The Battle for Justice in Palestine


Video and Edited Transcript
Ali Abunimah
Transcript No. 403 (9 April 2014)


“The Battle for Justice in Palestine”


Ali Abunimah
Author & Co-Founder,
Electronic Intifada

Yousef Munayyer: As we get into the topic of today’s event, we are very happy to have with us here today Ali Abunimah who is the author of The Battle For Justice In Palestine, One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse and the co-founder and director of the widely acclaimed publication the Electronic Intifada, which many of you may be familiar with. He’s based in the United States and has written hundreds of articles and been an active part of the movement for justice in Palestine for the past twenty years. With that I’ll welcome Ali to speak about The Battle For Justice In Palestine and I’ll see you at the Q&A.

Ali Abunimah: Good afternoon everyone, it’s wonderful to see a full house here and to see here many old friends and many new faces. It’s always a pleasure to be here at the Palestine Center. In fact, it’s one of the only places in Washington, DC that will have me. I think it’s actually the only place in Washington DC that will have me, so it means a lot to me to be here again. Before I talk about the book, I wanted to begin with a flashback because a few years ago, around 2008-2009, I was very fortunate to have a fellowship from the Palestine Center here. I was a non-resident fellow but what that meant was I had the opportunity to spend time doing research and writing. Some of that research actually made it into this book so this is the opportunity to thank the Jerusalem Fund and the Palestine Center for that support.

I also would write monthly briefing papers for the Palestine Center. One that I wrote, just days after the November 2008 election of Barack Obama, assessed prospects for the peace process. I just wanted to have a brief flashback to a few of the sentences I wrote then. United States President Barack Obama’s election victory has revived hopes that stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations could finally lead to a two-state solution. Few new presidents have been greeted with such optimism and associated high expectations. However, the chances for progress depend on more than a new American president. There are several interrelated factors: U.S. engagement, the prospects of a viable peace agreement, Israeli and Palestinian internal politics and the broader international situation.

An examination of these factors indicates that the optimism is unjustified and that President Obama will be no more successful in bringing about a two-state solution to the conflict than any of his predecessors. This does not, however, mean that the situation will remain static or that those pursuing a just peace have no recourse for action. And then… skipping to the end, my conclusions. You have to remember this was the beginning of the financial crisis. There is a relevant lesson from the global financial crisis. Credit rating agencies gave triple-A ratings to securities that turned out to be much riskier. There was a conflict of interest. The very investment banks that issued the securities paid the rating agencies. In hindsight, such ratings should have been viewed with much more skepticism. There is also a large industry that, for various reasons, views the survival of the peace process itself as paramount, regardless of its failures and it therefore is unfailingly optimistic about its prospects. For Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the process is a means to appear busy resolving the conflict while staving off political pressure. We cannot also discount the distorting effects of millions of dollars in funding received by organizations tied to the continuation of the peace process.

Then I say we can expect little change in U.S. policy just because a new administration takes office. This does not mean that U.S. policy will never change. The outgoing administration, does anyone remember George Bush, the painter? The outgoing administration has adapted its approach to regional shifts of power and other developments beyond its control. At the same time after fifteen years, it’s hard to remember when the peace process was just an adolescent, now it’s just about to graduate from college. It will be looking for a job or deciding to go to graduate school next, maybe it will settle down at some point. After fifteen years the peace process has reached a dead end and the two-state solution looks unachievable. The new administration will not easily revive it. What then? I suppose this is the crux regardless of U.S. policy, regional resistance is likely to persist, frustrating efforts to maintain the status quo or impose a peace that fails to deal with fundamental injustices and inequalities. There have been two Palestinian intifadas against Israeli occupation in the past 20 years, and there are warnings of a third. Israel will find it increasingly difficult to justify its policies to global public opinion and will face a growing challenge from the international Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement. Efforts to pursue Israelis accused of war crimes in the Occupied Territories through universal jurisdiction will intensify and may begin to bear fruit. Palestinians in Gaza will refuse to remain besieged. Palestinians of Israel will continue their own struggle for democracy.

