DevMode
Khaled Abu-Aker: How do you see U.S. policy in the Middle East, in general, and the Palestinian problem, in particular?
Ibrahim Abu-Lughod: First, U.S. policy towards the Middle East has been quite consistent in its objectives; only the means for implementing them have sometimes varied. The Middle East has been an extremely important strategic area for the United States, where it applies its concept of worldwide hegemony. Second, the natural resources of the Middle East have always been of essential importance to the economic and strategic interests of the U.S.A. Therefore, the preservation, conservation and safe access to these natural resources, especially oil, have been an important objective. Also, the Middle East, with some 250 to 300 million people, is an important market. Since America is a world commercial power, it clearly wants to have full access to this enormous market.
Thus, the Middle East's importance in the world system makes it essential for the U.S.A. to dominate it and to try to prevent it from achieving an independent power of its own. Essentially, the U.S.A. first seeks what it views as a stable political and economic order. Change, if it is to take place, has to be reasonable, controlled and approved by the U.S.A. The second aim is to prevent access to this region by competing powers - that's what the Cold War was about with the Soviet Union. But the U.S.A. has also some concern that other powers, such as China, might develop closer relations with the Middle East and, therefore, alter power relations. To maintain the prevailing asymmetrical relations between it and the countries in the Middle East, the U.S.A. opposed radical nationalist political movements or regimes.

Taking into consideration American relations with the Middle East, how do you view American involvement in the peace process, from a Palestinian perspective?

The U.S.A. has traditionally opposed any possible combination of power in the Arab world that will interfere with America's dominance and with America's commitment to Israel. The U.S.A. has been committed to Israel ever since its establishment in 1948. Implicitly or explicitly, the U.S.A. has considered Israel a permanent ally and has supported it materially and militarily to withstand any pressure from the Palestinians, as well as the Arab states whose territories it has occupied or annexed. Therefore, historically, the U.S.A. opposed Egypt's nationalist policies and sought to diminish the power of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, until it finally succeeded in marginalizing Egypt as a Middle East power.
Clearly, U.S. policies toward Iraq have been hostile and its attempt to continue to weaken Iraq is related to its perception that Iraq is potentially a problem country for America's hegemony and for Israel as well. Like it or not, Israel is an important concern in American policy. It has always been so for a variety of reasons, the least important of which is the presence of the Israeli lobby or the Jewish lobby in the U.S.A. I think Israel is very important to the U.S.A. in terms of its perception of the need, I have mentioned, to dominate the Middle East in which task Israel plays an important role. So, Israel serves a very important purpose in the implementation of U.S. regional hegemony. It has been viewed as an actual instrument of American policy of dominance in the Arab world. The degree of commitment the U.S.A. has towards Israel goes way beyond anything a Jewish lobby could produce.
Now what does this mean for the peace process and the Palestinians? Historically, any attempt on the part of the Palestinians to affect the existence, stability or security of Israel has been opposed most strongly by the U.S.A. It has opposed the Palestinian right to self-determination and to statehood. This is a constant in American policy and it is true today. The U.S.A. has sought historically to contain the Palestinian national movement. When that national movement was led by the PLO, the U.S.A. pursued an active policy of destruction of the PLO. It branded it as a terrorist organization. Its constant policy sought to destroy the PLO, not because American policy did not like the PLO, but because the PLO stood for a political program, the implementation of which, in terms of the achievement of the national rights of the Palestinians, would have entailed, according to American perception, if not the actual elimination of Israel, its weakening. The U.S.A. has aligned itself with Zionism; has accepted the Balfour Declaration; has supported the establishment of the State of Israel and, correspondingly, has never shown any serious concern for the fate of the Palestinian people.
The U.S.A. opposed the PLO and the national movement for other reasons as well: it was consistent with American historical policy of opposition to all national liberation movements around the world - it supported France in the Algerian struggle, supported Portugal in the Mozambique, Angola, Guinea Bissau struggles, has actively opposed Vietnam and Cuba, etc. All national liberation movements have actually been pitted against powers that were part of the American-led complex; whereas, the Afro-Asian movements obtained some assistance from the Soviet Union and China. The U.S.A. branded most of these movements as Communist or Communist-affiliated to justify its hostility to them. I think it is important to point out that the American administrations did not succeed in mobilizing the public to support its policy of opposition to national liberation in South Africa, Mozambique, Vietnam, etc.

