Khaled Abu-Aker: How do you see U.S. policy in the Middle East,
in general, and the Palestinian problem, in particular?
Ibrahim Abu-Lughod: First, U.S. policy towards the Middle East has
been quite consistent in its objectives; only the means for
implementing them have sometimes varied. The Middle East has been
an extremely important strategic area for the United States, where
it applies its concept of worldwide hegemony. Second, the natural
resources of the Middle East have always been of essential
importance to the economic and strategic interests of the U.S.A.
Therefore, the preservation, conservation and safe access to these
natural resources, especially oil, have been an important
objective. Also, the Middle East, with some 250 to 300 million
people, is an important market. Since America is a world commercial
power, it clearly wants to have full access to this enormous
Thus, the Middle East's importance in the world system makes it
essential for the U.S.A. to dominate it and to try to prevent it
from achieving an independent power of its own. Essentially, the
U.S.A. first seeks what it views as a stable political and economic
order. Change, if it is to take place, has to be reasonable,
controlled and approved by the U.S.A. The second aim is to prevent
access to this region by competing powers - that's what the Cold
War was about with the Soviet Union. But the U.S.A. has also some
concern that other powers, such as China, might develop closer
relations with the Middle East and, therefore, alter power
relations. To maintain the prevailing asymmetrical relations
between it and the countries in the Middle East, the U.S.A. opposed
radical nationalist political movements or regimes.
Taking into consideration American relations with the Middle East,
how do you view American involvement in the peace process, from a
The U.S.A. has traditionally opposed any possible combination of
power in the Arab world that will interfere with America's
dominance and with America's commitment to Israel. The U.S.A. has
been committed to Israel ever since its establishment in 1948.
Implicitly or explicitly, the U.S.A. has considered Israel a
permanent ally and has supported it materially and militarily to
withstand any pressure from the Palestinians, as well as the Arab
states whose territories it has occupied or annexed. Therefore,
historically, the U.S.A. opposed Egypt's nationalist policies and
sought to diminish the power of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, until
it finally succeeded in marginalizing Egypt as a Middle East
Clearly, U.S. policies toward Iraq have been hostile and its
attempt to continue to weaken Iraq is related to its perception
that Iraq is potentially a problem country for America's hegemony
and for Israel as well. Like it or not, Israel is an important
concern in American policy. It has always been so for a variety of
reasons, the least important of which is the presence of the
Israeli lobby or the Jewish lobby in the U.S.A. I think Israel is
very important to the U.S.A. in terms of its perception of the
need, I have mentioned, to dominate the Middle East in which task
Israel plays an important role. So, Israel serves a very important
purpose in the implementation of U.S. regional hegemony. It has
been viewed as an actual instrument of American policy of dominance
in the Arab world. The degree of commitment the U.S.A. has towards
Israel goes way beyond anything a Jewish lobby could produce.
Now what does this mean for the peace process and the Palestinians?
Historically, any attempt on the part of the Palestinians to affect
the existence, stability or security of Israel has been opposed
most strongly by the U.S.A. It has opposed the Palestinian right to
self-determination and to statehood. This is a constant in American
policy and it is true today. The U.S.A. has sought historically to
contain the Palestinian national movement. When that national
movement was led by the PLO, the U.S.A. pursued an active policy of
destruction of the PLO. It branded it as a terrorist organization.
Its constant policy sought to destroy the PLO, not because American
policy did not like the PLO, but because the PLO stood for a
political program, the implementation of which, in terms of the
achievement of the national rights of the Palestinians, would have
entailed, according to American perception, if not the actual
elimination of Israel, its weakening. The U.S.A. has aligned itself
with Zionism; has accepted the Balfour Declaration; has supported
the establishment of the State of Israel and, correspondingly, has
never shown any serious concern for the fate of the Palestinian
The U.S.A. opposed the PLO and the national movement for other
reasons as well: it was consistent with American historical policy
of opposition to all national liberation movements around the world
- it supported France in the Algerian struggle, supported Portugal
in the Mozambique, Angola, Guinea Bissau struggles, has actively
opposed Vietnam and Cuba, etc. All national liberation movements
have actually been pitted against powers that were part of the
American-led complex; whereas, the Afro-Asian movements obtained
some assistance from the Soviet Union and China. The U.S.A. branded
most of these movements as Communist or Communist-affiliated to
justify its hostility to them. I think it is important to point out
that the American administrations did not succeed in mobilizing the
public to support its policy of opposition to national liberation
in South Africa, Mozambique, Vietnam, etc.
