New Baker Institute Fellow Hanan Ashrawi Discusses Middle East Prospects

After long years of failed policies, Palestine and Israel are no closer to peace. What is required is a change in the tone and direction of negotiations, Baker Institute scholar Hanan Ashrawi said. A real "peace initiative" should replace the discredited "peace process."

"We need a new approach," Ashrawi told a capacity audience at the James Baker Institute for Public Policy on Tuesday, March 24.  While the appointment of former U.S. senator and Irish peace negotiator George Mitchell as U.S. envoy to the Middle East is "a good sign," time will tell if he has the "mandate and the power" to make a difference, she said.  What she characterized as Israel"s "political shift to hard line extremism" and ongoing divisions in the Palestinian government will make the pursuit of peace "that much more difficult," she added.

Ashrawi, a well-known Palestinian activist, legislator and scholar, was named the institute"s Diana Tamari Sabbagh Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies. She served as the official spokesperson for the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid Peace Conference negotiations in 1991. In 1996 she was appointed Minister of Higher Education in the Palestinian Authority. Dr. Ashrawi will be preparing a Baker Institute policy paper on the roots and future prospects of Palestinian democracy.

Ashrawi said that from the start, a major impediment to peace has been an "asymmetry of power, the imbalance between the occupied and occupier." 

"We always asked for accountability for Israel as an occupying power and protection for the Palestinians as people under occupation, which of course we never got," she said.  Israel acted with impunity, she contended, "building settlements, taking land," and "bomb[ing] and abduct[ing] at will."

For its part, the United States "always brought to bear its strategic alliance with Israel," Ashrawi said. "By no stretch of the imagination can you ever accuse the U.S. of being even-handed when it comes to the peace process."

Years of violence and strife have reduced Palestine to "a charity case" in need of emergency relief, she said. "We need positive constructive engagement by a third party" to ensure Palestinian statehood is achieved, she added.

The Obama administration must "distance itself from the disastrous policies of the past immediately," she said.  Further, "the time has come to consider U.N. involvement ... It"s an international responsibility. We didn"t create this mess and the Israelis and Palestinians alone cannot solve it because we"re not even."

Ashrawi expressed concern that the possibility of a two-state solution is disappearing, and called it a "major strategic shortcoming. This is something that has to be addressed seriously."

In the meantime, Palestine stands as a "visible, concrete expression of an ongoing injustice," she said. "Solving the Palestinian question is key to solving most of the problems in the region."