Interview with the nonresident senior associate (Middle East Program) at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Nathan Brown, conducted by Natalia Bubnova, deputy director for communications at the Carnegie Moscow Center

Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority sent UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon an application for Palestine’s recognition as a full member of the UN. What does Palestine expect will come from this decision and why was the application later suspended?

The general Palestinian strategy with the UN is clear. Exactly what they are hoping to get out of this process is a little bit less obvious. It is clear that they feel that they have some greater ability to work internationally than they can bilaterally. Or, put differently, they would have a greater bargaining position with Israel if they brought more international actors into the equation. So they have made attempts in the past to bring in the EU, Turkey, and other mediators. And at this point, they’re very frustrated especially with American mediation. So they’re clearly trying to internationalize diplomacy.

The specific goal that they’re looking for is, of course, a seat as a member state of the United Nations, hoping that will give them a stronger bargaining position in the negotiations with Israel. That much is clear. There were intensive negotiations prior to the submission of the bid and there has been additional diplomatic activity since then. Much of that is taking place behind closed doors so it’s not clear exactly what’s being offered and what the Palestinians would settle for but, at this point, it looks as if they’re really still set on at least going to the Security Council to get a vote on the application for membership status. After that, it’s not quite clear what their strategy will be. Will they take it to the General Assembly? Will they try to negotiate some alternative arrangement or what?

Are there any prospects for achieving a two-state solution in the near future?

I don’t think there is going to be a two-state solution in the near future. First, there are problems on both sides. While a majority of Israelis would probably support a two-state solution if they thought it would resolve the conflict, at this point, probably an even larger majority suspect that any diplomacy is unlikely to resolve the problem. And what the Israelis mean by the Palestinian state is probably less than what the Palestinians would accept.

On the Palestinians’ side, there is similar mistrust and an exhaustion from the diplomatic process—diplomacy that has been going on since the Oslo Accords in 1993. For eighteen years, it has produced nothing and the entire focus on a two-state solution and Palestinian statehood has not realized any Palestinian national goals. At the same time, because the Palestinian leadership is divided and weak on both sides, you don’t really have leadership that is strong and willing to move towards that solution, even if, ultimately, both sides would accept it.

But there is a second problem, beyond the difficulties inside the Israeli and Palestinian political systems. You don’t really have a viable diplomatic process. The negotiations that began with the Oslo agreement signed under American sponsorship in 1993 have collapsed.  The United States has many other issues to deal with in the region. It is itself frustrated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and it does not seem to have any sort of viable diplomatic plan, nor does any other international actor have the ability to mediate between the two sides. So I think we’re likely to see, at best, a conflict management rather than a conflict resolution in the near future.

In your book, Resuming Arab Palestine, you analyze Palestinian society and governance after the establishment of the Palestinian Autonomy. How are the main conclusions of your book applicable to the current situation?

In the book, I focused on Palestinian institution building that took place after the Oslo Accords in 1993. After Oslo, there was an attempt by Palestinians—when they were supposed to be negotiating with Israel—to build up their own institutions of self-rule to lay the foundation for a Palestinian state. In 2007, the Palestinian Authority essentially split in half, with the half in Gaza controlled by Hamas and the half in the West Bank controlled by Mahmoud Abbas and by his prime minister Salam Fayyad. The international community prefers to deal with the authority in the West Bank. They do not wish to deal with Hamas.

At the same time, the situation is even more complicated because the Palestinian entity that signed the agreements with Israel was not the Palestinian authority, either half of it. It was the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that is supposed to represent Palestinians everywhere. That is also headed by Mahmoud Abbas. The PLO unambiguously recognized Israel in 1993, when it signed the Oslo Accords, but after that the PLO declined as a decision-making body and most Palestinian energies and attention went into building up the Palestinian Authority.

So right now, it is not quite clear who authoritatively speaks for the Palestinians at an international level. Is it still the Palestine Liberation Organization? Is it the West Bank Palestinian Authority? Is it Gaza? None of this is clear. Israelis sometimes cite this as a reason that the negotiations with Palestinians cannot gain traction.

Part of the attempt to move to the United Nations was to address this question. If Palestinians could gain recognition for Palestine as a state, there would be at least internationally, if not in fact on the ground, a recognized single interlocutor for negotiations. And there was hope on the part of Abbas that this would build him up and build up his authority internationally and perhaps domestically as well, so that he could really present himself as a Palestinian leader.

What were the main arguments in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the United Nations? To whom was the speech directed? Can you comment on the argument that Israel should understand the aspirations of the Palestinians to have their own state because Israelis have gone through a similar struggle?

