What is your greatest concern today vis-a-vis the Palestinian question?
One thing that really worries me is the possible end of the two-state solution and the lack of any other alternatives. This is primarily because of Israeli policies – extremism, violence, ideology, impunity – but also because of the lack of all factors needed to achieve a just solution, whether American, European, regional, or Israeli. I do not call it a conflict because it is a situation of occupier and occupied – a situation of control, of enslavement, of one state thinking it has the full right to do what it wants to another people with full impunity. It is a situation of stealing land, resources, rights, liberties, devaluing people’s lives, etc. Giving Israel a bigger role, more preferential treatment, and more cover for its impunity has generated a sense of superiority, a sense of entitlement, and a sense of exceptionalism. All of these work together to generate a culture of hate and to embolden extremism in Israel, Israeli ideology, and pursue a very dangerous policy that will backfire – not just on Palestine and Israel but throughout the region and beyond. Without a just solution to the Palestinian question, I do not believe there can be peace and stability.
Is the two-state solution still the most realistic option?
I always contextualize this question because the two-state solution is not our preferred option and it is not a favor done unto us by the international community. It is a very painful compromise. It is a concession. For decades, I remember we were asked to accept the partition of Palestine and recognize the state of Israel. We were told, “if you accept Resolution 181, a solution will be possible.” They then said, “no, you have to accept Resolution 242 and 338 because Resolution 181 refers to the 1947 partition,” which gives us 54-55 percent of Palestine. And then told us to recognize the 1967 borders. We did, but it was not an easy thing to do. It took place as a result of a long, painful, painstaking debate and discussion within the Palestinian body politic. So, when we accepted the Resolution, we felt that we had made such a historical gesture and compromise that the world would take notice and agree to giving Palestinian a state and 22 percent of historical Palestine, while Israel keeps 78 percent. This is the gist of the two-state solution.
One thing that really worries me is the possible end of the two-state solution and the lack of any other alternatives.
Now, they are saying is not enough. Israel has pursued a policy of expansionism, greed, domination, and control; it has hijacked the agenda. It has made Israeli security defined in military terms as a prerequisite for any kind of agreement. This is very dangerous, because they totally negate Palestinian security or Palestinian rights. Security, as we define it, is human security. Historical, territorial, cultural, economic, political, or legal security – all these aspects of security are denied to Palestinians because everybody worships the “great God security” as defined by Israel in military terms. This is really a distorted vision.
So, the two-state solution, I think, was the last resort. We felt that, again, if we had recognized this act in a very positive way, the international community would respond and recognize the enormity and the sacrifice. Not only was this not the case, but they allowed Israel to buy more time, to create more facts, to expand, and to continue the victimization of the Palestinians without accountability – and for us to continue without any kind of protection. These are the issues I talked about in the 80s when we started discussing the peace process. If you want a peace process, then it has to be based on international law, and you have to provide Israel with full accountability in accordance with the law – and Palestinians with full protection in accordance with the law. None of these things happened. If the two-state solution is over and Israel is physically and deliberately destroying it on the ground, what are the other options? This is the question now under debate. It is not easy. Having gone to the extreme right, having developed not just a discourse and a political strategy but a culture of exceptionalism, hate, exclusion, control, and entitlement, Israel is now claiming that it can have full control over all of historical Palestine. It is attempting to divide the people from the land, to claim full sovereignty, and to relegate us to being population centers under the control of Israel. So, Israel is distorting the whole vision and it is part of an ongoing historical distortion starting with, “a land without a people for a people without a land” – which continues today. This culture of evolution has shifted the whole political debate to the right, and it worked toward the exclusion of the Palestinians, and toward the enabling and emboldening of such Israeli policies which are extremely dangerous and destructive.
Some say that current developments spell the death knell of the two-state solution. What are the dangers of this?
