President Bush embraced a new Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, applauding a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. The policy also outlines permanence of some of Israel's occupied West Bank and that Palestinian refugees would not have the right to return to Israel. In endorsing Sharon's withdrawal plan, U.S. policy would change toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by "softening the American objection to Israel's settlements and dropping a reluctance to dictate terms of a final peace settlement."
Ali Abunimah, co-founder of Electronicintifada.net and vice president of
Arab American Action Network, was online Thursday, April 15 at 3 p.m. ET to discuss Sharon's visit with President Bush.
The transcript follows
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
While it is not all that they wanted, shouldn't Palestinians be happy about Israeli withdrawal from Gaza? Why does the negative overshadow the positive steps toward self-rule? Bush once again yesterday indicated his belief in a Palestinian state. Why isn't that emphasized as well?
Ali Abunimah: If I kick you out of your house, and tell you you can live in the garden shed as long as you sign a paper giving me the rest of the house and all your property, would you be happy?
I have been deeply disappointed that the US hasn't played an even-handed role in this bitter, hateful conflict. I'd like to see Bush take Sharon behind closed doors and threaten to pull all military and economic aid to Israel unless the West Bank settlements are vacated in 30 days.
I think Sharon's move on Gaza is just meant to placate his critics and justify the continuation of the West Bank settlements. Most of the world and even many liberal Israelis recognize that the Palestinians need their own nation on the West Bank. Without an independent Palestine alongside Israel, this sad conflict will continue.
Hasn't Sharon read anything about the history of England and Ireland? That conflict continued for 800 years because England ruled Ireland as a virtual colony. I hope it won't take 800 years for Israel to give independence to the Palestinians.
Ali Abunimah: I agree with you. There are many lessons Israel can draw from: Ireland, South Africa, Algeria. Colonization and subjugation does not work. Freedom will win in the end.
Since you support the palestinian's right of return to Israel, do you also support the rights of the 900,000+ jews who were expelled from arab-occupied lands to return and be given statehood within current arab state's borders? It appears as though arabs only believe in right of return and statehood when it is arabs who are on the recieving end.
Ali Abunimah: Yes absolutely. I believe that any Arab Jew who went as immigrants to Israel ought to have the right to return to their original homelands immediately, and receive full compensation for suffering and restitution of property if they left involuntarily. Many do already have that right, but have chosen not to exercise it. One of the great tragedies of Zionism is that it led to the near extinction of the rich heritage of Arab Jews, because those who went to Israel were forced to assimilate into European Ashkenazi norms, and the traditions they left behind disappeared. I was thrilled to see that Iraqi Muslims preserved for decades the Synagogues their Iraqi Jewish compatriots left behind, and I hope that those who want to return to Iraq will have the chance to do so. As an Arab, I value and honor our Jewish heritage, especially the contributions of Arab Jewish philosophers such as Maimonides.
Mr Abunimah, I was looking forward to hearing your talk in london recently and it's a shame it didn't go ahead.
Do you believe that there exists today a segment of Israeli society that would be a credible partner for peace? If yes who do you think (people/parties) best represents this movement?
Ali Abunimah: I am not sure that in the current Israeli political-military establishment there is a partner for peace. The Israeli cabinet today is led by war criminals, and people who openly espouse the destruction of the Palestinians by ethnic cleansing, or what they euphemistically call "transfer." But I believe that there is a constituency for peace in Israel, and that peace is possible. We have to build a dialogue directly with Israelis and look for ways to encourage a peace leadership to emerge in Israel.
Washington D.C. :
In your article on the Electronic Intifada web site, you ask "Why All the Fuss About the Bush-Sharon Meeting?" Isn't it always an important development and criticism essential when the President of the U.S. formally embraces Israeli war crimes as defined by the Fourth Geneva Convention and various binding UN Security Council Resolutions 446 (1979) and 465 (1980) -- whether or not we have been funding the illegal settlement construction for decades?
