Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is publicly distancing himself from the US, but that won’t be enough to save face with a Palestinian population fed up with his failed leadership, says former PLO legal adviser Diana Buttu
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is now publicly distancing himself from the US. In a speech this week, Abbas said he no longer wants the US to act as a mediator in peace talks with Israel.
MAHMOUD ABBAS: The political negotiations should be under international mediation and not solely American mediation. Should I make it clear, we do not accept America as mediator between us and Israel.
AARON MATÉ: Members of the Palestine Liberation Organization are calling on Abbas to withdraw recognition of Israel and break off so-called security cooperation in the occupied territories. But are these signs of an actual shift? Well, joining me is Diana Buttu, a lawyer, analyst and former PLO legal adviser. Diana, welcome. So, Abbas’s speech on Monday follows Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move to begin steps to move the US embassy there. And then his follow up vetoing a UN measure condemning that act. So, Abbas is voicing his frustration. But is he actually signaling a sign of breaking from years of working closely with the US?
DIANA BUTTU: No, not at all. The sign that I was hoping for him to show was that he was going to break away from negotiations period. It’s important, Aaron, to keep in mind that these negotiations have gone on now for 25 years, making them the longest negotiations in history. And rather than seeing an improvement in the situation on the ground for Palestinians, is actually we have witnessed a worsening of our situation with more and more Israeli settlements being built, more and more Israeli checkpoints being built, more home demolitions, more land confiscation. And instead of Abbas distancing himself from this process of negotiations, he seems to be clinging to it and is just somehow looking for a different address. And that different address that he’s talking about specifically is Europe, in the hopes that Europe will then put pressure on the United States to once again resume negotiations. So, the policy has not changed in any way. It’s just that the direction and the characters are changing.
AARON MATÉ: Okay. So a defender of the Israeli government would hear that from you and say, “Well, look that proves our point. Palestinians don’t want to negotiate with us. Diana Buttu is saying that Abbas shouldn’t be negotiating with us at all proving that Palestinians don’t want peace.” How would you respond to that?
DIANA BUTTU: We definitely do not want to negotiate and the reason we don’t want to negotiate is because the negotiations have proven to be a completely futile process. In fact, it’s worsened our condition. That being said, I think that what we need to do is focus on how to end Israel’s military role and that’s only going to come when Israel is held accountable. When they’re held accountable through boycotts, through divestment, through sanctions and by being held accountable legally. The actions that Israel has been carrying out over the course of the past 50 years speak much louder than anything that they have mentioned. So, while they claim that they want to negotiate, they want to be able to negotiate so that it gives them cover to build and expand more Israeli settlements. What I want to do is end the farce of negotiations and instead put pressure where pressure belongs, which is on the occupier, on the colonizer, to ensure that Israel’s occupation, it’s colonization, actually comes to an end.
AARON MATÉ: Diana, just to put a number on this for anyone who’s not familiar with the history. So, the number of settlers, of illegal settlers in the occupied territories from before the Oslo peace process began and afterwards, it’s more than doubled since the Oslo peace process began. Because the peace process, as we know, imposed no barriers to settlement building and even among dovish, left leaning Israeli governments, it’s actually, settlements have proceeded at the most rapid pace. So, then where do, is there a role for Abbas and his entourage at all? And how is it that after so many years of failure that they’re still sticking around?
DIANA BUTTU: Well, first I want to just correct you just slightly, Aaron, which is that the number of settlers hasn’t doubled. It’s actually tripled since 1993. We went from roughly 200,000 to now we’re close to 700, by official Israeli statistics, more than 700,000 Israeli settlers.
AARON MATÉ: Wow.
DIANA BUTTU: Where does this leave Palestinians and particularly the Palestinian leadership? It leaves the leadership where it was just even before the Trump announcement, which is this is a leadership whose term expired many, many years ago. In fact, Mahmoud Abbas was elected into office in January of 2005, his term expired in 2009. Here we are nine years after the expiration of his term and he’s still in office. Similarly, the Parliament, the Legislative Council, their term expired in 2010. And here we are eight years after the expiration of their term. In short, all of this is to say that these are people who are making decisions without having any real legitimacy. And how they stay in place and how they continue to stay in office is because you hear these statements like the statements that Mahmoud Abbas has said in which they’re not calling for a complete shift. They’re not calling for an end to negotiations. They’re just expressing their discontent.
And so, there are a number of countries that are willing to continue to prop up Mahmoud Abbas and the others within the Palestinian leadership even though they’ve proven to be ineffective as leaders for the Palestinian people, and even as repression among Palestinians who are dissidents continues.
AARON MATÉ: Right. I mean, speaking of which, as we’re speaking today, an Israeli court has again for I’ve lost count of how many times now, has again extended the detention of Ahed Tamimi, the 16 year old Palestinian teenager who has been imprisoned for slapping in the face an Israeli soldier after her cousin was shot in the face and left in a coma.
