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?
Barghouthi: It will not, maybe, change the daily life, but it will definitely provide Palestinians with hope. It will provide a context where the illegal measures on the ground, enforced by the military power of Israel which we cannot stop, remain illegal, so it’s moral power against military power. When we joined UNESCO [the cultural arm of the United Nations] we were practically creating the power of culture against the culture of power.
That’s how countries in the world liberated themselves. That’s how a person like Gandhi who had no military power managed to unify India and get independence. That’s how Martin Luther King liberated the United States from the segregation system. It’s the power of the idea, the power of culture, and the power of dignity. And that is something that maybe some military governments don’t understand, but that I hope politicians would understand.
Slate: Opponents also say the move is incredibly risky, perhaps exposing the Palestinian people to retaliation from the IDF and empowering fundamentalists. There’s a lot of concern, for instance, about Israel trying to deter President Abbas by withholding tax revenue from the Palestinian Authority.
Barghouthi: These acts are illegal. Israel has no right to withhold the taxes we pay ourselves, especially when it already takes a certain percentage for collecting these taxes. We’re not afraid of the punishment acts and we will not be blackmailed anymore, because if Israel continues and United States continues [to cut off its aid to the Palestinians], the Palestinian Authority will collapse. And the biggest loser of this will be Israel.
What we need are better arrangements, where the grievances of the people will be met, where there will be no motivation for any violation of anyone’s security. Of course, an arrangement where Palestinians receive their rights. If this injustice continues to consolidate an apartheid system which is worse than what prevailed in South Africa in the 20th century, there will be a Palestinian reaction. People will not take it. I’ve always said that the best security for everybody, including for Israel, is peace and democracy, where the two people are satisfied.
Slate: Last Tuesday the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution affirming the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. What happens next?
Barghouthi: We will continue the struggle. We will continue our popular nonviolent resistance. I am personally proud of the fact that we have been advocating nonviolence for 10 years. Now all the Palestinian groups adopt our approach, including Hamas. That is a great moral success for us. And we will keep struggling in the U.N.; we will go to every agency, one after the other, and get our membership from the grassroots. They don’t want to grant it to us in the Security Council? We will get it in every U.N. agency. We will go to international courts. We will continue our nonviolent resistance until we get our freedom.
Slate: I want to return for a moment to what you said about Hamas, that they’ve renounced violence. Can you explain that a little more?
Slate: Did they modify their 1988 charter? Do they think Israel has a right to exist?
Barghouthi: They’re adopting the two-state solution; they’re accepting the ’67 borders for the solution, and they are accepting nonviolence and sticking to nonviolence. And that is a big change.
Slate: How did you come to found the Palestinian National Initiative?
Barghouthi: For years we’d been struggling to find our way. There was an unhealthy polarization between Fatah and Hamas and a strong silent majority in the middle that wanted an alternative. And that’s how we created the Initiative back in 2002. We called it the Initiative because we believed that the Palestinians should not be reactive but proactive. And the idea was that we need a movement that struggles not only for Palestinian freedom from occupation, but for an internal strong democratic system, and social justice. These are the three main dimensions of our movement.
When we ran in presidential elections in 2005, we were astonished by the amount of support we got—just under 20 percent of the votes! We were a newly established party, but that encouraged us to continue. Today, the Initiative is a third party in Palestine but it is growing constantly. And as you have seen, it is very influential in terms of its political ideas and strategies, and in terms of being a powerful independent force that can help create the right ideas for our struggle but at the same time push for Palestinian unity.
Slate: A lot of people think the United States wouldn’t support Palestine at the U.N. unless it promised not to sue Israel in the International Criminal Court. What’s your reaction to that?
Barghouthi: I hope [President Mahmoud Abbas] does not accept those terms. We should pursue that line [going to the ICC] as long as Israel continues the violation. It is our right. If we don’t struggle for our rights, we will not be serving anybody.