Ali Abunimah: Yes it is important, but the point of my article was to note that Bill Clinton also endorsed Israeli annexation and violations of international law. This is what I said in the article:
President Clinton announced his "parameters" for Palestinian-Israeli "peace" in a speech to the Israel Policy Forum on 7 January 2001, and in writing to Barak and Arafat shortly before he left office. These explicitly included "the incorporation into Israel of settlement blocks, with the goal of maximizing the number of settlers in Israel while minimizing the land annex." Clinton did not mention removal of any settlements, simply incorporating as many of the settlements as possible ? intact ? into Israel.
On the right of return, Clinton declared, "We cannot expect Israel to make a decision that would threaten the very foundations of the state of Israel, and would undermine the whole logic of peace. And it shouldn't be done." In other words, Clinton explicitly supported the Israeli view that it should have an absolute veto on the return of any refugees, lest they threaten its "Jewish character."
You can read the full article here: Why all the fuss about the Bush-Sharon meeting?
Why does it seem like the Palestinians are upset that Israel is giving them Gaza? Is it because they'll soon have to start running a functioning state (which is difficult) as opposed to supporting a terrorist war (which is easy)?
Why can't the Palestinians be flexible about the West Bank block of settlements? Why not pursue a compromise where a Palestinian state could incorporate a section of land that is now part of Israel?
Ali Abunimah: The West Bank and Gaza constitute only 22 percent of the land area of historic Palestine, in which there was an overwhelming Palestinian majority until 1948. In 1948, Israel was established on 78 percent of the land.
As the Likudnik Israeli historian Benny Morris recently wrote, a "Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population. It was necessary to cleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse the main roads ... (and) the villages from which our convoys and our settlements were fired on."
The Palestinians are accepting a state in a fraction of their historic homeland by accepting a state in just the West Bank and Gaza. And yet you think they should get even less than that? I think that given the facts, they have been quite "flexible" enough. It is time for Israel to decide if it wants peace or colonies. It can't have both.
What is the legal bearing of Bush's prounouncement about Sharon's plan, and denouncing the right of return. Given that Bush is not on the soundest of political footing these days, given Iraq, and could lose the election, could Kerry (if he wins of course) just declare this another example of Bush's arrogant pre-emptive unilateralism and say he no longer backs it? Didn't Bush do the same thing by refusing to negotiate with Arafat, which Clinton did many times, or do Presidents usually follow declaration like this?
washingtonpost.com: Bush Endorses Sharon's Withdrawal Plan (Post, April 14)
Ali Abunimah: Bush's announcement has no legal bearing. Palestinian human rights are not granted and taken away by the President of the United States. The right of return particularly is enshrined in UN resolution 194 which was passed annually for 50 years by an overwhelming majority of countries including the US. All other Palestinian rights are enshrined in numerous UN resolutions, and most fundamentally in the Universal Declaration of Human rights. Bush does not have the power to take these things away. His statement is politically significant, but even there it is limited. He is so weak and lacking in credibility that it does not change very much.
Perhaps a solution to the conflict would involve the Palestinians leaving Gaza. What do you think?
Ali Abunimah: And going where, Hamburg? Are you proposing ethnic cleansing? Certainly a solution involved some Palestinians leaving Gaza. 80 percent of Gaza's population are refugees, and peace certainly requires them to have the right to return home, rather than remain in what is in effect the world's largest open air prison.
Santa Cruz CA:
What is the likely course of political action the Palestinians will follow in the near term?
Ali Abunimah: The Palestinian Authority is out of options. They put all their eggs in the American basket, and they have found time and again that when push comes to shove US administrations will always side with Israel. I am afraid the only options for Palestinians and their allies are to rebuild over the long term an international movement for justice and peace. I think the anti-Apartheid campaign is a good model. Ten years after the end of apartheid in South Africa, and as South Africa has its third national democratic election, this is a good moment to reflect on that.
There were two main points to President Bush's policy -- the settlements in the West Bank and "right of return." Which of the two are Palestinians more upset/angry about?
Ali Abunimah: Both are fundamental issues. I think that what is most upsetting is Bush's imperial approach. What on earth makes him think he has the right to dispose of land and rights of millions of people, land and rights that are not his to dispose of? How would Americans feel if the Chinese president held a press conference and announced that he thought Canada could have New York State if they wanted it? It is the breathtaking arrogance, combined with a complete ignorance and lack of interest in the history and the people that I think makes it all so hard to take.
The whole situation in this area has become such a mess that I don't think there it is possible for there to be a solution that is fair to all parties. I think the best that can happen is for each side to get some of what they want, and to move forward and coexist in peace. Do you think that anyone has yet presented a pratical plan that will be as fair to both sides as possible?
Ali Abunimah: I think there is no possible plan that involves partition that can satisfy a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians.
Why do the palestinians demand to taken seriously in their demands for peace or claims that Sharon is a war criminal, when they refuse to cease the terrorist attacks and Arafat openly runs a corrupt system stealing the money given by the U.S. and other countries to assist the Palestinians. Many more Americans would be supportive of the Palestinians in a peaceful solution if they stopped the terrorist attacks and had some form of representative government such as Israel.
Ali Abunimah: Who is "they". I called Sharon a war criminal, and I am opposed to all attacks on civilians regardless of the identity of the victims or the perpetrators. Sharon is a war criminal because he has committed war crimes. The fact that Palestinians have also committed crimes makes them criminals too. It does not lessen the crimes of Sharon. But Sharon is a prime minister of a country that receives billions of dollars of our tax money (it really hurt to mail that tax check the other day knowing how so much of it is being squandered on Israel and war in Iraq, btw. But anyway, from any moment you choose to measure the violence, Israel always, always is killing far more unarmed Palestinian civilians than Palestinians are killing Israelis. Violence is the result of the conflict, and if we want it to stop we have to stop using it as an excuse for inaction. Only a fair and just political solution can displace violence.
It seems to me that the Bush policy essentially pulls from many of the plans that were on the table at the 2000 Camp David summit. I don't think this plan "takes away" anything promised to the PA that was on the table at that summit. (I note that Jerusalem is left out of the letter which I think is the only other major obstacle.)
What more does this do besides just making it more official?
Ali Abunimah: You are right! As I said earlier, under the "Clinton Parameters", Israel was to get most of the settlements Sharon wants, and Clinton was against the right of return. So substantially there is really not much of a chance in US policy. But the political moment is significant. Bush is basically sticking a finger up to the entire Arab world, as well as to many of the US' European allies who support a fair peace. Frankly, he is further eroding the already dismal standing of the US, and increasing the sense of grievance many people will have.
Michigan City, Indiana:
Why are all the Palestinian leaders calling this moment
"the end of the peace process?" Isn't a withdrawal from
Gaza the beginning of what everyone was talking about
during the 1990s?
Ali Abunimah: Hey Michigan City! That Schoop's on US421 really does make the best burgers anywhere in the world!
Now, see my earlier answer to Arlington, VA.
Silver Spring, Md.:
I have been reading your exchanges here and trying despartely to figure out exactly what you envision for the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea -- and the only answer I can come up with is a 23rd Arab state with (maybe, I'm not even sure of the rest of this sentence) a minority population of Jews. Am I correct? Is that what you advocate?
Ali Abunimah: Here are the facts as I see them:
Israel doesn't want to give up the West Bank, ever. But Israel and the West Bank have a Palestinian majority and a Jewish minority (or they will in a few years). The clock has run out on the "two state solution" because Israel made it impossible, deliberately through the settlement policy.
So what are our options?
(1) Continued overall Israeli rule of the whole area, with some sort of Palestinian bantustan in a fraction of the land.
(2) Ethnic cleansing to get rid of the Palestinians.
(3) Formal apartheid where Israel declares that its Palestinian majority has no political rights
(4) One state for Jews and Palestinians.
Of these options, I prefer (4). I see it increasingly as the only realistic option because Israel has made a genuine two-state solution impossible. In such a state, I would see Israeli Jews and Palestinians being partners and equals, and the heritage, religion and language of both communities being protected, cherished and taught and celebrated to each community. Such a state would preserve the Law of Return for Jews, and the right of return for Palestinians.
If you can think of a better idea, other than eternal conflict, let me know.
