Phyllis Bennis: Abbas bid for Palestinian statehood means he’s given up on
US-backed peace process
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Toronto. And on Friday in New York City at the United Nations the focus was on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Speeches from the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Chairman Abbas, and the prime minister of Israel, Netanyahu. Now here are two excerpts from those two gentlemen.
MAHMOUD ABBAS, PRESIDENT, PALESTINIAN NATIONAL AUTHORITY (VO TRANSL.): The goal of the Palestinian people is the realization of their inalienable national rights and their independent state of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, on all the land of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip–which Israel occupied in the June 1967 War–in conformity with the resolutions of international legitimacy, and with the achievement of a just and agreed-upon solution to the Palestine refugee issue in accordance with Resolution 194, as stipulated in the Arab Peace Initiative, which presented the consensus, Arab and Islamic vision to resolve the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict and to achieve a just and comprehensive peace that we are committed to and work towards.
JAY: Prime Minister Netanyahu essentially gave the argument that Israel represents modernity; radical, militant Islam represents a return to medievalism; and somehow that has something to do with the proposal by the Palestinians.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: And the world around Israel is definitely becoming more dangerous. Militant Islam has already taken over Lebanon and Gaza. It’s determined to tear apart the peace treaties between Israel and Egypt and between Israel and Jordan. It’s poisoned many Arab minds against Jews in Israel, against America and the West. It opposes not the policies of Israel, but the existence of Israel. And these critics continue to press Israel to make far-reaching concessions without first assuring Israel’s security. They praise those who unwittingly feed the insatiable crocodile of militant Islam as bold statesman. They cast as enemies of peace those of us who insist that we must first erect a sturdy barrier to keep the crocodile out, or at the very least jam an iron bar between its gaping jaws.
JAY: Now joining us from Washington to give her take on a rather historic moment at the United Nations is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and the author of the book Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer. Thanks for joining us, Phyllis.
PHYLLIS BENNIS, FELLOW, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Good to be with you.
JAY: So let’s start–first of all, let’s start with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech. What was your reaction?
BENNIS: Well, he really had very little to say about what the essence of the Palestinian proposal was. His focus was on demonization. It was an extraordinarily racist speech. One part that came just following the clip that you ran, Paul, actually used the analogy of a hungry crocodile to describe Islamist extremism, and talked about the only thing you could do with a hungry crocodile is to jam a big stick in their mouth so they can’t shut their huge teeth. It was just incredible racist imagery that he was evoking. And it was all about the victimization of Israel, how small Israel is, that the Palestinians have rockets. He said nothing, of course, about the Israeli nuclear arsenal. He evoked the Holocaust as the reason for Israel being in command, why there cannot be equality with a state on its border if it’s dangerous by their definitions. So it was more of the same. The one thing that was rather striking was the degree to which he really took on that lecturing, hectoring tone that he has used before towards President Obama.
JAY: And the United Nations.
BENNIS: And the United Nations.
JAY: He called the United Nations a den of liars and so on and so on. But I guess the one–maybe one really substantive thing, argument he took on that actually had something to do with what was being talked about by Chairman Abbas, where he says that we’re being told all the time that if you just end the occupation, then there’s the possibility for peace. And his answer to that was, well, we withdrew from Lebanon, and we pulled out completely from Gaza–and he gave examples–we even dug up graves of our loved ones to get out of Gaza, and look what we got in return. And his basic–.
BENNIS: This was a rather–.
JAY: Yeah, go ahead.
BENNIS: It was a rather extraordinary moment when he got into that, because, of course, what it ignores is they never stopped occupying Gaza. They are still occupying Gaza, not with settlers and troops permanently on the ground, but in the form of a siege and a blockade of Gaza. They still control the airspace, the seas off the coast, all entry and exit is approved or (in most cases) disapproved by Israel. So the notion that they ended occupation simply doesn’t fly. It also ignores the reality that solution, the just solution that can make it permanent to this conflict–to end this conflict is not only about occupation. That’s the single most representative part of the Palestinian struggle. But the rest, the right of return of the refugees and equality for Palestinian citizens inside Israel, he had nothing to say.
JAY: Well, I think that’s probably the real point of the speech is that his–what he was addressing himself or who he was addressing himself to was, first of all, American public opinion, the American Congress that last time he spoke there gave him 27 standing ovations. And he gave, also, this attack on the United Nations, but also appealed to this hard right in the United States that would, like, even, like, probably go so far as to get the US out of the United Nations. So it was really to the American right, saying, we stand together against extremism and there really isn’t anything else to talk about.