The outcome should not be a de facto one-state solution, because such a solution is a perpetuation of the occupation. It would mean that we have given up; that we would just sit here and wait while under occupation, captivity, and enslavement – with Israel having a free hand to do what it wants. The issue is about legality and justice. We have a right to be free. We have a right to live in freedom, dignity, and sovereignty on our own land. And so, the de facto one-state solution just gives Israel a free hand to continue carrying out every possible measure that would ensure expulsion, the transfer policies, the “brain drain,” etc. This is in order to make life as difficult as possible for Palestinians, so they will not have to expel us. We will just leave.” And they are pursuing these policies, life here is wretched. Israeli policies have deprived the Palestinians of the most basic requirement of human life: hope. People want to look towards the future. Our younger generation wants to have hope, express their creativity, and be able to get jobs. The Israelis have closed everything off; the wall in the West Bank is not just robbing us of our horizon, but of our right to look beyond the distance. At the same time, the wall has imprisoned the Israelis behind their own wall of ignorance. So, that is a real issue. It is not an easy debate. And if you say, “I will adopt a one-state solution and reach out to the Israelis as counterparts in order to accept a democratic, sectarian, pluralist, inclusive state,” I do not think you will have many partners because now the language of exclusivity and exclusion is dominant. And I do not think the international community will accept this. They did not curb Israeli behavior when they were killing Palestinians, when whole families were obliterated in Gaza. Ever since the occupation began 50 years ago, they have been inflicting violence upon the Palestinians. No one engaged, nobody curbed Israeli behavior, or held them accountable.
You have witnessed firsthand multiple rounds of diplomacy – UN resolutions, international summits, backdoor meetings under US auspices – that have failed to pave the way to peace between Israel and Palestine. What role can diplomacy still play in this conflict?
There is no military solution, particularly in this case. As Palestinians, we have defined resistance as non-violent and as an expression of the will of the Palestinian people to reject all kinds of oppression and enslavement. We have popular resistance, institution-building resistance, civil disobedience, positive resistance (which involves encouraging people to build their own villages and empowering Palestinians to stay on their own land), and mass protest. We reach out to the international community whether in terms of solidarity, networks, and campaigns. We also reach out to the UN and multilateral institutions in order to try to gain some protection in accordance with the law. Joining organizations and acceding to conventions, charters, and agreements is also part of getting the international community engaged.
Is there a leader in the international community you particularly trust who you think can bring about a positive change?
It is hard to say there is one leader I trust, frankly speaking. And certainly, contemporary developments are not conducive to trust. Anything that smacks of racism, Islamophobia, misogyny, or xenophobia, certainly does not serve the cause of Palestine and does not bode well for a just solution. The rise of populism in generating these ideas has been detrimental, and we are hoping that within public opinion in Europe and the US there would be voices that would counter such a tide. This is because we have seen how this mentality in Israel has not only generated a lack of accountability, but also unbridled injustice, racism, violence, and oppression.
Palestinians have a right to live in freedom, dignity, and sovereignty on our own land.
We still believe that a diplomatic approach is important, along with our various means of resistance, of course, such as maintaining Palestinian resilience to stay on the land. But not through negotiations. We have had a very flawed process so far; we have negotiated since 1991. The problem is that the peace process became an end unto itself. It became a process with no end, nor a clear objective, and has been subject to prolongation, stalling, and power asymmetry. Israel exploited the peace process to change facts on the ground, while the American monopoly on peace made it a very flawed process. Ultimately, it served Israeli interests. So, since 1991 – when we began the Madrid process – up until now, settlers have increased triple-fold or more, from 100,000 to almost 700,000. The land is being swallowed up by Israel. We have lost lives, we have lost homes, we have lost everything.
The peace process has become an instrument of Israeli aggression, rather than an instrument of peace. It has lost sight of its objective. It certainly was not founded on international law and the Americans brought the strategic alliance with Israel to bear on the peace process. Former US Ambassador Dennis Ross was fond of saying: “As long as the two parties were talking to each other – all is well with the world.” Which is nonsensical because what two parties is he referring to? We are talking while Israel is building and stealing.
So, if the process is flawed, we look at it as a tool, rather than an end unto itself. Now people are advocating going back to bilateral negotiations. The PLO is saying no. We want multilateral engagement and the UN to be involved. We want international law as the basis, and Israel has to be brought to compliance with international law. We want a formula like the P5 +1 + because it would give us some sort of global investment in peace. We do not want a process, but we want a commitment to steps of implementation to end the occupation and build the Palestinian state within a time-frame.
Could a framework for multilateral negotiations become a reality?
