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New Mideast Talks Hang on Old Question: Will U.S. Drop Support for Israeli Annexation of West Bank?

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Israel and the Palestinian Authority have resumed peace talks for the first time in three years, but the two sides appear as far apart as ever on the key issues of borders, settlers, refugees and the status of Jerusalem. We’re joined by scholar and author Norman Finkelstein and Yousef Munayyer, executive director of The Jerusalem Fund and its educational program, the Palestine Center. Munayyer says the talks hinge on a major reversal of the longstanding U.S. role in the conflict. “Instead of acting as an enforcer of international law, as an enforcer of Israeli obligations in previous commitments, the United States has only acted instead as an enforcer of Israeli positions,” Munayyer says. “If you’re on the Palestinian end, there’s really no interest for you to keep going back to negotiations that only act as a cover for Israel’s continued colonial activities in the West Bank.” Finkelstein says the true hope for peace lies in a nonviolent Palestinian movement that can force enough global pressure on Israel to obey international law and abandon its West Bank settlements. “The Palestinians are not demonstrating any power, so of course they’re going to be clobbered by the United States and Israel,” Finkelstein says. “The question is: Can you change the power equation? And I think there are realistic possibilities for changing that equation. Number one, use the instrument of international law to isolate Israel in public opinion. And number two, you need massive Palestinian civil disobedience with, unfortunately, the force and repression that Israel unleashes to galvanize international opinion. That was exactly the strategy of the civil rights movement.”

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AARON MATÉ: Israel and the Palestinian Authority have resumed peace talks for the first time in three years. The two sides’ top negotiators sat down Monday in a dinner hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington. Ahead of the meeting, Kerry urged both parties to make what he called “reasonable compromises.”

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: Going forward, it’s no secret that this is a difficult process. If it were easy, it would have happened a long time ago. It’s no secret, therefore, that many difficult choices lie ahead for the negotiators and for the leaders, as we seek reasonable compromises on tough, complicated, emotional and symbolic issues. I think reasonable compromises has to be a keystone of all of this effort. I know the negotiations are going to be tough, but I also know that the consequences of not trying could be worse.

AMY GOODMAN: The last talks broke down in September 2010 after Palestinians insisted Israel stop expanding West Bank settlements. Israel has ignored the demand since, building thousands of homes in the major West Bank settlement blocs it wants to carve out of any future Palestinian state. The Palestinian Authority held their position until this past week, when Kerry won an Israeli pledge to release over a hundred Palestinian prisoners, some held for decades. The State Department says the two sides have agreed to negotiate for at least nine months. The talks will be overseen by Martin Indyk, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, who was named Monday as the new special envoy for Middle East peace. As she headed into Monday’s opening session, Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni said the U.S. will take the lead in steering the talks.

TZIPI LIVNI: To be optimistic is something that we cannot afford. But there is some hope. And I hope that when in Israel they would see the first meeting, they would understand that we shouldn’t give up hope, and it is reachable, and we need to do it, for—because it is a mutual interest. The understanding with the United States is that in order to succeed, we would not show the public what’s going to happen in the negotiations room, and Secretary Kerry is the only one that can speak on behalf of all of us. So I’m not going to enter this discussion publicly. We are going to discuss it in the negotiations room.

AARON MATÉ: Well, despite Tzipi Livni’s assertion that details of the talks will be kept private, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas laid out the Palestinian position on Monday during a visit to Cairo. Speaking to journalists, Abbas said the Palestinian demand for an Israeli withdrawal to 1967 is non-negotiable. Abbas’s comments reinforce the doubts surrounding the new talks, with the two sides as far apart as ever on the key issues of borders, settlers, refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests. Yousef Munayyer is the executive director of The Jerusalem Fund, its educational program, The Palestine Center, based in Washington, D.C. Here in New York, we’re joined by Norman Finkelstein, a scholar and author of many books, including Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History and Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End.

Let’s go to Washington first. I want to ask just about the issue of these talks happening right now, Yousef Munayyer, what is wanted by the Palestinians and the Israelis, how it’s being run in Washington. Can you respond?

YOUSEF MUNAYYER: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think, first, to put this in context, we have to remember that, you know, Israel has no greater ally in the world than the United States. It relies heavily on the United States both economically, diplomatically and militarily for support. So the United States has a good bit of leverage over Israel. It also has a good bit of leverage over the Palestinian Authority. It provides a significant amount of money for its annual budget. And so, you know, it’s not miraculous that the United States is able to bring two, essentially, clients to the table to do something.

The question is: Why has it been so difficult to do so? And the answer to that is: because of a failure of U.S. mediation over the years, time and time again. And so, I think what we should be looking for here, if these talks are going to have any—any hope of moving forward in any positive direction, is the way in which the U.S. approaches handling its role as a mediator. In the past, unfortunately, instead of acting as an enforcer of international law, as an enforcer of Israeli obligations and previous commitments, the United States has only acted instead as an enforcer of Israeli positions in the negotiations. And so, if you’re on the Palestinian end, there’s really no interest for you to keep going back to negotiations that only act as a cover for Israel’s continued colonial activities in the West Bank.

AARON MATÉ: Norman, what’s your sense of why these talks are taking place right now? And give us your assessment of where you think the various parties are at?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, on the Palestinian side, they really don’t have much choice, because the Palestinian economy was almost in a crisis last year just at the time Salam Fayyad, the prime minister, left office, and Obama basically told him that if you don’t go to talks, we’re not going to pay the bills.

On the Israeli side, they had one immediate motive. The immediate motive was they wanted to deflect international pressure on them. The Israeli press was reporting that, as is true, in order to deflect international pressure, you have to pretend to be negotiating. And the Israelis didn’t panic, but they saw it as a harbinger when the European Union issued its guidelines, which were not going to have a huge impact, but guidelines which threatened Israel’s ability, its maneuverability, in continuing its annexation of the Palestinian territories.

The U.S. goal is a little bit more interesting, and it requires a historical perspective. If you look at the last three presidencies—Clinton, then Bush and then Obama—in each of the three presidencies, at the end of the terms, the eight-year terms, there were attempts to negotiate a settlement. In the Clinton presidency, the purpose was clearly Clinton wanted to redeem himself after the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In the Bush presidency, the negotiations came in 2008, and the purpose again was pretty clear, that Condoleezza Rice, in particular—she was secretary of state at the time, and she was looking for somehow to redeem her role as the secretary of state in what was the end of the Bush administration a complete disaster. Now Obama is facing the same problem, namely, his is a failed presidency, and even though he’s a narcissist, he knows that the presidency has been a disaster. And just like Clinton and just like the Bush administration, he’s now hoping that maybe he can pull a rabbit out of the hat with the Israel-Palestine conflict and redeem, as Clinton hoped to do and as Condoleezza Rice hoped to do, and redeem his record in at least foreign policy.

And so, each of them has a different motive, but we have to be clear that this time circumstances are slightly different. That is, number one, the Arab world is shattered right now. Hamas, the principal opponent of the collaborationist Palestinian Authority, has been reduced to a nullity, because it put all of its eggs in the Brotherhood basket.


NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: In Egypt. The Palestinians are more depressed, despondent, despairing and depoliticized than ever. And the Palestinian Authority is now more enthrall to the United States than ever. And so, there is a hope. There is a possibility that this time they may be able to push through the Israeli terms of settlement. And the Israeli terms of settlement are very clear. Israel has said it over and over again: “We’re building a wall. The wall is our final border.” And the wall consists of annexing about 10 percent of the West Bank, fragmenting what remains of the West Bank, annexing some of the most arable soil, annexing the critical water resources, annexing the hub of Palestinian life, namely East Jerusalem, and there will be a—some sort of international consortium to solve the refugee problem. There is a possibility that they can ram it through this time.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking to Israeli Army Radio last year, the new U.S. envoy, Martin Indyk, expressed doubts that Israel-Palestinian talks could yield a peace deal. In the clip, he refers to Mahmoud Abbas as Abu Mazen.

MARTIN INDYK: I’m not particularly optimistic, because I think that at the heart of the matter is that the maximum concessions that this government of Israel would be prepared to make fall far short of the minimum requirements that Abu Mazen will insist on. So it may be possible to keep the talks going, which is a good thing, but I find it very hard to believe that they will reach an agreement.

AMY GOODMAN: Yousef Munayyer, can you talk about who Martin Indyk is, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, leading these talks, and also to Norman Finkelstein talking about the depoliticization and despondency of the Palestinians?

YOUSEF MUNAYYER: Sure. And let me just say about that Martin Indyk quote, which I think is so interesting, if you mention it’s from last year, you know, he’s talking then about a right-wing Israeli government, which has since become even more right-wing and even more beholden to the interests of religious nationalist, settler parties that are now in the current Israeli government. So I think the Israeli government’s positions, the minimum that they’re willing to give—the maximum that they’re willing to give has shrunk even more under this current Israeli government.

You know, Martin Indyk, I think—I think the question about him, it’s not really about him as an individual, but really about what he represents when it comes to American mediation of these negotiations. Look, Martin Indyk is someone who very clearly has a pro-Israel background, pro-Israel advocacy and work on his résumé. It’s very clear what his positions have been in the past and who he’s associated himself with. But I think the interesting thing is, you could never imagine the United States appointing someone in that position as a special envoy to the negotiations who has the exact same résumé but from a Palestinian end. And I think that just speaks to the fact that the administration is still very conscious and prepared to defer to the concerns of pro-Israel interest groups in the United States when it comes to how it mediates the negotiations. And that, if anyone had any hope for a different U.S. position towards the negotiations this time around, suggests that that is simply not the case.

