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Mitchel Plitnick: The Situation of Gaza an Example of Collective Punishment

Saturday, August 31, 2013

 Iran Review Exclusive Interview with Mitchel Plitnick
By: Kourosh Ziabari

The new round of peace talks between the representatives of the Palestinian Authority and Israel has started around two weeks ago, and the international community is awaiting the results of the sensitive talks, despite the fact that the painful developments in Syria and Egypt and the intervention of the foreign powers in these countries have mostly distracted attentions from the peace talks between the occupier and the occupied.

Peace talks in order to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been held over the past 6 decades including the 1970-1972 Rogers peace plan, Madrid Conference of 1991, 1993 Oslo Accords, Hebron Agreement and Camp David 2000 Summit, but unfortunately, no significant result has been yielded and the people of Palestine continue to live under dire political, economic and social situation and a constant state of terror, trepidation and subjugation.

In order to delve on the details of the new round of peace talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, investigate the future of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, assess the presence of the elements of racism and racial discrimination in Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian citizens and the policies of the political parties in Israel and their role in the continued occupation of Palestine, Iran Review conducted an interview with Mitchell Plitnick, a prominent American political analyst and the former director of the U.S. Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.

Mr. Plitnick has been the Director of Education and Policy for Jewish Voice for Peace. He is a widely published and respected policy analyst. His writings have appeared in such magazines and news websites as Jordan Times, Israel Insider, UN Observer, Middle East Report, Global Dialogue, San Francisco Chronicle, Die Blaetter Fuer Deutsche Und Internationale Politik, Outlook, and in a regular column for a time in Tikkun Magazine.

What follows is the text of Iran Review’s interview with Mitchell Plitnick.

Q: The new round of peace talks between the representatives of Israel and Palestine has started on August 14 and the United States is also taking part in the talks as a mediator. So far, Israel has refused to accept the reasonable and legitimate demands of the Palestinian side such as ending the settlement constructions, ending the occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and returning the East Jerusalem (Al-Quds) to the Palestinians. Given Israel’s adamancy on its position and its refusal to make concessions, will the new round of peace talks yield any significant result? What do you think about the demands of the Palestinian people and Israel’s response to them?

A: The real question to ask is “why should Israel make concessions?” States, weak and strong, do not make concessions because they are the right thing to do, but rather because they have to. There is nothing pushing Israel to concede anything. The argument that ending the occupation will be good for Israel is speculative and subjective; it may or may not work out that way. International law is ineffective unless the US backs it, and it obviously won’t do that. The occupation has been quiet for Israel since the end of the second intifada; the U.S, Europeans and some of the Arab states absorb much of the financial cost that an occupier usually incurs for infrastructure and such; and while disapproval of Israeli policy is growing, it is not close to international isolation. In fact, Israeli exports are growing at quite a healthy pace, and that’s where such matters count. In that context, the demands of the Palestinians don’t matter. Whether they are reasonable or not, there is no real reason for Israel to agree to them.

Q: You’ve just published an article about Shimon Gafsou, the mayor of the Upper Nazareth, who is running for the office again and has made statements in the campaign season which are seen as racist and xenophobic by the mass media and the local citizens. What’s your viewpoint regarding the element of racism in Israel’s treatment of the Arabs and Muslims living in the Occupied Territories? Racial discrimination and neglecting the rights of the Palestinian citizens have usually provoked the criticism of the international community, including even the close friends of Israel in Europe. What’s your take on that?

A: When you’re in the business of depriving people of their rights, racism is inevitable. You cannot hold millions of people under occupation for 46 years unless you can see them as less than yourselves. As the prospects for a resolution of the conflict dim in the Israeli collective psyche, racism is increasing. Where once Israel banned the participation in the Knesset of the Kach party, it now sees Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and Naftali Bennett’s HaBayit HaYehudi parties as major players in the Knesset’s governing faction. To me, the racism is a symptom of the conflict more than a cause, although it has been there from the very beginning. And, of course, such bigotry and the actions of the occupation that grow out of it tend to also plant the seeds of similar bigotry among the oppressed. Thus, the notion that “they hate us” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Q: So you admit that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is blended with elements of racism. As you cited in one of your latest reports, Phyllis Bennis, the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies has recently said, “you can’t hold talks between a wealthy, powerful, U.S.-backed nuclear-armed occupying power and a dispossessed, impoverished, occupied, unarmed population and pretend they come to the table as equals.” Are the talks genuinely being held on equal footing while the United States is unconditionally supporting Israel, while the Palestinian side doesn’t have such a support?