BENNIS: And the Palestinians, in his speech, are represented by extremism and only extremism. I think what was important about today at the General Assembly was actually, though, not Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech. I don’t think there was anything new. It was, as you say, directed to a different audience. What was important was in Chairman Abbas’s speech. And I think that the most important thing about his speech was something he didn’t say at all, and that is that giving this speech and applying for membership as a member state in the United Nations represents an end, a final end to the 20-year-long failure of the US-backed so-called peace process that has led to nothing but more oppression of the Palestinians, more closures, more settlements, the creation of the Apartheid Wall, the siege of Gaza, the wars against Gazans. All of this has happened in the context of a so-called peace process. And what this was saying, without him saying it, because I don’t think he believes it, or even necessarily wants it to be this way, but he was faced with no alternative, given the level of popular demand inside the Palestinian territories, and particularly outside, to say, this US-backed process that the Palestinian Authority has put all of its eggs into for so long is over; we now belong in the United Nations, not in Washington. And that’s what’s huge about this. Without ever saying those words–he said some important things, but the bottom line of his speech is this is now an opportunity, it won’t happen by itself, this is an opportunity, not an inevitability,–
JAY: Right. But–.
BENNIS: –that the–this will be the end of that US process.
JAY: Except that’s kind of what the PLO and the PA do, that’s sort of their business is the negotiations business. And, you know, I’ve been talking to some of my Palestinian Arab friends, and they say the only way this speech would have really had some significance is if at the end of the speech he says and if the Palestinian state is not recognized and there isn’t some real negotiations, then we’re going to disband the Palestinian Authority and stop being what a long Palestinians consider a kind of Vichy type regime. And, you know, if it’s an occupation, let it be an occupation. We’re not going to be part of it anymore. But he didn’t go there.
BENNIS: I think that’s a view. I mean, that’s a whole–it’s a discussion within the Palestinian community. There is enormous opposition to this move in the United Nations, because of fears from refugees that their right of return will be compromised if the representation of the PLO, which is still considered the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, is replaced with a government of an inchoate, still nonexistent state that a represents officially only the people inside. That’s a very real fear, and it has important, good grounding. The reality, though, is that this is all about political will. It’s–there’s no rule in the UN that says that any country–certainly the new state of Palestine (if they are admitted to the UN) or South Africa or Micronesia, or the United States, for that matter, or Canada, any state could take up the cause of the Palestinian refugees, bring it to the United Nations, and demand enforcement of Resolution 194. There’s no rule against that. What’s been missing all these years has been political will. So the technical reality that it may not be PLO anymore, if it were still the PLO officially, it’s the same people who have not been able to produce a just solution, who have not been able to realize the right of return. So the problem is not which hat they’re wearing; the problem is where are they sitting. If they’re sitting in Washington with the US as the so-called honest broker, which we know they’re not, that means they can’t do anything. If they’re in the United Nations, it opens up some new possibilities. They are only possibilities. There’s no guarantees here.
JAY: So how does this play out? This goes to the Security Council. President Obama’s already said they’re going to veto it.
BENNIS: Let me go through this. They go to the Security Council. The veto is not going to be any time soon. I think what’s more likely than a rapid move towards a vote on the actual proposal–which would lead to a US veto, something that would gain a great deal for President Obama in his already starting presidential campaign that’s underway, looking ahead to next year’s presidential elections, when he has to run for reelection, and he’s very concerned that the right-wing of particularly the Jewish side of the pro-Israel lobby are actually accusing him of not being pro-Israel enough, and in that context a veto would be great. For the rest of the country, not so much. And for the rest of the world there would be enormous consequences. So the best thing for President Obama–and I think that some in the Palestinian Authority would also like to give him this gift–would be to simply delay, to bury the entire application, to form a committee, to draft a–set up a commission to draft a report, to call for an investigation, before the Council ever starts to vote. It’s not impossible that that vote will not reemerge from the labyrinth of the UN bureaucracy till after US elections. That’s one scenario. Now, there are other scenarios. It could happen fast. I think it’s very unlikely. If it does, the US vetoes, the next step could be one of several things. One could be an internal move, as some of your Palestinian colleagues have suggested and others (this has been a long-standing possibility), to dismantle the Palestinian Authority. Simply say, Israel is the occupying power, they are obligated to provide for the economic, the health, the education, and all other forms of well-being of the people under occupation.
