Hillel Schenker

Nabil Shaath: ‘Palestinians still committed to two states’

“We continue to believe in a two state solution” declared Dr. Nabil Shaath, the former Foreign Minister of the Palestinian Authority and currently Fatah’s Commissioner for International Relations, at a rare encounter with over 70 members of the Meretz Party who came to meet him in Ramallah at President Mahmoud Abbas’ headquarters in the Muqata.  Flanked by senior associates of Abbas, who was away at a summit meeting of the Organization of Islamic Countries in Mecca, Dr. Shaath said that “although many of us are Moslems, we have a secular program and definition of the state that we want, based upon internal democracy.   We do not want to see a Jewish Israeli and a Palestinian Islamic state based upon religion.”  Later he added that while he supports Palestinian unity, he did not want to see political Islam triumph.  He said that Hamas had bargained on the Arab Spring strengthening their position, but now they know it’s an illusion. And he believes that Hamas is afraid of internal Palestinian elections because they know that they would lose to Fatah.  Dr. Shaath sees hope in the Arab Spring, and as someone who lived many years in Egypt and knows it well, he said that “Egypt will continue to be our bridge to the Arab world.”

Dr. Nabil Shaath speaking to the Meretz activists in Ramallah
Dr. Nabil Shaath speaking to the Meretz activists in Ramallah

Memories of Euphoria

Dr. Shaath recalled how he felt that the two peoples were on the road to a resolution of the conflict after the Oslo Accords were signed, and to rapprochement between Israel and the entire Arab world.  He described how ,on the way back from the signing of the Declaration of Principles in Washington, Yassir Arafat called the King of Morocco and the President of Tunisia from the plane, asking them to receive Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“What euphoria there was then – the first time I visited Tel Aviv, taxi drivers refused to take payment from me!”  When he decided to visit Jaffa, Dr. Shaath was warned that there might be problems from opponents of the accords, and it was suggested that he have a military and police escort.  However, everywhere he went, “people invited me into their homes and offered me tea and coffee. And when I took a plane from Ben-Gurion airport, dozens of passengers came to ask me to sign their menus!”

He noted that real regional economic progress was being made, at the Casablanca and Amman regional conferences, and that former Chief of Staff General Amnon Lipkin- Shahak had devoted a great deal of time and energy to formulating outlines for security arrangements together with the Palestinians, “to translate the vision of peace into a reality.”   Most of us have forgotten that the Amman Economic Summit conference ended on October 31st, 1995, just a week before Yigal Amir assassinated Prime Minister Rabin.   Dr. Shaath was with Arafat when he heard the news that Rabin had been shot.  He described how he had slumped into a chair, and said he was afraid that “today the peace has died.”

Formulating the Arab Peace Initiative

Still, despite the lack of progress during the following seven years, culminating in the failure of Camp David 2000, Sharon’s provocative visit on the Temple Mount and the outbreak of the violent second intifada, he noted that in 2002, Arafat sent him and Mahmoud Abbas to meet with Saudi Crown-Prince Abdullah, together with Egypt’s Amr Moussa, to develop the Saudi Initiative into what became the Arab Peace Initiative, ratified at the Arab League Summit Conference in Beirut in 2002, and since reconfirmed a number of times – an initiative in which the entire Arab world offers Israel peace and normal relations in exchange for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, alongside the State of Israel, with an agreed upon solution to the refugee problem and Jerusalem.

“10 years have passed” he said, “and nothing is left of the process or of peace,” adding “we wanted peace, not a process.”

Dr. Shaath said that he began his involvement in Israeli-Palestinian affairs in 1969 as a believer in a one-democratic secular state solution.  He soon realized that the two-state solution was the realistic option.

“At Columbia University I realized we had genuine Israeli partners for peace”

“The Road to Peace Conference at Columbia University in 1989,” he said “was a turning point for me.   That was when I realized that we had genuine partners for peace on the Israeli side.”  He was referring to an initiative co-organized by the Israeli peace monthly New Outlook and the Palestinian daily Al-Fajr (an unofficial voice of the PLO), which brought together about 25 Israelis and 25 Palestinians to a three day conference in New York, using a loophole in the Israeli law forbidding direct meetings with PLO representatives “unless they were in the context of an academic conference.”   As one of the organizers of that conference, I have vivid memories of the occasion, and the fact that among the Israeli participants were Members of Knesset Shulamit Aloni, Yossi Sarid and Yair Tzaban, all of whom were to become members of Yitzhak Rabin’s 1992 government, which was to sign the Oslo Accords.  This is particularly poignant today, given that the surviving members of that government convened just last week at the Rabin Center in Tel Aviv for a 20th anniversary reunion.

