Palestine and Peace: The Looming Challenges
By Hanan Ashrawi
April 30, 2007

This essay is adapted from a speech Dr. Ashrawi gave at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC on April 24, 2007.

Everybody has been talking about crisis management and damage control and will the Palestinian realities hold up or not and who's doing what and so on without really getting back into the real issue of whether there is an opportunity for peace or not. Yes, we all agree that these are very difficult times indeed, and we all know that the terrible Ds or the dreadful Ds have come up again. We see in Palestine a process of de-development, deconstruction. We see devastation, deprivation and, of course, leading to the attitudes or the moods of despondency and despair. All these are not conducive to peace. But out of all these terrible Ds or dreadful Ds, is there an opportunity for peace? Is there a promise despite the difficulties, despite the problems? Now, that requires a confluence of several factors to come together, and they have to be crowned by the political will to intervene positively and to do something to change realities on the ground. So, I will try this afternoon to talk about what works and what doesn't work if we really are to pursue peace and place it in a different context: the Palestinian, the regional and the international or global.

Now, what doesn't work. Of course, we all know from experience that what doesn't work is disengagement or non-engagement. Like nature, any conflict resents, dislikes and abhors a vacuum. When there is a vacuum in any conflict, particularly a political vacuum, violence takes over and fills that vacuum. Extremism fills that vacuum. And this is exactly what happened given the fact that since the year 2000, there has been no peace process, the U.S. has kept its distance [and] there was no genuine intervention in order to re-legitimize peace. So, keeping one's distance is certainly quite counterproductive if not destructive. In cases of conflict, you do need the political will to intervene effectively.

What doesn't work also is selectivity. I will try to speak quickly to save some time for questions or discussion. Selectivity and exclusion or exclusiveness do not work. In Palestine, of course, the fact that the people decided that Hamas is not an acceptable interlocutor or not an acceptable result of the democratic process has led to serious ramifications, not least of which is the undermining of democracy in Palestine because there was a certain degree of hypocrisy-you can have elections provided you elect the people we like or you guarantee the outcome. We were, in Palestine, electing under severe conditions. We were under occupation, and of course a people traumatized and in pain and constantly subject to violence and escalation and ideology, they elected in kind-those who will respond in kind to this trauma and the pain. And I assure you that if we were in a peaceful, sovereign state, I'm sure you will find a very functioning, multi-party, pluralistic, enlightened system in Palestine. But anyway, regardless, we do have the results of these elections. Not only were they boycotted, the Palestinians were under sanctions-which is ironic again because for the first time in history you have a people under occupation and under sanctions at the same time-while for decades Israel has been violating international law, flouting the will of the international community and with no sanctions, sometimes with even full immunity. But because the Palestinians happen to elect the wrong people, now they are under sanctions. And now after the Mecca initiative and the forming of what is called the national unity government-sometimes I call it a coalition government-there is selectivity in the individuals: whom to talk to and whom not to talk to, who is worthy of dialogue and personal attention and who's not or who's Kosher and who's not. It doesn't matter. But certainly that has had, again, effects on the economy, on peace, on moderation in Palestine.

Throughout the region, it's the same thing. You cannot select a people to talk to whom you approve of and exclude others. You cannot say well Syria and Iran are outside the verbal realm, but everybody else is fit company. If you want to deal with the whole region, you deal with it in an integrated way, and we'll talk about it soon. The Baker-Hamilton study, of course, gave us several handles on how to move ahead. It may not be perfect, but at least it is much more insightful than other attitudes and studies. Syria has been saying, "Let's make a deal. We want to make peace. Talk to us. Let's negotiate." And Israel reacted with the utmost of horror, with awe. How dare Syria propose to negotiate? So in a sense, there are options, but are there takers? That's the real question.

Of course, conversely, what works is a comprehensive, integrated approach both to the region and to all the players [and] to the peace process itself, including all the major players in the region regardless of whether you like them or not. Unlike friends, interlocutors and negotiating partners are not people you have to love. And you don't have to choose them or marry them or whatever. So, you need to be able to talk to everybody. Again, the peace process has to be inclusive in terms of all the topics it addresses. You cannot deal with parts of Arab land. You have to deal with all of them. And when it comes to the Palestinians, you have to talk to all Palestinian interlocutors-those who were chosen by the Palestinian people. And fortunately right now, we all know that the PLO is the party in power to negotiate, and the presidency has the mandate to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian people. There is no reason not to engage. To use the pretext that Israel has used for the last six to seven years-there is no partnership for peace-is entirely useless because there is a clear partnership and a properly mandated address for negotiations.

