Hiba Husseini currently chairs the Legal Committee to Final Status Negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis and served as the Vice Chairperson of the Palestine Securities Exchange from 1998-May 2005.
What are the current challenges facing Palestinian society?
The current challenges facing Palestinian society are fourfold: prolonged stalemate in the peace process with Israel; internal political dynamics including a rift within the PA and between the PA and the various factions; high expectations of both local and diaspora Palestinians that have gone unmet; and a complicated regional dynamic, in particular U.S., Israeli and Palestinian reactions to Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other players.
The fact peace has not yet been reached with Israel has led to instability in the Palestinian territories. The agreements signed thus far have been interim in nature. They have not ironed out the major issues, namely borders, the status of Jerusalem and refugees. One of the reasons for the failure of the talks until now can be attributed to differences in expectations between Israelis and Palestinians. While Palestinians perceived the interim agreements as building stones for peace, Israelis viewed them as creating a test period for the relations between the two people.
With the changing political dynamics in Israel following the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, many Palestinians believed that Israelis were not prepared to discuss final status issues. Disappointment in the crumbling peace process led in part to growing popularity of militant groups. Some saw this trend as the resurrection among Palestinians of the notion that Israel understands only force. Rising extremism in the region only strengthened this dynamic.
The rest of the history is known. A second intifada broke out in 2000. Mismanagement of the conflict on both sides allowed the fighting to get out of control and brought about a complete reversal in the discourse of peace. In the seven years that followed, before the Annapolis process was launched in November 2007, the parties had no dialogue and Palestinian society broke down. The closure policy in the West Bank and Gaza led to a collapse of the private sector, brain drain, capital flight and the breakdown of institutions. The Palestinian Authority (PA), led by Fatah, was viewed as a self-serving entity incapable of bringing any real change in people’s lives. Resistance movements like Hamas took advantage of this situation to portray itself as a viable alternative and gain ground by providing social services and creating a social network. The January 2006 Palestinian elections marked a first in Arab history when Hamas, an Islamist movement, was brought to power.
What were the effects of the January 2006 legislative election results?
The election results were another blow to the deteriorating economy. The boycott of the PA and limitations on access and movement made domestic producers cautious in borrowing to expand their businesses, export and import controlled by Israel was, and still is, extremely complicated and foreign investors refrained from injecting capital into the Palestinian territories.
Also important in terms of the economy is that we, the Palestinians, still have a long way to go in terms of upgrading our standards and practices to compete in international markets. To produce for the European Union or the United States we would need to restructure our industry. This issue is tied closely with the need for greater cooperation from Israel on movement and access, as timing is of the essence. While we have a lot of potential, standards between industries vary. Our pharmaceutical expertise is impressive, for instance, but we have not yet reached the production capabilities in many fields of industry to ensure our products are in demand. Moreover, the relatively high cost of living in the territories increases our labor costs, and in turn the production costs, which limits our competitiveness further in comparison to countries in the region with lower costs of living such as Egypt, Jordan and Turkey.
What about institution-building?
While there was significant progress in the mid-1990s in institution-building, the second intifada triggered a major regression in the process. Israel’s restrictions on movement and access affected the PA’s ability to provide services. Civil servants were prevented from getting to their offices, most of which were in Ramallah. Absence of training, lack of investment and economic deterioration led to low-level corruption among PA officials.
The disinterest of the United States and the international community in the Palestinian cause in the first few years of the Bush administration only made the problem worse. The United States renewed its interest in the end of 2005 with preparation for the January 2006 elections, but Hamas’ victory provided cause for boycott of the PA, which eventually led to further breakdown of the Authority and factional fighting between Fatah and Hamas. After Hamas violently took over the Gaza Strip in June 2007, the United States and Israel revived the peace talks with the PA. Not having anticipated its election loss, Fatah finally began regrouping and restoring its governance and rule of law after the elections. The peace process, shepherded by the United States, gave Fatah and other mainstream groups some hope.
According to the latest World Bank reports on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, there has been some improvement since then in the Palestinian economy. This is, however, only cosmetic. The Paris donors’ conference in December 2007 was a positive platform for support, but most funds pledged have yet to be received. In meantime, the brain drain continues. To my knowledge, some 45,000 Palestinians left the territories since Hamas’ takeover. In addition, there is no private sector in Gaza and only limited entrance of goods such as medication, foodstuffs and fuel is allowed into the Strip.
Starting in Annapolis, the U.S. strategy was to strengthen the West Bank and isolate Gaza and Hamas. Thus, the two areas are treated differently. The West Bank is showing some growth and international donor money is invested in restructuring of the security forces and law and order. At the same time, however, the relations between Israel and the PA, which have not matured substantially, do not allow a significant shift on the ground, as we can see for example in Jenin and Nablus. In both cities, Palestinian security forces operate well, but Israel’s lack of trust in transferring the security to full Palestinian control undermines the legitimacy of the PA, the Prime Minister and President Mahmoud Abbas.
Given these challenges, what next?
If we want to find a way out of this conflict, we have to address the distrust, mistrust and finding fault on both sides that only plays into the hands of extremists and undermines the chances of co-existence and a two-state solution. I know there is good will in Israel because I talk to Israelis, but that is not enough. Israeli decision-makers must realize that in the long run, checkpoints and roadblocks that make day-to-day lives impossible do not guarantee Israel’s security. Removing checkpoints and roadblocks could be used as a reasonable test to improve trust between the two sides. After all, we are going to be neighbors forever. It is in Israel’s interest to have a strong neighbor.
In reality, however, we’ve never experienced the hardship we face today. Poverty is extremely high to the extent that we need the international community to feed and cure us. We have also never killed each other before. The Palestinians today are on the verge of becoming a broken nation. In turn, fatigue and exhaustion bode ill for the relations with Israel.
Israelis and Palestinians no longer interact with one another. Even in Jerusalem, a mixed city, we demonize each other and shut down all channels of communication. How will we reach peace if we veil ourselves from each other?
How can this be changed?
It is the governments’ responsibility. Both sides must educate their publics that we are partners in peace. As things stand today, there is no hope that youth on both sides will get to know each other. Maybe the best way to ensure they will is to reach a peace agreement. We don’t know how such an agreement will look in the end, but one clear outcome will be the end, with time, of the vicious cycle of fear and suspicion. Therefore, our governments need to be courageous and move forward. Everybody knows that both sides will have to make compromises. There is no such thing as an ideal peace.
What do you think about the status of the current negotiations?
History shows that confidential talks enable the delivery of agreements. Therefore, I am supportive of the type of peace talks currently taking place. At the same time, however, to desensitize people on the critical issues, they must be broadly broached with the public even without the details. On the Palestinian side, as I am sure it is also on the Israeli side, we must create a platform for national consensus for the moment when our leadership, the PLO, signs the agreement. In addition, both publics need to trust their respective leaders and for that we need strong leadership.
It also seems as if the negotiations and the implementation of the Road Map obligations are two completely disconnected processes. There must be more connection between these two elements for either to succeed.
So how do the sides move forward?
Palestinians and Israelis have a lot of work to do. The Palestinians need economic recovery to create stability and rally support for peace. Wealth has to be spread across the board. Removal of checkpoints and roadblocks, Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territories and contiguity between Gaza and the West Bank will lead to tangible improvements on the ground and bring hope to the Palestinians. As we move forward, it is important to note that while signing a peace agreement is the objective, if its implementation cannot be prolonged indefinitely, otherwise Palestinians will lose faith in the process. Thus, any implementation schedule must be realistic and it must bring about immediate economic change.
In addition, to support the peace process the media has to be more neutral in its reporting and interpretation. When the media begin to take sides in presenting the issues or in relation to the negotiations process, they do it irreparable harm.
What do the Palestinians need to be doing?
The Palestinians have to work with refugees both in the territories and in the diaspora. This sensitive issue must be discussed and explained, and plans must be made for the integration of refugees into society.
We need to create incentives and hope for unmotivated Palestinian civil servants beyond collecting their paychecks at the end of the month. They must develop a sense of responsibility for the future of their nation. To do this, we should change the wider government structure. Currently, the PA is the largest employer in the territories and thus public service is used as means of employment rather than as a platform from which to contribute to national development.
In a nutshell, we need to reform our institutions, create pension funds and funds for refugees and unemployment, and restructure our public finance mechanism so that it supports statehood. A future state will need services and authorities such as custom, passport control, health and safety measures at borders, etc. Some institutions will need to be created and other merged. The international community can help in developing this structure and building these institutions.
Reform in security, judicial, law enforcement and more is currently taking place. We have limited financial resources and untrained human resources, the international community has been generous, but it takes some time for funds to arrive and results to be achieved. Meanwhile, Tony Blair and his team are working hard to change the dynamics in Palestinian society but they don’t have the long-term plan necessary to facilitate institution-building. The population does not yet feel the impact of their work.
You have indicated the importance for Israeli decision-makers to remove checkpoints and roadblocks. Many would see this as a high-risk action. What can be done to affect Israeli perception of the risks and benefits of taking these types of steps?
Security of both people is paramount. Israel deems that its ultimate security hinges on full control through checkpoints and roadblocks and believes that easing restrictions will be high-risk. Israel does not see that the checkpoints and roadblocks are redundant and designed to undermine the economic and social welfare of the Palestinians. Security measures are not proportional and are overarching. The procedures followed at the check points are slow and unpredictable. For Palestinians, Israel appears intent on destroying the essence of the Palestinian livelihood or have them exist on bare minimum essentials. No wonder Palestinians find these measures as ones designed more to undermine them and their future than to achieve Israeli security. Removing redundant checkpoints, adjusting their locations, improving the quality and speed of searches are steps that will reduce Palestinian suffocation without being a high-risk action for the Israelis. When the socioeconomic conditions of Palestinians improve, the overall security conditions for both sides improve.
You now have witnessed and/or participated in the transitions between U.S. administrations, and several Israeli and Palestinian leaderships. What should the parties be doing to prepare for the political transition in the United States as well as their own transitions?
For the transition period to be smooth, the two sides need a crisis management plan. The lack of a plan and unilateral steps raise the risk of falling into another prolonged crisis as in the past due to mismanagement of the conflict. We should not have to start from ground zero with every new government.
An important aspect for Palestinians is that any achievement obtained in the current peace talks is recorded officially so that when new leaders get back to the negotiation table they do not start from scratch again but from the point where the predecessors stopped.
What should the role of the United States be?
The United States can help the two sides reach points of agreement, if not a full agreement, at this stage. We, all sides, are good at wasting time and resources, but lack of responsibility and innovation in this case risks the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians.
We need the United States to play a more effective role as mediator from day one. The next president should start early and be very engaged. Ideally, the new administration would nominate a Middle East envoy along the lines of George Mitchell—very strong, independent, honest and knowledgeable with a greater scope than just security issues who can help the parties reach peace and not be perceived as taking sides. In addition, the United States should work with the European Union countries; perhaps task the Blair team with follow on during the U.S. transition.
Most important for all the parties, I think, is to give people a sense of the possible and show that their governments are able to deliver.