Hanan Ashrawi has lived through all the ups and downs of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. She was present at the birth of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at the 1991 Madrid Conference, where she served as a spokeswoman for the Palestinian cause. Two decades later, Ashrawi, now a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s Third Way Party, fears that she is witnessing the death of the peace talks. As U.S. President Barack Obama’s attempts to revive the stalled negotiations continue to falter, Ashrawi tells Foreign Policy that the PLO is considering a number of out-of-the-box ideas to fulfill its goal of an independent Palestinian state — including taking their case to the United Nations.
Hanan Ashrawi: There are many options, of course. But I think I would hate to limit all our options only to bilateral negotiations. It seems to me that we’ve been trying that for the past two decades, and what has it done? It has [resulted in] increased settlement activities, increased Israeli control — particularly the transformation of Jerusalem, which has led to tremendous suffering on the part of the Palestinians. The state of siege, home demolitions, ethnic cleansing — all these things are ongoing while there’s an abstract process without a relationship to reality.
If we cannot hold Israel accountable by law, then we have to go through international bodies, including the U.N. So there will be other options that are being discussed to achieve accountability and putting an end to settlement activity — whether through the Fourth Geneva Convention, or the International Court of Justice, or the International Criminal Court. But the fact is that the encroachment on Palestinian land and rights has to end.
FP: Appealing to the United Nations seems to be something new for the PLO. Can you discuss when this idea first became a prominent negotiating tactic?
HA: It’s not a tactic. I’ll tell you something: Historically, the Palestinians have been committed to international law and to the U.N. as an anchor, as something that would guarantee the rights of the Palestinians. Because we know that power politics, in many ways, have played against the interests and the rights of the Palestinians. So we believe that international law and legality are the foundations of any resolution [to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict].
It’s the U.S. and Israel that have taken the [position], “Let’s make this into a bilateral issue and then the two parties can solve it.” Now, if all things were equal, if we were two independent states fighting over borders, that’s one thing. But we are a people under occupation trying to extricate ourselves from a very brutal occupation. And we went down that path — we cooperated with the Americans, with the international community, and lately with the Quartet, and we got nowhere.
FP: Is this something you’ve discussed with the Obama administration?
HA: I still haven’t discussed this with them personally but I know that they are aware of this and they’ve been presented with this. And I know that…let’s say the pro-Israel lobby, as well as many people in the Obama administration, do not want to go down that road.
FP: If you get a U.N. General Assembly vote recognizing the state of Palestine within 1967 borders and Israel is still within those borders, it seems the Israelis could say you have a state but you can’t actually exercise sovereignty. Is that a potential drawback to this idea?
HA: Yes, of course. But now we don’t have a state and the Israelis are exercising full control — not just control but land theft and resource theft and everything else. So we’re saying that at least when the international community defines borders or boundaries, that means that Israel is no longer going on fishing expeditions to see how much more land it can take.
There are also two other factors to be considered here: [International recognition would give Palestinians] access to international courts, arenas, and so on that are denied to us because we’re not a state. That would give us the ability to address these international bodies and judicial groups. And two, it would put an end to Israel’s claim that this is disputed territory or it is Israeli territory and out, of the kindness of their heart they’ll give us, you know, a few Bantustans to create our state on. It removes the illegal claims to the land by Israel.
FP: Do you believe that the United States’ midterm election campaign affected the Israel-Palestinian negotiations in any way?
HA: There was a buying of time, actually. There was a manipulation of the situation by the Israeli government, frankly speaking, to try to influence the outcome of the talks.
Netanyahu and others said it very plainly — they were waiting until after Nov. 2, hoping that Obama will be weakened and therefore will not be able to exercise any pressure on the Israelis. Not that he has been. He has never really put pressure on the Israeli government. Beyond his speech in Cairo about the region, he didn’t follow through and therefore Israel felt that it could do whatever it wanted and still get away with it.
FP: If the negotiations collapse, how can the PLO maintain its relevance to the people of the West Bank and in the Palestinian community at large?
HA: The PLO existed before negotiations. Our raison d’etre is not negotiations. The Palestinian Authority (PA) came to being after negotiations, as a result of a decision by one of the PLO institutions. It’s the Palestine National Council that decided to form the Palestinian Authority in order to run the lives of Palestinians and deliver services in the occupied territories for the time being, until we have our independence. But since the 1960s, the PLO has been the representative body for all the Palestinian people everywhere — and it will continue to be so.
On the contrary, if the negotiations fail, the PLO is all that more relevant because the PA is weakened. But the PLO has to maintain its representative capacity, its comprehensive representation for all Palestinians everywhere. We do have over five million Palestinians — five and a half I think — who are in exile and who are not in Palestine, and who look to the PLO as their national address. And the PLO, in a sense, has gained recognition. Right now, for example, the PLO signs any agreement on behalf of the PA.
So the relevance of the PLO goes beyond the agreements. It existed before talks, and it will continue to exist. But now that the peace processes has almost run its course, it’s not just the Palestinians who have to think in terms of constructive positive alternatives.
FP: Is there anything else you would like to add?
HA: It’s not just going to the U.N. when we talk about [the international option]. There are other options too. We need protection for the Palestinians — maybe we could even ask for international troops we need if the occupation is allowed to continue like this. Maybe we could ask for a U.N. trusteeship for Palestine. I don’t know. But there are all sorts of other options that are being discussed and nothing is cast in stone right now. We need to be able to think in constructive ways.