The Global Zeitenwende
How to Avoid a New Cold War in a Multipolar Era
The uprising that began in December 1987 in the territories Israel has occupied for over twenty years ranks as the fourth major attempt by the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine to stem the Zionist colonization of the country. First was the rebellion of 1936-39 against Britain’s policy, exercised under its League of Nations mandate, for a Jewish National Home; then came the resistance to the 1947 U.N. General Assembly resolution to partition Palestine, which developed into a civil war before the regular war that broke out when the British left on May 15, 1948. Third, from 1964-65 onward, came the rise among the Palestinian diaspora of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and guerrilla movements against the status quo.
Today, in contrast to the three earlier instances, the Palestinians on the West Bank of the Jordan River and in the Gaza Strip are face-to-face with their perceived dispossessors, with no third party or geographic distance intervening. While the Israelis wield all state powers, the chief weapons of the Palestinians are the stones of the countryside. If the areas of Israel proper and those in the occupied territories already colonized, requisitioned or annexed are subtracted from the total area of Mandatory Palestine, the Palestinians in the occupied territories today stand on no more than 15 percent of the soil of the country.
In a statement read out at a Jerusalem hotel on January 14, 1988, which might be called the Jerusalem Program, leading representatives of the uprising outlined their aspirations and demands for lifting the oppression of the occupation and achieving "real peace" between Israel and the Palestinian people.
A certain Masada-like poignancy attaches to this latest manifestation of the Palestinian collective will, and with it a legitimate claim to the attention and concern of the outside world.
The Palestinian national identity had already begun to take shape at the beginning of World War I. It crystallized during the British Mandate (1918-48) in the resistance to Zionism. The notion that the Palestinians were a people, and merited a national state of their own, was evident to those members of the United Nations, including the United States, that voted in 1947 for the partition of Palestine. Since the beginning of the Palestinian diaspora in 1948 the sense of Palestinian nationality has been vastly strengthened; the rise of the PLO only gave expression to an existing reality.
For four decades since the establishment of Israel, the Palestinians have been pushed and pulled together by a multitude of shared experiences which have created a sense of national community rare in the Middle East and the Third World: it has transcended geographic dispersion, village, clan and sectarian loyalties, as well as the pressures of Arab host governments and Israeli occupiers. Endowed with skills surpassing those of most Arab peoples, the Palestinians long ago crossed the threshold of nationhood, and, like so many other peoples in history, are irreconcilable to living in a limbo of permanent statelessness. It is this, rather than any brilliance in the leadership of Yasir Arafat, which has frustrated all attempts to foist an illegitimate leadership upon the Palestinians or fob them off with substitutes for a sovereign place under the sun. It is this which constitutes the umbilical cord between the Palestinians of the occupied territories and the diaspora.
The Palestinians have more than tripled in number, from 1,300,000 in 1948 to 4,500,000 today, and their rate of increase is not declining. In the Gaza Strip alone they number some 600,000 and are destined there to reach 900,000 by the end of the century. All the psychological and physical pressures bearing down on them the last twenty years to leave the occupied territories have failed. The Palestinians under occupation have drawn the obvious lesson from the fate of their countrymen who left in 1948 and 1967. Even for those who want to leave, the absorptive capacity for Palestinians in the Arab countries has been strained to the limit: Lebanon and Syria no longer qualify as havens for Palestinians; Jordan’s King Hussein is already obsessed with the nightmare of a massive Palestinian influx into his country. Egypt hardly has standing room for its own people, and opportunities in the countries of the Persian Gulf have been circumscribed.
