Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor CFR.org
Though Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas plans to seek Palestinian statehood status at the UN General Assembly meeting next week, efforts are underway by the United States, Israel, and the Palestinians to avoid a major collision on the issue, says Ziad J. Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine. Asali says that while the United States and others would like to see a resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations instead of Palestinians moving to the UN, "The problem is to find something that would give the Palestinians a way out with dignity and some gains." He also notes that there are political obstacles to a deal on all sides, including the Hamas-Fatah split, an election year in the United States, and a challenge to Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu from the right.
CFR: The U.S. is trying to restart negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. U.S. negotiators are meeting with both sides. What are the issues?
Asali: The Americans, the Israelis, and the Palestinians have committed publicly to a two-state solution. Even Netanyahu did in his Bar Ilan speech when he first took over. So we have an agreed goal. What's standing between the two sides and the implementation of this goal has been politics. American politics is not quite ready to lead to a major strategic breakthrough on negotiations or anything else, because President Obama is preoccupied with issues like the international economy and his reelection campaign. Obama has been burnt by Netanyahu, first on the Israeli reluctance to have a settlement freeze demanded by the Palestinians and then by Abbas's insistence in going to the Security Council for a resolution condemning Israeli settlements, which [forced] the U.S. to issue a solitary veto. Palestinian politics, on the other hand, is also complicated by the split between Hamas, which controls the Gaza [and] is opposed to the Abbas efforts at the United Nations, and then the politics of the West Bank, which is controlled by Fatah.
CFR: Abbas vows to seek "statehood" through a Security Council resolution--which the United States says it would veto--or a lesser recognition by a General Assembly resolution to set up a Palestinian state analogous to the Vatican. Are there Palestinians in the West Bank who are not enthusiastic about this?
Asali: You could say so. The Palestinian public has seen so many promises broken, so many failures. But over the past three years there have been interesting positive developments in the West Bank. There has been a major improvement in the building of state institutions, improvements in security, improvements in the economy, improvements in performance of government. Israeli checkpoints have been taken down more than at any time in the past, the harassment of the Israelis to the Palestinians has been diminished--not to an acceptable level, but at least it has been diminished. There's something going on that is closer to normalcy than it was three, four years ago.
Asali: The failure of the political process has given rise to the sentiment of going to the United Nations and forcing the issue of a Palestinian state. But it's fair to say that there is a debate amongst the Palestinians about this.
CFR: About how to proceed?
Asali: Yes, how you go about this and which avenue to go, to the UN General Assembly or to the Security Council. Do we confront the United States and Israel and risk the wrath of Europe, at least half of it, or do we try to find a common language to resolve this? There is debate on the Palestinian side. On the Israeli side there is the challenge to Netanyahu and his coalition from the right, from ordinary people. This is how far the public has shifted in Israel. Netanyahu is considered too accommodating, which does not bode well for any serious negotiations in the near future, except this new social movement carries some political and foreign policy implications. So the three major parties--Israel, the Palestinians, and the United States--are really not positioned to enter into serious negotiations.
CFR: I've read that the Palestinians are willing to return to negotiations and avoid a vote, if Israel agrees to the suspension of settlement-building or negotiations on the basis of the 1967 borders with mutual agreed swaps. The border proposal is an old one. Why can't they agree on it as the basis of negotiations?
Asali: On the political side, it still is hard to work out anything, and from where I stand, it's very frustrating that there has been no give on the part of the Israeli government, considering what the Palestinian team has offered in the last four, five years, genuinely committing themselves against terror, against any violence of any kind.
CFR: Netanyahu wants Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Why is that so hard for the Palestinians to accept, when the UN General Assembly Resolution 181 back in 1948 divided the Palestinian mandate into a "Jewish state," "an Arab state," and an international area around Jerusalem?
Asali: Acceptance of the term " Jewish state " compromises the Palestinians' right of return, and compromises the position of the Palestinian-Arab Israelis also, who have been there since the creation of the Israeli state. There are 1.2 million of them. So this is not an easy generalization to make. To most Palestinians, "Jewish" means a religion and not a nationality.
CFR: But Hamas is opposed to Abbas's UN initiative. It makes things complicated if the Palestinians can't agree.
Asali: It's endlessly complicated. Everything has consequences that take you to different levels that you'd never anticipate. It is fascinating that Hamas and Israel are in agreement in opposition to the UN move.
CFR: What's going to happen in coming weeks on this statehood quest?
Asali: Neither Israel, the Palestinians, nor the United States has any interest in a train wreck. That in itself is useful, because it means everyone will try hard to avoid it. The problem is to find something that would give the Palestinians a way out with dignity and some gains. It's a practical and serious matter to the Israelis, who don't want to be dragged to some International Court by Palestinians [even partial statehood would allow a Palestinian "state" to go to international organizations for their grievances].
And the United States wants to avoid the veto at the time of the Arab Spring, [and] wants to look like it is on the side of the good guys, and good government, and against authoritarianism. Of course this doesn't take into account the politics of an election year, which may dictate otherwise.
CFR: The Palestinians are well aware of these problems in Washington, right?
Asali: Of course. I don't know whether they have given it enough priority in their decision-making. Some of them may have concluded, "Well, the United States hasn't done anything for us, and what do we care?"
CFR: Why hasn't Tony Blair, the representative of the Middle East Quartet--the United States, the EU, the UN, and Russia--come up with a proposal?
Asali: He's trying hard. He's there now; he was there last week. He's one person who has not been given enough credit. It's very hard to accomplish much in one statement and perhaps even a resolution. The ingredients of this resolution that he may put together may be as simple as, "OK, the Palestinians have done a very good job in their institution-, state-building program, so we know they're good enough for a state." Second, he could say, "Yes, the UN agrees to a future state, its status to be determined exactly," and thirdly, "Negotiations start right away." These are not big, controversial things that could be politically damaging to the deal. Whether he will succeed or not is another question
CFR: U.S. negotiators are there too.
Asali: They were there last week and have just returned. On their visit last week, they left a clear message that Congress is angry and is going to act decisively and immediately [to cut U.S. aid] if the Palestinians push the issue too far. Some Palestinian political circles translated that message as a threat; I think it is a statement of fact. I have talked to members of Congress myself.
I've never seen the Congress in such a state about the Palestinian issue. Democrats, Republicans, it doesn't make a difference. Committee chairmen, freshmen Congressmen, all have the same strong feelings. It's something that may be a problem down the road, no matter what happens.
CFR: Are you optimistic or pessimistic for next week?
Asali: I have practiced medicine for over a quarter of a century, and one determinant element in my practice and all physicians' practice is the concept of medical malpractice, [which] makes you perform well because of consequences for the patient and for yourself. In politics, there is no such thing as political malpractice, so I cannot be as sanguine as if I had the confidence that everybody is responsible to the nth degree trying to do the right thing for the right reasons. If we grant that assumption, then they should come up with some kind of a formula, to help the Europeans and Blair, and the U.S. delegation, to come up with a formula to avoid a wreck.