JAY: And let me just add that my Palestinian friends that say they would like them to do that have absolutely no expectation of it. They say that that section of the Palestinian elite has just too much invested in all of that.
BENNIS: That’s probably true. That’s one possibility. Another possibility is that the diplomats, whether they’re representing the PA or the PLO–officially, it would have to be the PLO–could go to the General Assembly and upgrade their status in the UN as a non-member state. Right now they are a non-member entity, which is a funny–you know, it’s a funny description. It doesn’t change anything within the UN–they still would not be able to vote; they still would not be able to introduce their own resolutions. But having that imprimatur of being a state, even a non-member state–. Any state, non-member or otherwise, can sign treaties. That means they could sign the Rome Treaty to join the International Criminal Court. And in that context, there again is the possibility–no guarantees, very hard struggles ahead, but the possibility that the longstanding Israeli impunity for war crimes could be reversed and that some kind of accountability might in the future be possible for war crimes committed in what then would then be a member state’s territory of the Rome Treaty of the International Criminal Court. So all of these things become possible. None of them are guaranteed.
JAY: Apparently, they could also sign, for example, treaties to do with law of the seas that might make a challenge to the blockade of Gaza. They could do something about air, which might at least legally challenge Israeli air supremacy.
BENNIS: It makes possible certain diplomatic and legal moves which right now are much more difficult. They’re not impossible now, but it is–it has been impossible to find anyone willing–any member state, for example, willing to go forward to defend them.
JAY: Now, Hamas’s critique of this is that, you know, all well and good, but in the final analysis, none of that really leads anywhere. And what the PA isn’t doing, according to Hamas, is negotiating, making a deal with them and other political forces in–Palestinian forces for what they call a comprehensive strategic struggle, which involves all forms of struggle, including–.
BENNIS: Well, that’s why they’re–it was very interesting, in today’s speech, that Chairman Abbas actually referred very directly to the unity process that’s underway within the Palestinian community. And he said that he hopes that that can be back on track and finished within several weeks, he said. Now, whether that’s a serious commitment, it’s very hard to know. Abbas is under enormous pressure. He has delivered nothing to the vast majority of Palestinians living under occupation and absolutely nothing to Palestinian refugees or Palestinians living as citizens inside Israel, so his base of support is very, very small. It’s an economic elite centered in what many Palestinians call the Ramallah bubble, which is the site of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s economic miracle, with 7 percent growth rates and the cafes and theaters and art galleries and all these–.
JAY: And blocks and blocks of beautiful condos.
BENNIS: New condos, new fancy homes for Palestinian–wealthy Palestinians who want to visit once a year, all of that. But for the vast majority of Palestinians in the territories, nothing has changed except what has gotten worse. So he’s under enormous pressure, and no political figure can simply stand aside and survive that. So it’s not about does he really want to negotiate with Hamas. I have no doubt that he doesn’t. But he may not have a choice any longer, because these demands for change have emerged very powerfully within his own party, within Fatah. And without some base within the Fatah elite, he’s not going to be able to change–to avoid that change. So the question now is–it’s not about what is he willing to do, and we’re going to cross our arms and stand back and say, okay, show us. The question is going to be: what new possibilities are there, and what is Palestinian civil society and others going to do to take advantage of those? What the Palestinian civil society has done in recent years has been phenomenal. And he actually–I’m sure grudgingly–referenced that in his speech, where he talked about the level of nonviolent mobilization across the Palestinian territories and internationally. He referenced the–.
JAY: Well, that’s–that’s the other big factor here that’s probably new in the game is the transformation in Egypt and that, you know, it looks like a change in Egyptian attitude, and then Turkey as well. You know, we’re seeing–. Hang on one sec, Phyllis. We’re seeing from our reports from Israel that–real concern on the streets of Israel about this isolation from Turkey and Egypt. And there seems to be, partly because of domestic/economic issues, a real isolation of Netanyahu in Israel. So there are some new factors at play here.