There is, of course, the Arab initiative that is ready. Again, it may not be perfect, but it is there. It's a comprehensive approach. It represents an opportunity for Israel and the rest of the world to have a comprehensive peace with all the Arab countries on board, and this is something they should pick up and run with instead of view with weariness and suspicion.

What doesn't work also is de-contextualization. This is particularly true when we address the issue of Iraq and Lebanon-the Iraqi quagmire and the Lebanese debacle, of course-and the lessons from those two experiences. The region is not a set of discrete, isolated entities or units. It is made up of a set of relationships and with an interactive public opinion that is quite open and easily influenced by events and highly politicized and highly critical. I'm sure you all know that. I don't believe there is any public opinion that is as political, as critical and as intrusive as the Palestinian and Arab public opinion. And, of course, they are easily affected by what's happening. The rise of violence and extremism is due to the failure of voices of moderation and a failure of will at producing a just peace that will work. Again, the lessons learned from Iraq and Lebanon should tell us that military power has its limits, particularly in the region when you are fighting against either irregular forces or a captive civilian population. No matter how strong your army is there is no way in which you can defeat the will of the people or defeat irregular forces. You may bomb, shell, destroy, kill thousands, but at the same time [if] there's a people bent on being free, they will be free ultimately unless you eradicate all of them. And if there are irregular forces, you cannot defeat them using a strong army, and that experience in Lebanon and Palestine has proven that.

The dangers of unilateralism whether in the withdrawal from south Lebanon or the withdrawal from Gaza-if you insist on negating the partnership for peace, if you insist on negating the other and claiming there is no partner to talk to and acting unilaterally. We all know how unilateralism is a recipe or a euphemism for power politics. It's the dictation of the will of the strong on the weak because only the strong can afford to be unilateral, and we've seen that in Iraq, particularly when unilateralism is translated as the strategic doctrine of preemptive strike which is negative military intervention. And returning to UN resolutions, for the first time, Israel and the U.S. had to go to the UN and ask for a UN resolution and at the same time, they asked for international troops on the ground. All these are precedents, and these have to be understood in context again. They can be in many ways not a blueprint but influences or indicators for how to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli issue.

Another thing that doesn't work is polarization and dualism in the region. Of course, those who insist on dividing the region into devils and angels or axis of extremists versus a quartet of moderates or the Sunni/Shi'a divide do not understand the very complex realities and the nuanced reality of the region. And, of course, that makes it all that more difficult to engage in a genuine way and to try to find solutions. The fact is labels may be very convenient and may give you instant sound bytes but they do not give you handles on reality. And we do not want to be, as Palestinians, frankly a part of any axis or any alliance. We want to be free to engage with everybody and to deal with the region in such a way also as one way of losing your grips or your handles on reality in the region.

Within Palestine, again, we see this dualism and polarization. The latest elections prove that Palestinian society is extremely polarized. And I am saying this as [Palestinian Finance Minister] Salam [Fayyad] and I are in the Third Way, as you know. Salam was here last week. But the polarization was very clear between Fateh and Hamas, between people who had militias, people who had extreme ideologies and so on. The third alternative, including the old traditional left, did not make it numerically significant. We may be qualitatively significant but quantitatively certainly not that decisive. However, this kind of polarization reflects a certain malfunction. I don't want to say dysfunction. Dysfunction is for the Israeli political system. We have a malfunction in the political system, and it did happen at the expense of the pluralistic multi-party political system. We have again polarization between the government and the presidency, which we had hoped to overcome with the new government.

Again, we have the extremes between Gaza and the West Bank. They're dealing with Gaza as though it's a different reality, not just a geographic entity, but as though this is the Palestinian state while the West Bank is open up for grabs, open for dispute. And this so-called national unity government instead of genuine power-sharing became, let's say, a coalition government or a divvying up of these points and benefits and privileges, and that again is detrimental to political development.

Also, what doesn't work is procrastination and further transitions as usual. The whole concept of a state with transitional borders or what was called a transitional state is a very bizarre concept. I don't think it's ever been applied anywhere. There's no such thing as a state with transitional borders, and I hope that this is now dropped from the lexicon of politics and the region. We cannot have a state with transitional borders and we cannot have further transitions, which would be buying time for Israel to create facts in order to continue with the settlement expansion, with the building of the wall, with the annexation and transformation and captivity of Jerusalem. All these things cannot continue because they are the foundations of peace. When Israel is given a free hand unilaterally to predetermine their fate and their outcome then you're destroying the very foundations of peace.