But we are now seeing that the American administration's attitude to the PLO started to change as a result of the change of the political goals and aims of the PLO.

Of course, that is exactly what it sought. The U.S.A. has supported Israel constantly with advice, with money and with weapons. It has contributed to the process of destruction of the PLO in Lebanon. It has mobilized many of the Arab states against the PLO. It wanted the PLO to change from being a national liberation movement, to abandon its goal of the right to self-determination and statehood, and to conduct its struggle by political means with which the U.S.A. is familiar.
The U.S.A. has sought the destruction of the PLO, but it failed to destroy the Palestinian national movement. Its most grotesque failure became clear with the Intifada, which represented a total defeat of both American and Israeli policies. The Intifada was a struggle, essentially non-violent, which changed public opinion throughout the world.

As a result, can we say the American administration started to realize the necessity of recognizing certain Palestinian rights, such as those that were recognized by the Bush Administration?

The U.S.A. has not changed much of its policy towards the Palestinians. It supports a policy that says that the Palestinians, as Mr. Schulz indicated in 1988, and, later confirmed by Mr. Baker, should have greater control over their affairs and their quality of life should improve. Today, Palestinians have more control over education, social affairs, municipalities in certain cities of the West Bank, etc. Some economists say we are better off now. In some places we have greater security. But we do not have liberty; we do not have freedom and we will not have it because, day by day, the Israelis impose their will over us and we have no choice but to submit. So, in some ways we have greater liberty, but our subordination to Israel is total. American policy has sought very cleverly to lead the Palestinians to believe that, if they accept such a position, they may actually attain more freedom over their affairs in the future. It is a very distant future.
So the change that took place is not in American policy, it is a change in Palestinian policy. It is a policy that calls for amending the National Charter, for abandoning the principle of self-determination and statehood explicitly, and for working in the new system that was offered by Mr. Schulz, first, and then Mr. Baker. Neither offered the Palestinians any possibility of independence, or sovereignty or territorial contiguity in the state-to-be. There is no promise that they have made the Palestinians that they have not fulfilled. They have never promised independence or sovereignty or total evacuation of Israeli troops from all the areas they occupied in 1967 and before, or the exercise of the right of return.

When we talk about the Palestinian cause, maybe we can witness a slow and slight change from one administration to the other towards the Palestinians. For example, the policy of the Bush Administration, working to convince the Palestinians directly or indirectly to attend the Madrid Conference, pressuring Israel, using the $10-billion loan guarantees in order to freeze settlement building - such policy represented a real change in American policy towards the Palestinian cause and towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It did not represent a sudden change. President Carter was the first president who articulated the need for a Palestinian homeland. He understood the issue and he carne as close as anybody to deal with the Palestinians politically. Vance offered them significant concessions if they would accept U.N. Resolution 242 before Mr. Bush made his more controlled initiative. The change is not in American policy; the change is in us. We accepted less than what we called for and, therefore, the U.S.A. assisted us in coming to the Madrid Conference in 1991 - not on our own terms. They did not recognize the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, nor did they recognize a Palestinian nation. Although President Carter said the PLO represented a substantial proportion of the Palestinian people, he didn't accept the PLO. The Bush Administration never formally accepted the PLO, despite the so-called peace process. The U.S. administration does not today accept the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people, but they will talk to it as long as it is willing to accept their conditions for the solution. Even though the PLO is considered a terrorist organization in American policy, the administration is willing to accept its signature for an agreement that signifies its subordination to Israel. The change is in the Palestinian party, not the U.S.A.

But when we can speak, for example, about American efforts to pressure the Israeli government, headed at that time by Yitzhak Shamir, to cease building settlements, this was a time of American involvement and American determination to make this process succeed.

The ultimate objective of American policy, even in using pressure on Israel, on Shamir or Begin, to freeze settlements does not change the reality. The reality remains that the settlements have not stopped; the reality is that the money still comes to Israel; the reality is that Israel continues to get financial and military help; the reality is that the U.S. has achieved its objectives, which include Israel's dominance over the Palestinians.

Is there continuity in American foreign policy?
Of course.

Even though the Bush Administration used the loan guarantees to pressure Israel?
For two months.

The Clinton Administration is not ready for such actions?