So I think we should be more determined, more daring and frank with the world. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were frank. Some people might not like what we do but eventually they will. And we know very well that the American Congress will be the last to change. This is not a new thing. This was the case in the South African situation.
I remember a time when I was speaking on CNN and they asked me about United States policy regarding Israel. This was perhaps three and a half years ago and I said, “Look at Nelson Mandela! He is the most respected politician in the world. Every American president wants to have a photo opportunity with him.” Yet when I was speaking he was still on the American Congress’ list of terrorists. And after that—I don’t know why but maybe that interview helped—the name was removed. But it took a recommendation from Condoleezza Rice.
The fact that the Congress is holding a very strange policy of being totally supportive of Israel regardless of the fact that Israel is violating international law is simply a reflection of the weakness of the American political system. But it should not stop us from struggling for our rights because one day even the American Congress will recognize that it was wrong.
I tell you frankly: The Israelis themselves will not be free as long as we are not free. As much as we are oppressed by this apartheid occupation system, they are also hostage to it. When we struggle for our rights as Palestinians we practically struggle for their freedom as well.
Slate: Can you say more about how you’re struggling for Israeli freedom?
Barghouthi: You see, they are oppressing us, but they are hostages to the same oppressive system. Look at how fearful they are on issues of security. Why? Because they know they are doing wrong. They know they are motivating and precipitating hatred because of their acts. When they continue to occupy us, they create a strong demographic problem for themselves. It is a totally contradictory policy: From one side they are taking away our land, making us angrier, and depriving us of very basic rights—but at the same time, by grasping our land and stealing it they’re creating a demographic problem, because we are not leaving! We are staying here. And gradually we are coming to equal them in numbers. By destroying the two-state solution they will create only one alternative, a one-state solution, which they don’t want.
So if we force them to free us—if we can manage to force them to accept a two-state solution—I hope that then they will be free themselves. I mean, they won’t notice but that’s what will happen. They will liberate themselves from the conflict. If they don’t do so, eventually we will have to liberate them in another way, which is having democratic rights in one state.
I think history is full of examples that enslaving others does not make you free. Although it might sound a bit strange, I say and I feel in my heart that we are struggling for the future of the children of both Palestinians and Israelis. Because an oppressive system creates only anger and cannot last. Violence creates only violence. There’s only one alternative to that and it’s the alternative we are proposing.
Slate: How does the Palestinian push for statehood fit into the Arab Spring?
Barghouthi: The Arab Spring is great because it is finally bringing democracy to the Arab World. The Arabs have been starving for democracy, starving from corruption and oppressive systems, and they’ve been deprived of the right of strong solidarity with Palestinians because of despotic regimes. The more freedom there is in the Arab World, the more solidarity there will be with Palestinians.
And there is another important factor, which is that the success of democracy in the Arab world will contribute to the success of democracy in Palestine. For me, this is one of the biggest issues because we don’t just want a state—we want a good state, a democratic one with equal rights, women’s rights, and social justice.
Finally, the Arab Spring has been very helpful for us because it presented parties like Hamas with the power of nonviolence, which we have been advocating. I remember meeting the leaders of these movements after the success of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. They said, “You see, your theory is working.” Of course, it’s not my personal theory; but the fact that we were advocating nonviolence definitely left an impact on them. When they saw the revolutions succeeding in Tunisia and Egypt in this peaceful way, they realized what they now understand, which is the power of the people and the power of nonviolence.
Slate: Did you carry anything over into politics from your experience as a doctor?
Barghouthi: Absolutely. If you are a good doctor you have to be a good human being. And understanding the human perspective is always an advantage in my political life. I think having that aspect is very, very helpful. Because you know politics can drive you to wrong decisions and wrong feelings, sometimes. It’s a tough thing. I think my background helps me remember that the human aspect is more important.
At the same time it provides, also, a certain perspective in terms of diagnosing the problems and trying to find solutions.
Slate: It helps you discriminate between causes and symptoms?
Barghouthi: In a way, if you don’t overdo it, of course. Sometimes situations are coexistent.