And, of course, we talked about the U.S. dual approach. Now, the dual approach of the U.S. is the one plus one. Get [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert and [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas to talk one on one, Palestinians and Israelis, on issues of security and conditions of freedom of movement and conditions of life and so on. Now we've tried that before. When you talk about conditionality, when you talk about conditions of life, when you talk about Israel determining whether its security conditions have been met by the Israelis, this is a recipe not just for paralysis but for regression. So far, these meetings have not produced anything. Remember how many meetings they had before, and issues like release of prisoners and so on were supposed to be resolved and have not been. So, you raise expectations, you do not meet them, the let down can be extremely dangerous. So, one plus one does not work. We talk about bilateralism as being, again, the will of the powerful over the week.

Now, there is a four plus two. Israel asked for the four plus two, which is what they call the Arab Quartet plus Israel and Palestine. This is another term for normalization. Israel then wants to be recognized, wants to be accepted in the Arab world-let's talk, let's adopt the Arab initiative as a basis and then change it because we have reservations about the right of return, about Jerusalem and about settlements but we'd love to meet Saudi Arabia, for example. So, the four plus two is another formula for normalization.

Then there is also the four plus four plus two, which is the regular Quartet with the Arab Quartet with Palestine and Israel. So, what's different from the international conference? In that sense, why not go straight to the international conference? Let's put together a coalition of the willing for peace this time and see whether we can make a difference. So what works? Rapid, bold, decisive steps straight into permanent status issues that we all know; we do not need to reinvent the wheel. We do not have much time.

Now in Palestine, everybody is asking, how long will this government last? The average lifespan of any Palestinian government has been about eleven months to a year, so far, since 1994. So, I think this government will be coming to its end very soon by the end of the year, probably if it is within the average. Now how would this government end? How long will it last? How would it end? It depends on other factors, but if there is agreement, this government could be in preparation for elections. Elections cannot take place without consensus, without the agreement of all parties involved, particularly Hamas and Fateh. So maybe between now and the end of the year, there can be elections if all parties are convinced that early elections can work or it can be a preparation for a new type of government which we had advocated earlier: a government of professional, independent nationalists and not a factional government because factionalism has been detrimental to the development of a national program.

So, let's have a government of professionals, of independents who do not put factional interest above national interest and who are capable of building a system of meritocracy. We don't want them to be, you know, brilliant politicians. We want them to start providing services to people. That's what we need, and we need institutions to be built. Now that's another option. The third option, of course, is a horrible option of a breakdown and violence, particularly given the fact that there are people who are stockpiling weapons- it's no secret. We should be very careful about that and notice it.

Now what doesn't work, of course, is violating the rule of law. In the peace process, you cannot violate international law and international humanitarian law. You cannot accommodate settlements and allow for settlement expansions and allow for the building of the wall and the annexation of Jerusalem. You cannot begin by negating [UN Resolution] 194 and the Palestinian refugees' rights and then say, "Well now that we've done all these things, let's start negotiating," because that would deprive this peace process of its legality, of its very foundations in international law. And again, the same thing in Palestine, we also need the rule of law. And the rule of law requires primarily security reform. We do not need to reinvent the wheel, again, but it has to be implemented.

The security forces cannot be political forces, they must be depoliticized and they must not be engaged in anything financial. They must be reformed in terms also of their numbers. The militias have to be disbanded, including the executive force. I do not see the executive force as a legitimate security service. It is a militia and it was given the title of a security force. All illegal weapons must be collected. The use of weapons must be regulated, particularly in Gaza. The security services must become law enforcement agencies rather than power centers for warlords and tribes. We must get rid of tribalism.

If you do not have rule of law, if people do not have recourse to justice, then what you will end up with is revenge because so many things have happened, particularly in Gaza. There are many families that have their own militias and as a result, again, of economic deprivation, militias have become a way of making a living for some of the young men. So if you do not have due process, if people do not have recourse to the law, then of course they will take the law into their own hands and revenge, within a tribal traditional system, will continue to be the main motivation.