I used to be sympathetic to the Palestinian plight, given the obvious fact that a people had their land taken away from them without their consent, until I saw a map of the Israel that was created in 1948. It was quite a bit smaller than today's Israel, never mind the Gaza Strip or the West Bank (or the Golan Heights). You decry the present absence of any Israeli partner for peace, given that the Israeli government is run by war criminals. Isn't that hypocritical? Isn't it fair to say that had the Palestinians shown, in the 1940s-60s, even a fraction of the interest they presently allegedly have in creating a Palestinian state next to Israel, they could have had their state decades ago? All of Gaza, all the West Bank, East Jerusalem, parts of Israel proper. The Palestinians made a strategic decision to go in another direction, and it backfired, and they lost. So why should we feel sorry for them? After all, nobody's demanding that the Germans kicked out of what's now western Poland be entitled to return, right? Thanks.
Ali Abunimah: You do not need to feel sorry for them. But if you care about Israelis, you need to know that Israelis will never have peace until Palestinians have peace.
Panama City, Fla. :
What is your opinion of a one state solution for Israel and Palestine with equal rights for all? Do you think this would even be possible or is the Zionist agenda too strong?
Ali Abunimah: More and more Palestinians and Israelis are talking about this. Why? Because since 1967, Israel set out to make a Palestinian state impossible by filling the West Bank and Gaza Strip with Jewish settlements in violation of international law. The result is that today there are 400,000 Israeli settlers leaving in armed camps in the middle of Palestinian communities. So many people are saying it is no longer possible to separate the two people so it is better for them to live together in a single democratic state where everyone's rights are respected. The fact is that within a few years, Palestinians will once again be an absolute majority of the population in the land Israel rules. This being the case, a "Jewish state" in effect means an apartheid state. So within a few years, I believe there will be more and more demands by Palestinians for equal rights with Israelis within a single state in which both peoples live as partners and equals.
What about the plight of Palestinian Christians in the West Bank? This is always a topic largely missing from the media about the conflict - that the problem is so much deeper than one as simply Israeli-Muslim or Jew-Palestinian. Do you think the US media has done a good job informing our growing Christian-right culture that Christians like them are suffering at the hands of Israel?
Would more media coverage of this even make a difference in the minds of most Americans?
Ali Abunimah: Yes! The Palestinian cause is not a "Muslim" cause, although the religious basis of Zionism has made religion into a source of conflict in the Middle East where for centuries it was not. Palestinian Muslims and Christians have both been victims of dispossession from their country, and Palestinians historically are not divided by religion. There are organizations like Sabeel that bring Americans into solidarity with Palestinian Christians. Please visit their site to learn more!
Do you think that there would be a shift in US Policy toward the conflict if the Democrats win the White House this year? If so, do you think this would be a better or worse policy?
Ali Abunimah: You will note that John Kerry did not allow the sun to go down yesterday before publicly endorsing the Bush-Sharon statement. So no, I would not expect much difference on Palestine if Kerry is elected. The tone may be different as it was with Clinton, but as I show in my article that I cited earlier, the substance is much the same. Unfortunately it is simply not possible for politicians seeking high office in this country to say what they really think about this issue. Because the pro-Israel lobby is well organized, and Palestinians are virtually non-existent on Capitol Hill, there is just no political advantage to defying Israel. In 2002, the McKinney and Hilliard races showed there is a real political cost to appearing too critical of Israel.
Israel won control of the West Bank during a war in which they started in 1967, after the Arab countries mobilized their armies. Doesn't Israel have the right to increase their borders as part of a defensive measure against neighboring countries?
Ali Abunimah: UN Resolution 242 reaffirms "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war," so the answer is no. Countries cannot simply seize eachother's land. This goes against everything in the UN Charter. It was how things used to be done, but that caused so many wars that the world decided to change the system and adopt something more civilized.
What are your thoughts on the disputed lands being jointly administered by Israeli and Palestian authority with administration working jointly or separately, where appropriate?
Ali Abunimah: I would favor that as long as it is applied to the whole country. If the Palestinians are prepared to administer Bethlehem or Ramallah or Gaza jointly with Israel, the in all fairness Israel ought to be prepared to jointly administer Tel Aviv, Petah Tikva, Herzliya, and Mevasseret Zion with the Palestinians. Sounds fair to me!
If the Palestinians had accepted the 1948 partition, they could have had a much larger state then they are now asking for.