But we are now seeing that the American administration's attitude
to the PLO started to change as a result of the change of the
political goals and aims of the PLO.
Of course, that is exactly what it sought. The U.S.A. has supported
Israel constantly with advice, with money and with weapons. It has
contributed to the process of destruction of the PLO in Lebanon. It
has mobilized many of the Arab states against the PLO. It wanted
the PLO to change from being a national liberation movement, to
abandon its goal of the right to self-determination and statehood,
and to conduct its struggle by political means with which the
U.S.A. is familiar.
The U.S.A. has sought the destruction of the PLO, but it failed to
destroy the Palestinian national movement. Its most grotesque
failure became clear with the Intifada, which represented a total
defeat of both American and Israeli policies. The Intifada was a
struggle, essentially non-violent, which changed public opinion
throughout the world.
As a result, can we say the American administration started to
realize the necessity of recognizing certain Palestinian rights,
such as those that were recognized by the Bush
The U.S.A. has not changed much of its policy towards the
Palestinians. It supports a policy that says that the Palestinians,
as Mr. Schulz indicated in 1988, and, later confirmed by Mr. Baker,
should have greater control over their affairs and their quality of
life should improve. Today, Palestinians have more control over
education, social affairs, municipalities in certain cities of the
West Bank, etc. Some economists say we are better off now. In some
places we have greater security. But we do not have liberty; we do
not have freedom and we will not have it because, day by day, the
Israelis impose their will over us and we have no choice but to
submit. So, in some ways we have greater liberty, but our
subordination to Israel is total. American policy has sought very
cleverly to lead the Palestinians to believe that, if they accept
such a position, they may actually attain more freedom over their
affairs in the future. It is a very distant future.
So the change that took place is not in American policy, it is a
change in Palestinian policy. It is a policy that calls for
amending the National Charter, for abandoning the principle of
self-determination and statehood explicitly, and for working in the
new system that was offered by Mr. Schulz, first, and then Mr.
Baker. Neither offered the Palestinians any possibility of
independence, or sovereignty or territorial contiguity in the
state-to-be. There is no promise that they have made the
Palestinians that they have not fulfilled. They have never promised
independence or sovereignty or total evacuation of Israeli troops
from all the areas they occupied in 1967 and before, or the
exercise of the right of return.
When we talk about the Palestinian cause, maybe we can witness a
slow and slight change from one administration to the other towards
the Palestinians. For example, the policy of the Bush
Administration, working to convince the Palestinians directly or
indirectly to attend the Madrid Conference, pressuring Israel,
using the $10-billion loan guarantees in order to freeze settlement
building - such policy represented a real change in American policy
towards the Palestinian cause and towards the Israeli-Palestinian
It did not represent a sudden change. President Carter was the
first president who articulated the need for a Palestinian
homeland. He understood the issue and he carne as close as anybody
to deal with the Palestinians politically. Vance offered them
significant concessions if they would accept U.N. Resolution 242
before Mr. Bush made his more controlled initiative. The change is
not in American policy; the change is in us. We accepted less than
what we called for and, therefore, the U.S.A. assisted us in coming
to the Madrid Conference in 1991 - not on our own terms. They did
not recognize the PLO as the legitimate representative of the
Palestinian people, nor did they recognize a Palestinian nation.
Although President Carter said the PLO represented a substantial
proportion of the Palestinian people, he didn't accept the PLO. The
Bush Administration never formally accepted the PLO, despite the
so-called peace process. The U.S. administration does not today
accept the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people, but
they will talk to it as long as it is willing to accept their
conditions for the solution. Even though the PLO is considered a
terrorist organization in American policy, the administration is
willing to accept its signature for an agreement that signifies its
subordination to Israel. The change is in the Palestinian party,
not the U.S.A.
But when we can speak, for example, about American efforts to
pressure the Israeli government, headed at that time by Yitzhak
Shamir, to cease building settlements, this was a time of American
involvement and American determination to make this process
The ultimate objective of American policy, even in using pressure
on Israel, on Shamir or Begin, to freeze settlements does not
change the reality. The reality remains that the settlements have
not stopped; the reality is that the money still comes to Israel;
the reality is that Israel continues to get financial and military
help; the reality is that the U.S. has achieved its objectives,
which include Israel's dominance over the Palestinians.
Is there continuity in American foreign policy?
Even though the Bush Administration used the loan guarantees to
pressure Israel? For two months.
The Clinton Administration is not ready for such actions?
