focusing on what happens in the negotiating room, but also what happens outside of the negotiating room. What happens outside the negotiating room—on the ground—creates new possibilities, if done right, for what can happen inside the negotiating room. So we have to think much more broadly about our peacemaking efforts, and not just focus on the core diplomatic issues that confront the parties at the table, but also really start to focus on conditioning the public and the environment for what is possible and what may be necessary, in terms of compromises, to achieve peace.

I want to pick up on the last point that you talked about in terms of seeing things beyond the negotiating table. Could you tell us a little bit about the Palestinian Authority’s state-building efforts and your assessment on how that’s going?

I think that they have made significant progress on the path to building institutions for a Palestinian state. If you look at the 2008 Palestinian Reform and Development Plan, it essentially calls on Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the international community to work together to create an environment for reform and development and presents modest goals for what is possible. It laid out critical metrics across the board. And, by all accounts, in 2008 important progress occurred in a number of areas, including but not limited to the economy, where widespread growth and private sector development occurred, and in the development and professionalization of the security forces, and their ability to bring stability and law and order to some rather difficult areas within a circumscribed and orderly chain of command.

Such progress allowed Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to become even more ambitious. In August 2009, his government issued a document entitled “Ending the Occupation, Establishing the State.” What was really interesting about this was that it established the goal of completing the process of building institutions for statehood in order to establish de facto state apparatuses within two years. Gone is the discussion of a significant Israeli partnership in improving conditions. Instead it is focused on what the Palestinians themselves can do to build their institutions and develop their economy, as he refers to it ‘under the occupation and despite the occupation.’ Here, he lays out a very bold and ambitious vision of Palestinian statehood done through Palestinian empowerment. But it moves from working on development to really preparing for independence. It identifies a notable end game. It says that it is founded on the belief that ‘hard work coupled with faith in our ability to create new realities on the ground will clear our path to freedom.’ In short, while I was out there, I witnessed a real shift from an effort to seek improved conditions on the ground from others, to an approach in which the Palestinians said, ‘no, we are going to work on self reliance and really develop our institutions under occupation and despite the occupation.’

And in the first subsequent year of that accelerated effort, there were some real, significant achievements in a number of areas—be it in the building of schools, clinics, housing projects or in terms of actual economic growth. We’re now in a situation where the IMF and Palestinian institutions estimate that Palestinian economic growth has been anywhere from seven to eight percent this year. Unofficial statistics cited by top Palestinians actually suggest double digit growth. Some of this clearly comes from outside remittances and outside injections of capital, but outside revenues have actually declined, and what you’ve seen is a more effective, more efficient allocation of resources. The Palestinians deserve real credit for this. And Israel also deserves credit for having taken important steps to help support and create an environment that helps the Palestinian economy and institutions to succeed better and flourish.

We’re seeing some very important developments. Unemployment has come down. In the third quarter of 2008, unemployment was at 21 percent; in May of this year unemployment was down to 14.7 percent. That’s a reduction of nearly a third, which is significant. It’s a concrete manifestation of improved conditions.

And anecdotally, it’s clear. You talk to Palestinians—not just the intellectuals, but the people whose primary concern is winning their daily bread—and they’ll tell you that life is significantly different now, and qualitatively better, than it was. Are their aspirations realized? No. Do they still feel the weight of the occupation? Yes. But do they feel things have changed significantly? Yes, definitely, they definitely recognize something significant is happening. I think there is a silent majority that supports the efforts that the Palestinian Authority has undertaken.

What do you think are the biggest challenges that the PA faces in these efforts?

One of the biggest challenges that it faces is a large and recurring budgetary shortfall. This forces the government to have to focus on the immediate at the expense of the important medium-term fundamentals. Prime Minister Fayyad and his government are busy trying to figure out how they are going to pay this month’s salaries and that gets in the way of longer-term strategic planning and implementation. One major reason for this problem is the failure of certain major donors to fulfill their pledges of assistance to the Palestinian Authority, and this is very disturbing.

A second major challenge is the fact that Gaza is cut off from the Palestinian Authority, that Hamas runs Gaza independent of the Palestinian Authority, and that there is no clear pathway towards reconciliation that would allow for reuniting the Palestinians of Gaza with those in the West Bank.