DIANA BUTTU: Yes, you’re exactly right. And we’re now seeing that Ahed has now been in prison for close to 30 days. She’s been detained. She’s a 16 year old child. And the charges that she’s facing by the Israeli government are very high and it looks as though based on the conviction rate that Israel has, which is over a 99% conviction rate for Palestinian youth, that unfortunately she will serve time in prison. And I contrast that with the actions of adult Israeli settlers who have done similar, if not worse, and have not even gotten so much as a slap on the wrist. But instead, the soldiers ended up turning a blind eye and refusing to even call the Israeli settler to account for her actions.
AARON MATÉ: You know, Diana, we’re also speaking a day after the US confirmed that it was cutting in half the amount of money it gives to the UN agency that provides services to Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, cutting something like 65 million dollars out of 125 million dollars. And I’m wondering on top of all the damage that this does to refugees, all the suffering that it compounds, whether something like this actually strengthens Abbas. Because, you know, in times when a people are attacked as the Palestinian people are now being so brazenly by the Trump administration, they tend to rally around their leaders. I remember during the Second Intifada, Arafat, his popularity increased after George Bush sort of walked away from him by publicly disparaging Arafat.
DIANA BUTTU: Yes, you’re absolutely right, but I don’t think that that’s what’s going to happen in this case. Mahmoud Abbas is not Arafat. He’s not him historically, he’s not him personality wise, et cetera. And beyond that, as we’re now entering into this phase, people are looking at Mahmoud Abbas and those around him and saying that we need a leader who’s going to be able to help us resist and help us fight because we see what’s coming. Palestinians who saw the Trump election, did not welcome Trump’s election in the way that Mahmoud Abbas did. We were very concerned about Trump’s election. We knew what it was going to lead to. We knew that it was going to lead to the moving of the embassy. We knew that it was going to lead to a declaration that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. We knew that it was going to lead to a cutting off of funds. This is just the way that Trump operates and the people that he’s surrounded himself with have also indicated as much over the years.
And what we as Palestinians need is a leader who is going to be able to take us into those, to use a war analogy, into the trenches and to be able to support us and work with us as we are struggling for our own survival. And that unfortunately is not Mahmoud Abbas. Instead of giving us a plan B or an alternative strategy, he seems from all of his statements, all of his speeches, to be clinging to plan A, which is negotiations, negotiations and more negotiations. This time’s just simply replacing the face being that of the United States with Europe instead. So, he’s not somebody who’s leading us to liberation or to victory or to even our very survival. He’s somebody who is just going to continue to do the same.
AARON MATÉ: And how does a new leadership come about? Because on top of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza being occupied, and Gaza and the West Bank being divided from each other. Then you have the fact that you have Palestinians living all around the region as refugees and around the world.
DIANA BUTTU: Yes, you’re absolutely right, Aaron. And it’s a great question. The organization that just met this past week is an organization that also has lost its legitimacy and lost its legitimacy quite a number of years ago. And I don’t just mean to say that they lost their legitimacy because they are older or because they haven’t been elected but because they also haven’t provided us with a new vision to be able to resist this new phase of the Palestinian onslaught that we’re facing. And so this is why it is vitally important that we begin to hold elections, not just within the West Bank in the Gaza Strip for these useless titles of President and Prime Minister and Minister of whatever it is, but also begin to hold elections for the entire Palestinian diaspora.
Because unfortunately Mahmoud Abbas, in the role that he occupies, he’s speaking not just on behalf of Palestinians in the West Bank in the Gaza Strip, but he purports to speak on behalf of all Palestinians around the world. And to hear somebody like him who has pretty much given up on the issue of the right of return, which is the essence of the Palestinian struggle for freedom and for liberation, to hear him give up on that is for me it leaves people like me to say he doesn’t represent me.
AARON MATÉ: And Diana, finally putting aside Trump for a second. If prominent Democrats in the US, prominent liberal media figures, people who claim to be interested in human rights and justice in Israel and Palestine, in the Middle East overall, if they could shift their attitudes and if they could actually stand up for Palestinian rights, what kind of a difference do you think that would make?
DIANA BUTTU: Well, I wish this was a conversation that we would be having that isn’t based on some sort of myth or legend because I’m afraid that the way that it from what I’ve seen in the United States, while public opinion is definitely shifting. I don’t think that the political parties have quite caught up to the changing shift in public opinion. What it would look like if we weren’t talking about something that is fantasy, is for them to put pressure on Israel to finally end all of the money and all of the arms that goes to Israel, and the special relationship that the United States has with Israel, and instead start holding it to the same standards that it holds other countries around the world, and holding it to the standards of international law. And so, what this means is cutting off the aid rather than giving it all of this extra aid that Obama gave Israel. It would mean cutting off and holding Israel accountable for its violations of human rights and making sure that Israel’s actions don’t simply go not only not condemned but as it’s currently standing, they become welcomed.
This is something that I would hope to see but I just don’t see that it’s going to happen any time in the near future given the state of politics in the United States, where it seems that the only issue that both parties tend to agree on is that of Israel. You can’t even get healthcare for American citizens. For these two parties to agree on healthcare, but they do somehow agree on supporting a country that advocates and carries out war crimes.
AARON MATÉ: We’ll leave it there. Diana Buttu, lawyer, analyst and former PLO legal adviser. Thank you.
DIANA BUTTU: My pleasure.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.