“Today, the Palestinian’s hope for peace has dwindled” he said, as they “continue to face the daily humiliations of the occupation,” which are exacerbated by ongoing Israeli settlement expansion, “particularly in Jerusalem.”

Yet instead of an Israeli government which is ready to seriously initiate progress towards a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian government, “we see an Israeli government which is dragging the Israeli people and us as well towards an unnecessary war with Iran.”   Dr. Shaath added that if “Iran were to throw an atomic bomb on you, we would be also be affected.”

Three Options for the Future

Looking towards the future, he said that there are three options:

1)      To build a coalition with Israeli forces to bring about a change in the Israeli government to one that will be ready to seriously renew negotiations for a permanent status agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians;

2)      International activism, as long as it is nonviolent.  He declared that violence was costly for both sides, noting those who died in the “horrible suicide attacks.”  He said that no-one wants to return to this;

3)      To approach the UN General Assembly to ask for recognition of the Palestinian right to a state based on the 1967 borders. “We want to clarify that we are talking about occupied and not disputed territories, and that the only way forward is negotiations.”

In the follow-up discussion, both Dr. Shaath and some of the Meretz members in the audience noted that UN recognition of a Palestinian state was also a reaffirmation of recognition of the State of Israel in the 1967 borders.

I later asked one of the members of the PLO Negotiations Affairs Department present if he wasn’t afraid that such a move in the UN would lead to an American and Israeli cutting off of funds to the Palestinians, and his response was he didn’t believe that either the Americans or the Israelis wanted to see the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.

Dr. Shaath said that he didn’t know if the approach to the UN would work, but added that “the pain of peace is better than the pain of war, and the Israeli occupation is killing us.”

A lively question and answer period followed with the Meretz people, who included former Members of Knesset Mossi Raz and Anat Maor, Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Yosef (Pepe) Alalu, Prof. Dan Jacobson chair of the Political Committee of the Israeli Peace NGO Forum, Israel J-Street representative Yael Patir, Prof. Galia Golan, lawyer Yifat Solel who chairs the Meretz Forum Against the Occupation, Dr. Alla Shainskaya chair of the Our Heritage, Charter for Democracy group of Russian immigrants, former Israeli Ambassador to South Africa Ilan Baruch and many others.

Dr. Shaath (r) with Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Yosef (Pepe) Alalu
Dr. Shaath (r) with Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Yosef (Pepe) Alalu

Committed to working with Israelis to end the Occupation

In the course of the discussion, when the question of the Palestinian anti-normalization and BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaigns was raised, Dr. Shaath said that he and his colleagues were committed to working together with Israelis like the Meretz activists who want to end the occupation and believe in the primacy of peace between the two peoples. He noted that the Labor Party, which used to be a partner during Rabin’s time, now seems to only be interested in socio-economic questions.  Dr. Shaath added that “Fatah has not made any decisions to stop dialogue with Israeli peace activists,” and there is a clear difference between joint struggle and normalization.

He concluded by saying that, despite everything, “we in Fatah and the PA have not given up on a two state solution. The only alternative to a two state solution is either protracted conflict or an apartheid state.”

After the two hour meeting ended, all the guests went to visit Yassir Arafat’s temporary tomb, which lies in an impressive building in the Muqata at the end of a plaza surrounded by flora and fauna from different parts of Palestine.

Arafat's tomb at the Muqata
Arafat’s tomb at the Muqata

Since the meeting took place during Ramadan, Dr. Shaath and his colleagues apologized for the fact they were not able to demonstrate normal Palestinian hospitality, though they did receive a special religious dispensation to provide bottles of water to their visitors.   They urged there guests to return again after Ramadan ends, so that they could benefit from regular Palestinian gastronomic hospitality.


About the Author
Hillel Schenker is Co-Editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, and lives in Tel Aviv