LMaDO talks to Noura Erakat, human rights attorney, activist and co-editor of Jadaliyya, an independent website & Palestinian political economist Leila Farsakh.
LMaDO : You’ve both participated in a conference in Brussels called « New paradigms for Israel/Palestine ». Could you tell us what it was about ?
Leila Farsakh : The conference was organized by the Social and Democrats in the European parliament together with the Bruno Kreisky forum, based in Vienna. The aim of it was to try and do an evaluation of Oslo, 20 years after the signature of the accords. The idea was not simply to say what was good and bad about Oslo, but to come up with new paradigms for the region. In my view, it was interesting because it was organized by parliamentarians for parliamentarians. It was an opportunity to be in contact with European policy makers. I was impressed to see that more than 150 people attended and that over 700 people followed the conference on the web.
Noura Erakat: There were 2 things that struck me about the conference. On the one hand, the diplomats that spoke were speaking about 2 states for 2 people, the fact that this was the only solution…while acknowledging that the reality on the ground had changed and that we might soon face a de facto one state reality. In the dinner we attended last night, unlike US congressional representative or policy makers, there was an acknowledgement of the situation on the ground that has the dimension of race, segregation, separation, oppression, that this is not just a political conflict but one that has many human rights dimensions as well.
LMaDO: But isn’t this the biggest problem then? They know what is happening on the ground but in practice they still repeat the same things and myths and actually follow the US line. Should the role of Europe be different, or could they play a different role?
LF: I think we have to put things in perspective. The two state solution is from a legal and political point of view the only solution on the ground. I say that because the UN resolutions concerning the conflict ever since 1947 have been on the concept of partition. The Palestinian national movement rejected that and in the 1970’s when Fatah and the Popular Front took over the PLO, the political platform in 1971 was that the only solution was a one state solution, a democratic state in Palestine, inclusive of Jews, Muslims and Christians. This was a proposal that was not acceptable to Israel and also one that the international community could not adhere to because the twentieth century was a century of nationalism. The only solution to any political problem was that it’s either a humanitarian problem, for example refugees that need a humanitarian solution, or its a political problem and its a problem of self-determination. When you talked about self-determination in the twentieth century, you meant statehood. So I have to say that in an historical context, the Palestinians coming around saying: “We want a Palestinian state” was a very important political step. It was a costly step for sure. Arafat will be remembered in history as the Palestinian leader that prepared the Palestinian people to the idea that the best that they could get was a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza. Europe played a very important role, in providing a vehicle for the PLO to be heard and also push Israel in accepting that it had to start dealing with the Palestinians. So 1993 was a success in some point as it provided the first official Israeli recognition of Palestinian existence as a people and their right to self determination. Now, we know that Oslo is very bad. But in 1993 what happened is that we are discussing a framework of a solution based on a two state solution that Israel and the PLO have adhered to. The tragedy of 20 years after Oslo is that instead of us having the possibility to create effectively on the ground a two state solution we end up having a worse one state reality, which is apartheid like. The problem is that all the legal and political mechanism we have is one for a two states solution, like the EU saying that the only solution to the conflict is a Palestinian state, like the road map, saying the same thing, like the recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN by 134 States (where Palestine got non-member status). All of this tells us that we have all the legal mechanism to implement the two state solution but we do not have the Israeli political will to do so.
I heard two important admissions today at the EU. The first one was that this is the last chance to make a two state solution succeed. For diplomats to actually come out and say that we have only six months to work this out otherwise we have to think about a new formula is a major step forward because it means we have to create new legal resolutions, new strategies for defining the elements of a one state solution. So for me, that’s very progressive. Secondly, what I thought was very important was for them to say bluntly that they did not have anymore money to continue to subsidize the occupation and sustain the Palestinian Authority (P.A). It creates an official window to actually change the debate around the conflict and to frame the option of a one state solution in more concrete ways, rather than only in moral or in slogans terms.
NE: The problem is the fact that the Palestinian leadership itself is reflective of an Oslo process which was meant to be an interim agreement. The PA was meant to be an interim governing body that has since supplanted the PLO and any kind of representative mechanism. Before then, the Palestinians could not exercise their will to self-determination but at least they could exercise their popular will. Here we have got the absence of both. The Palestinians who are part of this official representation can’t ask for more at this juncture because they exist on exogenous funding. Their survival depends on this funding which is conditioned on compliance with the terms of the peace process which are set by the US and Israel and in part are reaffirmed by other states in the Middle East who are part of the US regional foreign policy. We have this confluence of factors where we can’t on our own declare that [one state] is an optimal solution and that we should work on it, when the Palestinian leadership is in an intractable position because they are still stuck in this peace process and there is no alternative vehicle for Palestinians to develop and articulate a political vision and say that this is an alternative approach that we will impose if we do not have a representative body. The one thing that we do have that has been declared by a Palestinian body outside of these traditional channels has been a demand for a rights based approach in the BDS call of 2005, for the right of return, for equality and for the end of the occupation. The fact that this rights based paradigm has also made its way into this discourse is very telling and is a mark of our success.
