Richard Falk, who just completed a six-year term as UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, has written a timely new book titled Palestine: The Legitimacy of Hope, released in late October by Just World Books.
In an exclusive interview with C. J. Polychroniou for Truthout, Richard Falk contextualizes the Palestinian struggle and sheds light on the latest diplomatic and political developments in what has erroneously been referred to as the world’s “most intractable conflict.” Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Fellow at the Orfalea Center of Global Studies of the University of California at Santa Barbara.
C.J. Polychroniou for Truthout: With the collapse of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in April, there are increasing doubts about the diplomatic approach to resolving the conflict that is associated with the Oslo Approach. What is the Oslo Approach? Do these doubts lead us to believe that the Oslo approach is dead?
Richard Falk: The Oslo Approach was initiated in 1993 when both Israel and the PLO accepted the Oslo Declaration of Principles as the diplomatic basis of resolving the conflict between the two peoples. It was iconically endorsed by the famous handshake between Rabin and Arafat on the White House Lawn. It was a flawed approach from the Palestinian perspective for several main reasons: It never confirmed the existence of the Palestinian right of self-determination; it excluded the relevance of international law from what came to be known as “the peace process”; it designated the United States, despite its alignment with Israel, as the exclusive intermediary; and it fragmented the Palestinian territory under occupation in ways that made the day-to-day life of Palestinians an ordeal.
From the Israeli perspective, Oslo was highly advantageous: It gave Israel over 20 years to continue the unlawful settlement building and expansion process; by excluding international law, it produced a diplomacy based on bargaining and power disparities in which Israel possessed decisive advantages; it delegated to the Palestinian Authority responsibility for many of the security functions previously the responsibility of Israel; it contained no commitment to respect Palestinian rights under international law; and it allowed Israel to create abundant “facts on the ground” (better interpreted as a series of unlawful acts) that could be later validated by diplomatic ratification.
Doubts about the Oslo Approach have grown in recent years and have been reflected in indications that even the patience of the Palestinian Authority has begun to be exhausted. The last effort at direct negotiations within the Oslo framework collapsed last April, despite strong American efforts to seek some progress toward an agreement. Israel’s behavior indicated a disinterest in negotiations and a disposition toward imposing a unilateral solution to the conflict.
The PA has introduced the text of a proposed Security Council resolution that calls for Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank by November 2016, and although it is expected to be blocked by the United States, it suggests a new direction of Palestinian diplomacy. The flaws of the Oslo Approach are becoming more widely recognized in Europe and by world public opinion.
After the 50-day Israel military operation in Gaza of this past summer, given the name Protective Edge by the IDF, has anything changed in relation to the underlying conflict?
The fundamentals on the ground remain the same, although some of the psycho-political dimensions have changed in important ways. On the Israeli side, there were contradictory indications of both incitements to genocide, destroying the civilian population of Gaza in the belief that this was the only way to overcome the resistance of Hamas, and a sense that Israel had lost its way in the world by engaging in such a military campaign that had devastating impacts upon both the civilian population and its infrastructure. The new Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, spoke of Israel as “a sick society” that needed to recover a willingness to treat diverse ethnicities and religions with dignity.
From a Palestinian point of view, Protective Edge also had important effects. From the Palestinian activist there was mounting pressure to join the International Criminal Court and press charges against Israel. Also, the effect of the military operation was the opposite of what was intended, as it increased the popularity of Hamas, at least temporarily, especially in the West Bank, and to a lesser extent in Gaza.
In effect, the resistance and resilience of Hamas was contrasted with the quasi-collaborationist postures so often struck by the Palestinian Authority. The casualties on both sides also destabilized the notion of “terrorism” as solely attributable to Hamas: Of the 70 Israelis killed, 65 were IDF soldiers, while of the more than 2100 Palestinians killed, more than 70 percent were civilians. It would seem that “state terrorism” is the main culprit in such a conflict.
