Charlie Rose – 3 Jan 2010
Watch video: www.charlierose.com/view/content/11384
Charlie Rose interviews Rashid Khalidi and Aluf Benn
CHARLIE ROSE: We turn now from China to the Middle East and the stalemate in the peace process. For almost two years the Obama administration has tried to guide Israel and Palestinians into direct talks. Those efforts collapsed in December over the issue of settlements. The Palestinians are now mining a diplomatic offensive to gain international recognition for a Palestinian state.
Many in the region fear another outbreak in the conflict if there is no progress. Joining me now is Rashid Khalidi. He is the Edward Said professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University. Joining me by phone from Tel Aviv is Aluf Benn. He is a columnist in and editor at large at the Israeli newspaper “Haaretz.” I’m pleased to have both of them back on this program.
Rashid, I begin with you. This — I just did a conversation down in Washington with the former foreign minister Tzipi Livni of Israel and Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. He has said that he’s building up from the ground a Palestinian, not idea, but presence with institutions of government so that by September of this year they will seek to establish a Palestinian state and then go about the process of the
negotiations over the specifics of borders, right of return, East Jerusalem. What do you think of this idea?
RASHID KHALIDI: Well, Palestinian statehood is 62 years overdue. It should have happened at the time of the partition plan, a Jewish state, an Arab state. That’s what the U.N. mandated. It’s 44 years since the West Bank and the Gaza and Jerusalem were occupied, and we’re still waiting for a peace process that is going absolutely nowhere, in fact, has made things much worse.
I would say anything that will move the situation off of the downward track that it’s on would be good, but I am not sure that simply declaring statehood, which actually the Palestinians did back in 1988, doing yet again —
CHARLIE ROSE: This was Yasser Arafat.
RASHID KHALIDI: Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian National Council.
CHARLIE ROSE: But this seems to be different this time. There’s a difference in terms of the temperature around the world vis-a-vis this. Also there’s exasperation.
RASHID KHALIDI: Right. I mean, people are absolutely fed up with the fact that this process has actually taken this long. There is less and less tolerance of Israel’s behavior. We’re getting this in American public opinion, we’re getting this in the American Jewish community, and outside the United States we’re getting it more and more and more. People I think will not any longer tolerate Israel’s bad boy behavior and the United States enabling of it.
Now, the world can’t stop the United States, and that’s really the problem. But I agree with you. I think there’s a degree of exasperation which has encouraged the Palestinians. The problem is the Palestinians are divided
and you have the most right wing, most pro-settlement, most uncompromising Israeli government in power in modern history. So I don’t think that this necessarily is going to get us very far.
CHARLIE ROSE: Would you like that see the Palestinians go ahead with this?
RASHID KHALIDI: I don’t think it will hurt except I think that in the absence of a Palestinian consensus on this — which you don’t have, off Palestinian authority in Gaza, in the absence of an effort to explain why this is so overdue —
CHARLIE ROSE: Wait a minute — a Palestinian authority in Ramallah and you have Hamas in Gaza?
RASHID KHALIDI: It’s an elected Palestinian authority, just as the one in Ramallah is elected. But neither of them is legitimate because these were interim self-governing authorities that should have gone out of business way back in the 1990s according to the terms of the Oslo Accords.
CHARLIE ROSE: Let me go to Aluf. Tell me what the Israeli position is and how much they are concerned about it.
ALUF BENN: Their position — the Israeli position is that any outcome of this peace process or any outcome towards a Palestinian state should be negotiated. And since there is no negotiation going on at this point and
since the Palestinian authority refuses to deal with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government, we can live with that stalemate until something changes.
But I think the whole thing here is trying to attract or embarrass the United States. The Palestinians are trying to force the United States into some sort of supporting or abstaining or not taking part in the vote at the Security Council. So if it’s not full recognition of a state then at least something which says the settlements are illegal.
The problem here for Israel is that if theoretically if the United Nations recognizes the state of Palestine within the pre-’67 border, that means that any Israeli presence beyond that border, be it the settlements, be it military patrol, or be it Jewish person praying near the western ball that the old city in Jerusalem, is a trespasser. And therefore it amounts to giving the Palestinians a license to go to war to liberate the territory against that trespasser.
So you have to ask yourself whether such recognition is going to bring stability or is going to be just another recipe for another crisis.
RASHID KHALIDI: I think we’ve been sitting for 44 years with these territories occupied and nothing has moved Israel. I’m not sure this is going to work. I’m not an enormous fan of this idea.
CHARLIE ROSE: I can tell.