LMaDO: So how do we start reframing the issue around the one state solution? How do we start the educational process? Should not we start by explaining to the general public who are the Palestinians? So far, mainstream public opinion thinks the Palestinians are people from the West Bank and Gaza. Once they understand that most of them live outside those borders (diaspora, refugees…) advocacy around one state will become a lot more straightforward.
NE: Your question implicates a broader question. Who speaks for Palestinians in the absence of some sort of a governing body. It’s not the first time this question comes up. It came up very prominently in 2006 when Hamas when the parliamentary elections and again in 2007 when Fatah was removed from Gaza in a pre-emptive coup. The question then was also how do we remain in solidarity with the Palestinians when no one really represents the whole people. I actually think that it’s a red herring of sorts. Especially for solidarity communities who should be much more concerned with how their own government is a third party and complicit in the ongoing violations of rights and the suppression of the self determination of the Palestinian people regardless of what their exact program looks like. So it’s a two-part question. For the solidarity movement these debates will exist and they will continue to exist. In the midst of them, they should not lose track that as this is happening their governments remain complicit in these violations. So even if you do not have a political program on one state or two states, or anything that you can agree with, you can agree that the EU, because it is unequivocally the largest market for Israeli goods, should have a policy of not being that market and not servicing Israel. We should agree that because the 26 members of the EU are also high contracting parties to the 4th Geneva conventions that they should adhere to the ICJ 2004 advisory opinion that they not participate in any economic, diplomatic or political activity that furthers the building of the annexation wall. So for the solidarity community even if this question is very sincere I don’t think it should impact its political action. As for Palestinians it’s a much different question. A question we need to answer for ourselves. For example, Leila and I both have these pedestals we can speak from because of the scholarship we produce, but can each person who writes speak on behalf of the Palestinians? It creates a problematic situation. We do not have those mechanisms that used to provide us with a platform to vote for any kind of representation like the Palestinian National Council, the Palestinian Legislative Council and so forth. We are at a serious juncture here but I do not think that it should influence our allies.
LF: I want to go back to your original question about one state. I think certain things get confused when we talk about it. Whether it’s utopia or reality. One useful way to address it is to ask why are we talking about one state and what does one state means. We need make a clear distinction. Why and What? What are the challenges? The one state idea is an old idea. It’s an idea that Israeli Zionists, what we called the humanists Zionists, proposed in the 1920s and 30s, the Palestinians proposed in the 1970s, it’s an idea that was put on the shelf with the Palestinian declaration for independence in 1988 and Oslo and it’s coming back now. It is coming back because the reality on the ground, with half of a million settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with the bantustanisation of the West Bank and Gaza by having over 96 permanent checkpoints, 465 mobile ones, with economic decay with geographical fragmentation, the bypass roads, people are saying, on the ground, we have a one state reality. We do not see anybody on the Israeli side that can viably remove the settlers, that is willing to share Jerusalem, that will give Palestinians sovereignty over the Jordan river, so even if Kerry pushes forward, and we wish him good luck, the Israeli side do not seem interested in a real viable two state solution. This is why the one state debate has today an opportunity it never had before;that the two states solution has been tried and failed. Now, we are being realistic. If you look on the ground, you don’t have a two state reality and you do not have an Israeli government willing to remove the settlers and give Palestinians a state. Still, saying that the two state solution is dead does not mean the one state solution is around the corner. We have a one state reality but we do not have a one state solution. For it to become a solution there are a lot of fundamental questions to answer. We want to make a state for all its citizens. It means that the Palestinians and the Israelis have to live together. This means the refugees and the settlers have to live together. This means the people who care about the Zionist identity have to accept resolution 194 just as the Palestinian refugees have to accept that some Israelis will never want to speak Arabic, will feel more linked to Germany than they are linked to Iraq, and will want to continue to speak Hebrew and believe in an Israel culture. How are we going to create a state that includes both of these people. That’s a difficult question and that’s a question that nobody has started to address. Whenever people talk about one state they say it’s the only moral solution, which I agree with. But for this moral solution to become a political project there are a set of questions that have to be addressed and this is the difficulty. How do we live together, under what constitution, what do we do about identity, should it be bi-national, should it be one state. How do you translate a state of rights into practicality of language. People have been talking about it but nothing has so far came out on paper.