With open discussion so constrained in official circles, this is also a moment when the growing number of academic and civil society conferences, debates and activities aimed at exploring alternatives to the two-state solution can begin to decisively reshape visions of a just, achievable and peaceful future for all the people in the region. I wrote that five years I go, and I thought I would just recycle it because it’s as fresh, you can say the same thing and you just have to change the dates and here we are and the peace process industry is still going on. So, fast forward to 2014, and if you look at the day’s news from Haaretz, you never know whether to laugh or cry. But the headline is that Secretary of State John Kerry has blamed Israel for the failure of the peace process and this takes a lot of attention. Haaretz says, “The Secretary of State adopted the Palestinian version of events and reinforced it.” He presented Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ signature on applications to join fifteen international conventions as a response to Israeli violation of commitments and not as a step initiated to sabotage the talks. According to Kerry, the Palestinian move was negative and damaging, but Israel’s moves were even worse. Kerry noted two Israeli breaches: Failure to meet the obligation for the fourth phase of the prisoner release and issuing a tender to build 700 apartments in East Jerusalem. His tone and body language when he spoke about the Israeli construction in the settlement showed how frustrated he was with Israel’s conduct. Here’s the hilarious part: The White House and the State Department in Washington tried to correct and explain Kerry’s statements. They sent messages to reporters emphasizing his praise for Netanyahu at that same Senate hearing and stressed the fact that he had been balanced and had also criticized the Palestinians. But all of that was in hindsight.

The point is that who can believe going forward and looking backward that such an administration, that any American administration is ever going to seriously change the dynamics of this conflict. Is there a serious person in this city who believes that what is happening now, what’s frustrated John Kerry, hasn’t been happening already for decades? Despite the New York Times rewriting the history, you may have seen something I wrote a few days ago. When the New York Times wrote about Kerry’s frustration, it recalled the days of James Baker when he had famously read out the White House phone number–in those days it was a novelty because you couldn’t Google the White House phone number and nobody knew it–and said to the Israelis, “When you’re serious about peace call us.” The New York Times rewrote this to claim that he had actually given the phone number to Israelis and Palestinians because history has to be balanced, facts have to be balanced and if the facts aren’t balanced then add facts, make them up and add them. This is to note if there’s anyone left in the room or anyone in this city who is going to give us the guff. Kerry has already committed himself to continuing the peace process. He wants to see it graduate from college and get a job and enter its thirties and eventually retire and collect social security, if that still exists. He’s committed to it. But please I implore you to let your friends know: enough of this charade, enough. I’m here today in Washington, DC to appeal to you: enough.

Let’s move towards a reality-based analysis of what’s happening on Palestine and in the battle for justice in Palestine here. In this book, I try to do a number of things that I feel are urgent at this moment, this crossroads moment, when all but the truly detached will have to concede that there is no such thing as a two-state solution, that there is no such thing as a peace process run by Washington, and if people are seriously interested in justice and peace, they need to start turning their attention to some of the hard questions and issues that I try to raise in this book. I’m tempted to say a little bit more about some of the myth making that goes on and one of the most noxious and pernicious myths that I examine in this book and bust is the one that also has come out of Washington and the peace process industry circles and that was the myth of Fayyadism and that you would remember, in August 2009 New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman announced that he’d discovered “The most exciting new idea in Arab governance ever and the lucky recipients of this blessing were none other than the long suffering Palestinians.” Friedman dubbed his discovery Fayyadism for Salam Fayyad, the former IMF official appointed Palestinian prime minister after the 2007 U.S.-instigated subversion of the Hamas led national unity government. The U.S.-backed plot sparked a bloody and brief civil war that split the Palestinian Authority between an internationally financed and supported West Bank wing Fatah led by Mahmoud Abbas and a Hamas wing boycotted and besieged in the Gaza Strip. The bitter struggle for legitimacy and power between these two factions continues to this day. Thomas Friedman portrayed the West Bank and Abbas’ regime there as the exemplary model striding toward order and development under the benign hand of supposedly moderate Palestinian men in business suits. According to Friedman, “Fayyadism is based on the simple but all too rare notion that an Arab leaders’ legitimacy should be based not on slogans or rejectionism or personality cults or security services but on delivering transparent accountable administration and services.” Friedman couldn’t and didn’t say that legitimacy should be based on winning elections because Fayyad had not been elected by anyone. His Third Way party came in dead last garnering just 2.4 percent of the vote in the 2006 election. And of course the irony is that the entire West Bank regime is based on security services, mukhabarat, aid money and so on.

