Dr. Mohammed Abu-Nimer, Associate professor at the American University's School of International Service in International Peace and Conflict Resolution, Director of the Peace Building and Development Institute, and cofounder and co-editor of the new Journal of Peace building and Development, talks to IA-Forum about Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and U.S. policy in the Middle East.
International Affairs-Forum: What are your reflections on Yasser Arafat’s life and his impact on Palestine and the Middle East?
Dr. Mohammed Abu-Nimer: Arafat’s grip on the political and narrative of the Palestinian national movement lasted for 40 years and that’s too long for any leader to be in power. The movement emerged from almost nothing. As its leader, he brought the movement national recognition and advanced the Palestinian cause. He sometimes used questionable methods (including kidnapping, bombing airlines, and other violent means) that were typical tactics used by liberation movements from the 60's into the 80's. But Arafat “redeemed” himself by the late 80's when he accepted Israel and a two state solution. Unfortunately, from November 1988 until his death last year, he could not bring the Palestinians political rewards significant enough to match the concessions he made as a political leader, especially through Oslo.
IA-Forum: How do you view his death affecting Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli relations?
Dr. Abu-Nimer: Arafat’s death represents not only new leadership but an opportunity for a new style of leadership in Palestine. His absence from the political scene provides a new opportunity, mainly internally, for Palestinian leaders to positively handle internal disputes and matters in a different way; especially with issues of democracy and mismanagement of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA).
On the Israeli side, and the overall dispute over Palestine, I’m more pessimistic. I don’t think his absence will have much effect on the situation, especially with the current Israeli government. It’s not going to change much unless Sharon’s government, with its right wing ideology, becomes willing to agree to what Arafat demanded as a permanent arrangement: to dismantle more settlements, withdraw troops from the West Bank and Gaza, have a viable Palestinian state, claim East Jerusalem to the Palestinians as the national capital, and handle the issue of the refugees. These are the minimal points that the Palestinians will accept. So far, Sharon’s policy has not been forthcoming on these issues. Sharon is not really capable in his political ideology to make these types of concessions that will give the Palestine genuine self determination.
Secondly, I don’t think Arafat’s absence from the political scene will change the situation much except if there is a sincere movement on the part of the Bush administration to intervene and influence Sharon into making some more tangible political concessions.
The siege of Arafat for the three years in Ramallah and Sharon’s success in demonizing him served Israeli government purpose not to make any concession and freeze any progress in the peace process. With Abu Mazzen winning the election and Arafat’s death, there are now no more excuses for Israel not to deliver what they promised.
IA-Forum: Are you pessimistic then about the Road Map’s chance for success?
Dr. Abu-Nimer: With the recent elections and a movement towards democratization, Palestinians have done most of their part to meet the Road Map’s guidelines. The only thing that has been missing is controlling Hamas and the Jihad from operations inside Israel and, in the last 2-3 months, there haven’t been any operations inside Israel. Hamas and Jihad have been targeting the Israeli military in the West Bank and Gaza except the firing of Kasam rockets by them. I don’t think Abu Mazzen, or any Palestinian leader, is capable of controlling those attacks without a peace deal that satisfies some of the demands that people have made in the past, such as: stopping the assassination policy, freezing settlement expansion, removing the checkpoints, giving more mobility to people, and providing jobs and economic development. I think if these demands are enacted, Hamas will have no credibility in arguing that they should continue to launch the rockets.
There is also the issue of the Wall, which constitutes a prison for the entire Palestinian community. It adds to the suffering of Palestinians which gives more legitimacy and power to Hamas’ argument that the Israeli government cannot be trusted and will not change without using violence against them.
For the Road Map to work, Israel must be willing to deliver an agreement/package that satisfies minimal Palestinian demands. There are no more concessions that can be made on the Palestinian side for Abu Mazzen, as moderate as he is, to have credibility among the people.
IA-Forum: Some call Sharon a peace builder, a man of peace, while others consider him a man who cloaks his true intentions in Palestine. Your thoughts?