NE: I think it’s absolutely right that there has not been a practical approach to one state. So far it’s been more of a slogan in a response to the dismal things that have been offered to the Palestinians so far. We need to flesh out a vision of what one state would look like. Because we are not all in agreement of what this state will be. Who would be there? Saying that the settlers will never leave, that they will stay forever, no one will accept that because it is no more moral than accepting the two state solution. We have to engage in all these questions, at least invest as much as we’ve invested in a two states solution for two decades with billions of dollars in funding, diplomacy and the rest to answer those questions. But let me establish something very basic. The two states solution is not in itself a problem. The problem is the two states solution that was presented by Oslo, a two state solution that was a political solution only. A solution that would be based on concessions, without acknowledging history, without redressing rights, without conforming to any terms of reference. I think that many one staters might have supported a two state solution that had the rights based approach built into it. The lesson learned is that whatever solution comes about it has to take into account individual and collective rights in ways that grapples history and Leila points out the seriousness of grappling the history of Jewish Israelis who are there now for 4 generations and how to deal with them, their claims, their history and move forward.
LF: Many Palestinians answered by saying that they could stay. The more pressing question is how to get them to accept the right of return, to share the land on equal terms. Today they have privileges they do not want to give up. How to have a humanist agenda? A two state solution is easier. You stay there, I stay here, we create borders. The two state solution is the best solution for Israel in the long term. Israel should have implemented it and moved some settlers. But Israel does not see it this way. So there is the question of practicality to answer but also certain fundamental questions that needs to be addressed. As Noura said, the rights based approach is the right approach. What made the two state solution fail is that we did not address the fundamentals of the problem. What made Camp David and Taba fail is that there was not the will to address and acknowledge the refugee problem. If Israel had acknowledged 194 many people would have agreed on two states. Same for sharing Jerusalem. The two states solution would have been solved. This is telling us that we have to come back to the fundamentals of the problem. We are talking about a Zionist movement which has been settler colonial. How to emancipate it from its colonial legacy. The only way it can do that is by accepting a rights paradigm in which everybody has equal rights in Palestine.
NE: There is also this feeling especially amongst really effective BDS activists that they can just pressure Israel to comply with these norms but the truth is that you could pressure South Africa to dismantle apartheid and you now suddenly have a black majority in power. But how are you going to pressure Israel to dismantle this idea of bifurcating Jewish nationality to Israeli citizenship, from rights to land. There needs to be a process of the repatriation and restitution of refugees into the land and that requires political program that requires cooperation. How is that cooperation going to happen? If indeed we believe that BDS is the non-violent solution, we have to begin imagining what cooperation would ideally look like in that situation. Otherwise we should look for alternatives all together.
LMaDO: What about if the Palestinian authority accepts an Israeli solution based on the apartheid wall as border, with no return of the refugees…?
Even though the laws of apartheid were dismantled in South Africa (S.A), economic apartheid still exists. By making a parallel between Palestine and South Africa we have to remember that things on the ground there are far from perfect. Is that what you want? What type of state do you want?
LF: We cannot confuse a struggle for rights vs implementing these rights. The S.A example is very important insofar as the apartheid legal struggle has been won. But abolishing a legal structure of discrimination does not mean you have an equitable society. You still have fundamentally unequal economic power relationship. What happened in S.A is that after the end of apartheid, the inevitability was that everyone was equal in front of the law but effectively some of us are more powerful than others because we are still in a capitalist system that is going to reward the more powerful. The problem of S.A today has nothing to do with the way apartheid was ended but it has to do with the fact that we are in structural relationship of economic inequality that requires a different social agenda. Today in Israel and Palestine not everybody is equal. Israelis have more privileges than the Palestinians because they have been the eternal victims. This discourse cannot continue. Will one state resolve the big income inequality between Israelis and the Palestinians? The GDP in Israel is 10 times higher than in Palestine. This needs different political and social policies. This should not come at the expense of the rights based approach. Many Palestinians argue that the reason why we should never ask for one state is because accepting that is declaring a capitulation of the Palestinian national movement to Zionism. It’s accepting the capitulation of Palestinian self- determination to a struggle of individuals who want equal rights. I do not agree with that because for me self-determination is being defined in other ways. It is no longer tied to exclusive territorial sovereignty. Today if you talk to the youth in Palestine, they do not care about a state. They are very clear about their identity. They care about rights. They do not give a damn if the next door neighbors is Israeli or not as long as they have equal rights and the same access to education, health and freedom of movement than them. This is different from thirty years ago where you wanted to create a state. This has changed. The discourse of rights does not guarantee a socialist or an equitable economic agenda. It’s like today in the US. We have an American black president. This has been the result of one hundred and fifty years of struggle. But does this mean that we solved the problems of inequalities and racism in America? Of course not. It’s a continuous struggle but it becomes one about moving the institutions and creating the legal structures that empower the African Americans instead of just saying that we are all equal in principle.