A: Of course the talks are not equal. To some extent, equal is the wrong way to look at it, though. The Palestinians are never, at least in any possible foreseeable future from here, going to be Israel’s equal in power, in any regard—political, economic, military. Not even close. What this really means is that the U.S. mantra that “the conflict can only be resolved through direct, bilateral negotiations between the parties” is simply untrue. That’s never going to be the right path. But the Palestinians do not need to be equal. What they need is some way to give Israel an incentive to negotiate. Sadly, when we look at it historically, we see that Israel has only made concessions to the Palestinians when there has been violence. And such concessions are accompanied with harsh responses to that violence. But in the end, when it comes to violence, Israel will also always be capable of a lot more than the Palestinians. That path has shown some small successes, but it’s not only immoral, as is all violence against civilians, by any side, it’s also ultimately ineffective and self-defeating. So, the Palestinians need to find another way to create the pressure they need on Israel to give Israel an incentive to compromise.

The Palestinian Authority has held with fanatical desperation to the idea that the U.S. would apply that kind of pressure. This is naïve, to say the least, but by now Abbas and Fatah have permanently hitched their future to that notion. It is possible that a louder Palestinian call for boycott and an international strategy, including the new Palestinian access to the international judicial system, could provide that incentive. But Abbas has no stomach for that course, apparently. It is not about the Palestinians being equals in power, they never will be; but that doesn’t mean they can’t find a way to exert pressure on Israel. Eventually, some Palestinian leadership will give up on the vain hope that the U.S. will make something happen and pursue just such a course.

Q: The recent statements by the former U.S. President Jimmy Carter who has supported the idea of holding a national referendum to endorse the results of the peace talks, irrespective of what the results are, has revived some hopes among the Palestinians. A public referendum on the future and destiny of the Palestine has always been the proposed solution of Hamas to solve the six-decade-long conflict in the region. So, there is one essential question: why hasn’t the international community upheld the referendum solution which seems to be a totally democratic solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

A: The referendum Carter referred to still depends on there being something to put to a vote. Palestinians are rightly reassured by the referendum idea because, especially after the leak of the Palestine Papers a few years ago, a referendum addresses their fears that the PA will give away too much for a resolution of the conflict.

In fact, both Israel and the Palestinians have said that any agreement will be put to a referendum, and there really is nothing the international community can do to stop that. But it is also true that the sort of compromises both sides would have to make to reach a resolution under the current parameters are not likely to pass both referenda. Given what has been the understandings of any final status agreement including land swaps, Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem remaining in Israeli hands, no significant return of refugees behind the Green Line, a demilitarized Palestinian state and, possibly, a continued Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, it is much more possible that Israel will vote to approve it than the Palestinians, thus sealing the narrative that the “Palestinians are not interested in peace”, but even in Israel it will be a tough sell. The referenda will, indeed, happen if an agreement is reached. Since such an agreement is very unlikely in the first place, though, the question is likely moot.

Q: So, what’s your viewpoint regarding the humanitarian situation of the Gaza Strip which has been under siege since 2006? Although Israel partially eased the blockade in 2010, and despite the fact that Egypt temporarily opened the Rafah Crossing following the election of Mohamed Morsi as the president in June 2012, the living conditions of the 1.5 million in the coastal enclave remain dire and deplorable. What’s your solution for alleviating the pains of the citizens of the Gaza Strip?

A: The situation of Gaza is an example not only of collective punishment but of global shame. As much as Israel continues to be responsible for the ongoing blockade of the Strip, blocking its airspace, severely limiting access to its shoreline and almost completely shutting off most of the ground access, there is also now the al-Sisi policy of hitting and strangling Gaza. It is all of a piece, as Hamas is linked historically to the Ikhwan, and that makes defeating Hamas as important as opposing Muslim Brotherhood and similar regimes throughout the region, including Morsi’s Egypt and Gaza. In the end, Gaza has no support, and the PA is just as determined to see Hamas defeated as Israel, the U.S., the SCAF in Egypt, the Saudis, the Persian Gulf Monarchies and so many others. Ultimately, and sadly, I don’t see the situation getting better there unless there is either a major shift in the region, such as an approved Israeli-Palestinian agreement or a wave of new Arab regimes which view Gaza as a worthy cause or a major humanitarian crisis in the Strip which might stir Europe, the Palestinians in the West Bank and some of the more liberal sectors of Israel into action. That doesn’t seem to be on the horizon, though.

Q: What do you think about the 2012 admission of Palestine as a United Nations non-member observer state? The General Assembly overwhelmingly voted in favor of the admission of Palestine to the UN by a wide margin. Will this decision change the situation for the Palestinian people and become a turning point in the history of the region? How can it contribute to the betterment of the living conditions of the people of the Gaza Strip?

A: I mostly answered this above. The GA vote was huge, but thus far it has held little practical impact because the PA has refused to use it. I believe it is potentially one part of a larger strategy in giving Israel what it does not have now—a practical reason to end the occupation. Gaza is, obviously, a part of that. But, I will add, until Gaza and the West Bank are one unit with one single government, all of this is very problematic.

Q: Right. So let’s move on to the next question. What do the extremist members of the center-right Likud party say about a possible one-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which will drive the 4 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and the Occupied Territories out of their lands and lead to their further dispossession and disillusionment? Currently, what’s the attitude of the different Israeli parties to the peace talks?