Some Israeli leaders contemplate a policy of thinning out or expelling the Palestinians. But to where? Northward into the Shi‘ite heartland of Lebanon or across the Golan Heights toward Damascus? Southward into Sinai? Eastward across the Jordan River? Even hard-liners in Israel might balk at the first two suggestions, and the third is also problematic. It was one thing to drive out a civilian population amid the confusion of large-scale military operations, as happened in 1948; it would be another to do so in an environment where no fighting by regular armies was taking place. It was one thing to drive refugees across the river from their camps in the Jordan Valley in the wake of the retreating Jordanian army, as happened in 1967; it would be another to uproot the inhabitants of the towns and villages of the highlands. Even before the recent events in the occupied territories, Palestinian conduct in Lebanon in the face of siege and bombardment showed that Palestinian civilians do not panic as readily as they did in 1948.
The extraordinary courage displayed in the occupied territories since December, especially by Palestinian youth, is but one indicator of the resistance an Israeli policy of mass expulsion would face. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the bulk of the Palestinians in the occupied territories will remain in situ, and that they will increase in number, even as the acreage at their disposal continues to dwindle with Israeli foreclosures and their political frustrations mount in the absence of a general settlement. Given the resonance between the Palestinians inside and outside the occupied territories, continued denial of Palestinian nationhood is unlikely to lead to the diminution of its intensity or the moderation of its expression. It would therefore seem that, just as Israel is a reality which the Palestinians and the PLO must accept, Palestinian nationhood is a reality which Israel must accept. As Israel is here to stay, the Palestinians are here to stay, too.
Over the years the Palestine problem has generated concentric circles of expanding conflict. From the early 1880s to 1948 the conflict was preponderantly between the Jewish community of Palestine and the indigenous Arab Palestinians. From 1948 to 1967 the conflict was preponderantly between Israel and the neighboring Arab countries. In the period since 1967 the struggle has grown to new dimensions despite the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty some ten years ago. Even a cursory look at this last period would reveal the adverse—and often bizarre—effects of the persistence of this conflict on regional stability, Western interests and superpower relations.
The rise of Middle Eastern radicalism, for example, is not altogether unconnected with the continued non-resolution of the Palestine problem. Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, like most of his Arab contemporaries, was suffused in his youth with anger at the perceived injustices suffered by the Palestinians. The rise of the radical PLO in the mid-1960s was as much a revolt against moderate Arab regimes and their Western sponsors as against Israel. The PLO strategy of seeking bases in the Arab countries for operations against Israel led to the destabilization of Jordan in 1970-71 and contributed to the disintegration of Lebanon. It took the PLO’s operations from Lebanon against Israel and Israel’s scorched-earth strategy against southern Lebanon (which was designed to pit its Shi‘ite inhabitants against the PLO) to make a new breed of Shi‘ite militants receptive to Ayatollah Khomeini’s message and install Iranian-style fundamentalism on Israel’s northern borders. The oil embargo of 1973, with all its consequences, was motivated by the Arab perception of American support for Israel during the Middle East war of that year.
The Israeli hope of dealing a death blow to Palestinian nationalism by the military destruction of the PLO led to the 1982 invasion of Lebanon; for the first time, Israel laid siege to and occupied an Arab capital. The perceived opportunity afforded by the departure of the PLO from Beirut induced the United States (with not a little encouragement from Israel) to assume the anachronistic task of reconstructing Lebanon around the Maronite Christian minority, in colossal disregard of the other Lebanese sects and the heritage of the ancient city of Damascus next door. The result was the tragic loss of American and other lives and the first military skirmish in history between America and Syria, in which two American planes were shot down and an American pilot was taken prisoner.
The bizarre chain of events only grew longer. Lebanon’s central institutions broke down totally, creating an ideal environment for anarchy and the unfettered pursuit of vengeance through the taking of American and other Western hostages. Eventually the trail led to White House preoccupation with the release of hostages and to the scandal of the Iran-contra operation.
Israel’s need for the mass immigration of Jews to offset Palestinian demographic growth supplies part of the motivation for focusing international attention on the plight of Soviet Jewry. This issue impinges on U.S.-Soviet relations and figured prominently during General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s December visit to Washington. The powerful opposition of the American Jewish establishment toward U.S. arms sales even to moderate Arab countries affects the credibility of the United States with these Arab regimes, as well as the viability of their pro-Western orientation; it drives some of them to seek alternative sources of supply in Moscow, further weakening Western influence.
