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The peace talks and Palestinian representation: in conversation with Osamah Khalil

After much political drama and media fanfare, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to rekindle “peace talks” between Israel and Palestine finally commenced this week with a meeting in Washington D.C. between the Israeli justice minister, Tzipi Livni, and Palestinian chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat. Of course this was merely a staged opportunity to announce their commitment to more “peace talks,” and not the actual talks themselves, so the only thing that was agreed upon was a draft schedule for more talks.


Still, many Palestinian leftists and Islamists have denounced the resumption of these US-brokered talks. With political reconciliation put on hold, a senior Hamas official told Maan News Agency that the Palestinian Authority’s return to negotiations is a “disaster” and provides continued cover for the Israeli agenda of the Judaization of Palestine.

A coalition of Palestinian organizations and activists in North America has also strongly opposed these talks. In a statement they asserted that twenty years of “peace talks” have not served Palestinian interests, because “Israeli settlement construction has escalated, thousands of Palestinian political prisoners are held behind bars and Palestinian rights – including Palestinian refugees’ right to return – are no closer to implementation.” The statement ends with the following affirmation: “As Palestinians in [the] shatat/diaspora, we are not being represented here, and we demand to reclaim our voice and role. We do not accept these negotiations, and our rights, our people and our land are not for sale!”

To help put both the “peace talks” and the critical reaction to them in perspective, I spoke with Dr. Osamah Khalil, Assistant Professor of History at Syracuse University and co-founder of Al-Shabaka, a US-based organization that brings together diverse Palestinian viewpoints to address strategic issues in areas of interest to the Palestinian people. Khalil recently authored a controversial policy brief that is critical of both the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the most recent attempt to reform it, arguing instead that a new representative body is needed to achieve Palestinian rights.

What are your thoughts about Kerry’s efforts to rekindle the “peace talks” this week?

We are now approaching the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords, so we have already seen the recycling of these meetings, the same talking points, and even the same picture – there was a photo circulating of John Kerry doing his best Bill Clinton impression between Saeb Erekat and Tzipi Livni. So it is difficult to take any of this seriously, and nobody seems to be taking it seriously.

We always come back to the same problem: the US refuses to change its role as broker and this means that it is not going to pressure Israel in any meaningful way. And so the only pressure possible is on the Palestinians, and that is why they are participating in these talks. But what you are left with is two facts, which cannot be resolved:

(1) The minimum of what the Palestinians will accept does not even come close to meeting what the Israelis are willing to give away. (2) Even if there was a moment for the two-state solution, that moment has now passed. Today the likelihood that East Jerusalem will ever be the capital of Palestine, with the Palestinians having access or control over the major holy sites, seems like a fantasy. This simply is not something that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or his government, will agree to. And when you have a government [in Tel Aviv] that continues to expand illegal settlements, this also serves to negate any idea that there could ever be a viable, contiguous Palestinian state.

So there is very little here to suggest that these are meaningful negotiations. And even if there is an outcome, even if somehow at the end they do tell us that they have a deal, you can almost guarantee it is a terrible deal that would be very difficult for President Mahmoud Abbas to sell, because the deal would have to be so bad in order to get through Netanyahu’s government. It is difficult to see how that would be achieved.

And the icing on the cake is bringing in Martin Indyk, who is the former US ambassador to Israel, as a mediator – this really demonstrates how little has been learned in two decades, and how little seriousness there is about these talks.

The State Department announced on Monday that both the Israeli and Palestinian delegations have now agreed in principle to continue negotiations for at least nine months. Is there a performative aspect to all of this?

Israel participates in these talks to keep the US quiet, as well as to get something in return. In general, whenever Israelis agree to US demands they are rewarded, so it is likely that there is a tradeoff here, something related to Iran and probably additional US weapons or military aid. At the same time, there is a penalty if Palestinians do not attend, so they had to go. So this whole thing is a performance – and like a really bad sequel.