A: Actually, large segments of the right in Israel have a much better sense of the Palestinians and their aspirations than the center/center-left does. Recently, Tzipi Hotovely, a rising star in Likud and far more radical than Netanyahu, actually proposed not only annexing the West Bank but also granting citizenship to the Palestinians there. In fact, there remains very little belief in Israel that the Palestinians there can ever be made to leave. That’s why right wing ideology has turned toward “managing” the conflict, the thinking being that it cannot be resolved under the Oslo format which the right has always opposed, and the Palestinians there are not going to leave. The one state the right is advocating is one, in fact, with Palestinians, in some cases, even Palestinians with citizenship, but the state would also change to more explicitly give Jews rights the Palestinians would not have. The form would be similar to what Palestinian citizens of Israel currently live with, but probably more of it.

As to the current parties and peace talks, there is little positive news. The governing coalition is Likud/Yisrael Beiteinu (the two parties are distinct, but they joined forces for the last election), YeshAtid, HaBayit HaYehudi and HaT’nuah. Likud is headed by Netanyahu, of course, and it has a mix of hardcore ideologues and pragmatists. But the right wing of Likud is currently dominant. Even the mainstream of the party opposes a Palestinian state, as it states in the party’s platform. It’s possible Netanyahu would have to leave the party to make a peace deal, if he ever actually wants to do so, similar to what Ariel Sharon did when he removed the settlements from Gaza in 2005. Indeed, HaBayit HaYehudi is almost certain to bolt in the event of a peace deal, and Likud will probably split, as would Yisrael Beiteinu, which supports a two-state solution in theory, but wants to minimize Arab presence in Israel and is fiercely nationalistic. YeshAtid is likely to stand by Netanyahu on pragmatic grounds, even though they do not support dividing Jerusalem. HaT’nuah is Tzipi Livni’s party and by far the smallest in the coalition. Livni is something of a fig leaf for Bibi, but she is also the most serious about a two-state solution under the Oslo terms. If a deal actually comes, Netanyahu will get support from parties not currently in the government to make up for his losses. Labor has largely been indifferent to the peace process in its latest incarnation, but it will ride to the rescue if Bibi cuts a deal they think Israelis will accept. Shas, a religious party, is feuding with HaBayit HaYehudi and will also join a peace coalition if they get the subsidies they want and if the compromises on Jerusalem are within the scope of what they can tolerate, which they likely would be. Meretz, the most left wing of all Zionist parties, may also join unless the Israeli left does not like the agreement, in which case, the Palestinians would almost certainly reject it anyway.

Q: It was an elaborate overview of the political parties in Israel. Thank you. What do you think about the recent movement of some European companies in joining the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement? Will boycotting the goods which are produced in the Occupied Territories help the cause of the Palestinian people? Do you basically agree with the sanctions? Can the sanctions and divestments turn Israel into a reasonable and logical role-player in the region and prevent it from adopting fanatical and unwarranted policies?

A: I am somewhat ambivalent about the BDS movement. To my mind, BDS is a tactic, not an end unto itself, and I have had some questionable experiences with BDS activists, as well as some political differences with some BDS groups. Having said that, I have been advocating for fifteen years that economic pressure be brought on Israel to end its occupation and human rights violations. During my time at Jewish Voice for Peace, I spearheaded that group’s policy for what they call “selective divestment,” and I believe that economic measures are not only appropriate as a means to try to bring public pressure against Israeli policies, but an indispensable means to create the tangible political pressure that is required to get Israel to change its policies.

Q: And finally; is Israel afraid of the election of a moderate president in Iran? It seems that the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is angry at the pro-reform stance of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as he thinks Israel’s efforts to isolate Iran will fail in the new administration. What do you think about it?

A: Netanyahu is clearly not happy with a more moderate face in the President’s office in Iran. But I wouldn’t overstate how big a difference that is going to make in either Jerusalem or Washington. An attack on Iran has always been a losing battle. It’s just not something the U.S. is interested in. Military and diplomatic leaders have resisted such calls for over a decade, and they have not let up. In Congress, where the sanctions stem from and where the calls for war reside, Rouhani is not going to impress anyone in the face of massive anti-Iran lobbying. In Israel, the situation is similar. The military is generally opposed to an attack, and the fact that both U.S. and Israeli militaries agree on this is a strong indication that neither country is nearly as worried about the nuclear program as the politicians say they are. Over time, I think Rouhani will have a chance to gradually ease the sanctions and bring Iran out of the isolation it is in now. A lot of that will be up to him, his decisions, and, of course, those of Ayatollah Khamenei. But it won’t be easy and it won’t be quick, and certainly, Netanyahu, who very much needs as scary an Iran as he can get, will push back on it as much as he can.

Key Words: Gaza, Collective Punishment,  Israel, Palestine, Al-Quds, Racism, Referendum, UN, Peace Talks, Iran, Plitnick

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