Third, though by no means least, is the weight of continued occupation. Things have improved, and in certain areas significantly. But the occupation still continues and this does limit what the Palestinians can do. There are clearly other challenges as well but I would list those among the most significant.

What is your response to recent criticisms that the PA is becoming more authoritarian and relying less on the democratic structures of governance?

I think those allegations are overstated. Clearly Palestinian democracy suffers from the absence of an active legislature, from the division between the West Bank and Gaza, and with Hamas’ rejection of the Palestinian Authority. These are extremely suboptimal conditions. So first of all, I don’t think anyone should deny that there are severe limitations to what is taking place, and that it is hard for democratic institutions to thrive under occupation and under the divisions that exist.

But I think there is a certain air of unreality to some of the criticisms that are made that take the current situation out of its real context. Not that long ago, there was a situation of semi-chaos in the West Bank, where armed independent militias ruled various cities and towns semi-independently. The Palestinian Authority was not able to provide services or even security to their own people. That is no longer the case. Nonetheless, you still have a PA that is cash-strapped, under occupation, and under criticism from different quarters within the Palestinian mainstream. You have intense rivalries and infighting taking place in the wake of the Fatah Sixth Party Congress. There have been human rights abuses by the Palestinian security institutions. The question is, how is the system dealing with these developments to address these abuses? I believe the PA has been responsive to the criticisms coming from the human rights community and is trying to institute real reform in its efforts to introduce a systematic and uniform rule of law for Palestinian people and institutions. For example, following a troubling incident of alleged prisoner abuse in Hebron in June 2009, the PA interior minister issued a directive forbidding physical or psychological punishment of prisoners, and some officers were disciplined. So, while there are reasons for concern, I also think that some of the criticisms are not necessarily germane to the current environment.

What role did you, when you were at the Quartet representative’s office, and that office currently as well as the Mitchell team, play in helping to build up the institutions of the future Palestinian state?

It was always my philosophy in heading the Quartet mission that we, the international community, need to support Palestinian efforts and not take them over. There are international institutions that over the years have sometimes been insensitive to actual Palestinian needs. There is even a condescending attitude that I’ve witnessed on occasion. For example, in the immediate aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, you had a serious humanitarian challenge. Some members of the international community just wanted to come in and take over, rather than let the Palestinians lead and let the international community support them. It bred Palestinian resentment. I think that it is really important that we let the Palestinians determine what they need and how to lead, and that we support them and provide our know-how and honest advice. At the end of the day, they have to take ownership of it. I think it’s been a mistake in the past for the international community to neglect the Palestinian dimension, as odd as that may sound.

So with that principle established, we in the Office of the Quartet Representative tried to take the lead from the Palestinian Authority in setting out the broad objectives. We then tried to play a facilitating, enabling and empowering role in realizing those objectives—be it in advising the Palestinians or be it in working with the Israeli government to try to find ways to improve the situation on the ground and help the Israelis take steps that would be in both sides’ interest. So if it was a military checkpoint to be removed, a well that required Israeli approval to be dug, or equipment that was sorely needed for a wastewater treatment facility in Gaza, I first liked to consult with the PA and ensure that it fit into their strategic objectives for building effective economic institutions.

Tony Blair, the Quartet representative, was one of the loudest voices calling for a reassessment of policy towards Gaza prior to the flotilla incident. How do you think Gaza fits into the picture both in terms of state-building and in terms of the political process? And what do you think about the change in Israel’s policy towards Gaza following the flotilla incident?

Gaza is central to the state-building effort. The fact that Palestinian Authority and international community access to Gaza is extremely limited is a serious problem that has to be recognized and addressed. Tony Blair saw from the onset that maintaining a closure on Gaza would not weaken Hamas. Additionally, there has been a tendency on the Israeli side to equate Gaza with Hamas, and the people of Gaza with Hamas. A wiser strategy would actually be to drive a wedge between Hamas and those people in Gaza who oppose Hamas, which polling data seems to suggest is the majority of the population of Gaza. Hamas’ support in Gaza is lower than it is in the West Bank, hovering somewhere around or below twenty percent. Hamas is clearly not popular in Gaza. Yet by cutting off Gaza, we effectively force Gazans into the hands of Hamas and send a message from the international community, and inadvertently from the Palestinian Authority, that we don’t care. The conclusion that too many Gazans then reach is, ‘yes, we don’t like Hamas, but the international community is not helping us, and the PA is not helping us.’ So, it’s sort of a pox on all their houses.