This myth of Fayyadism was the long distraction that occupied the elites in Washington and some other places for the last few years in deluding themselves that a Palestinian state was in the making when in fact what was going on on the ground was the immiseration of much of Palestinian society. This is true in the West Bank where in many areas, particularly so-called Area C, the poverty and food security actually got worse than in Gaza. It has been an era of mass unemployment. You have to contrast this with Hillary Clinton, who, a couple of years ago, went over there and claimed that jobs were being created, new businesses were opening up…none of it was true, and you don’t have to believe me, all of this can be read in the reports from World Bank and the IMF. But she also praised the opening of a five-star hotel in Ramallah, as an important step towards Palestinian statehood, the Ramallah Movenpick Hotel. In fact, it appears in a number of articles that they cite as a real milestone on behalf of the Palestinian people, and the fact that it’s right next door to a refugee camp. I mean, it’s one thing if the refugees were invited to go and stay in the five-star hotel until their Right of Return has been implemented. But that wasn’t the case. It was simply the likes of Thomas Friedman, and Roger Cohen and others going and praising this fraudulent narrative of state building. But it also exemplifies something else: the neo-liberalization of Palestine, the idea that investment and easy credit and home mortgages will somehow pacify the Palestinian people and take their eyes off their fundamental right.

That’s the story that I also tried to tell in this book, and it’s a narrative that we also have to challenge because it’s one that is being told also in this country and other parts of the world. I note that Palestine has been, in many ways, a dystopian model for what has happened in other countries in the world. The way Salam Fayyad was imposed on the Palestinian people to implement the financial, the political and the economical plans of the United States and the European Union and the international financial institutions was actually a model for the appointment of unelected prime ministers in countries including Greece and Italy to imposed austerity on those societies. The notion that the financial markets, and the international sponsors, and donors and creditors are the ones who elect your leaders and not you. Palestine has been a dystopian model there and in many other senses that I discussed in the book.

A particularly disturbing one is the role that Israel’s so-called Homeland Security Industry is now increasingly playing in the United States. On the Electronic Intifada, just yesterday, we published a fantastic, well-researched piece by Gabriel Schivone about the profiteering that Israeli security and arms companies are making off the so-called immigration reform bills that are currently going through Congress. He quotes an author who is writing a book on this saying, you know, he got around these homeland security conferences around the country where war and arms profiteer selling their wares, and says Israeli companies are ubiquitous, they are everywhere.

It was just a few weeks ago that the Obama administration awarded a contract of $145 million to Elbit Systems, an Israeli arms maker that had made many of the weapons used to commit atrocious war crimes against Palestinians. Obama awarded a contract for surveillance along the U.S.-Mexico border, a system that Elbit tested and built on the illegal apartheid wall in the Occupied West Bank. Palestinians are guinea pigs for Israeli companies who are profiteering from the militarization of policing in this country; the era of mass incarceration and mass deportation, which targets, as we know, primarily in this country, people of color and, most specifically, the African American man. So in the book, I argued for an analysis of these ideological and material ties as the basis for a joint struggle against mass incarceration, against mass deportation. Not one more! This is the administration: this Obama administration has deported more people, more people from this country, broken up more families, than any administration before it. That’s a scandal. That’s an absolute scandal. So the United States, people often say how is it that the United States, how is it that the United States can be the only country out of 47 voting against resolutions condemning Israel’s human rights violations and supporting Palestinian rights? Well, it’s easy. A United States that doesn’t respect its own racial and ethnic minorities is not going to be a United States that respects the rights of Palestinians or anyone else in the world.

I am very optimistic about the possibilities for such a joint struggle. It’s already happening on campuses where Students for Justice in Palestine are forming alliances with Chicano and Latino organizers who are fighting against mass deportation, who see a parallel between Israel’s laws punishing Palestinian citizens who commemorate the Nakba, and today, April 9th, is the anniversary of the massacre in Deir Yassin; and there are Palestinian citizens of Israel who would be subject to repressive laws now if that institution or municipality commemorate the massacre at Deir Yassin, and they see parallels between that and the law prohibiting ethnic studies in Arizona, which is specifically designed to prohibit the teaching of Chicano and Latino history.

So that joint struggle is already there, and I am very optimistic about it. In this book, I asked a simple question, does Israel have the right to exist as a Jewish state? Why would I ask this question? Well, it was lectured almost everyday, by Netanyahu or by Barack Obama or by John Kerry or by David Cameron or by other world leaders: that Palestinians must recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Very rarely if ever are we given an opportunity to hear a logical examination of what this means in practice for Palestinians. Because if you say that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state then you have to define how that right can be violated–how do you violate Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state? Well, from the perspective of Israel, if you’re a Palestinian baby and you’re born, you’re violating Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state because Israel defines that right as the right to maintain a specific ethnic majority. So, a violation means being born, reproducing, existing as the wrong kind of human being. And if you then agree that this is how Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state can be violated, you have to define what remedies Israel has against the violators. And, of course, what does this mean? Expulsion, denying citizenship, laws that prohibit Israelis from marrying Palestinians and living with them in the country, plans for transfer or population exchange–all of this sounds horrifying. All of it sounds like things we should be rejecting in the 21st century and yet all of those policies are already practiced in Israel or being advocated by Israel’s top leaders. And what is stunning is not that Israeli leaders promote this kind of racism, it’s the silence and the complicity of the liberal intelligentsia in this country who turn away from this question, ‘does Israel have the right to exist as a Jewish state?’ and lecture Palestinians, ‘you must give up your Right of Return,’ ‘you can’t hope for full equality,’ because that violates Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