The National Security Council has to be a credible and effective council and not, again, a combination of power basis and leaders. Lawlessness and kidnappings have to end. We cannot continue to say that we want to build a state and at the same time act outside the law and kidnap journalists and others. Now with Israel, of course, there has to be an upholding and an extension of the period of quiet to include also the West Bank. All these incursions in the last couple of days have killed nine Palestinians. The incursions are ongoing in the West Bank-the destruction, the abductions, this has to stop. And with Israel, we need to carry out an exchange of prisoners, and Israel has to stop the taking of hostages as well because the PLC [Palestinian Legislative Council] members and the cabinet members have been abducted as hostages. So, we do need a prisoner exchange that is rapid and decisive. Now again, what doesn't work is the logic of violence. We all know that, whether with assassinations; incursions; infighting in Palestinians or in the region; the Iraqi war and the so-called war on terrorism.

What works is the logic of national building and reconstruction and peace. We need economic revitalization in Palestine if we are to engage in a genuine peace process. The international community is called upon to first lift the sanctions and the siege [and] two, return the funds, the Palestinian funds that Israel is withholding. The U.S. also has to lift the banking restrictions and the E.U. must end TIM. I don't know if you are aware of TIM-Temporary International Mechanisms. The E.U. adopted TIM as a way of sort of circumventing dealing with the government. So, TIM is a mechanism in which you give money directly either to the presidency or to the poor or whatever and you bypass the government. Now this has, again, wreaked havoc in the Palestinian national economic system because this way there is no transparency no accountability, and you have destroyed the Ministry of Finance and all the procedures of transparency and accountability. We need to go back to the developmental agenda, national building agenda rather than the agenda of relief and charity and welfare and emergency assistance and so on. The Palestinians have to return to a unified treasury account, restore transparency and accountability, meet the wage bill [and] end the paralysis in the public institutions.

They have just declared today another strike in the civil service. We need to provide the essential services. The health and educational services are really regressing in very drastic ways. We need to carry out serious reform measures, reduce the numbers both in the civil service and in the security. Reform requires a blue ribbon commission that is properly mandated, that is formed in accordance with the law and is properly empowered to carry out the reform. The last thing you need is a reform that is, again, a dividing of the spoils where Hamas will agree that it will have so many in the civil service, so many in the security, so many ambassadors, so many governors, and Fateh will have so many. This is not reform. That's why we call for a properly mandated, empowered blue ribbon commission for reform that has no vested interest [and] that will not have a conflict of interest.

Of course, we need internal empowerment and good governance. We cannot separate nation building from peace making, again. The international community must not think that exacting political concessions from Hamas is the only achievement; that this is one way they can get legitimacy for Hamas and get the peace process going, which is exactly what's been happening. The Hamas political agenda has really undergone some serious transformations. I don't know if you're aware of it, but they have accepted the two-state solution. They've accepted the long term period of quiet and ceasefire. They have accepted all these things. They recognized signed agreements, Arab legitimacy international legitimacy and so on. All the things we were asking them to do, they have done. But that is not the real issue. To me, the real question is what is the nature of Palestinian society? This is something that people ignore. What kind of society are we going to build? Are we going to build an open, pluralistic, tolerant society or are we going to go back into a closed ideological system? This is what we want to know. Is there a deal being made between Hamas and Fateh at the expense of the people? Now, I must say in all candor that Palestinians have always been quite protective and possessive of our fundamental rights and basic freedoms. And we will not condone-and I will say this again-we will not condone the destruction of books or folk tales. And we will not condone the banning of the dabkeh or music as being immoral. And we will not condone the blowing up of internet cafes or beating up of young women because of the dress code in Gaza or burning of schools. They just burned the American school in Gaza.

So what we need to do, which is what civil society is doing, is stand up to any attempts at capturing Palestinian society and transforming it by force into a closed regressive unenlightened ideological system. That's why we are calling, as another mechanism, the national council for culture, education and the arts. These are the legacies of the future generations. We cannot leave them at the mercy of one party or the other or the narrow concerns or petty ideologies of one party or the other. That council will be in charge of the curriculum rather than each party manipulating the curriculum to suit its ends. And for social justice, we need a women's commission and the information council.

Barely what works now is the two-state solution. What we need to do for the peace process, a rapid decisive and comprehensive peace process, is define the objectives and move rapidly within a binding timeframe with monitoring and verification mechanisms, with international assurances and guarantees and with a massive reconstruction and development plan. Without all these things together, using the Arab initiative as the focus, we will not get anywhere. The political horizon must not be what everybody talks about a receding line in the distance. Ultimately, it has to be a genuine landscape for peace.

Dr. Hanan Ashrawi is a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and founder and chair of the executive committee at The Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy, MIFTAH. She is a former Minister of Higher Education and Research as well as a Palestinian spokesperson.