It may, given an incentive. If it believes the stability of the Middle East may be threatened, it may be willing, or if it feels Israel is adversely affecting American interests in the Arab world. Occasionally the U.S.A. resorts to tactical pressure on Israel to implement American policy. But that does not mean that American policy is in favor of Palestinian national rights.

As a result, when we talk about American involvement in the peace process - Palestinian calls for an active American role - you do not believe that role can be that of an honest broker?

How can it be? How can they be honest if they are opposed to our right to self-determination? We are not equal to Israel. As a co-sponsor of the peace process, the U.S.A. wants us to accept our subordination to Israel. It has never accepted our right to statehood, or our right to sovereignty, even in the territory of the West Bank and Gaza, or to the Palestinian right to Jerusalem.

Do you not see any possibility for change?

Of course not. The U.S.A. is committed to a vision of a fragmented Middle East in which it will allow no other power to compete and where Israel will play an important role as a subordinate power to the U.S.A. In the old terminology, which we do not use anymore, Israel represents sub┬Čimperialism and is enabled to exercise its hegemony in the eastern region Gordan, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon). Iraq and the Gulf regions are within the direct American sphere.

When we talk about American-Palestinian relations, it is obvious that what we Palestinians want is totally different from U.S. aims and cannot be achieved. Then how do you see the future?

No, our aims can be achieved. We can pursue an effective foreign policy that is aligned with the Arab states that will actually provide the U.S.A. with an incentive to change its policy. Neither the Arab states nor the Palestinians have pursued such a collective policy. We have never offered an acceptable discourse or a practical solution to the conflict that may command support in the U.S.A. Only in the 1980s were the Palestinians able to influence American public opinion to support Palestinian rights. The reason is very simple: The Palestinians adopted the concept of two states, which meant that the establishment of a Palestinian state did not entail the destruction of the State of Israel and would be achieved by non-violent means, and that such a state would not become a Communist one. This generated a profound change in American public opinion that was noted virtually in all public opinion polls. This, in turn, provided a basis for a reexamination of American policy toward the Palestinians.
That was the reason the U.s.A. took initiatives that included the dialogue with the PLO. The Madrid Conference was related to the change in American public opinion. The administration was in some measure responding to the altered American public consideration of the Palestine question, which accepted the principle of statehood or homeland as President Carter expressed it, and the idea of an international peace conference in which the PLO would represent the Palestinians. The Bush Administration, by promoting its initiative for the Madrid Conference, led many to believe that it was accommodating the expressed desire for peace, for a reasonable solution to the Palestine question while supporting Israel. In reality, the PLO was denied direct participation in Madrid, the peace conference was not the international peace conference called for by the U.N. and was based upon principles that violated the Palestinian right to self-determination, including sovereign statehood.
The Bush Administration was shrewd enough to get the PLO, which was considerably weakened, to accept the terms. They accepted a non-PLO delegation. And if you negotiate in the kind of imbalance that existed at that time, you certainly can't get the West Bank and Gaza. The PLO accepted much less to get to Madrid, and then in Oslo got a lot less again.

When we talk about following the pulse of public opinion, we can notice that there is a slight change in American foreign policy by the Clinton Administration. There is no similarity of interest between the Clinton and the Bush administrations.

There may be less interest because we have not provided them with an incentive to continue with the same interest. The Palestinians today represent no danger to anybody. American policy reacted during the Intifada to the possible danger it perceived the Palestine issue represents to stability, to its relationship with the Arabs, and to Israel. Clearly, the PLO was a challenge to America because it had certain political goals. It had considerable support in the Arab world and it had the support of its own people.
Through this constant struggle from the 1970s and 1980s, the PLO finally achieved a status that bothered the U.S.A. at a time when the U.S.A. thought it had done away with it. In spite of its weakness in Beirut and its weakness in Tunis, the PLO remained an important symbol and a moral and political power, even though it had no credible military power. Therefore, the u.s.A. had to address itself to it. The incentive for change came from the struggle of the Palestinians. The Palestinians today do not pose the same kind of challenge to the U.S.A. The Arabs do not pose the same kind of challenge. In America's estimation, at this moment, the Palestinians and the Arabs, in general, pose no serious difficulty.

How do you see the future of the peace process?