BENNIS: There’s a number of new factors. And what was very important in this speech was the call for a Palestinian spring. The reference, of course, was to the exclusion of Palestine from the sweeping changes that have been going on across the region. And again, this has been a demand both within the Palestinian civil society, aimed at Abbas and his governing structures of the Palestinian Authority, and globally, where you see the protesters of the Arab Spring in Egypt, in Tunisia, throughout the region, demanding a solution to the–an end to the Israeli occupation, a solution to the denial of the right of return, etc., as part of their mobilization for the Arab Spring. Inside Israel, there is a new–well, I should say, there has been a new set of conditions, where the pressure on Netanyahu, the isolation of Netanyahu has been very powerful–extraordinary demonstrations over the summer, where he was being linked to Arab dictators, the great chant where people were saying in the streets, “Mubarak, Assad, Bibi Netanyahu,” as a constant chant linking the Israeli prime minister with these Arab dictators. That was huge. Now, we’re not seeing those protests right now. They may come back. They may reflect a lack of strategic understanding of what to do next. They may reflect that this was just a summer phenomenon. There’s a lot of possibilities. We don’t really know yet. But far more important is the external side, what’s going on in Turkey with the isolation of Israel: the longstanding, very close relation, particularly military relationship between Turkey and Israel has collapsed. And this whole question of the new pressures on the United States–for the first time, the US can’t depend on Arab dictators they’ve been backing for so many years to keep their people suppressed enough to enforce US will, like make nice to the Israelis, keep your borders secure by our standards, all of these things. That’s no longer possible. You now have governments, most importantly in Egypt, who at least partially have to be very aware of public opinion and somewhat accountable to public opinion. So all of that plays out in these new relationships between Israel and Turkey, between Israel and Egypt, and even between the US and Israel, where we are seeing now a pure takeover of US policy towards that region by political considerations of the coming elections that are still 14 months away. And yet there’s a huge price that can be paid internationally when the US maintains its hardcore Israel-first policy, as President Obama indicated in his UN speech yesterday. They’re going to have consequences for the first time. That’s what’s different.
JAY: Well, Israelis have heard the speech Netanyahu gave at the United Nations thousands of times from him. I would have guessed, when they hear this speech, that’s what they’re going to say to themselves. But I think, given all these new factors–and perhaps this speech isn’t going to go over so well in Israel, because it’s the same old song and this–things aren’t looking good for most Israelis.
BENNIS: Well, things aren’t looking as good as they once did, but things–relative to a lot of other places, things are looking pretty good, given the global economic crisis. Israel has been more protected from that than most places. There are issues about discrimination, about housing cost, etc., and that has caused a certain level of mobilization [incompr.] But I think we have to be careful. People in Israel are doing–Jews in Israel–and we should specify, because it’s a thoroughly apartheid society inside Israel as well, of course–Jewish Israelis, there are huge gaps between wealth and poverty. But even the poorest are still much better off than in lots of places, particularly in that region. So how far those economic-based protests go, I think, remains uncertain.
JAY: Yeah, I was talking more about the link that we heard from a lot of the people that our correspondent interviewed on the streets in Israel, who were linking this, you know, what they were saying [is a] national security argument to the economic problems in Israel, and saying, we’ve heard enough of this kind of stuff. Part of the divisions I’m talking about are even within the Israeli elite, not just about the protest movement. It may be more about the Israeli elite. The man who used to be the head of Mossad up until about seven, eight months ago, and apparently considered a hard right winger, he’s been viciously attacking Netanyahu and Lieberman and saying this is a very self-destructive strategy, it’s going to threaten Israel’s existence, and so on. I mean, do you see these divisions within the Israeli ruling circles?
BENNIS: There have been these divisions, and they are continuing. There’s a particular division over the question of how aggressive to be towards Iran. There were people who were predicting that Netanyahu in his speech might actually say something specifically threatening Iran with, you know, Israeli military attack. And others, of course, have said, including the former head of Mossad–which has been a traditional thing, for former Mossad officers, I should say, to–after they’re in a position–after they’ve left the position where they might do something about it, they come out for a much more cautious military and strategic policy. But certainly those divides do exist. Netanyahu has made clear that he is staking his political survival on the far right of his coalition and he’s not interested in the centrists that are to his left, let alone the actual left, who–you know, which is, of course, very small in Israel. So all of these things are creating new conditions in the outside, the isolation from longstanding allies like Egypt and Turkey, the same problem that the US has: suddenly there are consequences for these policies. They never had to face consequences. The problem is, the fact that that significance exists now, the fact that there is now some potential consequence, doesn’t mean that there’s an instant change of policy. It takes way too long. And the question is: how many more people have to suffer, for how long, before that new strategic reality takes hold and leads to a real challenge and a real change, meaning the end of Israeli occupation, the end of apartheid, and the creation of a new diplomacy that’s based on international law, human rights, and equality for all?
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Phyllis.
BENNIS: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And don’t forget, the donate button’s over here, because if you don’t do that, we can’t do this.
End of Transcript
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