If people want peace, they have to do it this way. Otherwise, if you do not have a timeline, deadline, and concrete steps, you just sit and talk. It becomes political indulgence, leading nowhere. And again, it would be exploited by Israel. Either there is a will to bring about real change, or the situation is going to deteriorate and it will be hijacked by Israel and exploited by extremism and violence everywhere. We have always said that Palestine should not be “up for grabs” – to be used or abused by people who either want to exploit the legitimacy and humanity of the cause. So, we want it to be resolved on the basis of – as Yasser Arafat used to say – relative justice. This is not absolute justice, which is not available to the Palestinians.
Would the Israel lobby in the US be an impediment to achieving this?
The Israel lobby – in every aspect – took over American decision-making. The lobby is comprised of people – who are not necessarily Jewish – who put Israel first above American interests and who are loyal to Israel, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), various think-tanks, organizations, institutions, and individuals. I think the pro-Israel lobby is a combination of the extreme Christian right, the Evangelicals, some extreme Jewish organizations like AIPAC, the private sector, biblical literalists, and special interest groups within congress. These are groups who feel their political careers are dependent on the support they get from the pro-Israel lobby, so much so that they become the mouthpiece of AIPAC within the American political system. It has been not just detrimental, but extremely dangerous for the chances of peace.
The peace process has become an instrument of Israeli aggression, rather than an instrument of peace.
The pro-Israel lobby in attempting to shape American policy has generated a political culture that thinks that Israeli interests can trump American interests and security. Look at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he defied Obama, meddled in American politics, and incited Congress to undo the agreement with Iran because it was not good for Israel. He came to the White House and insulted Obama, lectured him publicly, and then received a standing ovation in congress. Among the Israel lobby there is no sense of national identification with the highest office; on the contrary, they are willing to ally themselves with someone like Netanyahu against their own. This is just symptomatic of the political situation.
Have you detected a shift in attitudes – such as diminishing tolerance – towards the clout of the Israel lobby in the US?
Yes, I have detected a shift. Most importantly, changes are taking place within universities. However, I have also observed a massive campaign by Israel itself to maintain the influence and power of the Israel lobby. They are using hundreds of millions of dollars. I work with volunteers here at the PLO; we do not have a budget, nor do we have support. In Netanyahu’s administration, every government office and ministry has a budget for spin. And in the US, the Israelis have a number of institutions and organizations that are working to present the Israeli vision and narrative.
At the PLO, we have to rely on people with good conscience. Social media in particular has helped us greatly; people are able to gain access to facts and to the truth, rather than be manipulated by a doctored version of reality. In that sense, think-tanks, some academics institutions, and mainstream churches have been extremely positive in terms of divestment and refusing to be intimidated. This has been the case even though Israelis use the anti-Semitism card against anyone who tries to criticize them, because they are trying to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism on a popular, institutional, and government level. Netanyahu accuses any government in Europe that criticizes Israel as being anti-Semitic.
The pro-Israel lobby in attempting to shape American policy has generated a political culture that thinks that Israeli interests can trump American interests and security.
If you use the same charge over and over again, it loses its meaning. If Israel qualifies as a state, it has to accept the global rule of law and be treated like any other state. It cannot claim to be the heir to the suffering of the Jews as a result of the horror of the Holocaust, and claim preferential treatment as a result. Israel has to be held to account like other states. It has to live by the norms and standards that govern the behavior of states in general. So, we do have a problem in that way. Generally, the attitude is to give Israel advance payment, positive inducements, and rewards, while putting pressure on the Palestinians, and blackmailing and threatening them. We are on probation. Palestinians have to prove that we deserve our rights, while Israel has to be cajoled, rewarded or bribed.
Palestinians can go to the International Criminal Court (ICC) but we will be punished for doing so. Israel, as a non-member country, cannot be held accountable, but the ICC can hold individual citizens to account. Just this past month in November, the US threatened to close the PLO’s D.C office as a rebuke to President Abbas’s speech in which he called upon the ICC to speed up its criminal investigation of Israeli war crimes. I sharply criticized this move in statement where I said that the US is disqualifying itself as a power broker in the region.
After we were accorded “non-member observer state” status by the UN in 2012, we moved to join international treaties and conventions as part of our own institution-building goals and as a means of protection. However, we witnessed a hysterical reaction – particularly by the US – to us joining UNESCO, Interpol, or when we acceded to other conventions. I questioned why there was such a negative reaction to us joining the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) or acceding to the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women’s rights, the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), or the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
We witnessed a hysterical reaction – particularly by the US – to us joining UNESCO, Interpol, or when we acceded to other conventions.
There are conventions on maritime treaties that would protect Gaza fishermen for example. Now, if fisherman go beyond a certain point, Israel restricts them, arrests them, and even shoots at them. They destroy their livelihood. There are all sorts of conventions that can be used, but the US congress says they will defund any organization that accepts Palestine as a member. They even threatened to defund the UN as a whole. For example, US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has a one-track mind. She seeks to attack the Palestinians, singly, individually, and collectively, in every possible way, and finds ways of protecting Israel. So, if you tell Palestinians you cannot use legal, organizational, economic, or non-violent means, the option is either to lie down and die quietly, or adopt armed struggle. We are not going to lie down and die quietly, and I do not believe in armed struggle, particularly given the configuration in the world and in the region. Palestinians are automatically accused of being terrorists if they defy Israel in any way, shape, or form. It has gotten to the point where the terrorism charge has been so overused and abused, that it has no meaning anymore.
Transitioning into internal Palestinian politics, how has the rift between Fatah and Hamas impacted Palestinian democracy and peace efforts?
These last 10 years have been very painful because the rift between Fatah and Hamas debilitated the whole Palestinian body politic. The situation really weakened us, as well as the Palestinian cause. And it was used against us by everybody. When the Security Council discussed our statehood, the US used it as an excuse: Palestine does not have a government that is in control of all the land and all the people. This has created a real problem for Palestinian democracy as we see it. It led to the suspension of elections and the use of security and political rivalry as an excuse to violate people’s rights, including radical detentions and clamping down on freedom of speech. The rift led to the distortion of internal Palestinian realities, and not only did it lead to an oppressive system in Gaza, but it also compounded the siege of Gaza. It has separated Gaza from the West Bank and Israel has maintained that rift, by dividing and conquering. And of course, there were other external factors and powers who were engaged. Turkey has a role; Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, the US, and Israel have roles too. Everybody has a role. Even Russia has a role. Now, there has been a convergence of many different aspects and different factors that have made reconciliation possible. First of all, I do not believe the American and European threat to brand the PLO terrorists if we engaged with Hamas. Or that if we have a national unity government, the US and the Europeans will boycott it the way they did in 2006 when we were punished for electing the wrong people. And yet, they refused to sanction Israel for violating the law.
So, now there are more positive factors. Egypt has intervened in a decisive and positive way, and a reconciliation deal between the two factions was signed in Cairo in October, which will help ease Gaza’s humanitarian crisis and empower Palestinians as a whole. Conditions on the ground have become unlivable in Gaza. Regional alliances are shifting, and there is a need to engage the world in a very pressing way as a unifying, political entity. We all know there can be no real sovereign state without Gaza.
Now it is time to see if this can be translated into action. So, the first steps are encouraging, but the agreement is not going to implement itself. It needs concrete steps and positive contribution and agreement.
Could you reflect on your tenure as Minister of Higher Education and Research? What is the Ministry’s legacy for education in Palestine?
I am a very reluctant official; I have always preferred to work with civil society. One reason I accepted the post was a deal struck between me and Yasser Arafat about respect for human rights, the rule of law, and women’s rights. He did respect women’s rights. But I wanted to make sure that the reforms I had asked for would be carried out and he promised they would, so I joined.
Politics is the last bastion of male domination.
I set up an institution that was efficient, transparent, accountable, and professional. And for me, it was a challenge to show the Palestinians that we can set up institutions like this. For example, for employment I had recruitment committees, for scholarships I had scholarship committees, and they were not allowed to look at the names of the applicants, only the numbers. And no one was allowed to accept any gifts, no matter how small or symbolic from anybody. Even Arafat used to send me names of people to hire, and I said: “No, if there’s a vacancy, I will announce the vacancy, and they can apply. They will have to take their chances along with other people who apply.” Of course, at first people were very angry, but when the public saw that this ministry was working in such a way, they were encouraged and positive. They came and said to me: “My child has the same chances as the child of a minister.” And I said, “exactly.”