If they had set up a state between 1948-1967, they could have had everything they want today.
If they had accepted Barak's proposal in 99, they could have had 99% of what they wanted.
Why are the Palestinians always asking for the previous offer? Why do they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity?
Ali Abunimah: These old chestnuts! Let's deal just with the hoariest:
In 1947 34% of the population was Jewish and 66% was Palestinian. Jews owned about 4% of the land and Palestinians owned more than 80% of the land. Yet the UN partition resolution gaves Jews 54% of the country and Palestinians 44% (Jerusalem was supposed to be internationalized).
The area that was allocated for the "Jewish state" had a 40% Palestinian population. So Palestinians did not want the partition for a number of reasons:
1) They did not think the UN had the right to come in and hand more than half of their country to a group of recently arrived Europeans.
2) The parition was grossly unfair.
3) They feared that the Palestinians in areas allocated for the Jewish state would be expelled because how can you have a "Jewish state" when 40% of the population is not Jewish.
So, no they did not see the 1947 partition as a good deal. In the end, what they feared happened anyway when Israel was established by force on 78% of the country.
But in the end, you can decide that the Palestinians do not deserve even one grain of sand because of their stupidy in missing all these great "opportunities" or Barak's "generous" offer. So what? There are still 5 million Palestinians and 5 million Israeli Jews between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. In the end, they will have to live in peace. And peace can only be based one equality and justice.
What do you think of Israeli peace organizations like Gush Shalom, Ta'ayush, etc., organizations that enter into coalitions with Palestinians to fight against the Occupation. Are these groups just tilting at windmills? Do Palestinian groups and organizations welcome their support? What should their response be to the latest moves by Prime Minister Sharon and President Bush?
Ali Abunimah: Hello Occupied Jerusalem! I think that it is incredibly important that Israelis and Palestinians work together for peace. But I have also been highly critical of much of the Israeli "peace camp" because for years it has been promoting ideas not very different to what Sharon got Bush to endorse. All of this I detailed in my recent article. But there are very dedicated, committed people in Israel, including the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, Rabbis for Human Rights, Gush Shalom, and others. I do not always agree absolutely exactly 100% with all their positions, but yes, we need to work in coalition.
West Bank vs Gaza -
It might help some of the readers and responders to understand the offering of Gaza if you give a little geographical/climate/social/economic description of both The West Bank and Gaza.
Ali Abunimah: It might, but I can't do that all here. We have lots of resources on these issues at The Electronic Intifada
We have maps and all sorts of things. If you see anything missing, please let us know and we will try to address it. (We are all volunteers, so bear with us!)
You write that "The real problem is the Israeli consensus that an increasingly untenable "Jewish state" in Palestine must be preserved, entirely at the cost of the Palestinians." Why "untenable"? With this disengagement plan Israel gets out of Gaza and will probably get to exchange land in order to maintain some major colonies in the West Bank while still enabling a viable Palestinain state to emerge whenever the time comes that actual peace as opposed to an endless peace process becomes a requirement for Palestinians.
Ali Abunimah: Untenable because a "Jewish state" with a non-Jewish majority will be a place of escalating conflict. Just because you build walls around the Palestinians, as Israel is doing, does not make them disappear! Such extreme oppression leads only to rising conflict.
Thanks as always for your sharp, insightful commentary. The Palestinian leadership is griping as always over Bush's endorsement of Sharon's plan. However, as I see it, nothing's new here--the US has never wholeheartedly called on Israel to get out of the occupied territory. My question is this: what can the average Palestinian (i.e., not the leadership, which seems to have its head in the sand) do to protect his or her rights? What can I as a U.S. citizen who cares about these peopel do to protect their rights? I'm so angry at the US administration and want a constructive outlet for it.
Ali Abunimah: Thank you. I think we have to continue to educate the vast majority of Americans who do believe in peace and fairness. US policy is so blatantly unfair. Whenever I go and speak around the country, so many people say 'how come I never knew any of this?' We need to be strong, determined and not give up faith in justice. We need to go out and educate. Do not let Kerry get away with simply endorsing what Bush and Sharon said. Let him and all other candidates for office, regardless of party hear you on this issue.