It may, given an incentive. If it believes the stability of the
Middle East may be threatened, it may be willing, or if it feels
Israel is adversely affecting American interests in the Arab world.
Occasionally the U.S.A. resorts to tactical pressure on Israel to
implement American policy. But that does not mean that American
policy is in favor of Palestinian national rights.
As a result, when we talk about American involvement in the peace
process - Palestinian calls for an active American role - you do
not believe that role can be that of an honest broker?
How can it be? How can they be honest if they are opposed to our
right to self-determination? We are not equal to Israel. As a
co-sponsor of the peace process, the U.S.A. wants us to accept our
subordination to Israel. It has never accepted our right to
statehood, or our right to sovereignty, even in the territory of
the West Bank and Gaza, or to the Palestinian right to
Do you not see any possibility for change?
Of course not. The U.S.A. is committed to a vision of a fragmented
Middle East in which it will allow no other power to compete and
where Israel will play an important role as a subordinate power to
the U.S.A. In the old terminology, which we do not use anymore,
Israel represents sub¬imperialism and is enabled to exercise
its hegemony in the eastern region Gordan, Palestine, Syria and
Lebanon). Iraq and the Gulf regions are within the direct American
When we talk about American-Palestinian relations, it is obvious
that what we Palestinians want is totally different from U.S. aims
and cannot be achieved. Then how do you see the future?
No, our aims can be achieved. We can pursue an effective foreign
policy that is aligned with the Arab states that will actually
provide the U.S.A. with an incentive to change its policy. Neither
the Arab states nor the Palestinians have pursued such a collective
policy. We have never offered an acceptable discourse or a
practical solution to the conflict that may command support in the
U.S.A. Only in the 1980s were the Palestinians able to influence
American public opinion to support Palestinian rights. The reason
is very simple: The Palestinians adopted the concept of two states,
which meant that the establishment of a Palestinian state did not
entail the destruction of the State of Israel and would be achieved
by non-violent means, and that such a state would not become a
Communist one. This generated a profound change in American public
opinion that was noted virtually in all public opinion polls. This,
in turn, provided a basis for a reexamination of American policy
toward the Palestinians.
That was the reason the U.s.A. took initiatives that included the
dialogue with the PLO. The Madrid Conference was related to the
change in American public opinion. The administration was in some
measure responding to the altered American public consideration of
the Palestine question, which accepted the principle of statehood
or homeland as President Carter expressed it, and the idea of an
international peace conference in which the PLO would represent the
Palestinians. The Bush Administration, by promoting its initiative
for the Madrid Conference, led many to believe that it was
accommodating the expressed desire for peace, for a reasonable
solution to the Palestine question while supporting Israel. In
reality, the PLO was denied direct participation in Madrid, the
peace conference was not the international peace conference called
for by the U.N. and was based upon principles that violated the
Palestinian right to self-determination, including sovereign
The Bush Administration was shrewd enough to get the PLO, which was
considerably weakened, to accept the terms. They accepted a non-PLO
delegation. And if you negotiate in the kind of imbalance that
existed at that time, you certainly can't get the West Bank and
Gaza. The PLO accepted much less to get to Madrid, and then in Oslo
got a lot less again.
When we talk about following the pulse of public opinion, we can
notice that there is a slight change in American foreign policy by
the Clinton Administration. There is no similarity of interest
between the Clinton and the Bush administrations.
There may be less interest because we have not provided them with
an incentive to continue with the same interest. The Palestinians
today represent no danger to anybody. American policy reacted
during the Intifada to the possible danger it perceived the
Palestine issue represents to stability, to its relationship with
the Arabs, and to Israel. Clearly, the PLO was a challenge to
America because it had certain political goals. It had considerable
support in the Arab world and it had the support of its own
Through this constant struggle from the 1970s and 1980s, the PLO
finally achieved a status that bothered the U.S.A. at a time when
the U.S.A. thought it had done away with it. In spite of its
weakness in Beirut and its weakness in Tunis, the PLO remained an
important symbol and a moral and political power, even though it
had no credible military power. Therefore, the u.s.A. had to
address itself to it. The incentive for change came from the
struggle of the Palestinians. The Palestinians today do not pose
the same kind of challenge to the U.S.A. The Arabs do not pose the
same kind of challenge. In America's estimation, at this moment,
the Palestinians and the Arabs, in general, pose no serious
How do you see the future of the peace process?