The process is in place. You are in Gaza and you have autonomy. You are in the West Bank and you have autonomy. You have certain agreements with Israel that are implemented with difficulty. You have dealings with the Arab states. What's the problem? You want independence and sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza? They didn't promise you that. You want statehood, self-determination and the right of return and/ or compensation. The U.N. resolutions/181, 194,3236 acknowledged these, but not the U.S.-sponsored peace process or Oslo.

You do not see the possibility of reaching a Palestinian state?
No, not with the agreements we have concluded. There is no state in the pursuit of Oslo. When we have agreed to the terms that Baker outlined for us and we have signed the DOP, it is clear that there is no state. We do not have territorial contiguity; we do not control foreign affairs; we do not have a promise for the return of the refugees. These documents do not formulate the existence of the Palestinian people as one nation and, therefore, we cannot even negotiate specific rights that relate to the Palestinians' conception of themselves as a nation.

But it was obvious that the process started according to Oslo as an interim agreement, that would lead to Palestinian autonomy and final-status negotiations where issues, like refugees, Jerusalem, can be negotiated. There is an American commitment to that.

We can negotiate, but there is no commitment to independence; there is no commitment to the return of refugees. The U.S.A. will pressure the Palestinians to accommodate Israel. How can we provide the U.S.A. with an incentive to act fairly if we are prepared to accept much less because the Palestinians appear to be "powerless"? Territory is being confiscated every day. Neither the Palestinians nor the Arabs have been able to stop Israel's settlements at Ras al-Amud and Jabal Abu Ghneim/Har Homa. Is the U.S.A. really as powerless as the Palestinians on this issue? What about the thousands of acres of Palestinian land that Israel has confiscated in the course of the so-called interim agreement? The U.S.A. is not powerless, but the Palestinians have not provided it with the need to confront Israel.

It was obvious that, behind all this process, there was an American intention to open the doors for Israel to the Arab world.

Of course, and they have succeeded. Israel is committed to peace with the Arab states. But it does not seek only economic gains from the Arabs. I think it seeks to assist in the restoration of Arab-Palestinian relations so that Palestinians will, of their own accord resume emigration to the Gulf, to effect the transfer of Palestinians, without evicting them, by attractive opportunities in the Gulf. These cannot be realized unless a peaceful settlement has been achieved. Israel becomes legitimate in the Arab world and the frontiers are open. All the highways that Israel is building that lead to Cairo, to Amman, to Beirut and Baghdad, the same highways can serve the Palestinians too. And given the choice for a Palestinian worker to work in Israel or in the Arab states, I think the Palestinian will go to the Arab states. And therefore Israel will succeed in its policy of "transfer" without evicting by force.

There is a need for a Palestinian, an Arab lobby in the United States which plays the same role as the Jewish lobby. Do you think we will be able to succeed in this?

The concept of a lobby is an American one. I do not think we, in the Arab world, understand it really. We can never, under any circumstances, form a lobby that has the power and the influence of the Jewish community in the U.S.A., for sheer economic, demographic, social and cultural reasons. But that does not mean that we cannot have an effective Palestinian presence in the U.S.A. But we have lost that effort between Madrid (1991) and today. We have actually lost in the U.S.A. the gains we have made over a 20-year period. In those years, we were able to present our cause - and our cause is a much better one than Israel's in terms of its humanity, its vision and what it offers the world. A Palestinian vision of the future of Palestine has always been infinitely superior to Israel's. We seek to coexist on the basis of equality. We sought to establish a secular state, not a theocracy. We sought a state that is not exclusivist. That was the vision we presented in the 1960s and 1970s. We no longer offer that vision, so the onus is on us. If we articulate a vision today that is universally understood and we act for its realization, we will have considerable support, not only in America, but throughout the world. It was our loss of vision that demobilized support for us in the U.S.A. The Palestinian community in the U.S.A. is no longer active on behalf of Palestinian independence because of the Oslo agreement.

As an American of Palestinian origin what can you do for the Palestinians?

We need to generate a new and clear Palestinian national consensus, without any compromises, including territorial, for an independent Palestinian state, based on international legitimacy. Today you do not have that. People who oppose autonomy, what cause do you want them to present to the American public?

When we talk about international legitimacy, it is obvious there is something more important which is American legitimacy.

No, there is no American legitimacy. The South Africans have never accepted the American vision for South Africa. Mandela never compromised with them. They were always consistent: "One man, one vote" and they had international support for it. America opposed them. America considered the ANC a terrorist organization in the same way as it sees the PLO today. The ANC remained clear in its objective to equality and a non-racial state.

