Speaking out

Michael Tarazi, a prominent lawyer and former legal dviser to the Palestinian National Authority talks to Massoud A. Derhally about how Palestine si being failed by its media strategy.

  • E-Mail
By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  June 4, 2006

|~||~||~|One of the biggest impediments, if not the Achilles heel of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, has and continues to be the inability of Palestinians to strike a positive media chord with the West in the same manner Israel is able to. In contrast, no matter which party is in power, be it the left, right or a centrist government, Israelis have consistently been able to connect with the West and communicate their message without obscurity and in the process divert attention from what many consider to be the last apartheid regime. Nothing perhaps epitomizes the influence and success of the Israelis in getting their message across and influencing American foreign policy more than the Israeli lobby in the United States. The influence of the Israelis in the US is well documented by two prominent American Harvard University professors who published a thorough and detailed paper titled “The Israel Lobby,” that illustrates how a number of converging forces exert a “stranglehold” on Middle East policy in America and inhibit public debate of the issue. If the Israelis are known for their cunning and slick abilities when playing to the media and thinking strategically—the Palestinians, according to Michael Tarazi, Palestinian American lawyer and former legal advisor to the Palestinian National Authority’s ministry of foreign affairs have failed miserably. Tarazi who is a Harvard Law School graduate and an accomplished lawyer and scholar is one of the few Palestinians that has been able to articulate Palestinian grievances to the international community. But he is equally vocal about the ominous situation the Palestinians find themselves in today and what the implications are for the future. The peace process has been at a standstill for nearly five years, Israel is pursuing a unilateral agenda in the absence of negotiations and intends on defining its own borders, whilst the Palestinian leadership now comprises of Hamas Islamists. So then where is the logic or rationale in talking about negotiations and are negotiations pertinent when there is infighting among the Palestinians? “No,” says Tarazi, adding, “but there never was. It’s nothing to do with Hamas. The whole process of negotiations with the Israelis is really one, which the Israelis tried to unilaterally to impose their will on the Palestinians and impose an agreement that served their interests not Palestinian interests and get the Palestinians to agree to it. That has always been the process of the negotiations with the Israelis whether Fatah is in power or Hamas is in power. I think we have seen that.” Hamas’s landslide parliamentary election victory last January, explains Tarazi, was precisely because of a “growing cynicism and a justified cynicism” among the Palestinian population, that negotiations don’t lead anywhere. “It resonates to many Palestinians when Hamas says there is no point in recognizing Israel if Israel doesn’t recognize them.” Since Hamas came to power the rift between Fatah, the ruling party of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen) and Hamas has widened with several clashes between Hamas supporters and Fatah loyalists. Abu Mazen returned from the World Economic Forum in Egypt, where he met senior Israeli officials for the first time and issued an ultimatum to Hamas saying he will call a national referendum on accepting a Palestinian state alongside Israel if Hamas does not agree to the idea within 10 days. Abu Mazen’s proposal came in the wake of a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President George Bush, in which the Israelis presented their plans for a unilateral pull out from the West Bank. Olmert threatened Israel would carry out another unilateral withdrawal if there is no breakthrough in the peace talks and define its permanent boarders. The implications of this growing divide among Hamas and Fatah serves the Israelis, says Tarazi, but the situation also illustrates the fragmented nature of the Palestinians and the absence of a contiguous leadership. “It plays right into the Israeli strategy. I think this is a very interesting divide, because it is a divide that has been created precisely because the Palestinians are too busy trying to appease Western powers, notably the United States,” explains Tarazi. “Remember that the [Palestinian] position of prime minister was actually created in an effort to appease the US and sideline president Arafat when he was still alive and Abu Mazen was the prime minister, there was a big push to make sure the prime minister had all the security control in order to isolate president Arafat. Now that you see the prime minister is a Hamas prime minister the Americans are pushing the other way saying ‘no the prime minister should not have security control, those powers should be with the president,’ which of course is the exact opposite of what they were arguing before.” To Tarazi, the Palestinians are often victims of their own eagerness, who ostensibly play to the interests of outside powers like the US, rather than deciding for what’s in their best interest. “Right now the Palestinians have to understand that they are playing into Israel’s hand, that they need to clarify the legality of the roles of the prime minister and president based on their own future interests and not what the US wants. The US administration and the international community’s isolation of Hamas only empower Hamas and are going to result in a weaker Abu Mazen.” He adds, “I think that eventually, we can safely say the two state solution is over; we know of this unilateral solution that Israel is trying to impose, they build more and more settlements all the time and there are more than 200,000 settlers in East Jerusalem. You have a one state solution already; Israel and the Palestinian territories are for all practical purposes one state. It’s the same borders, the same airspace, the same water, the same resources and the same highway infrastructure. But you have 3 million Palestinians Palestinian Muslims and Christians who don’t have the same rights as Jews do. We used to call that apartheid in South Africa.” Such an incredulous backdrop amplifies the dangers of the unilateral steps Israel is preparing to carry out. Tarazi points out there are no noticeable differences between Israel’s policies now and the past. The element of unilateralism has been an integral component of Israel’s strategy in dealing with the Palestinians but is more pronounced and visible today. “That’s just simply stating the reality of what’s been going on ever since Israel was created. Even when there were negotiations Israel simply took unilateral steps. There has never been an Israeli concession as a result of negotiations. Israel’s strategy is and always has always been to continue to take as much Palestinian land as possible with as few Palestinians as possible,” exclaims Tarazi. There are 3.7 million Palestinians living the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Approximately 5.7 million Palestinians live in neighbouring Arab countries and around the world. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), 4,255,120 Palestinians are registered as refugees. In 1950, the Israeli government passed the Absentee Property Law, which allowed it to expropriate Palestinian lands and confiscate the property of refugees. The government also demolished many of the refugees’ villages, and resettled many Arab homes in urban communities with Jewish refugees and immigrants. “The ultimate goal [of Israel] is yes a Palestinian state but a Palestinian state that serves Israel’s interests, meaning a state that is as small as possible but containing as many Palestinians as possible,” says Tarazi. “This is their way of ridding themselves of the demographic threat of the [Palestinian] Christians and Muslims that would otherwise be under Israel’s control. This is the unilateral goal of Israel and they are going to pursue it whether there are negotiations or not,” he adds. Tarazi recalls how during his time as a legal adviser until last November, he never negotiated with Israelis but sat across from Americans because there were no direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. “We never really had serious one to one discussions [with the Israelis]. There was one time when Abu Mazen was invited to Mr. Sharon’s home in Jerusalem, and he spent the whole time berating Abu Mazen for not doing enough to crack down enough on terrorism and then releasing that to the press and making it look not like a meeting, but rather a teacher scolding a student. That was the level of discussions that we had with the Israelis. It was all about their unilateral imposition; they don’t need to discuss, they don’t need to negotiate [and] the election of Hamas has given them a convenient excuse. But still even when we negotiated with them they were still continuing the unilateral policy and increasing the number of settlements in areas they plan to hold on to,” explains Tarazi. But he also says that by agreeing to negotiate, the Palestinian leadership ultimately gives the impression it is willing to give up some of Palestinian rights rather than insisting on them. Such a situation is not going to result in a fair resolution to the conflict, according to Tarazi because one party is stronger than the other. “That will never result in a fair solution. That’s why the Kuwaitis weren’t forced to negotiate with the Iraqis when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait, that’s why blacks didn’t negotiate their freedom from white South African slavery,” he explains, adding, “It happened when there was an international consensus, or a movement that recognizes the fundamental wrong involved in that power dynamic and wants to do something about.” Tarazi says the reason it has been so difficult for Palestinians to market their cause as opposed to the Israeli ability to sideline their obligations under international law stems from one group having a leadership with a vision and a strategy and the other lacking both. “At the end of the day there is no Palestinian leadership that has a vision and more importantly has a strategy for communicating that vision and has principles on which that vision is based. The strategy has always been one of survival,” a frustrated Tarazi says. “They also don’t understand how the game is played because the Palestinian leadership and many senior leaderships in the Middle East are not democracies and never understood how to influence foreign policies of democracies. The senior Palestinian leadership to this day does not understand the interplay between a democratically elected president, the population that votes for that president and the press that informs that population. There is a three prompt mode of policy decision-making and the Palestinians have never addressed those. They think it happens the way it happens in Arab countries, which is you just know somebody in the government and if they like you then they will do something to help you.” “Unless you address that population and the press and the government at the same time you are not going to be able to get your voice heard. I could understand if that the occupation started five years ago and they haven’t figured it out yet. But the occupation has been going on 38 years and if they haven’t figured out how to change world opinion now they never will and its time they need to get out of the way,” exclaims Tarazi. Listening to Tarazi speak candidly its no wonder the 39 year old star lawyer left his position with the Palestinian Authority. He’s spent the last six months travelling the world, spending time in Africa, the Arab world and Europe. “I joined because I felt like I could make a difference. I went there very idealistically thinking I could play a role in bridging the Palestinian leadership and in its role in addressing people in the US. After five years I realize that our biggest problem in addressing the Israeli occupation is the Palestinians leadership itself. It has never understood how to affect change in the foreign policy of a democratic society. “The greatest challenge that I had as a Palestinian was trying to understand or trying to make my own side understand that they need to develop a strategy and a goal and that their goal cannot be simply to appease the US or jump through hoops the international community has put for them. They never understood the need for a media strategy. They never understood the need to have a consistent message to galvanize world public opinion. Their goal was just to get meetings with the American administration. I think Edward said it best when he said the Palestinian leadership doesn’t do anything but whore after low level State Department clerks in the US because they think that’s how you affect foreign policy. That’s not how you affect policy. You affect policy by galvanizing world public opinion and you do that by having a strategic media campaign and policies that can be defended.” ||**||

Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code