The process is in place. You are in Gaza and you have autonomy. You
are in the West Bank and you have autonomy. You have certain
agreements with Israel that are implemented with difficulty. You
have dealings with the Arab states. What's the problem? You want
independence and sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza? They didn't
promise you that. You want statehood, self-determination and the
right of return and/ or compensation. The U.N. resolutions/181,
194,3236 acknowledged these, but not the U.S.-sponsored peace
process or Oslo.
You do not see the possibility of reaching a Palestinian
No, not with the agreements we have concluded. There is no state in
the pursuit of Oslo. When we have agreed to the terms that Baker
outlined for us and we have signed the DOP, it is clear that there
is no state. We do not have territorial contiguity; we do not
control foreign affairs; we do not have a promise for the return of
the refugees. These documents do not formulate the existence of the
Palestinian people as one nation and, therefore, we cannot even
negotiate specific rights that relate to the Palestinians'
conception of themselves as a nation.
But it was obvious that the process started according to Oslo as an
interim agreement, that would lead to Palestinian autonomy and
final-status negotiations where issues, like refugees, Jerusalem,
can be negotiated. There is an American commitment to
We can negotiate, but there is no commitment to independence; there
is no commitment to the return of refugees. The U.S.A. will
pressure the Palestinians to accommodate Israel. How can we provide
the U.S.A. with an incentive to act fairly if we are prepared to
accept much less because the Palestinians appear to be "powerless"?
Territory is being confiscated every day. Neither the Palestinians
nor the Arabs have been able to stop Israel's settlements at Ras
al-Amud and Jabal Abu Ghneim/Har Homa. Is the U.S.A. really as
powerless as the Palestinians on this issue? What about the
thousands of acres of Palestinian land that Israel has confiscated
in the course of the so-called interim agreement? The U.S.A. is not
powerless, but the Palestinians have not provided it with the need
to confront Israel.
It was obvious that, behind all this process, there was an American
intention to open the doors for Israel to the Arab world.
Of course, and they have succeeded. Israel is committed to peace
with the Arab states. But it does not seek only economic gains from
the Arabs. I think it seeks to assist in the restoration of
Arab-Palestinian relations so that Palestinians will, of their own
accord resume emigration to the Gulf, to effect the transfer of
Palestinians, without evicting them, by attractive opportunities in
the Gulf. These cannot be realized unless a peaceful settlement has
been achieved. Israel becomes legitimate in the Arab world and the
frontiers are open. All the highways that Israel is building that
lead to Cairo, to Amman, to Beirut and Baghdad, the same highways
can serve the Palestinians too. And given the choice for a
Palestinian worker to work in Israel or in the Arab states, I think
the Palestinian will go to the Arab states. And therefore Israel
will succeed in its policy of "transfer" without evicting by
There is a need for a Palestinian, an Arab lobby in the United
States which plays the same role as the Jewish lobby. Do you think
we will be able to succeed in this?
The concept of a lobby is an American one. I do not think we, in
the Arab world, understand it really. We can never, under any
circumstances, form a lobby that has the power and the influence of
the Jewish community in the U.S.A., for sheer economic,
demographic, social and cultural reasons. But that does not mean
that we cannot have an effective Palestinian presence in the U.S.A.
But we have lost that effort between Madrid (1991) and today. We
have actually lost in the U.S.A. the gains we have made over a
20-year period. In those years, we were able to present our cause -
and our cause is a much better one than Israel's in terms of its
humanity, its vision and what it offers the world. A Palestinian
vision of the future of Palestine has always been infinitely
superior to Israel's. We seek to coexist on the basis of equality.
We sought to establish a secular state, not a theocracy. We sought
a state that is not exclusivist. That was the vision we presented
in the 1960s and 1970s. We no longer offer that vision, so the onus
is on us. If we articulate a vision today that is universally
understood and we act for its realization, we will have
considerable support, not only in America, but throughout the
world. It was our loss of vision that demobilized support for us in
the U.S.A. The Palestinian community in the U.S.A. is no longer
active on behalf of Palestinian independence because of the Oslo
As an American of Palestinian origin what can you do for the
We need to generate a new and clear Palestinian national consensus,
without any compromises, including territorial, for an independent
Palestinian state, based on international legitimacy. Today you do
not have that. People who oppose autonomy, what cause do you want
them to present to the American public?
When we talk about international legitimacy, it is obvious there is
something more important which is American legitimacy.
No, there is no American legitimacy. The South Africans have never
accepted the American vision for South Africa. Mandela never
compromised with them. They were always consistent: "One man, one
vote" and they had international support for it. America opposed
them. America considered the ANC a terrorist organization in the
same way as it sees the PLO today. The ANC remained clear in its
objective to equality and a non-racial state.