NE: I want to add something that might be more controversial. You’re right, rights will not guarantee an equitable society. However, the paradox of a rights-based approach is that we are guaranteeing a non-revolutionary solution. When you are just demanding some sort of reform of the law without the substance that would accompany it, all you are getting is the removal of obstacles without the restitution, the reparation and the equality that should be afforded in a more revolutionary context. For those who are demanding the rights-based approach, are we putting ourselves in a bind that means we could end up like the South African model? Consider that the greatest pinnacle of achievement for African Americans in recent history has been the 1965 Civil Rights Act. All that did was afford equality and remove the obstacles to actually having the right to be equal. What we see now is the high concentration of African Americans in US prisons. There is no redress, to the contrary. These very racist institutions that once held blacks in bondage because of institutional slavery now create this institutional racism that criminalizes black behavior in disproportionate rate. How do we address that? I am not sure.
LF: You need a new social and political agenda.
NE: Yes, but I do not think it’s worth stressing up too much because at the end of the day each solution is imperfect. I believe that the two states trajectory leads us to a dead end. The one state trajectory is not utopia but the opportunities that it affords are much grander and much wider and offer more space to actually fight for those rights that otherwise would not exist. The struggle we are fighting for is the right to assert what our life looks like. Right now, Palestinians are persona non-grata, what happens to them is decided by someone else. Within a racist society, how do you begin to have the opportunity to start creating alternatives?
LMaDO: What does solidarity means? Standing in solidarity with the Palestinian People? What’s my role? What’s the role of internationals? What about if tomorrow the solution accepted by the Palestinians goes completely against our moral and ethical principles? A bantustanised solution on 15% of the West Bank, for example? Where does solidarity end?
LF: This is a very good and pertinent question but let me first be practical and pragmatic. The two- state solution I do believe in the short run, is what we are going to get. The P.A is going to accept it because it is the only offer in town. The West Bank will be linked more to Jordan, Gaza to Egypt. There are internal debates that the Palestinians have to address. The solidarity movement in this respect has to do two things. Protect international law. The right of the refugees to return and the rest. Don’t think that if tomorrow a two states agreement is signed the problem is going to be resolved. You are going to spend at least ten years to implement it. And in those ten years many problems are going to arise. The issue is do we have a solution based on equality and respect or one based on capitulation and inequality. International law gives the vehicle to talk about Palestinian rights. The role of the solidarity movement is not to say what to do to the Palestinians. It is to stand in solidarity with the refugees in Lebanon claiming that the right of return is to be protected. To stand in solidarity with people in Bil’in and Na’alin demonstrating against the wall. There are various levels in which you can intervene. The rights based approach is the best one if you want to defend Palestinians rights. This is going to be with us regardless of if we have a two states or one state solution.
NE: Amongst Palestinians we have no qualms to say that the Palestinian leadership is an illegitimate one. Ruling without any presidential mandate and without any support from the people. There should be no confusion that even if they did agree to an agreement, as far as most Palestinians are concerned it will not represent their popular will. There is a question of whether or not it should be put to a referendum to the refugees and the diaspora Palestinians in order to decide if whether or not this is legitimate. Which brings me to the second question: if there is no referendum there is a tremendous responsibility on Palestinians themselves to articulate the alternative that should provide a different leadership and structure with more legitimacy. At the very least we need to protest these outcomes just as the Palestinian community has done before. For example when Abu Mazen rescinded the Goldstone report from the Human Rights Council there was a protest from the diaspora that forced him to retract his steps. Same when he said he did not care about his right of return. The response from the community forced him to backtrack. This is a critical moment for Palestinians themselves to be taking this responsibility. The other unknown quantity is what is Hamas going to do? They are not part of the negotiations, they have not been brought into it, there is no discussion of lifting the blockade of Gaza, ending the siege. So what role do they play? That’s a question we need to answer.