So, the lesson here is to try to solve things positively, but at the same time not to budge when it comes to standards and integrity. I had institutional structure, internal by-laws, and job descriptions. I thought this should be the showcase to show people how to build institutions. I also wanted to discuss the content and the substance of higher education. I wanted to make sure the standards were global, and that we forge ties and contacts with the rest of the world. It is important to me that we do not seek excuses for ourselves as Palestinians to not perform, and that we demand the best of ourselves. I wanted to open up a research program in Palestine, particularly a very vibrant scholarship program for people who are qualified but cannot afford to go to university. I set up bodies like a coordinating body for student council, which was wonderful because student councils are the source of energy. We had a great team and worked very hard. But unfortunately, most universities here suffer from a lack of funding.
Within the younger generation, is there promise for a new crop of Palestinian leaders??
The younger generation is very promising; it has always been. The problem is that the old generation does not give them space. We have a problem with the older generation staying. I also say that official seats have superglue on them, officials get stuck and do not want to leave. We have become a very geriatric, male-dominated political system. In Palestine, 75 percent of the population is under the age of 35 and five percent is over the age of 60, but it is the five percent that rules. This is a problem because they feel, again, that they earned their place and privilege.
Asserting the humanity of women is in essence confirming the humanity of men, thus empowering all of society.
Being in a position of authority in Palestine once meant that you would have to make heavy sacrifices because you would take risks, go to jail, and have to work underground. Now being a leader, or being an official, you have the trimmings of power. We are trying to change that concept. You are there to serve; you should be held accountable and not only that, your mandate should not be determined. You have to make room for the younger generation; you need their energy, enthusiasm, creativity, willingness to take risks, and their engagement with the rest of the world. Otherwise your whole system will atrophy. And in many cases, we are in danger of repeating the mistakes of others. So, if you want to revitalize and reform your system, you cannot keep it as a closed system of people whose reference is the past as opposed to the future. And you must not hug power.
While I will not run for elections anymore, I will actively campaign for young men and women who are qualified – particularly women – and who want to enter the arena, because politics is the last bastion of male domination, more so than economics. In politics, men are extremely possessive. They feel that a woman is not completing the picture, but rather than she is taking something away from them; they feel it is theirs by right. There are several factors that are used against women, be it traditions, concepts of saying, and honor in a traditional society. We have lots of negative factors, which is why I believe in affirmative action and positive intervention. I believe we should maintain a minimum number of female candidates for elections. Some people call it a quota, I call it affirmative action – positive intervention. Until the playing field is leveled, you have to engage on behalf of women who are excluded because we have a long legacy of exclusion, injustice, discrimination, and marginalization against women – even though Palestinian women have been very active and very strong since the 19th century. We have seen a long-standing women’s movement, but it started out being middle-class, educated women, which gradually moved towards being more grassroots. In the 1970s, we decided to join the global gender women’s movement. I was in the US then, and I met many women activists. Upon my return from the US in the early 1970s, we started consciousness-raising through public and townhouse meetings. At the time, society was much more open than it is now. Now, we are much more closed, much more traditional, and people have become much more religions. And unfortunately, religion has been abused in many ways as an excuse to oppress and exclude women.
For example, look at Saudi Arabia and Wahabbism. Now they have decided something as shattering that women are allowed to drive. If a woman has the power to take control of the car, she should also have the power to take control of her life. The problem is when women are treated in a way as to make it natural.
Naturalizing women’s participation so that intervention is not needed should be a goal. Some Scandinavian countries have a 50-50 gender quota, but it took them some time. Now, they do not need the law because women are organically assuming 50 percent of decision making positions.
This is what we all need, and it has nothing to do with traditions or religion. It has to do with humanity – with the human concept of rights as being equal to all people. And therefore, asserting the humanity of women is in essence confirming the humanity of men, and thus empowering all of society. This is a vision we need to achieve.
 The P5+1 refers to the UN Security Council’s five permanent members (P5) comprising the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, plus Germany.
 Statement by Hanan Ashrawi: US is disqualifying itself as a peace broker in the region, 18 November 2017, http://english.wafa.ps/page.aspx?id=s3zduda94376779233as3zdud
 In 2006, the radical Islamic party Hamas (a designated terrorist organization by the US) won a large majority in the Palestinian Parliament, defeating the governing Fatah party and ending its 40 years of political domination. The international community responded negatively to the results and threated that Palestinian aid would be in peril under Hamas.