RASHID KHALIDI: But I have to say, the idea that Israel can sit pretty, fine. Let Israel sit pretty. Israel is now going to become a minority Jewish presence in an Arab majority territory that Israel controls. It’s the only sovereign authority, it’s the only state, it’s the only power between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River.
As far as I’m concerned, if the Israelis are not happy to give the Palestinian statehood within the ‘67 frontiers, let them give the Palestinians equality within the frontiers of the state that they have created which extends from the Jordan —
CHARLIE ROSE: And you expect them to do that?
RASHID KHALIDI: They’re not going to have very much choice soon the people the world over are not going to put up with a state that has one set of rights for one people, Jews, and another set of rights for another people.
I mean, the fiction that the occupied territories are a state under Palestinian Authority is threadbare. You just have to go there, spend 20 minutes driving around and seeing —
CHARLIE ROSE: But that’s going to change on the ground in Ramallah.
RASHID KHALIDI: Ramallah is like a green zone. Ramallah is one of the most prosperous places in the Middle East. It reminds you of Dubai — not quite —
CHARLIE ROSE: A growth rate of about eight percent.
RASHID KHALIDI: You go 20 kilometers northeast or south and you’re back in the third world. So Ramallah is an excrescence on the backside of Palestine in a sense. It is where all the money sticks. It’s where the elites that have been bought off by aid money and by external backers congregate. And it’s been separated from the body politic of Palestine.
So yes, Ramallah is in great shape. I was there a couple weeks ago. You can get a cappuccino for 12 bucks.
CHARLIE ROSE: All right, Aluf, this is what you said in one of the columns you wrote for “Haaretz.” You said “Benjamin Netanyahu has in effect concluded his term in prime minister. It’s all downhill until the next elections without achievements, without an agenda, passing the time buying political calm and deflecting diplomatic pressure. Instead of initiating, leading, Netanyahu will engage in fruitless holding actions until he falls from power.”
ALUF BENN: Well, I thought this time around unlike that two previous times when Israel and the Palestinians try to negotiate a peace in 2000 and then again in 2007-2008, in both previous cases the Israeli and American leaders involved with lame ducks on their way out. And this time we’ve had both the Israeli prime minister was very popular and strong and has a very stable coalition, and a new and eager American president was really committed, at least verbally, to resolve this conflict.
And I thought it was a missed opportunity. But when President Obama suggested to Netanyahu to freeze the settlements for 90 days and then speed negotiations of borders in order to find out where the future Palestinian state is going to be and take it from there, Netanyahu backed off.
And then — and then now it’s coalition is starting — making the noises, the countdown towards the next election. And we know that in the Middle East there’s no vacuum. It cannot really hold the status quo and just drink your cappuccino for long. It’s a recipe for trouble.
RASHID KHALIDI: I think you ought to look at some of the stuffs coming out from WikiLeaks according to the Swedish press. Predictions by General Ashkinasi speaking to — the chief of staff of the Israeli army speaking to
an American congressional delegation saying that Israel is preparing for war both on the Lebanese and Gaza front. So there is an army plan according to this revelation.
CHARLIE ROSE: Well, there are army plans for everything, as you well know.
RASHID KHALIDI: According to the way the U.S. embassy and Tel Aviv wrote it, it sounds like this is quite serious. So it’s not there may be a bubbling up.
I agree with Aluf Benn. I think if there is not rapid change in this situation it will get much, much worse and it could degenerate. But I don’t think the degeneration will be spontaneous. I think the fear is Israel just acting whether in Lebanon or Gaza or elsewhere, or heaven forbid Iran.
CHARLIE ROSE: You actually interviewed the general before leaving his job, did you not?
ALUF BENN: I wrote about him. I wrote about his ideas about peace with Syria. General Ashkinasi is, contrary to the image that might be drawn from that WikiLeaks cable, appears to be a moderate force within the Israeli leadership.
One of his ideas that he’s been promoting sort of off the record meetings recently is that the way around Israel’s strategic problems. But when Israel looks around it sees Iran gaining strength, it sees Iran’s proxies – – Hezbollah and Lebanon, Hamas and Gaza — amassing more and more and more rockets and missiles aimed at Israel. It sees Turkey drawn from losing its alliance with Israel and replacing it with closer relationship with Iran and Syria.
So one way around that according to General Ashkinasi is re-launch the Syrian peace track and pull Syrian away from the Iranian orbit and closer towards the west, or at least forcing it to choose and giving it a decent enough offer to make it choose between both sides rather than play them against each other, as President Assad has been doing quite successfully.
CHARLIE ROSE: There’s also the idea of having the Turks involved in this, is there not?
