Dr. Agha is a senior associate of Oxford University’s St. Antony’s College. Over the past several years, he and Robert Malley have attracted wide attention for their articles on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in The New York Review of Books. Dr. Agha has also co-authored three books with Ahmad Khalidi: A Framework for a Palestinian National Security Doctrine (2006), Track-II Diplomacy: Lessons from the Middle East (2004) and Syria and Iran: The Durable Alliance (1995). He splits his time between London and Beirut. He was interviewed in London by Roger Gaess (AQABA9@aol.com), a freelance journalist.
MEP (Gaess): On paper, the Palestinians can accept a two-state solution, or they can proceed toward a one-state option (that is, a unitary democratic state in historical Palestine, through “one man, one vote”). But, in the real world, what options do the Palestinians really have? Does the government of Mahmoud Abbas have firm aims and a deadline for their achievement? Salam Fayyad, the prime minister, for example, said in August 2009 that they’re involved in a two-year plan to put an infrastructure of statehood in place, and there’s been talk that the Palestinians will then unilaterally declare a state along the June 1967 borders and seek international recognition. Is there a Palestinian consensus view? More broadly, is the so-called peace process itself on firm ground, however tentative its steps may be? Are they heading in the right direction?
AGHA: A plan comprises identifiable and implementable policies and mechanisms to achieve certain objectives. In Palestinian politics, from the days of Arafat on, there usually have been no clear plans as such. Instead, there is a vague direction they either drift into or hope to follow. I used to find it amusing and an indication of a lack of understanding as to how Palestinian politics functions when high officials asked me about Arafat’s “strategy.” There was no such creature.
In the case of Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas], the destination is a final-status agreement with Israel, the method is negotiations, and the prerequisite is no violence. This is what Mahmoud Abbas believes in and strives for. It is the project of his life. He was one of the first in the PLO to identify diplomacy as the path to the realization of Palestinian aspirations. From the early 1970s, he had the file for, initially, dealing with anti-Zionist Jews, then non-Zionist Jews, then Zionist Jews and Israelis. This process culminated with the Oslo Agreements, which he oversaw and guided. It is his motivation for being where he is now. If he did not believe in the possibility of a permanent-status agreement, he would not have agreed to be the president or the leader of the Palestinians. I don’t think he’s interested in governance as such, and he has not cultivated himself as a man of the people. He is there specifically to reach a final-status agreement.
Abbas, as the head of the PLO formally and diplomatically, represents all the Palestinians. In reality, matters are more complicated. He represents the continuity of the Palestinian national movement and, directly, the Palestinians who are in the West Bank, one-quarter of an estimated 11 million Palestinians worldwide.
You also have the Palestinians in the diaspora, the Palestinians in Gaza, and, although they are Israeli citizens, the Palestinians in Israel. The Palestinians in Gaza are under the rule of Hamas. Hamas is representative, to the extent that it was elected. It subscribes to a different program than Abu Mazen’s. The Gazans are, strictly speaking, no longer under Israeli occupation; of course, they are besieged by Israel and living in a big prison. The Palestinians in the diaspora are supposed to be represented by the PLO, but it is not very clear any more where they stand. The PLO is the only umbrella political body they know. They are fiercely committed to it through inertia, but it is doubtful whether it fulfills more than a nostalgic function.
It is clear that an agreement focused on the West Bank will not really address them except as a derivative, a leftover from a West Bank deal. It may not address their concerns and aspirations. There is a majority of Palestinians who, until the death of Arafat, were represented by him, but since his demise feel lost and suspended. Abu Mazen is the last Palestinian national leader who can claim the legitimacy of representing the totality of the Palestinian people. He is the true bearer of Arafat’s legacy. Unless someone appears from the shadows — in my view quite unlikely in the short term — Abbas is the only Palestinian leader left who can legitimately, but with great difficulty, sign on behalf of all Palestinians.
Increasingly, the focus of international diplomatic and even regional attention has become the Palestinians in the West Bank. To solely address the concerns of the Palestinians in the West Bank, however, is really to ignore the genesis of the Palestinian problem. There was a Palestinian problem before the Israeli occupation began in 1967. Twenty years before the occupation and 20 years after it, the Palestinians had not formally chosen to have a state. When the current Palestinian national movement started and was led by the PLO, it was not a state-building movement, unlike Zionism. So the whole issue is much more complicated than it appears, and attempts to resolve it are sometimes misplaced. Having a state in the West Bank might go far in addressing Palestinian aspirations and concerns, but if all the other issues are not satisfactorily dealt with, you cannot seriously say that this conflict has been resolved.
