Ziad Asali
Middle East Progress
Middle East Bulletin
February 2, 2010 - 1:00am

Ziad Asali, president & founder, American Task Force on Palestine. Interview with Middle East Bulletin.

Can you tell us a little bit about the newly released report, “Palestine: Moving Forward, Priority Interventions for 2010”? What are the core principles behind it? How to does it relate to the original August cabinet document?

Both documents reflect the Palestinians’ determination to empower themselves by taking their destiny in their own hands and shouldering their share of the responsibility by building state institutions under occupation with a view to end occupation. The original document was published in August 2009 and this report was prepared to operationalize and prioritize the program for 2010. The original document intended for the Palestinians to establish the infrastructure and institutions of a state and to empower themselves to take matters into their own hands, under occupation—knowing full well that they are under occupation—to build all the instruments of government and regulate the development process in a meaningful way, so that when the state comes they will be ready. It is also a tool to make independence and statehood a natural, irreversible outcome. The logic is simple: If you build it, the state will come.

The report goes into significant financial detail, with a breakdown of the different components. Do you know how it was put together and where those numbers come from?

Yes. I just got back from a trip and I met with the Ministers of Planning and Economics, and many others who have helped with this report. What the Palestinians have always been accused of is asking for assistance and presenting a wish list to the donors of everything conceivable, and there is of course some truth to that. What happened this time is that each and every ministry was asked to thoroughly evaluate its own needs and prioritize them and to have the Ministry of Planning put this whole document together—that’s precisely what happened. So now they have packaged small and large items that they can present to the international community that fit in with the comprehensive development and infrastructure program.

What countries and organizations are partnering with the Palestinian Authority, both on this plan and more broadly on these programs?

First off, in the context of a stumbling and complicated political picture, this plan seems to have been adopted, either by design or by default, by practically anyone who understands that vacuum is very much abhorred in the Middle East. In that sense, there is almost an international consensus that this is something that we want to support and something we want to support now. It has not been declared policy—although the Quartet did actually endorse it back in December, so it is policy of the Quartet. The Europeans just endorsed it. I think they just reaffirmed their commitment a couple of days ago. And, of course, the Arab governments and other donors have made contributions so everyone has pretty much done what they are supposed to do.

The United States clearly has supported the Palestinians to the tune of $900 million last year, knowing full well that this is where the money was going. Special Envoy Mitchell has taken the lead in helping intensify, coordinate and focus U.S. assistance. We are moving forward with US leadership on the global effort to support the Palestinians. The U.S. Congress has been particularly helpful in unanimously approving assistance to the Palestinians and sending a signal of U.S. support to these efforts.

This, however, has to be a Palestinian program. It has to be conceived by the Palestinians, and coordinated, as you might say by a Palestinian central nervous system, that coordinates global donor assistance programs, to have a purposeful and meaningful way to channel aid into something that has political and economic coherence.

But the different governments aren’t just giving aid, they’re also working with the Authority on the ground, right?

Yes. If it hasn’t done anything else, this program has rationalized the relations between so many varied sources of assistance, small projects as well as wide and big projects, so that everything has to be part of a conceived plan. If somebody wants to build a solar company in Jericho that is part of the program, it is there. You want to take it? Fine. But you can’t come now, as happened in the past, and say ‘Well I have this idea about doing a solar plant, would you like to have it done?’ So this is, I think, pretty much how things are handled now.

In addition, as the Palestinians continue to solidify their coordination effort, the U.S. has an important role to help coordinate and rationalize international assistance, working hand in hand with the Quartet Envoy and other international actors.

Among the programs that are in there, which would you say have moved the furthest along or are most successful thus far?

Well, there are several things. There is the government infrastructure—the most advanced aspect of that thus far, I would say is the security system. Security is quintessential for anything. I think that progress has been going on for some time and now it is acknowledged by all parties, Palestinians, Israelis and the international community. They have come a long way on this. The other is, of course, other government departments, specific ministries—health, education, etc. I cannot claim that the other part of the security and state building project that is essential—the legal system—is very much in place. There are designated international agencies that are working on this and that is really still something that is to be developed and I hope it will be done.

Other than that, there are big projects that have been implemented in cooperation with the donor community and without the objection of the Israelis. Al-Wataniya, the mobile phone company, is a huge project. Now there is Rawabi, the first Palestinian planned city, which I have visited—the tractors are on the ground starting to build. And there is another 2,000 housing unit project, Al-Rihan, in the suburbs of Ramallah that has also started. So we have big projects, and many, many, smaller projects. The Prime Minister has already, during the course of the past year, year and a half, opened one thousand small projects zig-zagging from one end of the West Bank to the other—from adding one room to a school, to building a whole new school, and health facilities, and many, many social programs, water, etc. One of the days when I was there he actually visited 17 different sites to inaugurate projects. So, we have things that are in fact happening, and that is understood and felt by the people. What is significant about this is that it is part of a coherent, comprehensive vision.

How does this relate to the political process between the Israelis and Palestinians?

Lest everybody just think that things are really great, I want to state that all efforts at economic, social, cultural development, law and order, security—all of it is tied in with a march towards a Palestinian state that has to be borne out of negotiations and international consensus, by a meaningful movement towards political progress. If that fails, then all that has been done or will be done is likely to collapse—it happened before.

So how does this fit in with the work that Special Envoy Mitchell is doing?

I think he and his team understand the formula very well—that this is not a negotiation that is isolated from what’s happening in real life. You need to have the people with you. You need to have the sense of empowerment, with political goals to be realized as part of what the people feel in their daily lives. And this is best done by this marriage between what happens on the ground—palpable improvements across the board in mobility, security, economy, institution building, more responsible government, all that—and the negotiations. So it is quite inaccurate to think of the Special Envoy’s mission as one that is focused only on negotiations. This is one major way that differentiates the Irish experience from the Palestinian-Israeli experience. Here there are realities that are being changed on the ground to facilitate the political process. I think the Special Envoy understands this very well.

How do you see it going forward?

There has to be a process of negotiations—it’s just that simple. Basically the people whose job it is to negotiate should negotiate. In our opinion, the challenge of getting the parties to come back eventually will be met, but it is a huge challenge. The leadership that is needed to have the Palestinians engage in negotiations, and the leadership in Israel that understands that this process is in the interest of Israel and not just a concession to the Palestinians, have to be guided into doing what they must do, which is going back to the negotiating table. This is the challenge of the Special Envoy and I’m confident that he’ll meet it.

The plan seems to be speaking about Gaza as well as the West Bank. Would you say that that is a fair assessment, and if so, how can this be implemented in Gaza?

Yes, it’s a fair assessment. I think the negotiations can only be conducted right now by the PLO and the PA and not by Hamas which rules in Gaza. However, economic development and essentially, at least, the humanitarian relief that is necessary in Gaza has to give the people of Gaza hope and a sense that they are part of a bigger solution. Right now 58 percent of the PA budget goes to paying salaries in Gaza. The people of Gaza experience the benefit of having their employees paid by a government in Ramallah that Hamas criticizes all the time. This also applies to electricity and other services. There is a whole lot of expenditure that is given by the PA to keep the Gaza system afloat. There is no independent future for Gaza. There is no such thing as a Republic of Gaza or Monarchy of Gaza or Emirate of Gaza in the future; it has to be part of Palestine. The siege and much of what is happening now has been in some ways counterproductive because the victimization and suffering of the people of Gaza have been the exclusive property of Hamas for which it has drawn political advantage. That by itself should make folks in charge of policy reassess although strictly moral considerations should be enough. In my own observation on this visit, I know how hard the U.S. government is trying to press for assisting the people of Gaza—this is another challenge for the Special Envoy.

In terms of the negotiations and getting them started again, what do you think Special Envoy Mitchell can do to get the Palestinians back to the table?

I think in general, the Palestinian and Israeli political leadership have to be convinced, regardless of the package that needs to be put together, of this: don’t do anybody any favors, do your own country a favor, it is in your interest to negotiate. I think it is clear other players in the region need to be helpful, the Arabs and the Europeans—not just in terms of financial assistance, but political contributions. I think the Israeli government can and should do more to make it possible for the Palestinians—who were badly shaken by the experience of Goldstone—to have more confidence that this is real, that the concessions spoken among diplomats are to be delivered. This is perhaps something that Special Envoy Mitchell is working on, to see that the package is guaranteed in some fashion by all parties concerned so nobody will be left out to dry up on a tree.

Thoughtful Palestinians and Israelis must be concerned about the significant political signal that President Obama made in his State of the Union speech by his total omission of any reference to Israel/Palestine. A plummeting fall of this issue on the President’s agenda, contrasted by his early and public engagement, cannot bode well for the parties.

What is your sense of Palestinian politics at this moment?

The Palestinians, I sometimes half jokingly say, are divided into two groups: the negotiators and the resisters. At this very point in time we have the negotiators not negotiating and the resisters not resisting. There is a lack of coherence and direction within the Palestinian polity, which reflects on international efforts to engage the Palestinians. Lack of negotiations only benefits those who are committed to violence and conflict.

There is however a sense among thoughtful people, and people who have their finger on the pulse of Palestinian society, that some form of a negotiating process is inevitable. But even if it starts, it’s not expected to yield anything very soon. That takes us back to this state-building program. It is very important to show progress, to actually have progress, and to have this in a political frame viewed as a state-building mode. This way, while the political process is being worked on in many angles by different people under the care of the Special Envoy, we must proceed with this program as the operational policy for the immediate foreseeable future. This is a political program not just a development program, and I think that it will have major dividends within the Palestinian polity; it will yield dividends on the grounds as it facilitates more benign relations between the Palestinians and Israelis during the vacuum that’s been created by lack of progress this year. In that sense it will be doubly useful.

Do you see either elections or reconciliation in the coming year?

I don’t see reconciliation in a meaningful way. People keep talking about Hamas signing agreements, etc. It is hard for me to see how the security arrangement in Gaza and the security arrangement in the West Bank can be reconciled politically. I anticipate this to last for some time. The best solution has to be elections at some point in time when Hamas lifts its veto on elections. This is a goal that must be repeatedly articulated.


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