Reporting from Jerusalem — Almost overshadowed in the recent days of diplomatic tussle between the U.S. and Israel is the Palestinian Authority, whose leaders have been watching with concern -- and perhaps a little amusement. It's not often Palestinians get to see the U.S. and Israel clash so publicly.
On Wednesday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said his government would not participate in U.S.-brokered indirect peace talks unless Israel halts all housing construction in East Jerusalem -- the issue that has driven a wedge between the U.S. and Israel. His decision was yet another hurdle for U.S. Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell, who is now scrambling to keep his mediation effort from total collapse.
Abbas' comments came a day after Palestinianyouths and Israeli police clashed around Jerusalem. On Wednesday, the city returned to calm and Israeli authorities relaxed most security measures and reopened holy sites.
Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's central council and a frequent critic of Abbas, spoke with the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday about what the recent U.S.-Israeli tensions mean for Palestinians.
Until today, the Palestinian Authority had been surprisingly quiet during this U.S.-Israeli diplomatic standoff. Why do you think that is?
They may be trying to keep quiet because they want to let this internal conflict between the U.S. and Israel go on without interference.
So it's a matter of sitting back with some popcorn and enjoying the show?
Maybe. But sitting back and doing nothing is very dangerous. We've already seen Hillary Clinton temper her comments [criticizing Israel's government], so things can go back in the old direction if Palestinians don't take a strong stance. Passivity doesn't help. We need a proactive policy to show the world and the U.S. administration, in particular, how Palestinians have been forthcoming and what we've done to implement the road map [the U.S.-drafted peace plan].
Do Palestinians see the recent shaking in the "unshakable" bond between the U.S. and Israel as an opportunity?
Absolutely. It has created a great opportunity for us at the international level. It's so clear today that Israeli policy is hurting American strategic interests. It's hurting American interests in the Middle East and surrounding regions, hurting America's foreign policy image around the world, and hurting at home. We have a superpower that is being taken hostage by a country like Israel, and for the wrong reasons. If they were defending a good cause, that's fine. But this is about defending the last colonial system in modern history.
When it comes to peace talks, there's often a game of tag over which side is perceived as the obstacle. In the past year, it's gone from Israel to Palestinians, and now, some would argue, back to Israel. Does this provide you with more leverage?
I think we are beyond that game. The issue is much larger now. After 18 years of nonproductive so-called peace talks, Palestinians are in a worse situation than when we started. When we signed the Oslo Agreement [in 1993] there were 200,000 [Israeli] settlers [in the West Bank and East Jerusalem]. Now we have more than 530,000. The U.S. and Israel and the international community have allowed the peace process to become a substitute for peace itself. It's become a cover for the lack of peace.
Some think Obama is taking this hard stance with Israel in an effort to curry favor with Arabs and Palestinians. If that's true, is it working?
No, it's not. What stance? Look at the American position on implementation of the road map. We had lots of reservations, but went ahead and implemented. Israel hasn't done anything. So where is the American stance against that? Israel is like a nasty boy who does whatever he wants, and the mother and father keep allowing him to be nasty. It's time to discipline. But those who are supposed to be disciplining are incapable. They are crippled. Today Israel does whatever it wants and no one says "enough is enough."
Some would say that's what the U.S. is doing now with the housing settlement in Ramat Shlomo where Israel has announced plans for 1,600 new units. How important is the outcome of this standoff?
We have a specific issue now. It's not 200 issues that people can't remember or focus on. It's one issue: settlements. Why now? Because we have reached a critical point. It was a mistake to allow settlement expansion to continue in the past because now we have reached a critical point where any additional settlements will mean the end of the two-state solution.
If the U.S., at this critical point and when things are so clear, is incapable of pressuring Israel to stop settlement activity, then let's be honest and say the U.S. cannot be the mediator in this case.