A unity agreement signed this week in Cairo between Palestinian political factions marks the first time in 4 years that a Palestinian government will be unified across the West Bank and Gaza (hitherto the territories were split between governments led by Fatah in the former and Hamas in the latter).
Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, who was deeply involved in the internal negotiations leading up to the deal, and who leads the independent Palestinian National Initiative, a signatory to the agreement, spoke with the Middle East Channel from Cairo about the implications of the deal.
A long time campaigner for Palestinian rights and an advocate of non-violent resistance, Barghouti ran in the Palestinian presidential election of 2005, finishing second to Mahmoud Abbas; he subsequently won a seat on the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006, and served as Minister of Information in the short-lived Palestinian unity government in 2007.
Middle East Channel: Why did this deal happen now? It has been worked on for years -- what is it about the current moment that has been conducive to this agreement?
Mustafa Barghouti: There are several factors. One major factor in my opinion is the degree to which Palestinians on all sides have grown frustrated by internal division -- and this was in part an impact of the Arab revolutions in Palestine. There was the beginning of demonstrations in late January and the beginning of February demanding the end of division, and people were wise and mature enough to realize that what we need is not a third division against both but rather pressure to end existing division. This public pressure was extremely important. Fatah and Hamas realized that they both stood to lose popular support.
A second factor is the failure of the peace process and notably Israel's stubbornness. It became clear to [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas that nothing could be advanced with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. Therefore the only way to change the situation is to empower ourselves -- the Palestinians -- by changing the factors. Abbas did everything he could to try to convince Netanyahu to proceed with a meaningful peace process; it eventually became clear that Israel had no interest in real progress. In addition, Israel used internal Palestinian division as an excuse for lack of movement, claiming that there is no Palestinian leader that can represent all Palestinians.
A third factor was definitely the changes in the region. I think that Egypt's position became more positive, more proactive. First they encouraged us to agree internally, and through our own internal Palestinian mediation efforts, we made much progress. The Egyptians were then able to re-enter the fray and it took only three or four hours in one meeting between Fatah and Hamas to close a deal. The Egyptians became less susceptible to external pressure that was against unity and they showed a great amount of resilience and determination -- a reflection of the change in Egyptian policy in general.
One more important factor. We realized as Palestinians that we needed to assert our own role in changing our predicament and to do that we had to address the balance of power -- with the first and vital step being the creation of internal unity. This is our objective assessment after the failure of the peace process. The two Palestinian sides do not have major differences in terms of goals: a two-state solution and in practical terms both sides are ready to accept non-violent resistance -- there is now more belief in this form of struggle. This is an opportunity providing for the first time the potential for unified Palestinian leadership and in my opinion this provides the best opportunity for real, lasting peace.
MEC: There have been unity agreements in the past that failed to hold and that unraveled. What are the main obstacles to this new deal working?
MB: The main problem is Israeli rejection and Israeli efforts to mobilize the world against it. Israel did this in 2007 when they stifled the then national unity agreement and Palestinian democracy. They are trying to do this again in attempting to mobilize the international community. There are of course difficult details to be worked out, such as the formation of the government and the internal leadership of the PLO, but I think Israeli actions and efforts to mobilize represent the biggest risk.
One particularly vicious and revealing Israeli reaction came from the Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said bluntly, because he doesn't know how to speak diplomatically, that Israel prefers that Palestinians remain divided because that keeps them weak, and if they are unified they will become stronger. That is the essence of the Israeli position. If Israel really wanted to see a two-state option -- and the speeches at the signing ceremony by both President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal were categorical in supporting two states -- then this is the best opportunity to make an agreement with all of the Palestinians, instead of trying to impose something on part of the Palestinians. This is a tremendous opportunity for peace, but unfortunately all we hear from the side of Israel is talk about the past and the failure to see the potential for the future.
But let me emphasize one more point: that this agreement is not just about bringing back Palestinian unity, it's about bringing back democracy that was lost; it's about bringing back separation of powers that vanished; it's about re-vitalizing the Palestinian parliament and Palestinian Legislative Council; and it's about bringing back to the people the right to choose their leaders freely and democratically. Those who are against this agreement have to explain their justification for calling for democracy in Libya and Syria and the region, but not in Palestine.
MEC: Given the response from the Israeli government, what has thus far been a cautious response from the Obama administration and a negative one from the U.S congress, and also the fact that a unity government does not overtly meet the 3 Quartet conditions, why should this be seen as helpful to the cause of peace?