With competitive support from the two superpowers the arsenals of Israel and some Arab radical countries have grown exponentially. A nuclear alert was declared by the United States in 1973, in response to a threatened Soviet intervention at a time of heightened Arab-Israeli tension. Meanwhile, we have growing reminders that Israel has crossed the atomic, if not the thermonuclear, threshold, while evidence of biological warfare capabilities in the region also mounts.
The likely harvest of human and material devastation in a future Arab-Israeli war is a cogent argument for the need to defuse the Palestinian problem from which the conflict between Israel and the Arab states derives. This need is all the more compelling because of the increasingly religious aspect that the struggle for Palestine is assuming.
Religious undertones have always been present in the Palestine conflict. To be sure, Herzlian Zionism has remained explicitly secular in orientation despite the implicit premise of divine right in Zionist polemics. Palestinian opposition was primarily motivated by the political objectives of Zionism, even though some religious fears were voiced among Palestinians concerning the Muslim sanctuaries of Jerusalem and Hebron. Even after the creation of Israel and the expansion of the conflict to include the Arab states, Arab reaction did not assume a Muslim coloring per se—and this despite the historical analogy uppermost in the Arab mind, of Israel as the reborn Crusader kingdom of medieval times.
The reason for the secular thrust of Arab reaction was the vigor of pan-Arab ideology as preached in the 1950s and the 1960s by the Baath Party from Damascus and Baghdad and the Arab National Movement from Beirut, and the adoption of this ideology by Gamal Abdel Nasser until his death in 1970. Pan-Arabism posited the existence of one multi-state Arab nation to which the peoples of the individual Arab states belong. The components of the nation are a common language and history, and shared sentiments and interests.
As opposed to pan-Arabism, pan-Islamism stresses the unity through faith of all Muslims, whether Arab or not. Religious fundamentalism has been precipitated in the Arab world in the last two to three decades by a number of developments and factors, not least being the growth of Jewish fundamentalism in Israel and the occupied territories. There is also the continuing grinding poverty of tens of millions, despite the oil wealth; there is the profligacy of the life-styles of the rich and powerful, coupled, especially in Egypt, with claustrophobic demographic pressures. A newly educated and relentlessly growing army of university graduates has emerged with few economic opportunities and little knowledge of the West. Some Arab rulers are perceived as subservient to the United States, particularly in matters pertaining to Israel. And Israel is perceived as enjoying an intolerable freedom of action throughout the Arab world, as when, for example, it launched air raids on Baghdad and Tunis in 1981 and 1985, respectively.
Ultimately, secular pan-Arabism failed to achieve a convincing semblance of unity, and the raison d’état of individual Arab states conflicted to the point of causing internecine disputes; these Arab countries seemed powerless in the face of continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese territory.
These are the circumstances in which the appeal of Ayatollah Khomeini resounds. His appeal is not restricted to Shi‘ites, but extends to the Sunni masses and intellectuals, inasmuch as his rallying cry is not Shi‘ism but Islam, and the targets of his attacks include both the great powers and the Arab dynasts. His constant reference to the liberation of Jerusalem is as effective as it is deliberate.
Religious fundamentalism is both a reactive and assertive phenomenon in the face of challenge and failure. It is partly a search for a bulwark against engulfment by alien values, partly a protest against tyranny whether foreign or indigenous, and partly a revolt against underdog status and frustrated expectations. The context in which religious fundamentalism has taken hold in the Arab world is wider than the Arab-Israeli conflict, but that the conflict exacerbates the pace and intensity of fundamentalism’s evolution is undeniable.
Palestinians both inside and outside the occupied territories have been affected by this change in the political climate. The competition between Muslim fundamentalist groups and PLO sympathizers under occupation (which, ironically, was encouraged by Israeli intelligence authorities) has been replaced by growing solidarity and operational coordination between the two groups.
This is in part an index of the general shift in the Middle Eastern political mood away from secularism, but it is also a response to the paramount necessity of closing ranks in the face of escalating Israeli pressures. It is not too difficult to understand why, at times of great adversity or challenge, believers might seek a deus ex machina in Allah. The immediate and omnipresent stimulus for such a trend in the occupied territories lies in the biblical pronouncements, posturings and conduct of the Gush Emunim—the spearhead and the hated symbol of Jewish fundamentalist willfulness, particularly in the ancient quarters adjoining the Muslim sanctuaries of Jerusalem and Hebron. It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that the Palestine problem and the Arab-Israeli conflict may have already crossed the threshold of their metamorphosis into a 21st-century version of the Crusades.
Within living memory, the United States was looked upon by Arab public opinion as the most friendly and trustworthy Western power. Unlike Britain or France, which took control of much of the region after World War I, the United States was unencumbered by any legacy of imperialism or conflict with any Arab people. But with the assumption by the United States of its new global responsibilities at the end of World War II, this idyllic state of affairs was unlikely to persist, and it did not. Nevertheless the depth of alienation from the United States of contemporary Arab public opinion (among both the masses and the intellectuals), even in moderate states with friendly official relations with Washington, has elicited little concern in the West. This alienation is a grave harbinger of things to come.
What strikes one most about this state of affairs is its sheer gratuitousness: two of the principal objectives of the United States in the Middle East—access to Arab oil and the prevention of Soviet domination of the area—do not necessarily militate against cordial Arab-American relations.
No Arab state wants to see the area dominated by either the United States or the Soviet Union; geographic proximity to Russia argues the prudence of cultivating the friendship of the more distant superpower. Pan-Arab parties have been locked in often mortal combat with the local communist parties, and even in radical Arab countries these parties live at the state’s sufferance. The Soviet penetration that has occurred in the Middle East cannot be dissociated from the failure to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Arab need to balance American support of Israel with support from the Soviet Union. Similarly, with oil, the Arabs need American and Western markets no less than the West needs Arab oil. The most disruptive political impingement so far on the supply of oil to the West has been a result of American policy toward Israel.
For four decades now the Arab world has pondered the nature and motivation of this policy. Probably no other topic has been discussed at greater length in Arab political literature or debate. Three principal hypotheses have emerged: (1) U.S. policy in the Arab-Israeli conflict is the reflection of unchangeable American cultural and religious values; (2) the American pluralistic political system gives leeway to competing groups, including the powerful pro-Israel lobby; (3) as a capitalist, imperialistic system the United States is intrinsically inimical to the interests of the Arabs.
The Arab circles most concerned for the future of Arab-American relations have clung to the second hypothesis; we have come under harsh attack for the naïveté of our implicit faith in the possibility of a change for the better in American policy. We have long argued the need to distinguish between harsh-sounding election promises and the policies subsequently pursued, and have stressed the learning potential of political incumbents and the existence of an institutional memory and regional expertise in the State Department and other American agencies which tend to balance domestic political calculation. The experience of the Reagan Administration—even in a second term when reelection was not a factor—systematically knocked down each of our arguments. To be sure, the Administration’s Middle East diplomatic initiative of September 1982 gave momentary demonstration of the goodwill of the United States, but unfortunately this effort soon petered out.
The effect of all this on the consciousness of Arab intellectuals has been a direct identification of the United States with Israel: when Israel confiscates, colonizes or invades, it is the United States that is seen to be behind these actions. Not only does this threaten to eliminate the United States as a disinterested third party which can mediate, referee and act as a court of appeal, but for Arabs it casts the United States in the same mold as the enemy. The pervasiveness of these perceptions is not annulled by the comfort taken by some Arab rulers in the presence of American warships on the horizon or AWACS aircraft overhead.
A deep emotional alienation from the United States is developing in the Arab world, buttressed by a hardening conviction that the U.S. government is structurally incapable of being fair. The stereotyping of the Arab in U.S. popular culture and politics grows apace, giving little incentive to American leaders to be more forthcoming toward the Arab world. It is not altogether a coincidence that U.S. citizens have been specifically targeted by radical Arab groups in these last few years.
A major assumption of American policy has been that a strong Israel is more likely to make concessions toward a peace settlement. With both Egypt and Iraq neutralized and Syria bogged down in Lebanon and at loggerheads with the PLO, Israel is as near the zenith of its military might as it will probably get. Yet the essence of even the Israeli Labor Party’s position would seem categorically to preclude accommodation to the minimal demands of the Palestinians and the substance of the consensus forged at the Fez summit of the Arab League in September 1982: a sovereign Palestinian state within the 1967 frontier, in binding, internationally guaranteed coexistence with Israel, a solution which could be fashioned in such a way as to eliminate any threat to the security of Israel, as I have argued previously in this journal.
To the best of my knowledge, the furthest the Labor Party seems willing to go would be the creation of Palestinian "enclaves" in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. These enclaves, separated from one another by Israeli settlements and suburban blocs as well as by various military enclosures, would amount to 60-70 percent of the Gaza Strip and about 40 percent of the West Bank. The Jordan River would constitute the international frontier behind which the Israeli army would remain in control. Municipal or quasi-municipal functions would devolve to local Palestinian representatives in these enclaves, but internal security would remain in Israeli hands. Jordan would be invited to "co-police" the enclaves with Israel and presumably to extend its citizenship to all the inhabitants. This attenuated and selective Jordanian presence would be the justification for calling the arrangement a "territorial compromise." Face-to-face talks with a Jordanian delegation containing local Palestinians virtually chosen by Tel Aviv would negotiate this settlement at an otherwise ceremonial international conference.
This, to the best of my understanding, is the essence of the Jordanian option to which the United States and the Labor Party of Israel seem wedded, as at once a conduit, a repository and final destination. Strategically it would absolve Israel of acknowledging a Palestinian nationhood, past or present, embracing the occupied territories and the diaspora, with all the attendant political, juridical and moral implications. Tactically it would keep the PLO, symbol of Palestinian nationhood, out of the peace process, drive a wedge between the PLO and Jordan, present a "conciliatory" Israeli face to the outside world, and throw the burden of rejectionism and "missed opportunities" on the Palestinians.
This Jordanian option is but a latter-day version of an almost hallowed tradition for solving the Palestine problem over the heads of the Palestinians. Theodore Herzl established the tradition in his talks in 1898 with Kaiser Wilhelm II. Chaim Weizmann followed the pattern in his dealings with Lord Balfour (1917) and with Emir (later King) Faisal in 1919. Throughout the 1930s Zionist leaders persisted on this course via non-Palestinian pan-Arab leaders in Damascus, Beirut, and Amman. Like the Balfour Declaration fifty years earlier, U.N. Resolution 242, passed in 1967, made no reference to the Palestinians, while the Camp David accords settled their future without their participation. With impressive monotony the same recipe is tried again and again despite the catastrophic consequences that each attempt brings in its train, and the invalid arguments heard at each juncture.
Even full Jordanian sovereignty over the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) during the period between 1949 and 1967 was not viable. The alleged dichotomy between the Palestinians in the occupied territories and those in the diaspora is in the eye of the beholder; I argue that the bonds between those Palestinians are as intimate and indestructible as the bonds between Jews inside and outside Israel. No West Bank or Gaza "leader" anointed by the United States or Israel could look his compatriots in the eye, much less negotiate away their birthright. Far from stabilizing Jordan, the Jordanian option would strike at the very roots of the regime. It would involve it in mortal combat with all factions of the PLO and pit it against last-ditch Palestinian resistance in the occupied territories. Nor would the détente between Amman and Damascus survive such developments. Syria’s Hafez al-Assad may encourage Jordan to isolate Yasir Arafat for his own tactical reasons, but no conceivable consideration of ideology, self-interest or prudence would lead him to implement the Jordanian option. As the senior statesman of the Arab world, King Hussein must know this, and his sound political instincts will lead him to the obvious conclusion.