At the same time, more informed commentators recognized that Hamas wanted to perform as a political actor rather than to act as an armed resistance group treated by Israel and the United States as a terrorist entity excluded from diplomatic venues. Hamas has been making it clear ever since it won elections in 2006 that it was prepared to coexist peacefully with Israel on a long-term basis, and has observed ceasefire agreements along its border, which were on each occasion broken by Israeli violent provocations. There was formed a few months ago a technocratic unity government that overcame the divisions between the Fatah and Hamas, and was bitterly opposed by Israel, perhaps the real explanation of the July attacks on Gaza as an expression of this opposition.
There has been discussion as to whether the Palestinian Authority, now recognized as a state by the UN, should seek to join the International Criminal Court and bring its grievances before this tribunal. Is this a good idea? What will it accomplish?
There is much discussion as to the pros and cons of seeking to adhere to the Rome Statute that underpins the International Criminal Court by Palestine now that its statehood has been confirmed by the UN General Assembly in 2012. Palestine now has the UN status of being “a nonmember observer state.” It has joined UNESCO as a member and adhered to several international treaties.
The “cons” of recourse to the ICC can be summarized: provoking hostile reactions from Israel and possibly the United States; threatening the fragile unity arrangements between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, especially if the ICC chooses to focus on allegations of war crimes against Hamas; inability to secure Israeli cooperation with the proceedings, and hence an absence of any way to make those accused accountable due to the absence of enforcement capabilities.
The “pros” of going to the ICC are the effects on world public opinion, raising the morale of the Palestinians seeking to make use of their soft power advantages in the conflict, and, above all, the opportunity to reinforce the Palestinian narrative that challenges Israel’s occupation policies (especially reliance on excessive force and the settlement phenomenon) as violations of international criminal law.
On balance, it would seem advantageous for Palestine to seek an investigation of allegations by recourse to the ICC, and the failure to do so would confirm those who attack the PA as lacking credibility to represent the Palestinian people in their quest for a just and sustainable peace.
Recently Sweden pledged to recognize Palestinian statehood, and the British House of Commons also urged the government to extend recognition. Are such diplomatic gestures of any importance and relevance to the Palestinian struggle?
It is too soon to assess the importance of these diplomatic gestures, which I would interpret as an indication of dissatisfaction with any further reliance on the Oslo Approach, especially its reliance on the role of the United States as exclusively entitled to serve as a diplomatic third party. The Swedish pledge to recognize Palestinian statehood is also important because it is accompanied by a call for resumed negotiations in accord with international law. To inject international law into the diplomatic process would be of utmost significance, offsetting Israeli hard-power dominance and allowing for Palestine to press forward in asserting their rights under international law.
If additional countries follow Sweden and the House of Commons, it will create a trend that might produce a greater role for Europe or the EU to act as a successor intermediary to the US in the search for a solution. In this sense these European moves, which were greeted antagonistically in Tel Aviv and Washington, exhibit an impatience with the evident futility of pretending that Oslo still provided the best path to peace.
If armed struggle has failed the Palestinians, international law has been ignored and diplomacy has not worked, what is left for the Palestinians to do so as to carry on their struggle?
For several years, the Palestinian national movement has moved its center from the formal leadership provided by the PA and Hamas, to Palestinian civil society initiatives that seem to represent the real aspirations of the Palestinian people. The call for a BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) campaign in 2005 by 170 Palestinian civil society actors has been gaining momentum throughout the world, including in the United States, in recent years. This civil society coalition also puts forward a three-part political program of greater relevance to a solution than anything that has emerged from the Oslo Approach: 1) withdrawal of Israel from all occupied Arab lands (including Golan Heights, fragment of Lebanon); 2) human rights based on full equality for the Palestinian minority living within Israel; 3) right of return of Palestinian refugees to their homes in accordance with international law, as set forth in General Assembly Resolution 194 .
