Escaping Oslo: Questions for Mouin Rabbani

By Jared Malsin, Ma’an – 22 Sept 2011
www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=422676

Escaping the diplomatic framework created by the never-completed Oslo peace accords is the only route for Palestinians to ensure the realizations of their rights, says Palestinian analyst Mouin Rabbani.

In an interview on the eve of President Mahmoud Abbas’ push for recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN, Rabbani said the ultimate impact of this initiative will depend on precisely how the PLO proceeds.

“It is only through the internationalization of the question of Palestine that you can preserve the claims you have and make progress toward converting those claims into rights,” said Rabbani, a senior visiting fellow at the Washington-based Institute for Palestine Studies.

“And to the extent you don’t do that and you remain mired in Oslo you see those rights disintegrate before your very eyes.”

“Over time rights are converted into claims. Claims are converted into contested issues and contested issues are converted into legitimate Israeli demands and Israeli rights,” he also said.

Ma’an: What are we going to see at the UN?

Mouin Rabbani: There isn’t even a draft resolution prepared yet. Some people have speculated that this is as much an exercise in brinksmanship as a statement of intent. In other words, the Palestinian leadership is still very keen to avoid a confrontation with the Americans, avoid doing serious damage to the Oslo process, and is therefore hoping that through this threat, which they would rather not implement, that some kind of arrangement can be reached so the won’t have to do this.

You mean a political arrangement with the Americans and the Israelis?

I mean an arrangement with the Europeans, particularly if the Europeans can get the rest of the Quartet to sign on. The European position is that it would be a disaster for them and everyone else concerned if Abbas returns empty-handed. My understanding is that the Europeans are working on a formula whereby there will be a resolution including some meaningless platitudes exhorting to once again negotiate until kingdom come and that everyone can declare victory and go home.

You’re saying the recognition issue may be avoided completely?

Yes. Again, it’s possible but it’s unlikely. The US has taken such an extreme position, arguably even more extreme than the Israeli position, that they have virtually eliminated the prospect for any compromise whatsoever.

The second point I would make is that this isn’t about recognition; this isn’t about statehood, although that’s what it’s about from the leadership’s point of view. From my point of view this is really about the internationalization of the question of Palestine, or to put it more accurately, the re-internationalization of the question of Palestine.

In other words, is this just a tactical maneuver by the leadership to re-engage with Oslo on supposedly improved terms? Or is this the beginning of a new strategy to irrevocably disengage from the Oslo framework?

Which do you think it is?

I think that depends on a variety of factors and a variety of actors. From the leadership’s point of view this is about getting Oslo back on track, in other words it’s about getting back on the road to nowhere.

There are other forces involved. There’s Palestinian public opinion. There’s the Arab revolt. There’s the extremely radical American position which may leave the Palestinians no choice. That’s how we got to this point to begin with.

Are we seeing something new in terms of the Palestinian leadership separating their position from the US position?

I suppose there’s an argument to be made to answer your question in the affirmative, but at the same time it was only a few months ago that this leadership also went to the UN on the issue of settlement expansion, and if we look at what happened then. As in this case it was primarily a response to the pressure of public opinion and perhaps even more specifically, pressure from inside the Fatah movement to do something, and at least send a message to the Obama administration.

They went to the Security Council. The US said ‘go to hell’ and issued a veto, and that was the end of it. There was no attempt to reactivate the ICJ (International Court of Justice) opinion.

There was no attempt to punish either Israel for its continued settlement expansion or the Americans for their continued sponsorship of settlement expansion and Israeli impunity, which could have been done in a thousand different ways, for example by reducing security cooperation.

None of that happened. It was just a single event, and I think there is a legitimate fear that that will happen this time as well, that the leadership will go to the UN, submit a resolution, that the US will give them the finger, and they’ll just go home.

Then what is their next step?

They don’t even know what this step is. The Palestinian leadership has not even yet prepared a draft resolution to submit to the secretary-general or a draft resolution to the General Assembly, so if we don’t even know what this step is, how can we possibly guess what the next step is? This is a leadership that’s transparent as tar. We simply don’t know. They seem to feel under no need or obligation to consult with their people and inform them what they’re doing. Abbas’ speech (on Friday) was perhaps a first instance of that, but even then a lot more is required.

What is your assessment of Oxford Univ. scholar Guy Goodwin-Gill’s legal opinion and his argument that recognition of a Palestinian state would disenfranchise the refugees?

I’m not a lawyer or a specialist in international law. I’ve seen that opinion, and I’ve seen opinions by others who are at least as engaged and at least as committed to the rights of the Palestinian people who came to the opposite conclusion.

That said, I don’t think it’s an issue of seeking to internationalize the question of Palestine and therefore forfeiting your rights by remaining in the Oslo process. I think it’s a question of detail. In other words, I think it’s perfectly possible to go to the UN to seek the internationalization of the question of Palestine and do it in a way that not only strengthens your claims and preserves your rights, but increases the likelihood that you’re actually going to get somewhere.

As a principle, the further the Palestinians turn their back to Oslo, the closer they are to achieving these rights that are supposedly being threatened by supposedly taking these measures. All the other questions about representation and right of return and so on I think are questions of detail rather than principle and what I mean by that those issues are resolved by how you do it, rather than whether you do it.

How could the Palestinian leadership internationalize the question of Palestine in a way that lays claim to all of the different rights?

I’d go even further and say that it is only through the internationalization of the question of Palestine that you can preserve the claims you have and make progress toward converting those claims into rights.

And to the extent you don’t do that and you remain mired in Oslo you see those rights disintegrate before your very eyes. Over time rights are converted into claims. Claims are converted into contested issues and contested issues are converted into legitimate Israeli demands and Israeli rights.

So I simply don’t understand this dichotomy that’s being presented by some people that if you go to the UN you’re going to lose rights and claims that you’re entitled to, and therefore it’s better to remain stuck in this Oslo framework.

Do you see this step at the UN as giving Palestinians access to the International Criminal Court? Is that realistic?

One of the compromise proposals that’s been put forward in discussions with the Europeans is that the Europeans would support some kind of upgraded status at the UN in exchange for an ironclad commitment not to go to the ICC. I think if they did that it would be not just self-defeating but catastrophic and make this entire exercise not only meaningless but much worse than Goodwin-Gill’s worst nightmare.

What’s the point of this if you’re not going to do that? Just so the Palestinians can have a pope like the Vatican? This initiative only makes sense to the extent that it creates new instruments of leverage.

How do you respond to those you argue that the current Palestinian leadership lacks legitimacy, either because their electoral terms have expired or because of the blurring of the lines between the PA and the PLO?

Sure, if you look at it objectively, there is no legitimate Palestinian leadership, and that’s as true as it is for the government in Gaza as it is for the government in Ramallah.

One of the problems with the current Palestinian initiative is that its not being formed on the basis of a Palestinian strategic consensus whose point of departure today is reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, leading to a broader reconciliation between all other Palestinian political and other forces.

This (legitimacy) is not only a question of elections. In the past we’ve had Palestinian leaders whose legitimacy came from other sources. We don’t have that today.

Now does that mean that any Palestinian holding office is illegitimate and that anything they do is illegitimate? No. That would be going to the other extreme.

Back to Top

Readers are welcome to discuss IOA content on our Facebook page. To participate, please click HERE.