Abdel Bari Atwan is the editor in chief of al-Quds al-Arabi, an independent pan-Arab daily newspaper published in London. In 2008, he published his second book, “A Country of Words. A Palestinian Journey from the Refugee Camp to the Front Page”, in which he talks about his long journey from native Gaza to the West. We asked him some questions about the current stalemate between the White House and the Israeli government, and the next phase in Palestine.
MedArabNews: The recent row between the Obama Administration and the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently has not produced any real pressure on the Israeli Government in order to obtain a complete freezing of settlements, including those in East Jerusalem. Nevertheless, some resentment between Obama and Netanyahu does exist, and some Arab commentators hope that Obama’s victory in passing healthcare legislation, some weeks ago, may strengthen his political position at home and make him less vulnerable to the pro-Israel lobby in the US. In your opinion, is there any possibility that the White House exert some real pressure on Netanyahu in the future?
Abdel Bari Atwan: I think Netanyahu has been somewhat surprised by Obama’s current determination on the settlements issue. Netanyahu clearly felt quite confident about disregarding the US President’s demand for a freeze on settlements as a pre-requisite for resuming peace talks, demonstrating an unpalatable disrespect for the elected leader of a nation without whose support his tiny country could never survive.
And let us not forget that Obama was not asking for a very big concession but the very minimum to bring the Palestinians into so-called ‘Proximity talks’. The settlements are entirely illegal under international law and it would be reasonable to demand that they be dismantled altogether and the land returned to the Palestinians from whom it was stolen.
Netanyahu was counting on the strength of the Israeli lobby – and in particular the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – to put pressure on Obama whose resolve, he assumed, would then crumble.
That this has not (yet) happened is due to various factors: 1) Obama and probably the majority of American citizens do not actually support the neighborhood bully tactics of Israel. The present Israeli government is dominated by ultra-right wing racists – this does not sit well with an African-American president nor with those who elected him. Israel’s conduct makes uncomfortable viewing for a more liberal America which is starting to ask questions. The massacre of 1400 in Gaza at the turn of last year, the building of the apartheid wall, the confiscation of Palestinian land for illegal Jewish settlements, the continuing siege of the suffering people of Gaza and the abuse of innocent Arabs at Israeli checkpoints are there for all to see in the independent media (particularly on the internet) and there is an increasing perception in the West that the bullied (Israel) have become the bullies.
2) Although two-thirds of the House of Representatives have signed an AIPAC letter calling for an end to the Obama regime’s public criticism of Israel, few have actually spoken out in Congress suggesting a growing awareness among politicians that public opinion might be shifting away from unconditional support for the Israeli position. In other words, Congressmen who want to get re-elected and are hedging their bets would be less inclined to challenge Obama if he continues to face-off Netanyahu.
3) Crucially, and for the first time, the US military is openly questioning the wisdom of America’s unconditional support for Israel. The plight of the Palestinians is recognized as a powerful recruitment tool for radical Islamist groups, al-Qa’ida in particular. Even among the most moderate Moslems the connection is made between US policy and Israel’s actions. With upwards of 200,000 American soldiers deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf, US generals are concerned.
In January this year, the commander of US security interests in the Middle East, General David Patraeus, briefed the Pentagon that Israel has become a liability rather than an asset in the region and its actions put American soldiers’ lives at risk. A US military commentator Mark Perry recently summed it up:’ it’s not about Israel’s security, it’s about our security.’
There is a possibility that, in the long term, the Israeli lobby in Washington may be weakened by all of this but Netanyahu wants to cling on to power at all costs and has to satisfy the blood-thirsty right to do so. Even if he goes, his most likely successor is the equally bellicose Tzipi Livni.
MedArabNews: Recently, there have been episodes like the United Kingdom’s expulsion of an Israeli diplomat, following Israel’s alleged use of forged British passports in the recent assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai; the UN Human Rights Council’s decision to establish a committee to monitor allegations of Israeli human rights violations and war crimes, in which 30 states voted in favor of the resolution, and only six (US, Italy, the Netherlands, Hungary, Slovakia and Ukraine) voted against it; and the steady cooling of relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv. Do you think there is a shifting in perceptions towards Israel at the international level? And do you think it will eventually help Israel to change its position, or it will further strengthen the Israeli ‘siege mentality’?
Atwan: Like America, Britain has a very strong Zionist lobby. To some extent the furore over the passports issue acted as a smoke screen, detracting from the settlements controversy being thrashed out during Netanyahu’s visit to the US at the same time.
