Reinventing the wheel: Rajoub talks to Israelis about peace

If only the Israelis will listen, Rajoub thinks, they will see it’s better to divorce now.

Jibril Rajoub (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jibril Rajoub
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Three minutes into Jibril Rajoub’s hour-long discussion about peace with Israel, a jet plane flew over Jericho. We were sitting in a long conference room, with the requisite bottled water that comes in a disposable cup, and some Palestinian sweets. The walls were adorned with colorful photos of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, any view of the Jewish holy site at the Western Wall neatly not included by the camera angle.
Rajoub, who spent a decade and a half in an Israeli prison for throwing a grenade at an army bus near Hebron in 1970, had come down to Jericho to speak with journalists. Once upon a time he had run the Palestinian Preventive Security Force, the key paramilitary position in the Palestinian Authority, but recently he has been in charge of the Palestinian Football Association and the Olympic Committee. He is a Fatah Central Committee member and would like to play a central role in politics in years to come.
In Jericho, we met in the governor’s office. There is a room commemorating Yasser Arafat and his years in the city that includes a plush chair, large desk and a bed. Israel handed over Jericho to Arafat in May of 1994 after the Oslo Accords. Palestine police arrived in the city in May of that year, the Israeli flag was lowered and the Palestinian one was raised. Arafat restored the pre-1967 Jordanian laws and Saeb Erekat said, “It’s better to have some legislative gaps than to have Israeli military orders plugging them.”
Since then the sleepy desert town, one of the oldest in the world, has become a center of Palestinian security training and emblematic of the “state in the making” that is Palestine. But the jet flying overhead reminds us who is in control. Palestinians lost the second intifada, and for the older generation like Rajoub, the overwhelming Israeli power is a fact of life. This isn’t 1970, when a generation of younger Palestinians like Rasmea Odeh, the Palestinian woman at the center of a deportation dispute in the US, thought that the armed struggle could remove Israel from the West Bank. This isn’t 1980, when people thought Israel would somehow evaporate and “go home” like the French Pieds-Noirs had done in Algeria. It isn’t 1994, when some imagined Israel would vacate the West Bank and pull a South Africa, reconciling decades of conflict. In 2017, Israel is at the peak of its military and industrial power while Palestinians, not at their poorest and weakest, are ossifying in their inability to achieve statehood or changes on the ground.
Rajoub, born in 1953, has lived under this process and like the rest of his generation and those a bit older such as Mahmoud Abbas (who will be 82 on March 26), he understands the situation. In his discussion with Jews and Israelis, Rajoub has honed the talking points that seem most effective. “We need you,” he says. Jason Greenblatt, US President Donald Trump’s assistant and special representative for international negotiations, is in Israel and the Palestinian territories holding meetings and it gives Palestinians yet one more chance to introduce themselves to the US administration. That’s the problem with democracy, each administration has to reinvent the Palestinian-peace-process-wheel. And truthfully, secretly, everyone knows that since the Clinton years the US has grown closer and closer to Israel.
Greenblatt’s Twitter shows him meeting Palestinian “youth leaders in Jalazone refugee camp” near Ramallah and meeting Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) Maj.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai to discuss security challenges for Israel. The bias in the situation is inherent in its geography. “I do believe that the election of Trump could be an opportunity to resume talks, to give hope to the Palestinians and Israelis,” says Rajoub.
Come, talk to the Palestinian people, he says. “Engage with the people.” This is where we are in 2017.
Since the 1990s, Israelis, and the world to a lesser extent, have become less knowledgeable about Palestinians, meeting them less and less. It seems counter-factual, since Palestinians achieved a measure of autonomy in the 1990s, but human interaction with Israelis virtually ceased after the murderous second intifada.
Rajoub articulates what the current Palestinian leadership wants for the future. “We didn’t choose each other as neighbors, but we must think how we can live together as neighbors...we are still committed to make history and reconciliation with the State of Israel; but a state that believes in our rights of self-determination a state recognizing the very existence of the Palestinian people and their right to live in peace in security, next to the State of Israel within its internationally recognized borders.”
Like other Palestinians talking peace, Rajoub has come to the narrative that the problem for Israel is that not having peace “is the real threat to the existence of the State of Israel.” It’s like a lawyer trying to explain to you what’s in your best interest. “An expansionist, fascist, racist occupation will never assure anything [for Israel].” So Israel is eroding its international position, but wouldn’t that be good for Palestinian goals?
Rajoub says that what is needed is a third party to build trust between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. “There is no chance for any unilateral steps on the ground. We must work together and deliver the goods together. Dictating facts on the ground, building settlements, expanding existing one, building walls, redeploying the Israel Defense Forces, will not solve security or demographic issue.” In order to “divorce,” Israel and Palestine must go to a court and “someone must judge and decide.” Who is that someone? America? Russia? Egypt? It’s not clear, but based on Abbas’s conversations with Trump and Greenblatt, it seems the US track is still the track of choice. Egypt recently refused entry to Rajoub and sent him back from Cairo on February 27th, an incident that likely harms Palestinian Authority relations with Egypt. So Americans offer more promise.
To stay on this track Rajoub says the Palestinians need Abbas, whom he calls by his nom de guerre Abu Mazen, to cement his position in power. A unity government with Hamas should emerge to bring the Gaza Strip back into the fold, since Hamas conquered it almost 10 years ago. Abu Mazen was reelected as leader of Fatah last year, Rajoub reminds us. Abu Mazen’s vision of peace through nonviolence was approved. He wants to establish a principle of “one law” for Gaza and the West Bank and reenter the democratic process and elections that keep being postponed. Abbas is a “godfather” to the Palestinians.