Netanyahu’s speech was probably directed not so much at the people in the audience at the United Nations—which he considers unfriendly terrain—or even much at world opinion. I think it was directed at the United States, Israel, and at Jewish communities throughout the world. It was not cast in such a way that it would appeal to someone who was not already supportive of the Israeli side. The case that he made was primarily in terms of Jewish history. Netanyahu spoke for the Zionist vision that, given historic Jewish attachment to the land and given the historic sufferings of the Jewish people, Jews have a right to a secure state in their ancestral homeland. That’s an argument that makes sense in terms of Jewish history. It’s not going to persuade many Palestinians or sympathizers with the Palestinian cause because they would feel that the creation of the state of Israel was at their expense.

If there was any positive policy position in Netanyahu’s speech, it was suggesting, again, a willingness to come to terms with a Palestinian state. But the problem was that what he offered was either vague or encumbered with restrictions that the Palestinians could not accept. The way that he defined Israeli security requirements was such that it would result in a Palestinian state that the Palestinians wouldn’t recognize as really being a sovereign, independent state.

Now, why is it that the Israelis have so much trouble accepting the Palestinian narrative? I think partly it’s because the Palestinian narrative is sometimes told in a way that completely negates Jewish connection to the land. Israelis sometimes feel that they are asked not simply to accept Palestinians but to do so in a manner that negates their own historical right (Palestinians have a similar complaint).

The second part is that, after seventy years of bitter conflict, the claim that Israeli security concerns have to come before any kind of concessions to Palestinians is central to Israeli political discourse. When you think about it that way, when you put your first concern on security, it becomes very difficult to talk in terms of territorial compromise.

Why did Israel declare that it would build another 1,100 houses for settlers in East Jerusalem even after Palestine announced that it was suspending its application for UN membership?

The status of Palestinian application is still, to me, a little bit unclear, partly because it depends on United Nations procedures that are very difficult for outsiders to understand. But I still do anticipate that the Palestinian effort to internationalize the conflict and to bring in the United Nations will continue in some way.

As far as the Israeli announcement goes, some of these housing units are to be constructed in what Israel regards as part of its capital city, Jerusalem. There is a significant part of Jerusalem that Israel annexed in 1967, and therefore regards as part of its own territory. From the Palestinian perspective, and from the perspective of most international actors, the unilateral Israeli annexation doesn’t have a legal status so what Israel builds in the eastern part of Jerusalem, is no different from when it builds elsewhere in the West Bank. And Palestinians—as do most international actors—reject Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank. But this construction is a part of the Israeli logic that all of Jerusalem is their capital.

What you have right now is a right-leaning government in Israel that actually has some very strong participation from members of Jewish communities in the West Bank and therefore, ones that have a very strong political role in Netanyahu’s government. When President Obama first came in and, with some difficulty, persuaded the Israelis to have a limited moratorium on building in the West Bank, enormous pressure was put on Netanyahu from his right wing. At this point, I think he neither wants to have a further building freeze nor would he politically be able to do so very easily.

Why weren’t Mahmoud Abbas’ actions at the United Nations, taken in concert with Hamas, and why did Hamas express dissatisfaction with the application filed by Palestine?

With regard to Hamas, they are skeptical about international diplomacy resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of a two-state solution and they do not accept Mahmoud Abbas as legitimately representing all Palestinians. They insist that there should be coordination between Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas. The two should agree on any kind of initiative before one is undertaken. The farthest that Hamas will go is to say that they would accept a state on the 1967 lines but not a state that is based on the recognition of Israel. So that, from the perspective of negotiations, is not a very promising position.

About a year ago, it was clear that Abbas had become very frustrated with the American-sponsored process and he started looking around for an alternative. One of the alternatives was to reach out to Hamas and to revive the attempts to reunify the Palestinian ranks. Another possibility was to internationalize diplomatic efforts—move to the United Nations, bring in the Europeans, and so on. It became clear over this past summer that he could not pursue both of those at once, that if he reached out to Hamas that would create enough damage internationally that the pursuit of diplomacy would be difficult. If he pursued diplomacy, he would have to do so without Hamas. 

He made the decision to go on the level of international diplomacy. Over the short term that has benefited him domestically in terms of Palestinian society because Palestinians see Mahmoud Abbas as someone who was much too willing in the past to say “yes” to the Americans no matter what they asked him. Here he is very dramatically saying “no” at an international level, standing at the podium at the United Nations, and putting the Palestinian case forcefully forward. So at this point, over the short term, Mahmoud Abbas has outmaneuvered Hamas and Hamas is now split between those people who want to criticize him bitterly and those people who essentially would prefer to hold their tongues and watch the effort fail on its own. My guess is that if there’s no concrete benefit or diplomatic achievement to come out of this effort to internationalize diplomacy, Mahmoud Abbas’ short-term political gains will quickly recede and Hamas will again be in a somewhat stronger position.

Despite previously supportive comments by President Obama regarding Palestinian independence, why is America prepared to veto a Palestinian statehood bid in the United Nations Security Council?