MB: First of all, I think the United States should be careful to not repeat the same mistakes as in 2007. The U.S. should have its own independent position -- not an Israeli position. Be careful in following Israeli advice -- that advice is designed so that Netanyahu can have a justification for not making peace and continuing the settlement policy. I would recommend a more careful U.S. approach that also looks at the potential of this agreement. That potential includes the reconstruction of Gaza and also building institutions in Gaza, and consolidating what was built already in the West Bank . The alternative is continued division that may become irreversible and preclude such solutions in the future.
Bear in mind also that this agreement provides the establishment of a government that does not include either Hamas or Fatah. There is an understanding-- and this was clear in the agreement and in the speeches -- that Mr. Abbas will be authorized by all Palestinians now, including Hamas, to continue the negotiations. Abbas didn't change any of the parameters that the PLO has accepted before, including recognition of Israel. There is only one difference: that he is now authorized by everybody -- and not just by Fatah. The PA government itself will have nothing to do with the negotiations, it will be dealing with the internal situation and preparing for elections. The PLO will continue to be responsible for negotiations -- with Mr. Abbas as its head.
There will now also be greater prospect for maintaining a broader ceasefire -- not only in Gaza -- and abstaining from violence everywhere, including in the West Bank. The best way to get beyond Israeli rejection and opposition is by the international community accepting this agreement, recognizing the right of Palestinians for democratic reform, and then accepting and dealing with a new government.
MEC: Does Hamas now become part of the PLO through this agreement?
MB: Hamas will become part of the PLO -- as will all of the groups that were outside the PLO that have now signed this agreement, including my movement, the Palestinian National Initiative. What this means for now is that there will be an interim leadership that does not negate the present role of the executive committee of the PLO, and does not change the commitments of the PLO. The new transitional structure will be preparing for free, democratic elections for the Palestinian National Council of the PLO, which has not had elections in 25 years. Practically this strengthens the PLO and its ability to be representative without harming existing commitments, and it opens the door for future democratic participation.
MEC: How does the agreement fit into the possibility of the PLO going to the UN in September to get Palestine internationally-recognized as a state?
MB: I think it will strengthen this notion. Israeli behavior has made us more determined than ever to pursue this path. Palestinians can now present a united front to the international community and ask for recognition of a Palestinian state, including an end of occupation.
MEC: Some have raised the possibility of the U.S. government de-funding the Palestinian Authority because of this agreement. How do you view this prospect and what impact do you think it would have for the Palestinians?
MB: I hope this does not happen, but if it happens we will deal with that. The most important thing is that the U.S. does not start to engage actively on sanctions activities or try to pressure other governments like they did in 2007 in terms of participating in sanctions against Palestinians. There is an opportunity -- a Palestinian consensus on a two-state solution and a readiness to accept abstention from violence. This is the message: Palestinians are ready to make peace. On the other hand, there is a risk. If Israel prefers to pressure the PA -- and the U.S. sides with Israel and in turn pressures the international community -- this will mean one simple thing: it will lead to the total collapse of the PA and to the total collapse of this whole project. You have to choose. The opportunity will lead to peace, the risk will lead to a disaster.
MEC: What happens to the Palestinian security forces? Does Hamas retain a separate militia?
MB: We agreed that in the first period everything would remain as is -- the status quo will be maintained in both the West Bank and in Gaza. So arrangements that are made would remain and then we will gradually start dealing with this matter after the formation of the government. We are then due to form a supervisory committee made up of professional officers who will gradually deal with unification and de-factionalization of the security apparatus. So by the time we have elections we should be ready for the elected bodies to assume authority for these forces.
MEC: It has been suggested than in making this agreement the PLO has adopted the Hamas charter? What is your reaction to that argument?
MB: Excuse my language, but this is total BS. What happened is that Hamas has accepted the PLO charter. If you read Khaled Meshaal's speech, Hamas accepted the charter by accepting the two-state solution, very bluntly and clearly. He said: '67 borders, Jerusalem as capital, sovereign state, democratic state, that they accept democracy, and the results of elections, whatever they are. What more do they want? People should be careful in buying Netanyahu's propaganda -- it is backward looking, misleading, and wrong.
Tom Kutsch is an assistant editor for the Middle East Channel and a Program Associate on the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation