Mustafa Barghouthi: Unity Government for Palestine

You'd think that Mustafa Barghouthi, the Palestinian cardiologist-cum-reformist legislator, would be a lonely man, having abandoned both Fatah and Hamas to form his own party. Instead, he's among the only Palestinians in touch with both factions. He brought them together in a unity government in 2007, and he swears that, after the Gaza war, Palestinians can lure Israelis back to the negotiating table only with another one. He chatted with NEWSWEEK editors in New York about politics and war in the Middle East. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What is most pressing issue for you personally and for the government generally?
: Ending the conflict! I've seen horrible things. I don't think this conflict should last longer, and it's awful for both people. And the result of the elections in Israel, in my opinion, reflects how dangerous this conflict is for Israel, too. I look at it as a cancer that is eating our lives.

Do the Israeli elections fill you with despair?
This is not just a move to the right; this is a move towards extremism. When you have a person like [the new parliamentary kingmaker] Avigdor Lieberman, who openly advocates ethnic cleansing, that is an unhealthy sign. Occupation corrupts Israel, and it corrupts the Israelis.

This has happened before, where the idea of "transfer"—expelling Israeli Arabs—finds a home in Israeli politics. But it usually dissipates in times of relative stability. Is it different this time?
This is different because Labor has just 13 seats now! Where is the left in Israel? Where is the moderate peace camp? The idea of ethnic cleansing is a reflection of the fact that Israel, because it sustained occupation, has become apartheid.

Yet even as the traditional left shrivels, most Israelis still support a two-state solution.
They don't mean it. What is a state? That is the question. Do they mean a state with Israel leaving the occupied territories to the '67 borders? If this were the case, then we are OK, but they don't.

Isn't the left so weak because Israelis think they don't have a bargaining partner?
No, because 78 percent of the Palestinians support the two-state solution.

But you don't have a unified leadership to offer it.
We had a national unity government in 2007, which I myself brokered.

But you don't have one now.
But we can have one again.

How do you achieve that?
Last week things got better, and we are trying to negotiate release of political prisoners on both sides. Negotiations between Fatah and Hamas will happen on the 22nd of February in Egypt. If we'd had a national unity government in place, we probably would have gotten new elections by the end of 2008, and Hamas would not have won. I am sure of it.

Why would Hamas have lost?
People started to see that Hamas has the same problems as Fatah—nepotism and clientelism. They chose Hamas not because of its supernationalistic idea, but because it was a platform of change. Same like here. Palestinian society today is three chunks. One third each is Fatah and Hamas. But there is a huge chunk that sees another approach. And that's why, when I ran for president, we got 20 percent of the votes.

At any rate, it's a long way from releasing prisoners to sharing cabinet posts, isn't it?
You'd be surprised. I think [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas was hesitant to make a national unity government because he was hoping that the Annapolis process would produce something. Since it produced nothing, and since his party has lost elections, his motivation not to be in a unity government is gone.

Will the Obama administration support cooperation between Fatah and Hamas?
I don't think he would advocate for anything. The Lebanese government has Hizbullah in it, but we don't deal with Hizbullah. Many foreign ministers worldwide promised me they'd do the same.

Will a final settlement require the right of return?
What people are demanding is the acceptance of the right. Then it can be negotiated. That is one of the most difficult issues, but you can't say "I don't want to negotiate" like they do on the Israeli side.

What do you make of this movement by Palestinian intellectuals back toward a binational state?
My heart wants to see the two-state solution still, but my brain tells me the opposite. There is a very high risk that the window could close down and the two-state option could be killed. But you have a new American administration that could reverse the process. It is possible.

What do you make of the Saudi peace plan? Is that irrelevant?
It is totally relevant! The only relevant plan is peace for peace; it's "end occupation and get full peace with all Arabs and Muslims in the whole world."

Does it come with money from the Gulf states to help the new Palestinian states?
This is the thing that concerns me least. If we have a state with sovereignty, open borders, the ability to import and export, we wouldn't need much help.

What about this idea that only a hard-liner can midwife peace?
That's a crazy thought, and it's wrong. If that were true we should only ever elect extremists!