Salon Radio: Dr. Mustafa Barghouti on Israeli elections

The former presidential candidate for the Palestinian Authority speaks about Israel's elections, the aftermath of the attack on Gaza, and prospects for a peace agreement.

By Glenn Greenwald

Published February 10, 2009 3:12PM (EST)

(updated below w/transcript)

Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian physician born in Jerusalem and living in the West Bank, was the second-place candidate behind Mahmoud Abbas in the 2005 presidential election in the Palestinian National Authority (a BBC profile of him is here).  Dr. Barghouti is my guest today on Salon Radio to discuss today's Israeli elections and the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations generally, including:

  • the implications of Benjamin Netanyahu's becoming the next Israeli Prime Minister ("this is the end of the peace process and the end of the possibility of peace for the two-state solution");
  • the meaning of Avigdon Lieberman's prominent participation in the Israeli government ("Lieberman is a fascist" -- an opinion that seems to be shared by The New Republic's Marty Peretz, of all people, who, echoing my argument yesterday, wrote that Lieberman "is the Israeli equivalent of Jorg [sic] Haider of Austria");
  • the imperative that the U.S. change policies toward the Middle East if the peace process is to be salvaged and the likelihood that the Obama administration will do so;
  • the impact on Hamas from the recent Israeli attack on Gaza (Hamas' popularity actually increased more in the West Bank then it did even in Gaza);
  • the amount of blame Barghouti assigns to the Palestinian side for the move to the Right in Israel (not much);
  • the barriers imposed on him by Israel even when he was attempting to campaign for President (extreme restrictions on his movement and multiple arrests by the Israelis);
  • the response to the claim that the fractured Palestinian leadership precludes meaningful negotiations by the Israelis (allowing free elections will produce a unified Palestinian government); and,
  • the rationale for Barghouti's advocacy of non-violence as the optimal means of resistance to the Israeli occupation.

I found Barghouti's answers to be an extremely interesting expression of a Palestinian perspective on these issues.  To listen to the interview, click PLAY on the recorder below (as always, interviews can be downloaded as MP3s here, and as ITunes here). The discussion is roughly 18 minutes and a transcript will be posted shortly.


UPDATE:  The transcript is here.

To listen to this interview, click PLAY on the recorder below:

Glenn Greenwald: My guest today on Salon Radio is Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, who was a former candidate for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority in 2005, finishing second to the ultimate winner, Mahmoud Abbas. He's also held various positions in the Palestinian Authority and is a physician as well. Dr. Barghouti, thanks so much for joining me today.

Mustafa Barghouti: Thank you. It's nice to talk to you.

GG: The Israelis are holding a national election tomorrow, and most polls, if not all, predict that the winner of the election will be Likud, or at the very least, that the next prime minister of Israel will be Benjamin Netanyahu.

You're a long-time advocate of a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians; what do you see as the implications for a Netanyahu victory in terms of Israeli-Palestinian relations?

MB: Well, unfortunately, I must say that the election of Netanyahu -- and Lieberman with him -- simply means one thing: that this is end of the peace process, and the end of the possibility of peace based on two state solution. The problem is the timing. This election, this move to the extreme right wing comes at a time when the whole option of the two state solution is almost gasping due to the building of settlements in the West Bank and the creation of apartheid rule, and with such elections, this can be like the death sentence to two-state option, unless, of course, unless, there will be a different policy and a serious move from the side of the United States, which is probably the only country that has the leverage to pressure Israel to stop this terrible movement towards racism and apartheid.

GG: I want to ask you about that in a minute, that is, prospects for a new U.S. policy under President Obama, but first I'd like to just follow up a little bit about the end of the two state solution, or negotiations in the event of a Netanyahu victory.

You were part of a 60 Minutes report several weeks ago concerning expanding settlements in the West Bank in which you made the argument that the ongoing expansion of West Bank settlements and the extent to which those settlements now exist have already made a two-state solution, if not impossible, close to impossible, because the only way that a two state solution could ever be viable is if those settlements were dismantled.

Is there any viable political party in Israel, not just Likud, but even Labour or Kadima, that you think would actually really make a meaningful attempt to dismantle settlements such that a two-state solution could be possible? Would it really matter, in other words, if it's Likud as opposed to the other parties?