ALUF BENN: The Turks were involved in mediating between Syria and Israel in the last months of the previous Israeli government, the Olmert government. But their relationship with Israel is the worst ever since Erdogan decided to switch sides and since the Israeli attack on the Turkish flotilla.
CHARLIE ROSE: My understand and my impression is notwithstanding everything you just said that very recently there’s been some suggestion that they’re prepared to do —
ALUF BENN: They’re always prepared to do it. Israel is not so happy about that, but, again, unless there’s something secret going on that we don’t know about, Prime Minister Netanyahu to this day has not shown signs of
taking the Syrian threat seriously.
Every other week there’s a story about a messenger. Only tonight one of the American Jewish leaders went to Damascus and met Syrian officials and obviously the rumor is that he was sent by Netanyahu in a similar way to —
an American Jewish leader mediated 12 years ago. But it takes time to see these things are serious.
But there is strong voice, especially among the Israeli security establishment which says the surest way around Israel’s strategic problems is making peace with Syria.
CHARLIE ROSE: But what I hear from both of you is that this idea that I keep hearing with more and more currency, the Palestinians at — before the next United Nations General Assembly August, September of this year that just began pushing for Palestinian statehood, have more countries beyond those in Latin America endorse the idea, engage the idea, that you both have shooting this down saying it’s not going to happen.
RASHID KHALIDI: Well, I don’t think you’re going to have statehood until you end the occupation, and ending the occupation means Israelis either moving themselves —
CHARLIE ROSE: Why does statehood come after the occupation? Why can’t you declare it and if you have nations supporting it —
RASHID KHALIDI: Statehood means sovereignty.
CHARLIE ROSE: I understand that.
RASHID KHALIDI: It means jurisdiction and authority. How can you have that when the Israeli army walks into Ramallah and picks anybody it wants any time it wants?
CHARLIE ROSE: What’s wrong with having statehood not withstanding that?
RASHID KHALIDI: It’s not statehood. It’s a simulacrum. It’s a Potemkin statehood.
CHARLIE ROSE: So something’s wrong with declare we have a state and this is the borders of our state and this is what we want to do and this is the institutions we’ve created. As long as there’s anybody occupying or opposing that government then you cannot declare it on your own?
RASHID KHALIDI: You can declare it if you have the ability to use some leverage to force the opponent and its backer in Washington to change their position. Palestinians haven’t developed that leverage.
CHARLIE ROSE: So they’re trying to put the ball in the U.S. court as — is this whole thing going to rise and fall on whether the United States says it will abstain in the Security Council?
RASHID KHALIDI: It’s not going to arise because the effort has to made with the American public opinion, an effort that the Palestinian authorities are not making. It has to be made with world public opinion, an effort that they are not making.
CHARLIE ROSE: Why aren’t they making it?
RASHID KHALIDI: Because there’s no Palestinian consensus. There’s no Palestinian unity on this issue.
CHARLIE ROSE: That’s exactly what the Israelis say. There’s no
RASHID KHALIDI: And unfortunately they’re right.
CHARLIE ROSE: They say who do we negotiate with?
RASHID KHALIDI: They could easily negotiate with this leadership, they just choose not to because they are very happy, as Aluf Benn correctly said, with the status quo. They can sit there and think that the fact that they’re a shrinking minority in a country with a growing Arab majority is something the world is going to accept. It probably won’t in the long term.
CHARLIE ROSE: Aluf, the other thing I hear is that Netanyahu goes back and forth in terms of what he might want to do something, that he looks at history and looks at it through two difference lens. One is he doesn’t want to be the first Israeli prime minister to sort of have something happen on his watch. On the other hand he wants to be more than a local politician. He wants to be someone who’s done something historic for Israel.
ALUF BENN: Well, as a historian’s son and an avid reader of history and especially biographies of Winston Churchill, Netanyahu took office committed first and foremost to doing away with the Iranian nuclear threat.
For whatever reason, he did not do much, at least not publicly, and he had to trust the United States to lead the international effort against Iran, which gained some momentum more than we thought. But still the Iranians
are enriching the uranium like never before, and nothing has stopped them so far.
Then under American pressure, Netanyahu accepted the two-state solution, toyed with the idea. But he’s bound by the coalition that he built which is very right wing. He’s too weak to replace it now, and his coalition partners made clear that they’re not going to allow him to make any concession.
And it appears as if he’s hiding behind them. He’s not trying to say, OK, I’m going to change history on my own. He’s not an initiator. So far he’s mostly reactive to whatever the Turkish government or the Palestinians are doing.
CHARLIE ROSE: Thank you for coming. Great to see you.
RASHID KHALIDI: Pleasure, as always.
ALUF BENN: Thanks. Goodnight.