But what about the rights of Palestinians? I ask anyone in this room, which of your human rights are you willing to give up so that another group of people can exercise power over you? You’ll never get an answer to that question where people will tell you, the same people who are prepared to lecture Palestinians on which of their rights they should give up, would never accept the same for them. So this book is also a challenge to people who turn away from these issues. It’s a challenge for to them to say put your money where your mouth is. If you’re going to argue for a two-state solution based on ethnic segregation, based on ratifying ethnic cleansing, that creates the conditions for future ethnic cleansing, then you better stand beside those positions openly, and don’t hide it behind fluffy talk about two states living side by side in peace because we know that’s not Israel’s goal. Take the challenge. Answer the question. Does Israel have a right to exist as a Jewish state? What does that mean in practice for Palestinians? Answers on a postcard, please.

This is also a book, and I’ll hopefully end on a hopeful note, that is very much about looking forward. I’ve always been, even though I’m sometimes accused of being a bit sharp, someone recently, Steven Salaita, said in his review that this is ultimately a pragmatic book, and I don’t dispute that because ultimately the outcome that I’m looking for is a situation where people can live, where Palestinians can live in their country. You won’t believe this, but I actually quote a line from Yasser Arafat. Who remembers his 1974 UN Gun and Olive Branch Speech? I know that some of us do. He said, “When we speak of our common hopes for the Palestine of tomorrow, we include in our perspective all Jews living in Palestine who choose to live with us there in peace and without discrimination.” That’s still a vision that’s worth fighting for instead of ethnic segregation, and I argue that it’s quite possible and that we can learn from what’s happening in places including Northern Ireland and South Africa.

And I try to go a lot deeper in my first book, and I had the opportunity to speak at a similar gathering about one country here a few years ago. I made the case for why I believe that a single state is the way forward. At that point few people were prepared to seriously entertain that idea. Things have changed now. But I got a lot of push back and people said, ‘you know, this sounds very nice but that’s very utopian.’ And I wanted to show in really practical terms what the experiences from South Africa and Northern Ireland tell us about how a dominant group can change its narrative and go from saying “any change in the status quo means national suicide” to actually embracing the notion of a shared future. And of course I’m not naïve about this as many of you will be quick to point out. In South Africa many argue correctly that political apartheid was ended, but economic apartheid remained. This is absolutely true. But I think that we have to put that in the context of a South Africa that emerged 20 years ago into rampant global neo-liberalism, the same neo-liberalism that Palestine exists in and its already taking its toll. So we have to put the fight for economic justice and democracy at the heart of the Palestinian struggle and as a way to tie it to the struggles of other people around the world. But in Northern Ireland too, and my time as a Fellow at the Palestine Center was really the beginning of my journey into learning and understanding the situation in Northern Ireland more profoundly and I had the chance to travel there a number of times and I think Martin McGinnis, the former IRA commander is dining with the Queen this week and that doesn’t please everyone for sure. But the point I want to make is this: there is in Northern Ireland, now, a generation of children not quite as old as the Middle East peace process, they are perhaps 15, 16, 17 years old about to go to university some of them, who have no memory of the conflict, the violence, the civil war that ravaged their country for decades, they have no memory of it. That’s how quickly things can change, and while the situation is still a work in progress let’s say, an entire generation of children who’ve never experienced political violence the way generations before had, is an incredible foundation to build something new.

And that, to actually have a generation of Palestinian children who have that experience, at this point seems like an unachievable dream. When you think of Palestinian children today, whether they’re in Gaza, whether they’re growing up as second-class citizens in Lydda or in the Galilee, Palestinians displaced for the second or third time in the horrifying civil war in Syria. But I still believe that the possibility, and I argue, and this is what I offer in this book, I argue that the ingredients, the factors, the people ready to struggle for radical transformation for the better in Palestine, that that’s a real possibility that we have in our grasp in the next few years. Thank you.


Ali Abunimah is the author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli Palestinian Impasse, and co-founder and director of the widely acclaimed publication The Electronic Intifada. Based in the United States, he has written hundreds of articles and been an active part of the movement for justice in Palestine for 20 years. He is the recipient of a 2013 Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship.