‘Holding further peace talks with Israel is insane’ – former Palestinian negotiator

Palestinian leaders wasted 20 years on fruitless negotiations with Israel, and now need a foreign power to manage the peace process, Dr. Diana Butto told RT. Dr. Butto is a Palestinian human rights lawyer and former peace negotiations adviser.

Neither Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas nor Hamas – both of whom are simply clinging to power – have the qualities so desperately needed by the Palestinians to unify the nation, Butto explained. However, Israel is embroiled in an even deeper political crisis

RT: A UN bid gave Palestinians upgraded status. President Mahmoud Abbas said that the [UN] vote was a turning point – but was it? Have the rules of the game changed?

Diana Butto: Not at all. One of the problems with the upgrading of the status is that it was done for symbolic reasons, and not really for anything like legal reasons. I wish that it could be a turning point. In other words, I wish that Mahmoud Abbas would abandon the strategy of (endless) negotiations and instead start moving towards a legal strategy of trying to hold Israel accountable or trying to get the world’s support. But he is not doing that. Instead, my fear is that this was a largely symbolic move designed to boost his own popularity, a popularity that's been dropping. But it really is not going to change anything on the ground other than the signs.

RT: But if anything, could it have backfired? Because since that announcement there have been at least 5,000 settlement units that have been announced by the Israeli government.

DB: The Israelis would have built these settlements with or without [Palestine’s] UN status. The settlements are the one feature that have existed in this place since 1967. Pretty much within two weeks of the start of Israeli occupation in June 1967 settlements began, and there has never really been a stop in settlement construction.

The Israelis are always looking for an excuse, and pointing to an excuse, but they're  never really serious about it. It's always just a question of building and expanding settlements because they can, nobody’s holding them accountable.

So going back to the UN vote, I wish that [Abbas] would use this opportunity to change the rules of the game, to sign on to the International Criminal Court and to start holding Israel accountable for this settlement construction and expansion. These are war crimes.

I wish he would also go and declare [Israeli policy] apartheid, just the same way as other South African leaders declared this apartheid.

RT:Why doesn’t he?

DB: In large part because he is heavily dependent on foreign aid. More than 70 percent of the day-to-day Palestinian economy comes through assistance from foreign donors. And I think that he is afraid that there will be repercussions if he goes down that path.

The problem is that [Abbas] is simply nonconfrontational. He really does not want to go down this path and actually bear the brunt of continuing to push forward against Israel’s illegal activity.

RT: Is there almost a crisis in the Palestinian leadership? You’re talking about the shortcomings of Abbas, but it is no secret that there is a huge rivalry between Hamas and Fatah. There is no unified leadership on that front either.

DB: We have had a crisis of leadership for a very long period of time – and so have the Israelis. On the Palestinian side the crisis of leadership is that we do not have a leader who is willing to really stand up and try to unite Palestinians together, try to push for and end Israeli military occupation, try to bring together and embolden Palestinians, give them something to push for. Instead, we’ve seen a leadership that is more interested in remaining in power. Both the leadership on the West Bank stays in power without elections, the leadership in the Gaza Strip – their term has expired long ago.

In terms of the Palestinians there is a crisis of leadership, but there is a bigger crisis of leadership among the Israelis. We have an Israeli Prime Minister who goes to extreme lengths to continue to build and expand Israeli settlements, who does not want to confront the settler movement, who simply wants Israel to head down the path of war and is willing to go to extreme lengths to get himself reelected, including attacking Gaza.

RT: If we go back to the PA’s UN bid, the Israeli point is that it was a unilateral move that should not have been undertaken. Instead, Israelis and Palestinians should rather sit around the negotiation table. One of the Israeli spokespeople said “you cannot make peace without actually recognizing your partner.” So, why haven’t the Palestinians come forward to the negotiation table?

DB: Well, let’s talk about unilateral measures. The first unilateral measure was taken by Israel and continues to be taken by Israel: Building and expanding the illegal settlements. They have never consulted the Palestinians and said “we want to build here, we want to build there.” They're all illegal under international law.

In terms of unilateralism – it has always been the Israelis pushing forward on the question of unilateralism. It's for that very reason Palestinian negotiators are not sitting down with the Israelis, because you cannot continue to sit down and negotiate with the Israelis while at the same time they are eating over the very land you’re supposed to be negotiating – that does not make sense.

What does make sense  is to begin to put into place measures to hold Israel accountable. It’s important to keep in mind that it is Israel occupying the Palestinians, not the other way around. And it will be Israel that has to end its occupation, not the other way around.

So, for us to move forward, now is the time that we have to see concrete international measures to hold Israel accountable.

RT: Do you think that negotiations can still work between Israelis and Palestinians?

DB: Absolutely not. I was a part of the negotiating team for a period of five years, and the negotiations failed during that period of time. They failed before I was there and they failed after I left as well.

They failed for a number of reasons, but primarily because we had two very unequal parties, Israel being the more powerful party and the Palestinians being the weaker party. At the same time, while the negotiations were conducted, Israel as the more powerful party had the ability to change the rules of the game, to build and expand more Israeli settlements.

Sitting at the negotiation table, it was always a question of power. And without another party to balance that imbalance of power, negotiations will always fail.

RT: What is the alternative? Can it always be unilateral moves?

DB: I think the alternative is to make it a much more international issue by beginning to bring other countries around the world to hold Israel accountable. Whether that is through sanctions or individuals boycotting Israel, through divestment or Israel’s isolation.

It is no longer going to be a case where weak Palestinians stand up against a very strong nuclear power – Israel – and to expect that the occupation is somehow going to end somehow.

RT: We’ve heard from the Palestinian leadership that they are planning to launch another initiative for a new negotiation with the Israelis. It does not seem that they have completely given up on negotiations.

DB: The definition of insanity, I believe Albert Einstein said this, is to do things over and over again and expect a different result. Palestinians have been negotiating with the Israelis now for 20 years. I’m not sure that this meets the definition of insanity, but it is pretty close, the idea of going back to negotiations when we’ve seen what the outcome has been in the past. To me it seems futile.

I think instead the [Palestinian] leadership should start empowering Palestinians, it should start pushing forward for a non-power resistance, for boycotts, pushing the world to sanction and isolate Israel. This is the type of leadership the Palestinians need and these are the steps that will work.

RT: You’re a former advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Did you quit because of the failure at the last negotiations?

DB: Absolutely. I went through a very deep crisis of faith, when I began to see that the only strategy adopted for negotiations, in the face of really countless announcements of settlement expansions, Israel’s construction of the wall, and the only position that the  Palestinian Authority continued to adopt was to go back to more and more negotiations  without any vision, without any sort of idea of what would happen if those negotiation failed. I could not be a part of this process any longer.

RT: Would the terms for peace be different now than they were when you were negotiating for peace back in 2005?

DB: They are precisely the same. One of the problems that we faced during negotiations was that Israel was unwilling to recognize the applicability of international law. Meaning that all of the territory that it occupied in 1967 does not belong to Israel, the world has said this and continues to repeat this every year. And yet every step of the way, Israel wanted to build and expands settlements to be able to take more and more Palestinian land in order to change the boundaries and the borders.

If there is a real commitment to peace on the part of Israel, it should recognize that it has to be part of the international community. And being a part of the international community means abiding by international law. Israel cannot be above the law and Palestinians cannot be beneath it. The terms have not changed at all.

What has changed is that over the course of the past 45 years there has now been cemented in the mindset among Israeli settlers that this land is theirs. And the reason that this mindset was cemented is nobody has actually challenged the Israeli settler movement to force them to get out.

Rather than forcing them out, the [Israeli] government provides them with incentives to move in. That’s where the problem lies.

RT:If you would be advising President Abbas today, what advice would you give him?

DB: The first thing I would say: Move away from moves that are largely symbolic and start focusing on holding Israel accountable. I would encourage him to sign up to the International Criminal Code right away to start pressing for the crime of Israeli apartheid to be challenged. To be pushing for Israel’s isolation due to the fact that it has been building and expanding settlements.

I would also be advising him to empower the Palestinians to go out and protest non-violently. And that he would be at the helm, he would be leading the way, not just sitting in a very fancy office across the street from where we're sitting right now.

I would advise him as well that he should be pushing the international community to be isolating Israel. And that he shouldalways at the same time be speaking very clearly at all times on Israel’s illegal activities, and to reinstate the Palestinians’ rights.

RT:Do you think there is a real chance for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians?

DB: In the short-term? No. I’m very pessimistic in the short-term, but optimistic in the long-term. I’m pessimistic because I see that things are not going to change, but in the long-term I  feel that this is not going to be sustainable.