“Our brothers in Hamas did not present a different or good model to the Palestinian people in Gaza,” Rajoub says. But he reminds Israelis that “this [peace agenda] didn’t happen because we are weak...resistance is not an end, it is a means to achieve ends and we have to choose a productive means.” Rajoub is obviously cognizant of the counter-narrative that views the PA as not only weak, but also riven with problems such as youth disillusionment, skepticism over accusations of its “collaboration” with Israel, and that Palestinian leaders have more to lose by chaos than to gain by active “resistance.” But no, Rajoub says the current situation is not “because we enjoy being ministers; I recommend Israelis not to think this way.”
Palestinian leaders spend a lot of time reading the Israeli and American press and trying to speak to their audience, which they assume to be more liberal leaning than American Jews. Rajoub makes a joke about Sara Netanyahu, since Bibi is in court this week in a libel trial. The general claims of the Palestinians have not changed much in the last decades. There should be two states with a shared Jerusalem under a “special regime” and Muslims controlling their rights to Jerusalem. But Rajoub’s main message is that Israel should be “rational” and not be “led by the nose” by the minority of Israelis who are settlers and whom he paints as akin to Baruch Marzel, a right-wing settlement leader.
“I am talking to the Israeli people,” says Rajoub, imploring them to avoid the suffering and victims that could entail if there were violence. “There is no precedent to this occupation; a few weeks and it will be 50 years. The Jews as a Jewish people should feel ashamed of what is going on in the West Bank and Jerusalem....we want to strengthen the peace camp and have joint activities against occupation and against racism and fascism.”
He says that Jews make up only 50% of the people between the Jordan and the Sea and that there must either be a separation or “apartheid.” He doesn’t mince words on the Jewish communities in the West Bank, built after 1967. He reminds us that there were 100,000 “settlers” in 1993 and today some 500,000. “This is not our problem, this is a malignant cancer you have to have a comprehensive freeze on...I accepted 22% of Palestine...I am ready to pay the price for that but it is not my responsibility to deal with your crimes.”
Can Trump be convinced? “The conversation [of Abbas] with Trump went very well.” Rajoub thinks that the American First concept of Trump’s means that the Donald can be persuaded it is in America’s interests to have two states.
On Netanyahu’s claim that Israel can seek a regional alliance with states such as Saudi Arabia to counter the Iranian threat, Rajoub is unimpressed. “No one can bypass [Palestinians] to go to Cairo to Riyadh without accepting that the emergence of the Palestinian independent state is a part of normalization. The Arab initiative is a good term of reference. It delivered a collective security arrangement, normalization, recognition and collective mechanisms to deal with the nightmare of the Israelis which is the refugee issue...A Palestinian state is a necessity. If some Israelis don’t want to understand then it is their problem, whether [it’s] the messianic or [the] crazy way of thinking. Force and the IDF will not be a sustainable solution.”
Although Rajoub says he hopes the peace camp will listen to the Palestinians, it’s obvious how closely he watches the right wing in Israel. He claims that one quarter of Israelis now support the man who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin and that those supporting the settlements have great influence in Jerusalem. But his paradigm is this: “I have nothing to lose, you have a lot to lose. Come and accompany me on a trip to West Bank; you have much to lose, a country, a state, economy, you let 15% of your society lead you to disaster. I came from the military resistance.” But the former prisoner and soldier is ready for peace.
And if that doesn’t convince, well then there’s the International Criminal Court and the international community’s opposition: “The whole world is fed up with your government.” Still not convinced? “We wanted to talk to victims of the Holocaust and remind them it is not a great honor for them what is going on to the Palestinians.”
The Palestinian leadership and their supporters have become experts at relaying their narrative in a different way to different audiences. For the Americans it is a simple equation. Convince them that Palestinians have rights to self-determination. Add in Jewish Americans and one should speak a bit about “Jewish” morality and the Holocaust. Add in Israelis and you must tell them that it is not in their interests and try to split them into “settlers” and the rest, play on their internal political divisions and convince them that they are partners with you against the extremes. Add in the international community and it’s a fait accompli, because they supposedly all support Palestine anyway. Add in the Arab states and remind them that Palestinian rights come first, and they must not bypass Ramallah.
Is any of this working? The ostensible threat is that chaos and violence might emerge if things don’t turn to peace. The search for the unity government continues even though there is no evidence Gaza will come to its senses. The Egyptians, Jordanians and others have tried to work on the unity government. But even having Palestinian municipal elections last year proved impossible.
The Palestinian leadership says Israel has more to lose, but Israelis in their day-to-day lives don’t see that, and many think that the higher-ups in Ramallah have much more to lose. Israel’s GDP was $74 billion in 1994 and is $290b. today, Palestinian GDP has barely increased since the 1990s; even generous estimates show it going from less than $4b. to perhaps $12b. The Office of the Middle East Quartet thinks that free trade could boost the Palestinians to $44b. Meanwhile, GDP per capita in Israel is $37,000 while the Palestinian economy has $2,500 per capita. Each side seems to have done the math on what they have to lose and Netanyahu thinks Israel is winning and the Palestinians think they can win as well. If only the Israelis will listen, Rajoub thinks, they will see it’s better to divorce now.