Dr. Abu-Nimer: Bush called Sharon ‘a man of peace’ as early as 2002 when Sharon was destroying Palestinian houses and destroying all infrastructures that the U.S. and the donor countries had paid for in the West Bank and Gaza. In three years, he managed to destroy whatever infrastructure the Palestinians had achieved between 1993 and 2000. He basically has his own agenda - destroying the possibility of a viable Palestinian state, adding more settlements, and continuing to control the Palestinian authority as a mechanism to oversee and basically act as a police force for the Israeli army. This is motivated by a right-wing ideology that is ‘we can maybe give up Gaza and some symbolic parts of the West Bank, but 58% of West Bank will remain as an integral part of Israel and under its control.’ If that’s indeed the agenda and policy he’s implementing, then there will be no possibility for negotiations . . . even if he pulls out of Gaza; because if he pulls out of Gaza, it can be used by Israel - which is the fear of many Palestinians - as a step toward a situation where this agenda is a permanent resolution.
The danger is that the Gaza plan becomes the permanent solution for Palestinians, without significant dismantling of settlements in the West Bank. Sharon will dismantle two or three symbolically but meanwhile, he is building hundreds of others and dismantling thousands of settlers in the West Bank territory. Here’s an analogy of the situation: you have a neighbor and you have a segment of your backyard that’s bothering you and bothering your neighbor. Instead of dealing with it, you move it into your neighbor’s area and say this is your problem, ‘I have no responsibility, nothing to do with it’ - although the problem was created by you. And that’s what Sharon’s doing in Gaza - he’s taking 1.3 million people, removing them, and telling the Palestinian authority ‘this is your problem, I have nothing to do with it’, although Israel has had 40 years of occupation which initially created the Gaza refugee problem.
Pulling out of Gaza without coordination and with maintaining control over its boundaries with no meaningful sovereignty is really exacerbating the Palestinian problems and driving the region into more violence and extremism. It is locking over million people in a tight prison with their own guards. The so called unilateral pullout needs to be a step toward Palestinian statehood not as a tool for Sharon internal politics and a step to claiming more land in the West Bank
On the other hand, Sharon is the first Israeli prime minister who will dismantle Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory; not Rabin, Netanyahu, Barak, or Shamir. Sharon is certainly going to deliver on this issue in Gaza - so from the view of an external observer, it will be perceived as making a good step. I’m not sure if that good step would qualify him to be “a man of peace” but it is certainly a positive step toward it if he delivers with the other issues in the West Bank...
IA-Forum: Should the U.S. play more of a role in facilitating peace in the Middle East?
Dr. Abu-Nimer: Let’s examine some historical aspects first. The U.S. role started there in the late 40s after the British pulled out. From the beginning, the U.S. has been very supportive of Israel economically, currently providing almost $5B a year in aid. This is more than aid given to the entire continent of Africa with little or no accountability of where the money is being spent. They have also blindly provided full military support including equipment and technology. This is given to an Israeli army that has been working and functioning as an occupation army that has violated human rights and the Geneva Convention since 1967. Israeli governments have rationalized or explained their actions under the premise of ‘the security of Israel’ despite the fact that Israel has more than 200 nuclear warheads. This means, militarily, since 1967, Israel is not under any danger of being attacked, wiped out, or having any significant threat; yet that security justification has been used to gain aid from the United States.
But more important than military and economic aspects, the U.S. has been historically biased in their policymaking toward Israel in dealing with this conflict except for one historical decision when President Bush, Sr. placed pressure on the Shamir government in 1989-91, forcing them to come to the table which started the Oslo agreement or at least opened the path to the only Israeli-Palestinian agreement in 100 years. This indicates to any analyst how powerful U.S. pressure can be on Israel if used in order to balance and come to agreement between the two sides.
However, there are many ways the U.S. can handle and facilitate the Israeli-Palestinian resolution. The U.S. should at least have a policy that expresses high level engagement; that is, the U.S. should show its sincere commitment to help the two parties reach an agreement as opposed to President Bush, Jr.’s hands-off policy. When there are two people fighting and you say ‘I’m not going to deal with it’, you’re supporting the status quo. By not dealing with it, you’re saying to Sharon, ‘go ahead, do whatever you want, you have a green light’. Sharon has done exactly that and the U.S. has implied support through inaction. I think there needs to be a bit of balance in that area.
Another thing the U.S. could do is place some pressure on Israel and the Palestinians to accept a multinational peace and a permanent cease fire. These cannot only help provide Israel with security but also provide Palestinians assurances that their conflict will be dealt with and therefore show that the U.S. is committed and will provide them some form of security from the Israeli occupation. Moreover, they should also provide aid packages to the Palestinians for managing and building some of their infrastructures in order to reduce the level of unemployment which is more than 60% in some areas.