There is a huge gap between what the Palestinians are willing to accept and what the Israelis are willing to accede to. There was all of this talk about the great deal that Ehud Olmert offered in Annapolis, very similar to Ehud Barak’s great offer to Yasser Arafat in 2000. But if you look at the Palestine Papers, and what negotiators have since reported, it turns out that there was never any formal offer. When it comes to Jerusalem, Israel is not willing to make any deal. So there was a performative aspect to Camp David, like there has been to any talks ever since. And much of this has been confirmed in a new book by Elliot Abrams, who served in both the Reagan and Bush administrations. He admits that at one point he even told Abu Mazen, “I would not sign this deal.” Which is shocking.

The Clinton administration put a lot of pressure on Arafat to go to Camp David, but he did not want to go. Arafat claimed that he only conceded after he got an agreement from Bill Clinton that he would not be blamed if it failed. However he went, it failed, and he was blamed. This happened to Abbas as well when Annapolis failed, or just sputtered into the invasion of Gaza. And I think you will see the same again when these talks fail.

Look, Abu Mazen is old, and for the US there will always be a bunch of these guys, such as Saeb Erekat or Yasser Abed Rabbo, who are lined up ready to step into Abbas’s shoes like planes going into LaGuardia Airport in New York City. Each one of them thinks that they will be able to get the deal done, but there is no deal there.

Initially the PLO signaled that they did not support any resumption of “peace talks,” but apparently they have now agreed to them. What do you make of the PLO’s equivocation?

The PLO no longer exists as a functional entity and it has not done so for almost two decades now. The only thing that exists is the remaining titles. So Abbas, like Arafat before him, is the Chairman of the Executive Committee of the PLO, and the rest of the Executive Committee is either appointed by him or was appointed by Arafat. This means that they are completely beholden, so there is a lot of posturing here merely to give the appearance that this is a difficult decision, and to provide the illusion that there still is a Palestinian liberation organization when there is not – that is gone.

The problem is this: the PLO is the signatory to the Oslo Accords, not the Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA was created to implement the Oslo Accords, but the signatory is the PLO, hence the relationship. So the PLO only exists on paper, only in these titles that are left – what Abu Mazen hangs onto because it is the only thing that provides him with any legitimacy. His time in office expired in 2009, and was extended for one year by emergency law, so we are now approaching almost four years of an extralegal presidency. Thus you have a man who is negotiating for Palestine whose term in office expired a long time ago. Yes he won the election in 2005, but that term expired and so he no longer has the legitimacy to be negotiating on behalf of the Palestinian people.

Now, if they were to hold elections tomorrow, Abbas would likely win, not because people love Abu Mazen but because Fatah would likely win, especially at the presidential level, since only Fatah has the organizational body to win elections. Even Hamas does not have that organizational body in the diaspora, and Hamas also has a number of problems that hurt its ability to really successfully challenge Fatah. But any election would still be very close, say near a 40/40 split with maybe 10 or 20 per cent going to independents and leftists.

When I was in Lebanon I was surprised that Fatah’s office is physically located inside the Palestinian embassy. If this is normal, does that not automatically reproduce these results?

Of course, this is standard, and illustrative of the supposedly national movement – Fatah is the movement. While it was a long process, signing the Oslo Accords was a victory for the external Fatah leadership because this prevented two things: the emergence of an alternative leadership in the West Bank and Gaza, and their own irrelevancy. So while the Palestinian left may be popular in some places today, the real money is coming from two places, either Fatah or Hamas. And you can see the disparity between the two.

Earlier this year you authored a policy brief about the PLO and the limits representation. Can you please talk more about this?

The goal of this brief grew out of several movements aiming to discuss this issue of representation and the lack of legitimacy of the Palestinian leadership, and particularly the lack of representation for Palestinians in the diaspora. But quite frankly, even the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza do not have proper representation. The Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) for the West Bank and Gaza has not met for five years and the Palestinian National Council (PNC) has not met since 1998. The 2006 election was completely overthrown, and you have two separate and competing authorities in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as what is calling itself the PLO negotiating on behalf of Palestinians everywhere.