But in this equation we are the weak party.
The Africans have always been weak; we are weak, but we are also
strong. Strength is not only in terms of military power. No
Third-World movement, no independence movement, has ever been
stronger than the occupier. The Algerians were not more powerful
than France. "Power" is also moral, political, etc. Slaves were
also weaker than their masters. They all became free by using other
forms of power.
Are you pessimistic?
No, I am a realist. I am a student of American policy. I know its
policy globally. The U.S.A. must be given an incentive to change
its policy. It has a realistic understanding of how the world
works. It has altered its policies regarding the Soviet Union,
China, South Africa, etc. And it has adhered to wrong policies in
other areas. And it is my judgment that, up to now, we have not
given it a single incentive to make a change, nor has the U.S.A.
felt any possible adverse consequences to its hostile policy
towards the Palestinians.
We, as Palestinians, are not satisfied with the American role. The
Israelis also express their dissatisfaction with this role. The
Clinton Administration is preparing for an initiative. Netanyahu
expressed his opposition to that initiative. How can the U.S.
administration balance between what Palestinians and Israelis want
in order for this process to survive and to be fruitful?
I think the U.S.A. is balancing its work among these two
conflicting sides. It views us as the weaker party and, therefore,
it exerts more pressure on us in order to accommodate the Israeli
party. Netanyahu represents a different type of force in Israel
than Begin did. But I believe there is a certain kind of consensus
in Israel, irrespective of who is leading the country: They have
certain non-negotiable issues, like Jerusalem. Peres expresses a
more flexible position than Netanyahu or Olmert and, therefore, he
gets along better with the Americans. But, eventually, they will
ask the Palestinians to modify their position. Mr. Ross will come
and pressure the Palestinians to accommodate Israel. So, in that
sense, I am aware of the squabbling between Israel and the U.S.A.
Sometimes it's real, in the sense that Israel has its own
understanding of its national interests, which may occasionally
differ from that of the U.S.A.
There is clear frustration among the Palestinian people which might
move to a rebellion against the Palestinian Authority (PA). Do you
think the American administration realizes the need to reach an
agreement with a stable authority rather than creating another
leadership that might be more extreme?
I think they are interested in reaching an agreement. So is Mr.
Arafat, and it is in their interest to continue that course with
Mr. Arafat if he can deliver. But the Palestinians are not the only
item on the American agenda. As long as it does not appear to the
U.S.A. that there will be an actual upheaval, they are not as
worried. It may turn out that the U.S.A. has a different reading of
the reality on the ground.
According to their reading, do you think Israeli-Palestinian
cooperation security and economic - is more important than
democracy, freedom of expression, corruption?
It has always been so for the U.S. government with Third-World
governments. They have always preferred authoritarian, stable
governments and they have expressed concern for democratic politics
while supporting the Shah of Iran, Pinochet in Chile, Diem in South
Vietnam, etc. The question to ask and to answer is: Who is better
for American interests in the Third World, a democratic regime or
an authoritarian one? Think of the banana republics, of Mobuto, of
To guarantee the continuity of the peace process, the Palestinians
were ready to help the Labor government of Shimon Peres to be
reelected, and so were the Americans. Since the right-wing
coalition led by Netanyahu, the concept of the future of the peace
process among Palestinians and Israelis and the PA has
The Palestinians were always supportive of the Labor party at the
time of elections. In our political analysis, we attach a great
deal of importance to individuals in politics. In reality, a
consensus that Israel has generated in the course of time has
actually prevailed, irrespective of the configuration of power,
whether Labor or Likud. There are certain irreducible principles;
the difference comes in the expression of these principles. Peres
has been much more successful in marketing himself in terms of his
ideas and of his rhetoric, as a moderate person with whom you can
Now we are at a three-way impasse. Netanyahu is more aggressive,
arrogant and more firmly anchored in a coalition that does not care
about our feelings. Peres may say that Palestinians may form what
they call a state, but he does not believe in Palestinian
sovereignty, in their equality or freedom. Rabin, in his speech in
Washington, said, "We [Israelis] have made a compromise, accepted
that two people shall live in the 'land of Israel.'" He didn't say
"two states"; he didn't say "the land of Palestine" to be divided
between two peoples. The implication is clear: Palestinians are
subordinate. Netanyahu is talking only about the State of Israel.
This is the national consensus and it is crucial for Palestinians
to assess its components and implications and formulate their