The U.S. should not recognize Israeli governance in Jerusalem as legitimate - something this administration has done and is the opposite of what Clinton was trying to do. What America can also do is recognize or put more pressure on monitoring the Israeli construction and expansion of settlements. This administration considers settlements as illegitimate yet that’s lip service. In reality, they don’t monitor it, they don’t prevent Israel from expanding, and they continue to accept the defacto situation that Israel has tried to create there.
On the Palestinian side, the government can support more democratization and give the Palestinian prime minister more assurances that if he comes down hard on the radicals of Hamas and Jihad, he will receive more meaningful support from the U.S. to help deliver a viable state, deal with the refugees, and other issues.
IA-Forum: Muslims see images of U.S. tanks and helicopters being used by Israeli forces against Palestinians. Has U.S. support of Israel this fueled antagonism toward the west and created a split between the Muslim world and the United States?
Dr. Abu-Nimer: I’m not sure that I would call it a split between the U.S. and Muslim world. I know however, that there are an overwhelming majority of Arabs and Muslims who disagree with U.S. foreign policy as it has been implemented in the last 40-50 years in the Middle East and especially regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. On the other hand, over 60-70% of Arabs and Muslims enjoy and support democratic values and the image of the U.S. in terms of human rights, democracy, and economic development that we try to project to the world. The dilemma is in the gap between what we claim to be and what we are actually doing on the ground in the Arab and Muslim world.
For example, the U.S. continues to support Arab and Muslim dictatorship regimes in almost all the Arab and Muslim worlds. These regimes are maintained by the U.S. security forces and political support. In the Gulf area, the U.S. supports these countries despite their violations of human rights and slow democratization processes.
If you’re an average person in the Arab and Muslim world, you wonder why the leading democratic country in the world supports regimes that are non-democratic and dictatorships and also supports the most brutal occupation in the world - that of the Israelis in Palestine. You only have to listen to the radio or the streets in Palestine and you see kids collecting gas bombs or bullets fired by the Israelis and you see their manufacturers’ trade mark: “Made in the USA”. You look at F-16s and you know that they are provided by the United States.
The average Arab or Muslim person has a hard time making sense of this gap between rhetoric and actions of the U.S. Unless the U.S. realizes that, its relationship with the common citizens of the Muslim world cannot be fixed and certainly without a significant, genuine change in its policy toward Israel-Palestine. It’s not only because Palestine is a holy place for many Muslims, but also because this conflict, for the last 100 years, has been manipulated by Arab leadership as well as western leadership as the core conflict, as the flag of Muslim-Christian/Western relations; thus you cannot skip over it as this administration has tried to do. In the early attack on Iraq, after 9/11, Bush went to the UN and said there is no link between post-9/11 policy and the Palestinian situation...and everybody said at that point - no, there is a link. Part of the legitimacy that Al-Qaeda and other groups in the Muslim world are using in order to justify their terrorist attacks is the situation in Palestine. If US policy makers don’t understand that, they’re blind or motivated by other political forces. I hope they realize the link now and adjust their policy.
IA-Forum: Does the U.S. understand the Muslim world?
Dr. Abu-Nimer: If you’re asking whether U.S. foreign policy makers comprehend/understand the mentality, values, culture, religion, and the political and human interests of the Arab and Muslim world, I don’t think so. However, I believe our foreign policy institutions, in the last 40 to 50 years, have always had a minority group of officials who recognize and comprehend that the dominant official policy toward issues in the Muslim world is flawed. But their voices have not been strong enough in any administration to reverse our policy. They have tried to voice alternative ways to deal with the Muslim world out of appreciation of its culture, people, and a general liberal perspective. Unfortunately, that minority hasn’t been effective in affecting overall U.S. policy.
Other institutions - military, media - have helped shape what Americans learn about Islam in a way that I think contributes negatively to the relationship. It is dehumanized as a culture and religion and not being understood. Anything that has to do with Islam is presented as the flag of terrorism. Leaders of U.S. institutions do not have the comprehension and understanding of the Muslim world and often go by stereotyping and Islam continues to be a foreign entity to many American policy makers. The only way to understand Muslim interests, culture, and values is by creating more programs that facilitate more communication so that average citizens can view and comprehend that the Muslim world is a very complex one much like the U.S.. Hopefully, the Muslim world will understand the complement of this as well.
IA-Forum: Thank you, Dr. Abu-Nimer.
Dr. Abu-Nimer: Thank you.
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