MEP: By “other issues,” do you basically mean the right of the refugees to return?
AGHA: No. If you want to attend to the plight of the Palestinians, you have to identify the variety of Palestinian experiences, in order to develop the needed policies to address the consequences of these experiences. Their predicament was first of dispossession, then of dispersal. They suffered massacres and persecution on their own land and in the countries they fled to. In 1967 came the occupation and the confrontations that accompanied it. Throughout a good number of these experiences, Palestinians were denied their identity and their rights as a people. Their chosen leadership was decapitated. This is what constitutes Palestinian collective consciousness. Whether you were individually or sectorally subjected to any of these horrible events is secondary to your acute awareness of them. They are deeply held feelings.
One has to first look at Palestinian concerns and then to think about how to address them. This has only been partially done. In an attempt to draw a parallel with the Zionist enterprise, the world posited at the center the notion of a Palestinian state. This created virtual symmetry between the two parties, which appeals to indolent minds. Of couse, a Palestinian state was a crucial and essential Palestinian demand, too.
The term “right of return” has been used for a long time by many. It is a simple and basic human concept, as practiced in Bosnia, and a complicated one that may distort more important issues when embedded in a world that no longer exists. Very often, it has become an obstacle to a decent life, rather than a means of achieving it. It is as if you have to necessarily suffer in your daily existence to preserve it, as if a regular life somehow may deny you the right. The problem is that you cannot really strip it of feelings and emotions, which historically have been ingrained with misery, anguish and pain. The right of return remains a central factor at the core of Palestinian consciousness and politics. It is difficult to dissociate the Palestinian predicament from the yearning to go back home. It has not, however, been sufficiently deconstructed to lead to practical policies — not yet.
The right of return need not be the only way to address Palestinian concerns. We do not know. We have first to recognize what the totality of their experience is, what the feelings are that arose from those experiences, and what aspirations are entwined with these feelings. For example, there is a deep sense of insecurity among Palestinians that is not recognized. People only refer to the security needs of Israel, and I recognize that Israel has very profound security needs. For the rest of the world, for example, it’s an easy formula: security for Israel, a state for the Palestinians. But the Palestinians have suffered continuously for such a long time that this sense of insecurity may or may not be solely addressed by founding a state for them in the West Bank. And if it is not addressed fully or sufficiently, it may give rise to the kind of behavior that may disrupt any resolution.
MEP: How should the diplomatic process then be approached? Should a diplomatic resolution pursue a two-state solution and something else?
AGHA: If the whole diplomatic process is formulated so that finding a state is part of a bigger project, then I think that is the first step toward dealing with the heart of the conflict. This has not been done.
Statehood is considered the resolution of everything. All else at the core has been relegated to a lower order. You might ask, what’s the difference? The difference is captured in the fact that people who are at the receiving end of this process cannot relate to it. There is a disconnect between this diplomatic process and their daily lives and their memories and experiences. If you cannot mobilize a constituency to support the diplomatic process, then, first, there will be no energy to sustain the process itself and, second, there’ll be no support for the outcome that is meaningful enough to become a reality.
These are very important issues that have seldom been dealt with. So you find negotiators who increasingly are talking a language that the average Palestinian cannot relate to. The diaspora definitely do not know what it is they’re talking about. They are thinking, maybe I’ll have the right to go back to a Palestinian state — but I had 60 years of suffering, not because there was no state in the West Bank. And in the future, how is a state in the West Bank going to address all my past experiences, which have long motivated me to fight for what I perceived of as my rights? The diplomatic process has become very much cut off from the realities of Palestinian life.
On the Israeli side, something similar is probably taking place. Although you have the occasional token pro-peace demonstration, there is no longer the energy to support the current diplomatic process. It increasingly doesn’t mean that much to the average Israeli. Of course, if you tell them that if a Palestinian state were created tomorrow, that would end the conflict and you’d be able to live securely in a Jewish state, as a Jew with no threats, they’ll sign on to it. However, they do not believe that is the kind of reality likely to emerge from the diplomatic process, even if you do get a Palestinian state.
So on both sides the energies have become muted. That’s why you find the space for the radical forces active in both communities. Among the Israelis you have the extreme rightist camp and the settlers, who are willing to go out and do something about what they believe in. On the Palestinian side you have the Islamists, who are willing to kill and die. But you don’t find people willing to sacrifice for the sake of the diplomatic process. It is not true that to be willing to die for peace is an oxymoron. You don’t find meaningful demonstrations of support for this peace. And, as long as you lack support for this process, it is doomed.
Don’t forget that the Palestinian national movement was a refugee movement. It did not emerge in the West Bank under occupation. It emerged outside. The West Bank historically has been the most docile sector of Palestinian political life. It was not visibly and directly involved in developing the national movement until the first Intifada, in 1987. Most Palestinian leaders came from Gaza or the 1948 areas. The ones who did not were under the influence of those who did.
This is not an attempt to resolve a maritime disagreement between two states where you do not really need popular support to make it effective. This is a conflict between two peoples whose interests, aspirations and concerns were for a long time at odds. The challenge is to find whether the fulfillment of the aspirations of one side needs to be at the expense of the other.
MEP: My own thinking here is this: Settle the whole issue about borders. But we obviously can’t have the glorious pronouncement that Barak was looking for — an end-of-conflict statement — because this multi-layered conflict is going to go on for a long, long time. Native Americans still have real grievances. They’ve only been mitigated recently because they’ve been, at least on paper, given equality in what was their own country.
AGHA: If you want to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and demarcate its borders, and you are aware that that will not fully end the conflict, that’s an honest and positive approach. Defining the borders could be the first step toward at least thinking about how to pursue the resolution of this conflict. However, I do not think there is an Israeli government anymore that is willing to give up Israel’s material assets on the West Bank without concluding an end-of-conflict agreement. Whether the assets are theirs or not is not the point; they are in possession of them. If they do not get an end of the conflict in return, why should they risk giving these assets up and reducing their maneuverability and their chance to have as much control over security as they want? They are on record since the Barak government that an end of-conflict agreement that ends Palestinian claims is what they expect in return for acquiescing to a Palestinian state.
Furthermore, within this framework, a lot of people in Israel say that even if there’s an end of the conflict on paper, you won’t get it in reality. I tell those people, maybe you have a point. A formal end of conflict is one thing; an end of conflict that addresses the hearts of people is another. You can sign onto it, but it does not mean you can achieve it.
Broadly speaking, there are two ways of ending a conflict. One is to pursue measures on the ground that will end the conflict and follow that up with an end-ofconflict agreement. The other is to simply sign an agreement that declares an end of the conflict and hope that somehow following the correct policies will be sufficient. I think the second option is a lazy one that relies on wishful thinking. But I agree with you. If it is acceptable to the Israelis to have a Palestinian state in the West Bank while recognizing that that will not necessarily end the conflict conclusively, that might be a first step.
There were Israelis like Mr. Sharon, and there might still be some, who thought an end-of-conflict agreement was not possible and that Israel therefore needed to unilaterally draw its own borders and reserve the right to defend itself. There is some logic and clarity in that. Of course, the Palestinians do not like it because it means they’d have no say in determining their fate.
MEP: The Arab League peace plan of 2002 — the Arab Peace Initiative — also spoke simply in terms of a two-state solution.
AGHA: The two-state solution from the Palestinian point of view arises from the realization that they have to save what can be saved; otherwise, everything will be lost. It does not come from the realization that this is going to fully, finally and irrevocably address what they have been fighting for since the beginning of their struggle.
MEP: But the Arab peace plan talks in terms of a normalization of relations with Israel if they withdrew to the June 1967 borders. My response is partly as a Westerner. I’m worried that the idea of justice would put reality on hold, and that everything would be lost.
AGHA: Have you noticed that I did not mention “justice” at all? You can complicate matters further by introducing the concept of justice. Then you have to decide what theory of justice you subscribe to and how to imbue your policies with that sense of justice. Of course, an idea of justice has to be seen to have been achieved, but I’m not touching on that here.
MEP: How can the feelings of the Palestinian diaspora be met?
AGHA: Nobody has asked them. An authoritative mechanism should try to record what the diaspora want. First of all, the diaspora are the majority of the Palestinians. You cannot talk about ending the conflict while excluding the majority or treating them as an obstacle. They seem docile now, they seem relatively inactive, but you do not know how disruptive they can be. Remember, it was the diasporadriven PLO that shaped and controlled the politics of the territories where a state is supposed to be founded.
Part of finding out what they want involves explaining to them the realities they face now. The actual possibility of going back to homes that do not exist anymore, or to lands that have been taken by Israelis in the past 50, 60 years, has to be vivid in their consciousness when they decide to choose what they think will address their plight. They see that things have changed, but their first reaction will be: I want to go back, I want my land, I want my home. When you engage them, you have to start a process by which you explain that if that is not possible, let us find out how else we can address this awful thing that happened to you and to your offspring, and the ugly life you’ve been living for the past 60 years. They want to have a better life, but one based on a recognition of their suffering and a kind of returning to them of the dignity that they have lost because of their experiences.
Nobody has done that. People talk on their behalf, but the only person who succeeded in muting their concerns while at the same time expressing their feelings was Yaser Arafat. Implicitly, without too much clever talk, without the discourse, without the plan, without the big speeches, the diaspora — and Palestinians more widely — knew that he knew. And they knew that whatever he did, he was not going to betray them. With what happened at Camp David and afterward, and his death, they felt they had been vindicated and that they had put their trust in the right person. Westerners tend to think that Arafat should have been castigated and perhaps even rejected by his people for coming back empty-handed from Camp David in the summer of 2000. The truth is, the Palestinians breathed a collective sigh of relief because he did not betray them; he honored the unwritten contract he had with them. As a matter of fact, his popularity among Palestinians skyrocketed as a result. Funny, how mind-sets and ways of looking and seeing differ!
We do not have the conditions in which what you want can be neatly analyzed on a piece of paper and presented in a clear, rational way. It is felt, and Arafat felt it. That’s why he was the undisputed leader of the Palestinian national movement for some 40 years. Now that he’s gone, you need to have a kind of process that will register what he felt.
This is not Northern Ireland; this is not South Africa; and this is, thank God, not the Holocaust. Different experiences have different components. We have to find the unique way of dealing with this that is peculiar to the Palestinians. Otherwise, we will pursue what appear to be easy solutions that are not solutions at all. They have not worked; they will not work.
I don’t want to restrict what I’m talking about to the Palestinian diaspora; I think even the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have those feelings. Some of them have experienced dispossession first hand and have been either expelled or relocated to new territory. But such sentiments are not limited to those who directly suffered; it goes beyond them to all Palestinians. Collectively, this is the Palestinian predicament. I think the main concern of the West Bank farmer is not for a state. It has more to do with the kinds of things I’m discussing, even though his particular experience perhaps differs from those of Palestinians in Lebanon, Syria or Jordan.
There is a class that has emerged over the years among the Palestinians that is state-oriented and that is focused exclusively on the idea of having a Palestinian state. Although these people are more sophisticated than the majority of Palestinians and can express themselves in much more modern political language than the majority, they do not accurately or totally represent the Palestinian experience or the aspirations and concerns of most Palestinians. Abu Mazen does not belong to this class. He is vital because he wants a state, but at the same time he grasps the significance of those deeply held feelings.
You don’t have to be physically dispossessed to feel dispossession. Israeli Palestinians are living on their own land, in their own homes, with rights other Palestinians, their brethren, have fewer of, but they still have a certain sense of both historical and ongoing suffering. You can say this is false consciousness, but there is a feeling there that needs to be addressed. It will be to a certain extent tackled by having a state, but just any state will not fully address it. If you do not attend to it sufficiently to be able to close the file, you cannot end the conflict.
MEP: Is this an issue you negotiate, or do you simply put your sensibility and views out there and hope for something specific and responsive from the other side? I may be wrong, but I don’t know how it’s resolved other than with time. If I recall correctly, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research several years ago questioned refugees in Lebanon and Jordan as to their preferences on compensation and other alternatives. I had the impression that most of the refugees would accept being compensated for the property they lost. [The Center issued a press release on its findings on July 18, 2003.]
AGHA: There have been many polls and, depending on how the questions are formulated and the methodology used, they often come up with contradictory answers. Most of the polls I have seen say that the majority of the diaspora wants a right of return, but I think that’s because nobody has explained to them what it entails and what the alternatives are and how impossible it may be for them to exercise that right. But again, I don’t want to restrict this matter to the diaspora.
You ask how this lends itself to a political process or a diplomatic process that can crack the nut at the heart of it. I would say we are living under the inertia of a certain way of looking at this conflict that we believed for a long time to be the only way. Despite the fact that it has failed for a good 20 years, we still are not willing to look at other alternatives. I’m suggesting that, first, we go back and recognize what the realities of the situation are. We’ve just assumed that this is what it is: a state for the Palestinians and security for the Israelis. “State” and “security” have become influential buzz words in both communities — understandably, because Israelis yearn for security, and because after the Yom Kippur war in 1973, a state became the recognized political objective of the Palestinians. But you have to take two steps backward and look at whether this, on its own, is adequate.
First of all, you have to ask yourself why the diplomatic process that is built on this view has consistently not worked under so many different political configurations when the whole world has been behind it. I don’t think the failure is due to an extremist leadership in Israel or because the Palestinians are natural and serial rejectionists. Maybe, if President Obama had spent his first year in office finding out exactly what the reality is, he would have been less frustrated and disappointed.
MEP: Maybe these are two separate issues. I have doubts that Camp David failed due to its neglect to take adequate account of these deeper feelings of the Palestinian people. Just as with the Arab peace plan, to save the land seems to be the priority.
AGHA: I have no problem with that, but don’t come back to me after you have a Palestinian state and say, this does not seem to be enough. I’d then remind you: this is the first step. We have to protect it, we have to nurture and sustain it, we have to make sure that it survives according to what has been set out in the agreements. But as long as we know that this may not unequivocally be the end of the conflict, then that’s fine. I am not against the two-state solution, but it depends on what you think the two-state solution will achieve. If you think it automatically will lead to an end of the conflict, then I think that will not be the case. Furthermore, if ending the conflict is a precondition for having a Palestinian state, then that will create at the very least resentment when people realize it has not ended it. If ending the conflict is at the core of accepting a state and then people find out that the wider issues have not been concluded, it will lead them to question the whole idea of a state.
I remember how the signing of the Oslo Agreements on the White House lawn created the euphoria that led many otherwise sensible people to think that this was it: we have solved the conflict. We have to make sure we do not fall into that trap again.
MEP: Does a one-state solution better address this larger problem?
AGHA: I’m against the one-state solution. There are two types of one-state solutions: one that is impossible and one that already exists, but is not desirable. We now effectively have one state between the Jordan River and the sea, where Israel has various degrees of control and is the overwhelming power. In that state, the Palestinians are living under occupation in the West Bank or in a prison in Gaza, or as second-class citizens in Israel. From a Palestinian point of view, that one state is not acceptable.
MEP: In that so-called state as now constituted, the Israelis are not accepting responsibility for the Palestinians.
AGHA: They’re clever enough to have found ways to avoid that.
The other idea of the state is a utopian binational democratic secular state. I don’t think it’s workable. First of all, the Israelis don’t want it. Second, if the Palestinians thought about it, I think they’d conclude that it is not to their advantage to have it. You’d have Israel in effective control of the whole state. The Israelis, given their vast resources and superior development, would be able to legally get all the things that they can now only get through assorted forms of coercion. They could buy the land they want and do whatever they want with it and carry out the projects that suit the Jewish part of the state. The Palestinian ability to stand up to that would be minimal. Also, the Palestinians would be transformed into an underclass carrying out menial tasks in a unitary state, very much like the Hispanics in California. The people on the Palestinian side who talk about the one-state solution do not consider the realities of how that state would function. They do not realize that a binational state would only accentuate their grievances.
The Palestinians are much better off having a state of their own. It could be the first step toward addressing all outstanding issues in this conflict. It depends on how it is formulated, what is expected of it and in what direction it develops.
MEP: The PLO as it’s currently constituted appears to have given little outlet to the diaspora for the articulation of the larger problems.
AGHA: Even though it originated in the diaspora and was a diaspora movement.
MEP: So on some level there has been a failure of this Palestinian leadership?
AGHA: Arafat molded the Palestinians into one people at a time when they were dispersed all over the place. He managed to create a new Palestinian polity and put their cause on the international agenda in ways that could not be ignored: that it was not just a humanitarian refugee issue. Whatever he achieved was very substantial, against all odds and with a minimum of resources. However, because of his idiosyncratic ways, he left a real mess behind him. Like most towering leaders of his era, he acted as though he would be there forever and did not prepare for what might come afterward. The policies have disintegrated, the unity of the Palestinian people is in danger of withering away, the Palestinian presence on their land is ruptured between Gaza and the West Bank, the PLO is a dysfunctional shadow of what it was, and the whole focus of the Palestinian problem is no longer the Palestinian people — it’s the West Bank.
MEP: Given the outlook of the international community, what do you envision as a practical step-by-step process for moving forward?
AGHA: The way to move forward is to recognize that there is a reality now in the West Bank that is unpalatable for both the Palestinians and the Israelis as well as for the rest of the world. It’s called “occupation.” A state in the West Bank, a two-state solution, would address the issue of occupation by ending it. Period. Furthermore, this whole end-of-conflict pursuit has become an obstacle to ending the occupation and an obstacle to establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank. If you accept that, then that will shrink the task — still a very important one — into that of ending the occupation. Meanwhile, you have to work seriously at the heart of the conflict to define the issues and find out ways of resolving them. It has not been done that seriously. The moment either party gets near to signing something conclusive, all those other things pull them back.
Israel needs to know that its presence in this region is legitimized and secure, that it is genuinely accepted by the other states of the region. That is the payback for Israel. If you want a solution, you have to find ways of addressing that without jeopardizing both the history and the aspirations of the Arab peoples. Otherwise, you have to go on fighting till total victory or total defeat and surrender. There is no other way.
You cannot avoid addressing the issue by saying it’s a latter-day excuse that Livni or Netanyahu came up with. From the Israeli point of view, it’s the crux of the matter. The Israelis want to be accepted as a Jewish state, no matter how you define that Jewish state. This is not a tactical maneuver to make things difficult and escape an agreement. These are genuine feelings. When Arabs say that most of the Israelis are not even practicing Jews, they misunderstand. Israelis do not want the Jewish religion to be elevated to a position where it has rights at the expense of other religions. It is something other than that. Take the issue of Israeli security, for example. Israel is by far the most advanced and dominant military force in the region, with no serious rivals. But the kind of security it is after cannot be provided by its arsenal. It is precisely the genuine, but unquantifiable, acceptance of a Jewish state that can be the ultimate guarantor of its security.
The challenge is how to get there without rendering the Arab version of history meaningless and declaring it bunk, without compromising the rights of Palestinian refugees and without saddling Israeli Palestinians with the status of second-class citizenship. The whole world has been trying to formulate a process that’s geared toward political terms and discourses that are not fully in sync with the spirit of the two communities. That’s not a recipe for reaching a sustainable agreement.
To reiterate, a two-state solution solves the issue of occupation. Let’s end the occupation, have two states, and at the same time address those other, deeper issues to try to achieve a genuine resolution of the conflict. What shape that will take, I really do not know. It’s not something that can be dealt with in a pre-arranged plan. We have to find creative ways that are not always immediately conducive to precise rational formulae. I do think, however, that the kind of Palestinian state that is created and the way that matters around it are dealt with are significant factors in determining how easy — or difficult — it would be to finally resolve most of the outstanding issues.
For a diplomatic or peace process to be effective, it has to be as inclusive as possible. Increasingly, processes have become the property of only the few. The wider populations in whose names the negotiations take place feel increasingly cut off and alien to the process. The dynamic and active sectors of Israeli and Palestinian society are often excluded from negotiations. This not only reduces their stakes in possible outcomes but also further heightens their suspicions and their motivations to undermine the efforts.
MEP: It sounds as if what we’re talking about is an honest dialogue between two peoples for generations.
AGHA: That’s one way of looking at it. I don’t know whether it’s the best way or the only way. The fact that it does not immediately lend itself to policies that can be clearly formulated, and signed on to, does not mean that it is not important. It does not mean that it will not determine what happens in the future. Of course, it does mean that it will not be attractive to busy and impatient international policy makers.