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.


Seven Questions

Iran's Home Movies

Exiled Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi tells FP how he fell in love with cinema -- and why Iran needs its film industry now more than ever.


Earlier this week, a prominent Iranian filmmaker, Mohammad Nourizad, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for "insulting" Iran's leaders in the aftermath of last June's presidential election. He is hardly the first filmmaker to get in trouble with the regime; today, artists like Nourizad are at the center of Iran's internal struggle. For 31 years, social commentary under the Islamic Republic of Iran has become increasingly politicized. With the regime viewing the enforcement of strict religious values as one of its fundamental goals, the line between personal expression and criticism of the government has become blurred. Censors from the country's Ministry of Culture have clamped down, but filmmakers have also pushed back, using their work to test the regime's limits. Some, such as Jafar Panahi, have been thrown in jail, while others, such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, have chosen exile.

That's what happened to another of Nourizad's peers -- Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi. After leaving Tehran for the Cannes Film Festival in April 2009, Ghobadi decided it was just too risky to return home. After years of filming in Iran, Ghobadi has now joined the ranks of fellow filmmakers abroad, splitting his time between Kurdistan, Europe, and the United States. His most recent film, No one Knows About Persian Cats, screened on Monday night at the Washington D.C. International Film Festival, explores the little-known underground music scene in Iran and the fight for creative freedom. In an interview with Foreign Policy's Kayvan Farzaneh, Bahman Ghobadi discusses how he got his start, the importance of Iran's creative culture, the repression of art under the Islamic Republic, and the green shoots emerging among Persian youth that make him optimistic in an otherwise bleak moment.

Foreign Policy: Why did you get into filmmaking?

Bahman Ghobadi: I was never in love with cinema. When I was young I used to love these sandwiches that my uncle used to buy me [when we went to the movies]. I think that my love for sandwiches just pulled me toward cinema.

When I was 18 years old, my parents separated. We were seven children with my mother, and I, as the eldest son, had to look for work. Then I got my hands on a book called Cinema of Animation and I wanted an outlet for my energy and so I went and bought an 8-mm camera and I read this book 20 times, because there was no other source -- there was no university or film school. So I made a movie about the competition between Iranian and foreign cigarettes. Then someone told me to send it in to a film festival, which I did even though I didn't know what a festival was. I won the top prize. They gave me three gold coins and I gave them to my mother -- that paid the rent for our house for five or six months. So my mother told me, "Go make more movies."

Then I realized that animation was very difficult, so I started to make documentaries. It started as a way to pay for things -- and in the process of living and working and supporting my family, I learned the art of filmmaking. It became a weapon in my hands to express my opinions. As I grew more mature and my vision expanded, I thought I could raise questions and show the problems and hardships of the Kurds.

FP: Do you believe that film has a special place in Iranian culture?

BG: Iran has always been a land of culture. Although we were later torn apart, that gene never died. Now, once again, it seems that is coming back and no dictatorial government can ever stop it. Music and cinema, for as long as they have been around, have pulled Iran forward. If it had not been for the last 31 years, Iranian music could have been one of the most powerful in the world.

Ninety percent of the artistic production in Iran is now underground, and most foreigners are unaware of it. For 31 years, and even before the revolution, we've had these young artists, but you just can't see them. It was even a shock to me when I discovered them. I realized that beneath the underground was another underground -- even three or four layers -- and we were not aware of this. [The government] is trying to blind us so we don't see it. But now, I think and I hope -- perhaps unreasonably -- that it is starting to show itself.

FP: So do you believe that Iranian film is more rooted in freedom of expression than other film industries?

BG: No, I don't think so. You cannot judge Iranian work on the basis of censorship.

FP: Are you optimistic about the future for Iran?

BG: Very. Iran is a powerful country. No people could have endured such assaults like the Iranian people have.

FP: What are some of the obstacles in terms of censorship and financing your movies?

BG: There are many. This kind of art is not supported. [The government] has the money and the power and they will only support the kind of work that they want. It's what they want, not what you want. What's worrisome is that the reins of the youth are in the hands of these merciless people. Art must swim against the current; [the government] can't exploit art.

FP: Do your films have to be shown underground? Do they reach a wide audience?

BG: I sent my [most recent] film to Iran. The first country where it was screened was Iran. I gave it out for free; I told them that I didn't need money and that they could copy it. This was only for the Iranians in the country, not for those outside of Iran, because they'll bring some 20 foreigners with them to see the movie.

Since I gave the film out freely, everyone is watching it. And I told them, look around you and if there is any money, give it to these young people who are trying to create art. Now I'm getting emails from the young people in Iran telling me, "The people are looking at us differently; we're getting much more positive reception."

FP: If you had the choice to either work in the West or in Iran, which would you choose?

BG: Iran, of course. It's my country. I have to serve them. We artists form the basis of every culture and we take pride in our cultural past -- not in our political or military past or nuclear past. That is why we need to preserve that foundation. If these young people cannot reach their ideals, then it is better for the world to die.

Now they've thrown me out. I'm waiting for the chance to return.