In this period of international relations, increasingly it is evident that states can no longer monopolize diplomacy. Not only are non-state actors such as the Taliban, Hamas and others formidable participants indispensable to overcome conflict, but also civil society initiatives provide ways to achieve justice and peace with greater flexibility and legitimacy than state actors in a growing number of conflict situations.
Some analysts have noted a change in public opinion on the conflict in the United States, but not reflected in Congress or US policy of unconditional support. Why is this?
This mismatch between an American public that would welcome a more balanced approach to Israel and the conflict and the US Congress that is uncritically and unconditionally supportive of Israel has become a dark shadow cast over the democratic process in the United States. It reflects in part the strength of the Israeli lobby and also the military prowess of Israel both as a strategic partner in the region but also as a valued arms supplier of an increasing number of countries. It also results from the inability of Palestinian constituencies in the United States to mobilize support sufficient to create countervailing influence in Washington. This one-sided political atmosphere makes members of Congress realize that any lessening of support for Israel will be disastrous for the political career and of no real policy significance in relation to the government approach. Despite this unfortunate mismatch, an upsurge of civil society activism, especially on university campuses and among mainstream religious organizations, is again an indication that politics is being made informally within civil society, and is more expressive of democratic sentiments and ethical principles, than are the activities of formal governmental institutions.
In light of developments, can Europe play a bigger role in shifting the balance of diplomatic forces bearing on the conflict?
Europe has an opportunity to play a much more active role in resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict, and has begun to do so by way of its recent moves to recognize Palestinian statehood and by governmental pronouncements that remind corporations and financial institutions that commercial dealings with Israeli settlements are “problematic under international law.”
Israel seems to be moving toward a unilateral resolution of the conflict by taking substantial control over the West Bank and Jerusalem, and leaving Gaza as a hostile alien territory, which may make international diplomacy useless at this stage. In any event, Israel and the United States will use all the leverage at their disposal to prevent any move away from the Oslo Approach that continues to serve their somewhat divergent purposes. The US Government is primarily interested in keeping “the game” of Oslo going to uphold their claim that a viable peace process continues to exist. For Israel, retaining Oslo is also helpful as part of a favorable scenario of delay that serves expansionist purposes until Tel Aviv explicitly declares “game over” and converts the occupation of Palestine into a full-scale or partial annexation of what is called by Israeli law experts “disputed sovereignty.”
Why did the Arab neighbors of Israel, especially Saudi Arabia, seem to support Israel during the recent attack on Gaza?
The regional situation in the Arab world has changed dramatically since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Arab Spring upheavals of 2011. The Iraqi occupation tactics of the United States rested on regime change with a sectarian orientation, shifting leadership of the country from its Sunni identity in the Saddam Hussein period to that of Shiite dominance. This shift, including the purge of the Iraqi armed forces of its Sunni corps, lead indirectly also to Islamic extremism in the region, especially the emergence in 2014 of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria that is partially staffed by former Iraqi military officers dismissed as a result of American occupation policy.
The Arab Spring upheavals had a second effect, which was to overthrow authoritarian leadership that had long suppressed political Islam as powerful domestic presences. Especially in Egypt, but also in several other countries, the anti-authoritarian movements resulted in a political situation where in the new political setting, the strongest national political presence was associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Gulf monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia, were deeply threatened by these changes, and despite their own Islamic orientation, preferred secular leadership in the region to political Islam that emerged democratically. In this sense, Israel’s effort to crush Hamas, viewed by the threatened monarchies as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, corresponded with the priorities of most Arab governments in the region. Israel was the enemy of their primary enemy, and hence “a friend,” at least temporarily.
Whether this situation persists is uncertain. What seems clear at present is that two separate strands of transnational tension exist in the region: first, the Sunni-Shiite divide; and secondly, the tensions between established governments and political Islam that is based on a societal movement. Surprisingly, the second concern outweighs the first. Saudi Arabia supported strongly the 2013 coup led by General Sisi against the elected Sunni-oriented leadership of Mohammed Morsi.