AMY GOODMAN: In January 2009, just as the three-week Israeli assault on Gaza was in full swing and President Obama was preparing to take office, Martin Indyk came on Democracy Now! along with Norman Finkelstein. At the time, Indyk had come out with the book, Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East, based on his time as former U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Clinton administration. In the debate with Martin Indyk on the main obstacle to peace, Norman Finkelstein argued it was the U.S. and Israeli refusal to recognize basic Palestinian rights. When Norman Finkelstein said Palestinians had made all the major concessions on the key issues, Indyk refused to directly respond.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: The important point is, on all those questions, the Palestinians were willing to make concessions. They were willing to allow Israel to keep 60 percent of the settlements, 80 percent of the settlers. They were willing to compromise on Jerusalem. They were willing to give up basically on the right of return. They made all the concessions. Israel didn’t make any concessions. How is this rendered in Martin Indyk’s book? It’s rendered as, quote, “Barak’s bold and courageous initiatives for peace” and “Arafat and the PLO rejecting the bold and courageous initiatives of Barak.” Constantly, he turns reality on its head.

MARTIN INDYK: I’ve tried to account that honestly. And what Norman Finkelstein has done is simply distort my argument and load it up with his usual paraphernalia of legal resolutions and so on.


MARTIN INDYK: But if people want to understand just how difficult it is to make peace, then I hope that they will read for themselves, rather than accept his propaganda.

AMY GOODMAN: During Martin Indyk’s debate on Democracy Now! with Norman Finkelstein, I asked Indyk for his advice to President Obama on how to conduct future Middle East peace talks. Indyk said the U.S. needs to be mindful of cultural differences with the Arab world.

MARTIN INDYK: The American role is indispensable. But we need to be wiser. We need to be more flexible. We need to understand that there are huge differences between us and them. And we need to pay a lot more attention to their culture, their values and their politics, rather than assume that they are like us. And I know that’s a very general proposition, but from that can come the getting of wisdom when it comes to the details of peacemaking.

AMY GOODMAN: Yousef Munayyer of the Palestine Center, can you respond?

YOUSEF MUNAYYER: The single greatest failure of U.S. mediation has been the inability to put pressure on the Israelis. People often say, “Well, you know, you need to pressure both sides.” The reality is, the United States already supports a brutal Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territory. The Palestinians are under enough pressure to begin with, so much so that even the concept of a two-state solution requires a Palestinian concession of about 80 percent of Palestine. That’s tremendous to begin with. But it’s the Israelis, not the Palestinians, that are building settlements on Palestinian territory. So, if you’re going to get a territorial compromise in some way, it’s Israeli behavior that needs to change to get a border drawn, for instance, and to get a agreement on Jerusalem and to get an agreement on refugees, if we’re talking about a two-state framework. But Israel is in a position of power. And instead of using its leverage to change Israeli behavior, the United States has only emboldened Israel in the negotiations, allowing it always to demand a maximum and never allowing the Palestinians to get what is the minimum required by international law for a just solution to this—to this dispute.

AARON MATÉ: Norman, so, in your debate with Indyk that we just played, you made this point that Yousef just said, that Palestinians have made the bulk of the concessions. So, given that, what are your expectations for how this process is going to go?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, the Israeli position, backed by the United States, is very clear. If you look at the maps that were presented in Taba, the last stage of the Camp David negotiations in 2001, and you look at the route of the wall now, in 2001 Israel was asking for about 9.2 percent of the West Bank, and the route of the wall will absorb about 9.5 percent of the West Bank. If you look at the end of Indyk’s book, he outlines what he thinks should be the solution. So what’s the solution according to Indyk? He says we should take the route of the wall. Israel will get Jerusalem, name—East Jerusalem, the urban center. The Palestinians will get what they call the suburbs. The refugee question, Palestinians will get the right of return to the Palestinian, quote-unquote, “homeland.” And the solution will leave Palestinians with nothing. That’s not hyperbole.

One tries to be reasonable. And I think the Palestinian side in negotiations did try to be reasonable. They presented a map during the Annapolis negotiations which said, “We will annex 2 percent—we will allow Israel to annex 2 percent of the West Bank, but on those 2 percent are more than 60 percent of the settlers. We will let them keep 60 percent and more of the settlers in place.” They did their best to be reasonable and also within the framework of international law. So they wanted Israel would get 1.5—excuse me, 2 percent of the West Bank, Palestinians would get 2 percent of Israel—a one-for-one land swap. They tried very hard to be reasonable.

The Israeli-American position, the one that Indyk formulates and basically is just an echo of the Israeli position, is: You’re going to leave a West Bank which is fragmented down the middle, fragmented in the north. They lose the water. They lose the most arable land. They lose East Jerusalem. There’s no Palestinian state without East Jerusalem. The Palestinian what’s called Greater Jerusalem extends from East Jerusalem to Ramallah to Bethlehem. That Greater East Jerusalem, it accounts for 40 percent of the Palestinian economy. There is no Palestinian state if Israel annexes East Jerusalem.

The problem is how all of this is going to be sold, because people don’t know the facts. And it’s very frustrating when you’re watching what’s happening. Israel claims it wants all of the West Bank. That’s what it formally claims. That’s its theatrical position. And then it’s going to say, “We’re making a gut-wrenching concessions. We’re going to give up 90 percent. All we want is 10 percent.” And it’s going to cast the Palestinians as being so unreasonable: “Look at the gut-wrenching concessions that Israel is making.” And, in fact, I think it probably is going to sell.

I talked to a very close Palestinian friend. She’s a professor. And I said to her, “Israel really only wants 10 percent, for an obvious reason: They don’t want the Arabs.” If you look at the wall Israel is building, believe it or not, the wall is twice the size of the border. Do you know why it’s twice the size of the border? Because it winds and winds, it takes this sinuous route, to keep the land in and the Arabs out. So the wall in East Jerusalem, it cuts right through East Jerusalem and puts 55,000 Palestinian Arabs out. They can’t want the whole West Bank, because, in the famous phrase of Levi Eshkol, the prime minister, “We want the dowry; we don’t want the bride.” We want the land, but we don’t want the people.

AARON MATÉ: Well, Norman, on the issue of the people, I wanted to ask you—it’s the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington next month.


AARON MATÉ: And we’re speaking at a time when the history of the civil rights movement is alive right now, with the Trayvon Martin verdict, the striking down of the Voting Rights Act. Are there any lessons you think that a Palestinian nonviolent movement could draw from the history of civil rights in the U.S.?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Yeah, I think that—you know, Munayyer, he complains about the United States putting pressure on Palestinians, not putting pressure on Israel. For me, that’s a given. The Palestinians are not demonstrating any power, so of course they’re going to be clobbered by the United States and Israel. The question is: Can you change the power equation? And I think there are realistic possibilities for changing that equation. The most important thing is, number one, using the instrument of international law to isolate Israel in public opinion. And, number two, you need massive Palestinian civil disobedience—with, unfortunately, the force and repression that Israel unleashes—to galvanize international opinion. That was exactly the strategy of the civil rights movement.

The civil rights movement, originally, Martin Luther King, his original strategy was: “Let’s try to melt the hearts of the Southern racists.” That was a classic Gandhian strategy, you know, melting the heart of your opponent. But then he realized, you’re never going to melt the hearts of these people. So what are we going to do? We’re going to look for the most repressive, the most violent Southern sheriffs, people like [Jim] Clark in Selma, Alabama, Eugene “Bull” Connor in Birmingham. We’re going to confront them, knowing full well that if we confront them, they’re going to unleash their dogs, unleash the fire hoses, unleash the horsemen, and then you will create an indignant national community which will impose its will on the South. And that strategy, to me, is workable among the Palestinians. If they don’t use that strategy, I think it’s hopeless.

AMY GOODMAN: Yousef Munayyer, your final comment?

YOUSEF MUNAYYER: Well, to sum up, I would say that Israel has been trying to sell for a very long time the notion that its occupation of Palestinian territory is temporary. It’s been saying that over and over again. And it’s only that claim that keeps the apartheid label off the Israeli state. All of its actions, however, including up until last week when they announced plans to build a massive railway network throughout the entirety of the West Bank, say that its occupation is anything but temporary and it is, in fact, permanent. What these negotiations do is they allow the Israelis to say, “Well, actually, our occupation may still be temporary,” and create a façade to cover their continued colonial activities in the West Bank. Once these negotiations fail—and I believe ultimately they will—that façade will fall. And once again, we will be looking at—the international community will be looking at what is essentially an apartheid system, and the continued isolation of Israel will grow. And more and more states around the world will move towards punitive policies to get Israel to change its behavior, knowing full well that Washington will not be able to deliver any sort of agreement.

AMY GOODMAN: Yousef Munayyer, I want to thank you for being with us, executive director of The Jerusalem Fund and its educational program, the Palestine Center. And Norman Finkelstein, author and scholar, his most recent books, Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End, another of his books, What Gandhi Says: About Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to Cairo to speak with Democracy Now!’s Sharif Abdel Kouddous. Stay with us.

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