Silver Spring, Md.:
I have similar beliefs on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, and this lead me to my first question: Have you ever been labeled anti-semitic for these beliefs? And if so, how have you responded? Second question: In world politics, it seems that Israel needs the U.S. more than the U.S. needs Israel, however, the U.S. consistently sides with Israel instead of standing strong and saying you need to take out the settlements, why does the U.S. do this? It seems that Israel will always be a U.S. ally, why do we placate them in this way? And third, how do the Israeli people really feel about this? Are they mostly supportive of the settlement way of thinking, or do many of them want them removed, or are many apolitical? Not much is talked about how the Israelis themselves feel about this situation. Thank you.
Ali Abunimah: You are right. Israel is a major liability to the United States. It does not have to be that way though. Unqualified, unconditional US support for Israel, even when Israel is committing war crimes, is what has turned so much Arab and Muslim opinion against the US. No matter which way you cut it, the Palestine issue is at the heart of US relations with the Arab world. The US could quickly turn its image around if it simply decided to be fair. As long as we allow pro-Israel special interests in this country to have a monopoly on policy, US policy will never change. People like you who care about peace and justice need to be heard. Every day.
Highland, New York:
I think your option 4 is a good one. I think most Americans including our political leaders would be thrilled to see such a resolution to this situation. Assuming of course that everyone's rights are protected and people actually live in peace, at least to the extent that religion is not a source of substantial harm among people. Is it possible to get there in our life times? If so, how do we get there? How do we start?
Ali Abunimah: Thank you. Yes it is possible to get there in out life times. The first step is we need to talk about it, have a dialogue about it and build support for it. The world is full of conflict, but it is also full of reconciliation. Look at Europe today, as compared with 1945. Look at South Africa. Look at this country which also had apartheid and segregation. None of these places went from conflict to perfection, but they are all a whole lot better than they were because people held up a higher vision than simply fighting for their tribe. Many people will call you "anti-Semitic" simply for trying to have this discussion, but do not be intimidated. Just be focussed on the basics: Palestinians and Israelis are human beings with equal dignity who deserve equal rights and equal protection of those rights. There are so many people in the world who care about both groups, but we need to turn all that caring into constructive efforts for reconciliation instead of conflict.
What can American's do to move their political parties towards a policy that actually considers justice and international law as vital components in dealing with Israel and Palestine?
Ali Abunimah: Shout about it! Raise the issue! Write about it! Hound your elected representatives to demand they take fair and just positions, not pro-Israel positions or pro-Palestinian positions.
Given the current international climate when much of the Arab world seems anti-American and judges the U.S. based on its pro-Israel position, why are we still persisting in acting as facilitators in this disaster? I suppose it's a question to ask of our policymakers and political leaders. Why, however, do Palestiniams still seem to request an American presence in the "peace process"? It seems that we're doing ourselves more harm than good. Why can't both sides figure this out on their own without the U.S.?
Ali Abunimah: The two sides cannot figure it out on their own because one side is immensely strong and the other side is very weak. It is a very unbalanced situation. In such a situation, negotiation simply becomes coercion unless there is an outside mediator who can even the playing field. The problem is that the US has consistently come in on Israel's side, making the playing field even more unbalanced and thus exacerbating the conflict. The US does have a role if Americans demand that our government act fairly and honestly. Otherwise you are right, the US role has harmed the US as much as it has harmed Israel and the Palestinians.
From my understanding, no Israeli politician (Labor or Likud) will agree to right of return as part of a peace agreement. Will no Palestinian politician similarily agree to final status agreement without it? If that's the case, doesn't that mean there is truly no hope of settlement?
Ali Abunimah: I think you may be right. If so, we need to change the paradigm. In a joint Israeli-Palestinian state, each side can get what it needs. 100% of the land for 100% of the people, and the right for Jews and Palestinians from all over the world to return if they want to. It is a big vision, and still far off, but better than the alternative which is escalating bloodshed. If we work for it, it can be a reality.
Ali Abunimah: Thank you again for participating. See you soon! Peace!
Ali Abunimah: There are still so many questions, but I have gone over time and my fingers need a rest! Come see us at The Electronic Intifada, and thank you again for your participation. Peace!