Seven Questions

Holding Obama to His Word in the Middle East

Palestinian peace activist Mustafa Barghouti explains why statehood is devolving into apartheid.

U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell's recent return to the Middle East marks the tentative resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process through "proximity talks," as U.S. diplomats will shuttle between the two sides in the hopes of establishing the groundwork for direct negotiations. Palestinian politician Mustafa Barghouti, however, is not sitting on his hands waiting for the United States to fix everything: "We expect that, if the Palestinian Authority took the guide from Obama on the issue of settlements, we expect that the American administration would say to Israel: Enough is enough," he says about the U.S. president.

A longtime campaigner for Palestinian rights whose activism has focused on nonviolent resistance, Barghouti ran in the 2005 Palestinian presidential election, finishing second to Mahmoud Abbas; won a seat in the Palestinian Legislative Council in the 2006 election; and served as minister of information for the Palestinian unity government in 2007. In Washington to meet with U.S. officials prior to the beginning of proximity talks, he sat down with Foreign Policy to discuss the threat posed by Israeli settlement growth, how the Palestinian Authority has lost its way, and why U.S. President Barack Obama is responsible for the poor results of peace talks.

Foreign Policy: What was the message that you received from the United States about what the upcoming indirect talks can accomplish at this point?

Mustafa Barghouti: We're getting two kinds of messages. On one side there is a lot of involvement in lots of little details. That makes us worried that people could get lost in the bushes, especially because the Israelis are very skillful in dividing issues and postponing them. I'm really worried about what could happen to Mitchell -- I don't want him to be lost in the jungle of details.

On the other hand, we got a message from top-level people in the policymaking [community] that Obama is not about incremental, little things. His policy is about the resolution of this issue. That's why I think it's a turning point.

FP: You mentioned that you showed maps to the U.S. officials -- what did they show, and what point did you hope to illustrate with them?

MB: The maps show that Israel has created, over the last 43 years, a matrix of several things, each of which is contributing to destroying the option of potential peace. The matrix includes settlement building and checkpoints to prevent freedom of Palestinian movement. It includes the wall, which is demarcating the borders, downsizing the whole idea of Palestinian statehood from West Bank and Gaza into little clusters of bantustans and ghettos. Israeli military orders that practically make Israel the only source of legislation for Palestinians as well.

That combination of factors together is determining a new reality, which is an apartheid system instead of real Palestinian statehood. When you see the maps, you see the creeping annexation and the creeping apartheid system -- but the most important [facts] are the new geopolitical realities that make the whole idea of the peace based on a two state solution impossible.

FP: In the past, Palestinians have negotiated with Israelis while settlement construction is still ongoing. What changed to make the Palestine Liberation Organization harden its position on this?

MB: Obama. He made a speech in Cairo in which he set the record straight. He said [that] we called for a road map. The road map says that Palestinians should implement security measures to guarantee security and the Israelis should stop settlements. And he said there should be an immediate freeze of settlements because that is what is in the road map. So the Palestinian leaders took the words from Obama. I also took the word from him because he said to us, "Don't use violence, use nonviolence."

So we expect that, if the Palestinian Authority took the guide from Obama on the issue of settlements, we expect that the American administration would say to Israel: Enough is enough. What's happening is amazing. Instead of pressuring Israel, the pressure keeps coming on the Palestinian side -- even when it does what the American administration asks them to do.

FP: What are the three main issues the PLO wants to make progress on with these proximity talks?

MB: Total and complete freeze of settlements. Israeli admission that they're ready to negotiate all final status issues without exceptions or preconditions. Finally, clear indication that the end result will be the end of occupation. This is the goal.

FP: What has your model of nonviolent resistance been able to accomplish?

MB: We led the Palestinian scene not by force or by controlling huge resources, not by military power  -- we managed to lead by the power of example. And that's why it pleases me to see that everybody in Palestine, whether it's [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas, or Fatah, or [Palestinian Prime Minister Salam] Fayyad, or even Hamas, talk about adopting nonviolence.

Hamas now moved in the direction that we should combine [methods]. That's a big change from the past, when they used to tell me, "You have a women's struggle," giving this kind of sexist description. But there has been a change. I found that, after I and 26 other peace activists took a ship from Larnaca [a port in Cyprus] and risked our lives in confronting the Israeli Navy and broke the siege on Gaza, that affected a lot of the people in Gaza by showing the power of nonviolence.

 

FP: Is the Palestinian Authority still a democracy?

MB: No. Democracy was the first victim of the split [between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank]. Today you have violations of democracy in Gaza and the West Bank. Today, instead of separation of powers, we have fusion of powers. All the powers are in the hands of the two executive authorities, and the Legislative Council is totally marginalized.

That's wrong for internal life in Palestine, it's wrong for the future of our kids, and it's wrong for peace. The only peace that will last is between two democracies. And that's why we insist on regaining our unity so that we can return gradually to a democratic system, where politicians will be accountable to their people before they are accountable to foreign donors or foreign governments.

FP: What are your thoughts on Fayyad's institution-building efforts in the West Bank? And the plan to declare a state by 2011?

MB: Definitely, he did a good job with cleaning up the financial system and creating a unified financial structure. But we have to find a way where people don't get the wrong impression that internal economic development means statehood. Statehood is much bigger than that. You don't build states or get freedom by improving government offices. We need territory. Today the Palestinian government is not allowed to function in 60 percent of the West Bank. They aren't allowed to work in Jerusalem. I think internal fixing of the Palestinian structures is important and useful for state-building, but it doesn't substitute for the need to end occupation.

Institution building does not only mean government building. It means society building. That means giving more space to civil society and allowing it to be vibrant. In our history, civil society was the structure that saved our lives during very harsh times of occupation. Civil society protected Palestinian society when the government itself collapsed during the second intifada. I think what we need is a balance between government and civil society building.

[As for declaring a state,] he didn't say we would declare a state. He said we would have it. I am sure Israel would be very happy if we declare a state and then they tell us you can have your state in these enclaves of bantustans -- in less than 40 percent of the West Bank. The picture is clear. We want a state, we want the two-state solution. But you cannot have a state under occupation.

PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images

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