I think there are three factors at work here. First, in his first year in office, Obama was willing to engage in a war of nerves with the Israeli government, and essentially I think the Obama administration feels that it lost that. It was a battle for Israeli public opinion and Netanyahu managed to successfully portray himself as defending Israeli interests and Obama as being hostile to Israel. So they felt they lost the Israeli public and they therefore can’t allow another confrontation very easily.

The second reason for the American threat of a veto is that there’s been a traditional jealousy on the part of the United States towards any other attempt to mediate this conflict or to internationalize it. The Obama administration is simply following in the footsteps of its predecessors by trying to keep this out of the UN, by trying to avoid a meeting of the contracting parties to the Geneva Convention to hold Israel accountable to those. And so the United States is always opposed to those international efforts that bring in other actors because it wants to play the central role.

A third reason is domestic. Right now, Obama has a very tough election campaign on his hands. Congress is partly under the control of the Republic party and the Republican party is right now increasingly aligned with the Israeli right wing. So he does not want to battle with them. He battles with them over every single conceivable issue. He does not necessarily want to pick another fight and one that might even lead to a cut-off of Congressional funding for programs that he wants to support in the Middle East. He may also be anxious as well that there could be a way in which this issue enters the election campaign in a manner that it usually has not in the past, where he’s going to be criticized on the part of the Republican candidate for being insufficiently supportive of the American allies.

Does a consensus exist among Arab countries on how to handle the Middle East conflict? How do you view the stance of the Arab-Muslim community, taking into account the recent developments in the Middle East and North Africa, the Arab Spring?

I think there are two different kinds of consensus in the Arab world.  One is among governments an one is among societies.

Most governments agree that a two-state solution is very much in the interests of the Arab world and that it would be the best way to settle the conflict right now.

Consensus among most publics is different—it is not necessarily in full contradiction to the consensus among leaders, but it is quite different. It focuses on the claim that the Palestinians have been steadily denied their rights. This public consensus becomes especially pressing at times of Arab-Israeli violence.  For instance, during the Israeli campaign in Gaza during December 2008, Arab public opinion expressed itself very forcefully.

So the Arab world is, in a sense, torn between a desire to support the Palestinians and a desire to settle a conflict. You might be able to pursue both of those at the same time but it’s somewhat difficult.  And now, when Arab governments feel such pressure from their own publics, they are unlikely to take initiatives. Rulers are concerned with domestic problems, they are politically weak.

If after this turmoil settles down, and if strong governments in the Arab world are reestablished, they will probably act much more ambitiously on the diplomatic front of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

How will the refugee problem be decided and will it be resolved in the foreseeable future?

This is an extremely difficult problem. In some ways, it’s more difficult than Jerusalem. With Jerusalem, at least you’re talking about real territory on the ground. With the refugee issue, or with what the Palestinians refer to as “the right of return,” even basic ideas are up for contestation. Who is a refugee? What does a “right of return” mean? What happens to those people who do not wish to return, who have settled lives elsewhere? What happens to Palestinians now who have citizenship in a place like Jordan and who regard themselves as Jordanian citizens entitled to live in Jordan? What would offering them the right of return do? For some of them, it could be a way of undermining their position within Jordan.

The further difficulty is that the issue is debated at such an emotional, almost existential level, that there’s very little discussion on either side about practical solutions to this. Without a discussion about practical solutions, as long as you’re arguing on a symbolic level, I don’t really see much promising area for diplomacy right now.

How will the situation in Palestine continue to develop? What will Russia’s role be in this process?

I think the course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict right now is very much in a holding pattern. The Israelis can live with the status quo; they’re not anxious to make any changes. And the current Israeli government is one that is more interested in preventing initiatives than adopting any of its own. On the Palestinian side, they are simply divided and unable to take action.

So I would guess that there would be more of a holding pattern for the next few months, maybe even few years or so. I am not sure how long it can be sustained. I think some sort of upsurge in activism on the Palestinian part is inevitable at a certain point. And Hamas’ current decision to try and maintain control in Gaza and allow quiet to prevail in Israeli-Palestinian relations cannot last forever. So I think we may be living in the calm before the storm at the moment.

In terms of Russia’s role, Russia is a member of the Quartet and therefore, a critical member of the body which oversees international diplomacy to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are two problems, however. Number one, that process, I think, is going nowhere, so Russia is a member of a Quartet that doesn’t really have much of a peace process to oversee.

And the second problem has been how the United States has used the Quartet. The United States is very protective of its own role and has behaved in the Quartet to solicit support for its positions rather than encourage the other three members to be actively engaged in diplomacy.

Since diplomatic prospects are bleak, I am not sure if any of the members of the Quartet see much of an opening now to play a leading role anyway. The prospects for meaningful diplomacy right now are so limited, I don’t see that a more ambitious European, UN, or a more ambitious Russian role is likely.