A better strategy is to provide hope and an alternative to Hamas in Gaza, even though we have to recognize that Hamas has a lock, at least for now, on the institutions and on the people of Gaza. Israel chose not to remove the Hamas government from power militarily when it went in during Cast Lead. And I don’t think we are going to see an attempt to do so any time soon, nor am I advocating that. But if there’s not going to be a military option, then there has to be a political option that tries to weaken Hamas’ hold on Gaza.

The recently adopted policy shift towards Gaza by Israel—which moves from a very difficult and unwieldy process of itemizing and approving every item that goes into Gaza towards that of a a proscribed list of weapons, and letting everything else in—is an important step towards improving the situation in Gaza. Because what you had, as well, is literally an underground economy. Hamas and the people of Gaza were very entrepreneurial in dealing with the closure of Gaza—they simply built more tunnels. And, in fact, the closure created the economic conditions that made the tunnels incredibly profitable. We’ve already seen now that by adopting a new policy allowing a much greater flow of goods into Gaza from Israel, this has actually undermined the economic viability of many of the tunnels, and the tunnel economy has shrunk as a result. It is pure market economics. That’s a much more clever strategy towards dealing with Gaza. We need to be more clever in how we deal with Gaza.

The reality is that there are political constraints on the Israeli government when it comes to dealing with Gaza, given the strong identification that the people of Israel feel with the continued, prolonged and unacceptable incarceration of Gilad Shalit by Hamas. But it’s this conflation of Hamas with Gaza that gives Israeli political leaders little room for taking steps without opening themselves up to the charge that they’re helping Hamas. That really limits the political space that the Israelis have for operating. The incident with the Turkish flotilla created a crisis environment that unexpectedly created an opportunity for the Israelis to reassess their policy, and they wisely took it. That said, I think more can and should be done to help normalize the economy, which would ultimately redound to Hamas’ detriment.

What is the connection between the talks that were launched at the beginning of September and the state-building efforts?

There is a direct connection between the two. Ideally, the state-building efforts will continue to progress. This, in turn, will give Palestinians confidence that the situation is improving, that they are on the road to statehood, and that therefore the talks that are taking place with Israel are serious and can realize Palestinian national aspirations. And in doing so, this empowers the Palestinian leadership to take difficult decisions.

In addition, since part of the state-building effort includes improving the rule of law and creating real and effective Palestinian security organs, which are indeed countering terrorism, it demonstrates that the Palestinian Authority is a genuine partner. This, in turn, empowers Israeli leaders to say, ‘something significant has changed and now we do have something to work with and so therefore we should take this process seriously’ and that ‘this is something qualitatively different than what we have negotiated with in the past.’

Where do you see the talks going?

I am hopeful about the possibilities. Clearly, there is a major immediate challenge right now that the parties face, which is the expiration of the settlement moratorium later this month. This is a significant hurdle that could strengthen the process if a formula is found for moving forward, either through the extension of the moratorium or some other compensatory approach. But it could also be a brick wall that stymies progress and could result in a stillborn process. Getting through this will be critical. How they get through it will be critical in determining the path forward. And as we move forward, we should ensure that there is a safety net in place should these efforts fail and that the situation does not deteriorate into further violence and despair.

But stepping back, I am hopeful because there are significant conditions that have changed when compared to past peacemaking efforts. As I mentioned, you now have a genuine Palestinian partner. There is real security cooperation taking place. You have an Israeli government that is genuine in its desire to make peace and is actually in a strong position domestically to do so. It has taken steps on the ground to help improve the Palestinian economy. You have an American president who has been committed from day one of his administration to devoting significant political capital to making peace between Israelis and Palestinians and is willing to take political risks to do so. And he is doing so early enough in his presidency to give himself time to make progress in contrast to his two predecessors, President Clinton and President Bush, both of whom made the significant push for peace at the end of their administration, when their political capital and tenure was running out. I agree with those who argue that conditions are not ideal for a settlement. But I am not sure that time is going to improve things. I believe significant progress can be made under the conditions that exist.


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