‘Israeli Settlements Killing Two-State Solution’

JERUSALEM — In the absence of any progress towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians, leaders of the Palestinian Authority (PA) are adopting a reasonable approach as a way of building up international pressure on Israel to get it back to the negotiating table.

Ghassan Khatib, an influential former PA cabinet minister and co-editor of the "bitterlemons" family of Internet publications, told Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler in an interview that the PA seeks international support in getting Israel to observe the freeze on new settlements as agreed upon in the Road Map.

IPS: Is the two-state solution still alive or has it been killed off?

Ghassan Khatib: No, it’s still alive, but it is being killed by Israeli settlement expansion. As it stands, it’s still a possibility. But if it doesn’t happen soon, and should settlement expansion go on, it might become practically impossible to implement it.

IPS: In that case, isn’t it worth trying to hoist Prime Minister Netanyahu on his own settlement freeze petard?

GK: There are two problems: First, he did not say ‘freeze’; secondly, he qualified his settlement policy enormously, making it tantamount to no freeze at all. He made an exception of Jerusalem which, by the Israeli definition, is the equivalent of 22 percent of the West Bank. Also, he excepted buildings where permits have already been issued and also public facilities. It adds up to no change.

We’ve tried this approach before — it was precisely what President Bush insisted upon on the eve of the Annapolis peace conference two years ago. He told us that we should not demand a halt to settlements as a pre-condition, but deal with the settlement issue during negotiations. If the settlements were to stop, well and good he said; if not, you Palestinians will be in a much stronger position to demand a stop settlement building in the future. It didn’t work. The outcome was simply more expansion and it softened international pressure to halt the settlements.

IPS: But were you to re-start talks, wouldn’t that add to the pressure on Israel?

GK: We have two objectives — first, to ask the international community to help us to get constructive bilateral talks going, while taking into account the lessons of the past. The negotiations must have clear terms of reference. By that, we’re not imposing any pre-conditions. Second, those negotiations should be based on the Road Map which was agreed to by all parties. The Road Map has certain obligations for all parties, including a settlement freeze, and I don’t see why Israel should not be doing its part.

IPS: Are you disappointed with the approach of U.S. President Barack Obama?

GK: We’re still confident, still optimistic that Obama will make a difference. Although it’s taking more time than we expected. Still, his approach is completely different to that of his predecessor. That’s most welcome.

IPS: With lack of progress, is it inconceivable that the United States might just back away from the whole process? Is that a serious concern to Palestinians?

GK: I’m not worried — they can’t do that. There is a very strong interaction between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the situation in the whole region. Stability in the Middle East is vital to everyone. It’s a fundamental U.S. interest. Obama is keen to try to help.

IPS: In the absence of progress, though, perhaps the option for the Palestinians is narrowing to a unilateralist strategy?

GK: Not at all — let me take the opportunity to clarify our position: No Palestinian body has ever taken any decision regarding a unilateral strategy. Our policy is based on moving in two directions – first, to encourage the international community to increase its involvement, and that is, by nature, multi-lateral. Second, we are busy building the institutions of our state. There is of course an element of unilateralism in that, but it’s a positive unilateralism. It’s our job – we’re not contradicting anyone else when we say we’re working towards bringing our state to fruition. We have to become ready for our state. By choice, our peace strategy is bi-lateral and multi-lateral, not a unilateral approach.

IPS: Isn’t there a major impediment in this state-building task? After all, Palestine is divided between the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza…

GK: The internal Palestinian situation is of course a negative aspect in achieving our aspirations. I should point out, however, that Israel’s insistence in carrying out its withdrawal from Gaza unilaterally, without negotiations and not as an outcome of the peace process, contributed to strengthening Hamas and weakening the PA. By the same token, Israel’s prevention of movement between the West Bank and Gaza has continued to have a major detrimental effect.

IPS: One has a sense that the Palestinians are trapped in political limbo? Isn’t that dangerous?

GK: It’s true that the limbo situation cannot go on for long. Time is not in our favor, but Prime Minister [Salaam] Fayyad is serious when he urges the international community to get more involved in helping us build the structures of our future state. Certainly, the current status quo, the de facto functional division of control between Israel and the PA over the same territory is not at all healthy. Nor is it sustainable. Either we move towards two states, towards a Palestinian state, or the situation will deteriorate in ways that cannot be foreseen.

IPS: In your view, is Netanyahu committed to peace?

GK: Netanyahu is not a partner for peace. His priority is his domestic constituency, particularly the right wing. He tries to please the right wing rather than please the needs of peace. It’s neither good for peace, nor for Israel. There’s ever increasing criticism in the international community of Israel.

IPS: Is President Abbas serious about stepping down?

GK: We have no reason not to believe that he’s serious about not running again. It’s a political message underlying just how urgent things are.

IPS: That makes the coming six months critical…

GK: I hope the situation won’t get out of hand and that things will begin moving forward. That Egypt will make progress in its reconciliation effort between the PA and Hamas once the long-anticipated prisoner exchange [between Israel and Hamas] goes through, and that, within six months, the international community will be able to extricate us from the present stagnation. They need to be more efficient in advancing bilateral talks, in stopping Israel’s settlement expansion in accordance with the Road Map and in continuing to help us create the infrastructure for our state.

IPS: Do the Palestinian people have the patience…

GK: I believe they have, but not forever. Time is a very important factor.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.