MB: Well, that is of course one of the problems, or one of the major problems, that practically the differences on the issue of settlements and the issue of Jerusalem is really non-existent when it comes to comparing parties with each other. Both Netanyahu, Kadima leader Livni, and Barak, the three of them all refuse the possibility of sharing Jerusalem. All of them refuse the possibility of stopping settlements and removal of settlement blocks that are consuming almost 50% of the land of the West Bank. And all of them are not ready even to discuss the issue of Palestinian refugees.

So, in that sense, there is certain right-wing consensus in Israel, and this is, in my opinion, a result of international community policy which made Israel feel that it has impunity and is unaccountable to the world community and irresponsible towards international law, and practically it has become even irresponsible towards itself, because I don't think there is anything to be proud about when in ten years from now the Israelis discover, or five years from now, the Israelis, that they are the worst apartheid system in human history. I don't think something promising for the Palestinians or Israelis to see that one of the main outcomes of these elections is a prolonged, long-lasting horrible conflict that is unmanageable. That's why unfortunately I see the election of Netanyahu as well as Lieberman, as a serious shift towards racism, and it's a reflection of serious, in my opinion, sickness.

Because fear and hate are the most motivating emotions now, unfortunately, in Israeli society. They have to be substituted for a different kind of approach. But that cannot happen, as I said, without a serious, different approach from the international community.

GG:  Speaking of the international community, there was an argument that some people made, that the Israeli attack on Gaza was so brutal and so horrifying to watch, given that it was a trapped population that was defenseless and incapable of escaping the bombs that were falling on them, the artillery shells that were shot at them, that, although one is highly reluctant to try and find anything positive out of that horrible situation, that there was a sense that having the world watch that particular attack could actually make headway in changing popular opinion towards Israel and the Palestinians.

There was a column today by the Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, who argued much the same thing about Netanyahu's election, which is, the reality is that when it came to the Palestinian situation, that whether Labour or Kadima or Likud won, would make only symbolic differences, and Netanyahu's victory would actually highlight what Israeli policy really is to the world, and make world opinion more opposed.

Do you see that as possible?

MB: Well, it's a possibility, but it's not guaranteed. We could also, if the United States decides to maintain the same old policy of Bush, we could see even more racism in Israel, and more brutality against Palestinians. Under Likud and under Lieberman. Lieberman is a fascist. But, in one way what you're saying is correct, that the only difference between Livni and Netanyahu is that we have two extremists, one with make-up and the other one without make-up. That's how I feel. That's the only difference.

But at the same time, accepting the election of Netanyahu, and again accepting this move towards a person like Lieberman, is going to mean that Israel probably will have even larger license to kill Palestinians. During the war on Gaza, Israel conducted several very serious offenses against international law. They launched a war, they created this war, they started it, it wasn't Hamas that started it. They deliberately targeted civilians and killed 1,350 people, most of whom were civilians.  They conducted and they still conduct collective punishment. They used illegal weapons like white phosphorus, DIME weapons and the "flashettes." And they prevented even care for the injured people and attacked medical facilities, including thirteen of doctors and nurses who were killed in the attack.

And, not only did they use disproportionate force, but Ehud Olmert, the Prime Minister of Israel, comes out declaring - declaring, with full courage - that he is going to continue to use disproportionate force. And not only that he's violating the international law, he's declaring that's he's violating international law. And many world community leaders remain silent. This feeling of impunity is responsible for what is happening.

But if we look at the political aspects of the war on Gaza, what did it achieve? It did not stop the missiles; they were stopped because Palestinians decided to stop them. It did not weaken Hamas as they promised; it actually weakened one person, or one line, which is Abbas, whose popularity today sits at 13%. And Hamas got stronger in terms of popularity, in terms of support --

GG: Is Hamas stronger in your view among residents of the West Bank as well, in the aftermath of what happened in Gaza?

MB: Their popularity increased in the West Bank more than it did increase in Gaza Strip. That's what the polls say. But at the end of the day the world has to see that Abbas and his group, Fatah, represent in the best case scenario only 25% of the Palestinian community. There's a third chunk - less than one third now is with him, one third is with Hamas, and another one third is with us, with people like us, with the democratic opposition in Palestine. And as long as certain countries insist to deal with only 25% of the Palestinian population, they will of course not create a situation where a Palestinian government is capable to develop.

And this is an outcome of Israeli-dictated policy, which in my opinion does not want to see any strong leadership in Palestine, they don't want to see unified leadership, and then they can have the excuse and say we cannot have a peace process, because there isn't a leader who can deliver.

GG: That, of course, is the main argument that many people on behalf of Israel make, which is that even if there were an Israeli government which wanted a meaningful process of negotiation towards a two-state solution or some other solution, that it would be impossible given that the Palestinians themselves are so fractured that there's no real leadership with whom the Israelis could negotiate.

Is that, regardless of who's fault that is or what has caused that, is that true -- do you agree that that is a serious impediment at the moment to trying to restart negotiations?

MB: No, I don't, because I think Palestinians can easily be unified if Israel removed its objection to the formation of a national unity government in Palestine. We managed - I was the main mediator of the construction of the first national unity government; we had a very good government that represented 96% of the Palestinian spectrum. We had a government that had a rather flexible political program. We were promised by many world leaders, including some American leaders, that that government would be recognized, and then it was Israel that launched a campaign to undermine that national unity government and its impact. So, we had the best democratic elections in the whole Arab world. We had the model of democracy, and it was thwarted by Israel, when Israel arrested one-third of the members of our legislature, who are still in Israeli jails.

So, the key to peace is that Israel accept our right, like their right, to democratically and openly and freely choose our leaders. If they recognize our right of freely choosing our leaders, like the people of Ireland chose their leaders, like the people of South Africa had the right to choose their leaders, like Senator Feinstein said, in the inauguration of President Obama, when she introduced him, and she said that very important sentence. She said: the root of democracy is the right of the people to freely choose their leaders.

If that is applied to Palestine, you can have a unified leadership tomorrow. But Israel has to accept our right of choosing our leaders. What Israel is doing is transforming the area into an apartheid system; they want, not Palestinian real leadership, they want cantons and something like a Vichy government, something like a security agency occupation. They want to choose for us who should be our leaders, and who should negotiate on our behalf, and of course the outcome would be a very weak leadership, and then they will say, we have a weak leadership that we cannot negotiate with.

The basic problem is, Israel up to this moment does not want to negotiate because Israel does not want to share the land, and does not want to accept our right as human beings, as equal human beings who are entitled to freedom and dignity, like Jewish Israelis have.

GG: A couple more questions, and just a couple, I know our time is a little bit limited. When you were running for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority in 2005, you were subjected to all sorts of extraordinary restrictions regarding your ability to speak to the Palestinian people, even your mobility within Palestinian land.

Could you talk about some of the restrictions that were imposed upon you even as you were running for president of the Palestinian Authority?

MB: During the period of six, seven weeks, I was subjected to several attacks from the Israeli side. I was basically arrested or attacked eight times, in seven weeks. At one point I was stopped at a checkpoint with my people and I was beaten by the Israeli soldiers. I was arrested three times inside Jerusalem because each time, even when I had a permit to go to Jerusalem, and meet with President Carter there, they, after the meeting, they arrested me and practically kidnapped me for a few hours.

GG: And Jerusalem was where you were born, right?

MB: I was in East Jerusalem, exactly. I worked in East Jerusalem as a medical doctor for 14 years in the major hospital there, and still they prevent me from reaching the people in Jerusalem and they arrested me.

And nevertheless, even with all these harassments, we really got almost 34% of the vote, if you exclude the violations of the election campaign. But, 34% was, or at least 30% was a very strong indication of how much people really want change. They gave us these votes when we were a party that was only two years old.

GG: Now, one of the things you had mentioned earlier is that the only real hope for any of this to improve, regardless of the outcome of the Israeli election, is for there to be a genuine change in U.S. policy towards Israel and specifically towards its involvement in forcing Israel to become more receptive to genuine negotiations.

What are the expectations that Palestinians generally have, and what are your expectations specifically with regard to what you expect to see?  Obviously you can't say for sure, but, what are you looking for, what are the early signs, as you see them?

MB: Listen - Palestinians have watched the rise of Barack Obama, and then his election, with great enthusiasm. Like many people of the world. They see in him a potential for great change. What we want Obama to do, is to apply his values, the values on the basis of which he was elected, and the values he spoke about in his inauguration speech, to the Palestinian situation.  And I think he's a guy, who cannot say, I don't know, because he knows. And I think he's a president that is probably the most sensitive president among them all to the issue of racism and discrimination, and the kind of treatment that Israel is doing to us.

So we have a lot of hope that he will create that change. Of course, he knows he's encountering an establishment that is biased to Israel. Of course we know - and he spoke about the powers of the lobbyist that he once encountered - and one of the largest lobbies here [in the U.S.] is the Israeli lobby, which has been instrumental in preventing peace in the region, and has been instrumental in preventing a fair and effective American policy. And that's where the challenge stands. So, we would like him to create that change.

Look, the United States has great leverage over Israel. You are paying, the Americans, the American taxpayers, are paying Israel every rise of the sun every morning, $10 million - every day you pay to Israel, officially. If you count the amounts that American people donate to Israel, it's even larger than that.

You're talking about Israel being the largest recipient of American aid money, although it is a rather developed country with a GDP income that is close to United States' income. And still, it is the largest recipient of military aid. It is the country that is allowed to market American military technology worldwide at costs that are less than American costs, so that it would make profits, and the United States has great leverage if it decides it wants to push Israel.

Not towards harming Israel, but towards a more reasonable policy. That is, in the long run, in the best interests of all people in the region including Israelis. That situation we have today is the situation of funding like a totally spoiled child, which is Israel, that has gone beyond any control, that has violated all the rules, and now Israelis are violating all aspects of human rights in the most vicious way. If the United States wants to improve its image in the Middle East, if it wants to be widely respected as a fair country worldwide, I think this is the challenge, the Palestinian question.

GG: You mentioned earlier that, Avigdor Lieberman, whose party will probably come in third place, maybe even ahead of the Labour Party, is outright fascist and racist, and I think it's very difficult for anyone to dispute that. These things, though, don't generally happen without some cause.

When you look at the move to the Right of the Israeli electorate, how much of that do you attribute to rockets that are being shot by Hamas and what the perception of the part of the Israelis is, that there are substantial parts of the Palestinian society that don't want peace with the Israelis either?

When you talk to Palestinians, and they say to you, what is it that we need to do or we need to change in order to make peace more likely, what proportion of the blame or the cause for all of this do you attribute to the Palestinian side?

MB: Listen. Israel has been actually very good at abusing and using things like the rockets and other military forms of action to undermine and delegitimize and dehumanize Palestinians. I personally believe in non-violence; I believe that it's more effective. I believe that conducting military interaction with Israel is like committing suicide, because Israel is so powerful from a military perspective.

At the same time, I think our cause will have more integrity if we use non-violent methods - this is what I have been advocating.  But the power of non-violence is strictly connected with the power of solidarity of the international community.  This has been the case in South African struggles; this has been the case in many other non-violent struggles all over the world, and that's why when I explain to Palestinians, and even to Hamas people, and they ask me this question, why do you think it is important to have international opinion on our side, and I explain that.  And then they ask me, how could non-violence be powerful and strong, and then I give them the examples of Martin Luther King. Now, the election of Obama is, in my opinion, the greatest success of Martin Luther King's non-violent approach to struggle.

But, you see, to strengthen our line of non-violence, we need some different position from the international community. What happened during the war on Gaza was just shameful. They - not only the United States administration, but many, many world leaders simply violated the basic moral standards when they refused to criticize Israel, when they could not tell Israel enough is enough and slaughtering children is not a way of finding a solution. 

That's why I think, what I tell to my fellow citizens, is that our non-violent approach is the best way, and we're practicing this.  But non-violence does not mean you surrender to your oppressors. Non-violence does not mean you give up your right to be free. Non-violence does not mean you become hostages of your occupier, as has happened to the Palestinian Authority under Abbas in the West Bank. That is the issue. Non-violence does not mean that Palestinian government should oppress its own people to prevent them from even non-violently expressing their views and their demands for freedom.

So, these things have to be clear, and I am a strong believer that the future of our struggle will be non-violent; I believe in non-violence; I believe in democracy; I believe we can provide Palestinians with better options, to have better health care, to have better education, better social system, but I am convinced, like every reasonable Palestinian, that none of that can happen unless we are free, totally, from occupation and oppression. Unless we are free, knowing the cause of all these problems, which is occupation.

Violence is a symptom of the disease, and as a medical doctor I learned that you have to deal with the cause of the disease, not just with the symptoms. And the cause has been 41 years of oppression and occupation, 60 years of partition, and the most important thing is the lack of justice towards the people who are called the Palestinians.

GG: Well, Dr. Barghouti, thanks so much for taking the time. I think most Americans hear very frequently from members of the Israeli government and people who advocate the Israeli side and very rarely from actual Palestinians living the occupied territories, so I appreciate your taking the time in order to explain your position. Thanks so much.

MB: And thank you for giving me the opportunity. Thank you, sir.


[Transcript courtesy of Thames Valley Transcribe]

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

MORE FROM Glenn GreenwaldFOLLOW ggreenwald

Related Topics ------------------------------------------