But in this equation we are the weak party.

The Africans have always been weak; we are weak, but we are also strong. Strength is not only in terms of military power. No Third-World movement, no independence movement, has ever been stronger than the occupier. The Algerians were not more powerful than France. "Power" is also moral, political, etc. Slaves were also weaker than their masters. They all became free by using other forms of power.

Are you pessimistic?

No, I am a realist. I am a student of American policy. I know its policy globally. The U.S.A. must be given an incentive to change its policy. It has a realistic understanding of how the world works. It has altered its policies regarding the Soviet Union, China, South Africa, etc. And it has adhered to wrong policies in other areas. And it is my judgment that, up to now, we have not given it a single incentive to make a change, nor has the U.S.A. felt any possible adverse consequences to its hostile policy towards the Palestinians.

We, as Palestinians, are not satisfied with the American role. The Israelis also express their dissatisfaction with this role. The Clinton Administration is preparing for an initiative. Netanyahu expressed his opposition to that initiative. How can the U.S. administration balance between what Palestinians and Israelis want in order for this process to survive and to be fruitful?

I think the U.S.A. is balancing its work among these two conflicting sides. It views us as the weaker party and, therefore, it exerts more pressure on us in order to accommodate the Israeli party. Netanyahu represents a different type of force in Israel than Begin did. But I believe there is a certain kind of consensus in Israel, irrespective of who is leading the country: They have certain non-negotiable issues, like Jerusalem. Peres expresses a more flexible position than Netanyahu or Olmert and, therefore, he gets along better with the Americans. But, eventually, they will ask the Palestinians to modify their position. Mr. Ross will come and pressure the Palestinians to accommodate Israel. So, in that sense, I am aware of the squabbling between Israel and the U.S.A. Sometimes it's real, in the sense that Israel has its own understanding of its national interests, which may occasionally differ from that of the U.S.A.

There is clear frustration among the Palestinian people which might move to a rebellion against the Palestinian Authority (PA). Do you think the American administration realizes the need to reach an agreement with a stable authority rather than creating another leadership that might be more extreme?

I think they are interested in reaching an agreement. So is Mr. Arafat, and it is in their interest to continue that course with Mr. Arafat if he can deliver. But the Palestinians are not the only item on the American agenda. As long as it does not appear to the U.S.A. that there will be an actual upheaval, they are not as worried. It may turn out that the U.S.A. has a different reading of the reality on the ground.

According to their reading, do you think Israeli-Palestinian cooperation security and economic - is more important than democracy, freedom of expression, corruption?

It has always been so for the U.S. government with Third-World governments. They have always preferred authoritarian, stable governments and they have expressed concern for democratic politics while supporting the Shah of Iran, Pinochet in Chile, Diem in South Vietnam, etc. The question to ask and to answer is: Who is better for American interests in the Third World, a democratic regime or an authoritarian one? Think of the banana republics, of Mobuto, of Noriega, etc.

To guarantee the continuity of the peace process, the Palestinians were ready to help the Labor government of Shimon Peres to be reelected, and so were the Americans. Since the right-wing coalition led by Netanyahu, the concept of the future of the peace process among Palestinians and Israelis and the PA has changed.

The Palestinians were always supportive of the Labor party at the time of elections. In our political analysis, we attach a great deal of importance to individuals in politics. In reality, a consensus that Israel has generated in the course of time has actually prevailed, irrespective of the configuration of power, whether Labor or Likud. There are certain irreducible principles; the difference comes in the expression of these principles. Peres has been much more successful in marketing himself in terms of his ideas and of his rhetoric, as a moderate person with whom you can do business.
Now we are at a three-way impasse. Netanyahu is more aggressive, arrogant and more firmly anchored in a coalition that does not care about our feelings. Peres may say that Palestinians may form what they call a state, but he does not believe in Palestinian sovereignty, in their equality or freedom. Rabin, in his speech in Washington, said, "We [Israelis] have made a compromise, accepted that two people shall live in the 'land of Israel.'" He didn't say "two states"; he didn't say "the land of Palestine" to be divided between two peoples. The implication is clear: Palestinians are subordinate. Netanyahu is talking only about the State of Israel. This is the national consensus and it is crucial for Palestinians to assess its components and implications and formulate their policies accordingly. <