On February 20, 2013, the Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a policy discussion on the future of the Palestinian national project. Speakers assessed national efforts to end the Israeli occupation and achieve political reconciliation between opposing factions. Key national challenges were addressed against the backdrop of regional and international developments, such as the ongoing Arab Awakening and President Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel and the West Bank. The panel featured Mustafa Barghouthi, secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative, Sabri Saidam, deputy secretary-general of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, Ahmed Yousef, secretary-general of the House of Wisdom and former advisor to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, and Khaled Elgindy, fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. The discussion was moderated by BDC Director Salman Shaikh and attended by members of Qatar’s diplomatic, academic, business and media communities.
The debate opened with a discussion of Palestinian efforts, both past and present, to end the Israeli occupation. Barghouthi and Saidam agreed on the failure of peace negotiations and the role of popular non-violent resistance as a successful means of resisting the occupation, citing the protests at Bab al-Shams and recent hunger strikes as laudable examples. Barghouthi argued that the peace process had become a “substitute” for peace and a “cover” for Israeli settlement building in the West Bank, which, he said, was giving way to a “new system of Apartheid.” In order to end the occupation, he explained, Palestinians will need a new strategy that focuses on popular non-violent resistance, Palestinian unity, and a strong international solidarity campaign, as well as new economic policies to tackle high unemployment. Elgindy said there was growing consensus amongst the Palestinian people and leadership that “old ways” – namely, only negotiations or only armed struggle – had failed and that Palestinians “need to be much more creative on tactics to end the occupation.” He pointed out that popular resistance is consonant to what is happening around the region. Yousef, however, argued that Palestinians could not surrender the “military option” entirely and would therefore need to pursue a combination of violent and non-violent struggle in order to counter Israeli aggressions.
When challenged about the two-state solution, participants proved highly skeptical regarding its future prospects. Saidam argued that Israel was rendering this formula impossible “by etching a way through Palestinian geography.” Barghouthi warned that if Israelis intended to “kill” the two-state solution, Palestinians would fight for a pre-Oslo single democratic state. Yousef, meanwhile, expressed a personal preference for a “bi-national” state, but also blamed “Zionists” for the collapse of this project. When asked to reflect Hamas’s stance, he said the party recognized Palestinian unity, pre-1967 borders with Jerusalem as capital, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
As the conversation turned to the issue of national reconciliation, the general consensus was that Palestinian unity was a vital driving force of the Palestinian national agenda. Saidam, for instance, said he was “proud” to reach out to Hamas and “heal the wound” of the last six to seven years. He stressed the importance of “putting the Palestinian house in order” and accomplishing national reconciliation “in deeds, not words,” stressing the need to revive and reform the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Barghouthi added that, in order to succeed, national reconciliation would require the establishment of a unity government headed by Mahmoud Abbas, followed by elections. Yousef agreed that Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian National Initiative, and others should join the PLO in order for the organization to become a representative structure for Palestinian people “inside and outside.” He stressed the importance of ending divisions between factions; otherwise, he warned, “the street will revolt against the leadership.”
Discussing President Obama’s forthcoming visit to Israel and the West Bank, participants expressed disillusionment with U.S. policy on the Palestinian issue. Elgindy argued that, throughout recent history, Americans have sought to “depoliticize” Palestinian politics. He said Obama and his administration should recognize Palestinian politics as a reality that should be accommodated “on some level,” including recognition of the outcome of elections. He emphasized, however, that the United States would never “deliver” Israel and that Palestinians should not await any major American initiative to end the conflict. Barghouthi said that President Obama should stop ignoring the Palestinian issue while supporting Israel “unconditionally.” Saidam stressed that the “rules of the game had changed” and that America must come to terms with the fact that Hamas is now “part and parcel of the Palestinian political fabric.”
When asked to assess the impact of the Arab Awakening on the Palestinian issue, Barghouthi expressed great optimism. He described it as a positive development for democracy and freedom of expression that worked in favor of the Palestinian cause, rather than overshadowing it. Saidam also expressed admiration for the changes across the Arab world, describing them as a source of inspiration for the Palestinian people. “We want to see democracy on the Arab streets,” he added, “but don’t forget us.”
Elaborating on Hamas’s response to the uprisings, Yousef said the party was learning to benefit from the examples set by Islamists across the region. As newly-formed governments across the region struggle, he said, Hamas understands that the “only option to succeed and survive is to form coalitions with liberals and seculars.” Power-sharing with Fatah and other factions is the only way forward, he said, adding that Qatar, Turkey, and Egypt were supporting this choice and pushing Hamas to embrace reconciliation. When challenged on Hamas’s relationship with Iran, Yousef explained that – though the party prefers to be independent – Iran had been the only country to provide them with support and funds for survival. Other Arab countries, he said, had isolated and abandoned them.
The debate concluded with a discussion focusing on Israeli security in light of the changing regional environment. Elgindy stressed that only America had the power to reassure Israel, allowing it to make the kind of political concessions needed for a two-state solution without having to compromise Israel’s security needs. Barghouthi retorted that threats to Israeli security were a “myth.” With 400 nuclear warheads and the fifth largest army in the world, Israel is not a victim in the conflict, he said. He added that suicide, not combat, was the leading cause of death in the Israeli military. Saidam said Israel had to understand “that trouble in their backyard is trouble at home” and that “security without justice is nonsense.” Barghouthi, finally, concluded that “the best guarantee for security is peace” and that “peace can only be achieved if the Palestinians are free.”
When the floor was opened for questions, a member of the audience raised the issue of how to garner support from the Palestinian Diaspora for a two-state solution that “clearly isn’t working.” Elgindy agreed on the need to invest in a new effort to create a Palestinian body that is fully representative – this will involve reincorporating the Palestinian Diaspora in the process, he said. Presenting the Palestinian people with a fait accompli would not be constructive, he argued, saying that “you need to have buy-in from all Palestinian constituencies.”