So the goal of the brief was really to spark a discussion, and to challenge some of the prevailing ideas, particularly those seeking to reform the PLO and their claims about the history of the PLO as a representative and democratic body. What I wrote and what other scholars have written is that essentially there is a lot of mythologizing about what the PLO was, and particularly the PNC. So these attempts to use new PNC elections to somehow reform and revitalize the PLO would not be feasible, and even if these elections were held, they would not have the desired result. All of these initiatives have suffered from several fundamental contradictions that could not be overcome.

One of the issues regarding the registration campaign to elect a new PNC is that it requires a unity agreement being implemented by Fatah and Hamas, whereby Hamas will in future be included in the PLO, which right now it is not. These unity negotiations have already been going on for several years, and it does not look like, especially after the coup in Egypt, that these negotiations will soon be successful. Or even that Fatah will be willing to negotiate, because they now believe that they have the upper hand, thinking why should we negotiate when Hamas should just concede. So in a sense, you see a replay of exactly the same power dynamic that Fatah is involved in with Israel.

The second problem is that you have two nondemocratic movements, Fatah and Hamas, that have demonstrated no interest in representative government. And so this notion that somehow through new elections you are going to get a new democratic and reformed movement is difficult to accept. Any future elections would be a fight for power rather than one for democracy and representation.

And the third problem is the US and Israel. We see this time and again, that the US and Israel have no intention of allowing Palestinian democracy to really flourish. Instead they are much more interested in dictating to the Palestinians who their leadership should be, including the entire office of the prime minister, which was created under pressure from the US and Israel. Not to mention that the US and Israel always have the power to approve or dismiss the results of any election. The fourth problem is the PA leadership itself, which has no desire to involve the diaspora in any decision-making – and Abbas has made this very clear. The PA rejects the idea that the outside can have a voice. And to be honest the inside also hardly has a voice. So it is a very small clique making decisions, and this clique really does not want any input from the outside, and by the outside I mean both outside of the leadership, as well as outside of the West Bank and Gaza.

Another problem is that the initiative to revitalize the PLO is not very transparent. It is not transparent about where its funding comes from, it is not transparent about who is involved, and it is not even transparent about its goals. So the same group that is calling for transparency and representation itself is not transparent. And it does not help that they are making outlandish claims about how successful their efforts to register Palestinians have been.

These are some of the fundamental problems, and if we are talking about reforming the PLO, then let us not repeat many of the things that it did wrong in the past – including the gross exaggerations to cover up its own inadequacies. I wanted highlight that we need to be willing to look at these issues, and to see how difficult it is to reform the PLO from the inside. And by the way that is deliberate, it was deliberately made that way. It was made to be a national liberation movement at the height of the Cold War, so even then representation was very limited, mostly to the leadership of the political factions.

But today we have to ask, what do elections even mean? Look at Egypt now. They had democratic elections that were recently overturned. Even before, Hosni Mubarak was “elected” and Saddam Hussein was “elected”. And what does it mean when do you have a democratic election held under occupation that was generally free and fair, but which was overturned by the losing party in collaboration with the US and Israel?

Another thing to remember is that the PNC met twice a year between 1968 and 1973 during a time when they had a huge base and a mini state in Lebanon. But they still only met twice a year. And considering everything that has happened since then – for example that Palestinians do not have any control over the borders in Gaza and the West Bank, how is it going to be possible for the PNC to meet? Where would they even meet? On Skype? This is fantasy and a dangerous fantasy because much of it is based on a lie.

So one of the things I was trying to do as a historian is to say, let us be honest about the past, let us be honest about the current state of affairs, and as a community let us figure out how to go forward – how to start that debate. And there needs to be greater connections between groups in the diaspora and groups in the inside – that is critical.

I knew that this brief was going to be controversial, but also that the reaction to it would probably break down along generational lines. So what I was really hoping to do was to appeal to a younger generation who had heard about revitalizing and reforming the PLO, but who did not really know what that meant. And who did not really have any direct experiences with the PLO, but only heard a lot of old stories and myths. I knew that the older generation would find this conversation very difficult and be resistant to what I was suggesting. I definitely knew that, however I still thought that it needed to be said.

Read Khalil’s policy brief “Who are You? The PLO and the Limits of Representation”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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