The sad events in the occupied territories since December 1987 confirm this analysis. And while it is too early to say what new leadership (if any) will emerge, certain assessments can be offered with reasonable assurance.
There is evidence of an extensive organizational infrastructure emerging at the grass roots, an intermeshing of formal and informal groups of the kind described in classical writings on revolutions. The activist leadership seems to be typically diffuse, anonymous, decentralized and non-pyramidal, with heavy representation from the younger urban, rural and refugee camp generations in relatively equal proportions. A new psychology seems to have gripped the bulk of the population, partly induced by the anniversaries falling in 1987-88 (the 20th of the occupation and the 40th of the establishment of Israel), partly by the immobilism of the Israeli political scene, the ultra-hawkish stance of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the perceived indifference of Washington and the loss of momentum in the peace process. The November 1987 Arab League summit in Amman seemed preoccupied with the Iran-Iraq war, and the PLO leadership was locked in its perennial crisis of relations with Assad and Hussein.
Within this psychology, three new elements can be singled out. Factional and ideological differences among Palestinians (e.g., the business sector versus the radicals, secularists versus fundamentalists, some PLO factions against others) are being overcome. These differences had hitherto impaired the effectiveness of resistance but now seem to have been subsumed under a national consensus of unprecedented scope and cohesion.
A barrier of fear has been broken. This is the result of a sense of immunity acquired incrementally over two decades against the worst the occupation could do. Well over half of the entire adult male Palestinian population of the occupied territories must have seen the inside of an Israeli prison. In the extended family networks that prevail in the territories only a minority will not include a relative who has been manhandled, humiliated, injured, imprisoned or exiled, or had his or her home demolished. When every detail of one’s daily personal, social, economic and professional life is governed by one or more of the 1,210 ukases (of competing absurdity) issued so far by the military governors of the occupied territories, one’s response is bound to be a deepening contempt for the system and its keepers—as a necessary condition for surmounting one’s fear of them.
Finally, we see growing awareness of the need for self-reliance, or rather a compelling realization that in the last analysis salvation is self-generated. This phenomenon should be familiar to Jews in particular. For too long the Palestinians in the occupied territories have waited for St. George to come from across the border. For too long they have seen themselves as minor actors (if actors at all) in the shaping of their own destiny. That the occupation has succeeded in activating the moral outrage of the population is self-evident.
The flavor and weight of this occupation, the motivation and forces behind the current uprising, and the thrust of the population’s aspirations may be gathered from the Jerusalem Program—the statement read out at a press conference in January at the National Palace Hotel in Jerusalem by a spokesman for the "Palestinian National Institutions and Personalities from the West Bank and Gaza Strip."
The statement contains a long political preamble and 14 specific points. Three deal with the immediate crisis: the release of those recently arrested, "especially the children," the return of four Palestinians deported amid wide criticism, and the lifting of the siege of the refugee camps. Five points deal with human rights: they call on Israel to adhere to the fourth Geneva Convention; to release people under administrative detention and house arrest and facilitate the reunion of families; to cease the demolition of houses; to initiate formal inquiries into the behavior of soldiers, settlers and security men who have "unduly caused death or bodily harm to unarmed civilians"; and to grant the political freedom of meetings and conventions including "free municipal elections" under a neutral authority.
Two points address religious fears: the curtailment of "provocative activities" in the Old City of Jerusalem and the preservation of the status quo of the Muslim and Christian holy sites. Two others address the loss of land and water: they call for the cessation of settlement activity and land confiscation and the release of land confiscated, as well as the rescinding of measures "to deprive the territories of their water resources." Two address taxation issues: the cancellation of the Israeli value-added tax and all other direct taxes, and the release of "monies deducted from the wages of laborers" inside Israel, in the absense of commensurate social services. The statement also calls for the removal of restrictions on building permits, industrial projects and agricultural development programs, including the digging of artesian wells. Discriminatory trade policies are also addressed: either the free transfer of industrial and agricultural produce from the occupied territories into Israel should be permitted or "comparable restrictions" should be placed on such produce entering the territories from Israel.
