Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi is gentle and soft-spoken, as befits a Palestinian leader known for his commitment to nonviolence. Currently Barghouthi, a medical doctor, serves as the general secretary of the Palestinian National Initiative, a political party based in the West Bank that seeks to provide moderate Palestinians with an alternative to what many consider Fatah’s corruption and Hamas’ extremism. “Politics can drive you to wrong decisions and wrong feelings, sometimes,” he told me during our phone conversation last week. Still, he cheered the ongoing efforts toward a unified Palestinian government, which in December produced a shaky reconciliation between Hamas and the PLO. He suggests that the Arab Spring helped his cause of nonviolence by demonstrating to Islamic radicals the efficacy of peaceful protest.
Quick to invoke Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr., Barghouthi locates the Palestinian struggle for statehood in a broader historical arc from oppression to liberty. He defends the power of moral ideas and even expressed sympathy for the Israeli people, whom he believes suffer in their untenable role as occupiers. Barghouthi will argue for Palestine’s admission as a member state to the United Nations in the Slate/Intelligence Squared Debate on Jan. 10, where his challenge may well be to convince his opponents that the moral framework of India or South Africa applies to the Arab-Israeli conflict—and that having the ethical high ground is enough to force a peace agreement on such an inflamed region.
Here are excerpts of our conversation.
Slate: Why is this appeal to the U.N. happening now? As opposed to, say, 1993 or five years from now?
Mustafa Barghouthi: It didn’t happen 20 years ago for a very simple reason. After the signing of the Oslo Agreements, the Palestinians were told that this would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state by 1999. To their great surprise, so many years later, there was no progress on final status issues. And why now? Because we’ve reached a very critical turning point where if Israel continues the settlement policies the whole idea of a two-state solution will be lost. Any more waiting will simply mean the end of that solution.
Slate: Why would the two-state solution be lost?
Barghouthi: Because of the physical changes that are happening on the ground due to settlement building. With the settlements, the road segregation, and the building of that terrible wall—we call it the Apartheid Wall—there will be no contiguity of the territory that should become the Palestinian state. Palestinian communities will become nothing but clusters of Bantustans separated from each other. And this would mean the creation of an apartheid system where two different laws exist for two people living on the same land and where Palestinians are deprived of all their major human rights.
Slate: But why can’t you negotiate about the settlements with Israel directly?
Barghouthi: Because they’ve insisted on continuing the settlements. And talking to Israel while they continue the settlements is like two sides negotiating over a piece of cheese. One side, the Palestinian side, is stuck behind bars; the other side, the Israeli side, is negotiating and eating the piece of cheese at the same time. By the end there will be nothing left to negotiate about. That’s one reason. The second is that we’ve tried negotiations for 20 years. Nobody considered that Palestinians did not make every effort they could to negotiate. And we did and the outcome was that Israel has used the negotiations only as a cover for their expansionist policy, which continues to create new facts on the ground unilaterally. And eventually it will destroy the possibility of a real Palestinian state.
Slate: So is the bid for U.N. membership something the Palestinians should have pursued earlier?
Barghouthi: In my personal opinion, yes. I think maybe we should have done it five years ago. But nevertheless, it’s better late than never; This U.N. activity is helping to bring the reality on the ground here to the attention of the world. More importantly, it reestablishes the international legitimacy of Palestinian rights. International law is on our side—the International Court of Justice ruled that every Israeli settlement in the occupied territories is illegal and should be removed, that the wall itself is illegal, and that the changes made by Israel by force in East Jerusalem are illegal. The U.N. majority is on our side. It’s a very strange situation: While the majority of the peoples of the world are on the Palestinian side, Israel has held a position of total impunity to international law and opinion due to support from the United States.
Slate: The other debating team warns that U.N. recognition is merely symbolic—that it won’t change the “facts on the ground.”
Barghouthi: Well, if it is only symbolic, why are they so much against it? In my opinion they are afraid it is exposing Israel, exposing the wrong policy, and exposing the hypocrisy of countries that claim to support democracy and human rights and self-determination everywhere but grow silent or practically complicit with Israeli actions when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Slate: How would that exposure help everyday Palestinians?