Nevertheless, these were very serious circumstances involving a murder for political reasons by Mossad agents on foreign soil using forged British (and other European) passports to facilitate their crime. The expulsion of one un-named Israeli diplomat and asking Israel to promise not to do it again is hardly making a stand (indeed a similar situation arose in 1987 and Israel promised not to do it again then). If anything the British response to Israel’s criminal activities was indulgent; Dubai informed UK ministers about the passport scandal as soon as it was discovered but they failed to act on it for almost a week.
I have talked above about a shift in the way Israel is perceived abroad. There is a new generation coming into power in the West now who can be more objective about the Jewish Holocaust; whilst recognizing it as inhumane and appalling, these younger people also know that it is no excuse for subjecting another group of people (the Palestinians) to other atrocities.
Whilst Goldstone’s findings that Israel committed War Crimes in Gaza are widely accepted, the UN is a toothless beast where Israel is concerned. There have been an incredible 223 Security Council Resolutions on Palestine – Israel has ignored every one.
MedArabNews: Many inside Israel claim that a return to the 1967 borders is impossible for Israel, because of security reasons; they maintain that Israel cannot afford those borders because they are not defensible against Israel’s enemies; the basic assumption behind those claims is that many in the Arab World want the destruction of Israel. But, with the exception of al-Qaeda, who in the Arab world would not accept a two-state solution in which a Palestinian State is created in the West Bank and in Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital? Hamas and Hezbollah would come to terms with a two-state solution?
Atwan: I haven’t heard that Hezbollah has a stance on the two-state versus one-state debate. Hamas, however, would support the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza but would not recognize Israel – instead there would be a truce for 10 – 20 years. This interim solution would allow for a peaceful return of the rest of Palestine to its people.
Six million Palestinian refugees in the diaspora, however, would not accept a two-state solution or any solution that did not include the right to return and significant compensation for Israel using their land and their water and causing them so much suffering…just as the Jewish people were compensated for the atrocious treatment meted out to them by the Nazis and their allies.
Personally, my preferred solution is a one-state solution where Jews and Arabs share the territory, living side by side – as they used to in fact before the British Mandate. This currently sounds unthinkable – but whoever would have dreamt that such a solution would be successful in South Africa?
MedArabNews: In Palestine there is a strong debate about the possible outbreak of a third intifada; some weeks ago, Hani al-Masri wrote in the Palestinian daily al-Ayyam that, in order to achieve its objectives, a third intifada should be a peaceful protest. Do you think that an Intifada will occur? And, according to you, Hamas will ever accept a protest that does not imply an armed struggle?
Atwan: The Israelis are seeking to provoke a third intifada, using the al-Aqsa mosque as a flash-point just as they did in 2000. Furthermore, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) is morally and ideologically bankrupt, it has run out of steam and its political agenda has failed completely. The peace process is in a coma and there is no armed resistance. Many Palestinians believe a peaceful intifada is necessary now – it will start with civil disobedience. If it is not successful then an armed uprising may ensue.
Recently the Israelis introduced an amendment to a 1969 order which effectively ‘allows’ for the expulsion, or forced removal, of Palestinians from the West Bank to Gaza.
MedArabNews: In many ways the international crisis related to the Iranian nuclear program makes a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict more difficult, inasmuch as the Palestinian issue is being held hostage to a wider confrontation. Within this confrontation, many Arab regimes (and Israel) accuse Hamas of being a proxy of Tehran; this, in turn, makes a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas more and more complicated. In your opinion, is there a way out of this entanglement?
Atwan: Tony Blair recently said that 2010 Iran is more dangerous than 2003 Iraq and that he would deal with it even more harshly. Certainly the US and Israelis have been focusing world attention on the dangers posed by a nuclear-armed Iran rather than the stalled peace process and Israel’s continued illegal settlement building and widespread human rights breaches.
I believe the way has been paved for some time now for a huge confrontation with Iran. The Palestinians will suffer if such a regional war develops – when the big elephants fight, the grass suffers. If the Iranians were to fire missiles on Israel, the Palestinians will inevitably be hit too since the territory is so small. Another concern for the Palestinians is that Israel might make use of the smoke screen thrown up by such a war to transfer Arabs from the West Bank to Jordan.
Hamas, a Sunni Islamist group with deeply rooted ideological differences with Shi’a Iran, is nevertheless under the Iranian umbrella – together with Hezbollah and Syria – in terms of their regional agenda. The umbrella group opposes US hegemony in the region and the role Israel plays in that. It supports the rights of the Palestinians to live in peace on their own land. This common ground is their current link. Hamas could not be described as a ‘proxy’ although it is true that they receive financial, military and moral support from Iran for the reasons outlined above.