The political preamble states the obvious, that the occupation cannot last forever, and that "real peace" can be achieved only through the recognition by Israel of Palestinian national aspirations to which the uprising is committed. These include "the rights of self-determination and the establishment of an independent state on our national soil under the leadership of the PLO as our sole, legitimate representative." Continued occupation will lead to further violence, bloodshed and the deepening of hatred. The only way "to extricate ourselves from this scenario," the preamble states, is an international conference with the participation of "all concerned parties including the PLO as an equal partner" as well as the five permanent members of the Security Council "under the supervision" of the two superpowers. "To prepare the atmosphere for the conference," Israel is called upon to comply with the demands outlined.
If this statement represents the uprising’s demands (and the indications are that it does indeed) no one could accuse the Palestinians under occupation of not knowing what they want; nor do the leaders of the uprising seem to be grooming themselves as substitutes or proxies for the PLO.
The tone of the Jerusalem Program is firm but sober. There are no maximalist territorial demands or flamboyant formulations about an unrealizable democratic secular state. The aim is clearly a negotiated peace with Israel on a nation-to-nation basis. Perhaps the most interesting demand of the Jerusalem Program is for the removal of restrictions on political contacts with the PLO, to allow for "participation of Palestinians from the territories in the proceedings of the Palestinian National Congress in order to ensure a direct input into the decision-making process." Such input is more likely to be in favor of pragmatism than not.
Despite Arab disarray and the tumultuous fortunes of the PLO since 1982, the Arab and Palestinian stance today is more propitious for an honorable and viable settlement than ever before. The pity is that neither the Israeli nor the American government yet seems able to see this, or if either does, it has yet to find the way to nurture and build upon it.
In the first place, the resolutions of the September 1982 Arab Fez summit remain a remarkably forthcoming, collectively articulated Arab peace plan, enunciated at the level of the heads of state (only Qaddafi absented himself). Skeptics are invited to compare the resolutions with, say, the pronouncements of the 1967 Khartoum summit to see the political light-years traveled by the Arab countries in the direction of pragmatism. There was absolutely no precedent for the Fez summit in collective Arab diplomacy. Its orientation was unmistakably conciliatory toward a peaceful, nontransitional and guaranteed settlement on the basis of coexistence with Israel within the 1967 frontiers. There is still nothing like it on the Israeli side at such an authoritative and comprehensive level. Likewise, the PLO position as fashioned under Arafat’s leadership has evolved within the framework of the Fez resolutions and reached a new level of refinement during the PLO-Jordanian talks of January-February 1986.
I was but a marginal and informal participant in those talks, but my distinct impression was that they broke down not because Arafat was averse to accepting Resolution 242, negotiating with Israel or denouncing terrorism—the three conditions set by Washington and relayed by Amman. Arafat specifically accepted Resolution 242 alongside "other pertinent U.N. resolutions." He specifically mentioned the Israeli government as a party with whom he was willing to negotiate a peaceful settlement within the context of an international peace conference and on the basis of his February 1985 accord with King Hussein. He reaffirmed his denunciation of operations outside the occupied territories and Israel.
There was one fundamental sticking point: Amman absolutely insisted (presumably at the behest of Washington) on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, that acceptance of Resolution 242 should be "without trimmings," i.e., with no qualifications whatsoever. This raised the obvious question of the quid pro quo, which, Arafat was told, was U.S. acquiescence in the participation in a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to the international conference of Palestinians who were not themselves PLO officials but were approved by the PLO. "What about Palestinian self-determination?" the PLO asked. This, Amman replied, was a matter between Jordan and the PLO. Would that it were! In the circumstances Arafat asked that in return for accepting the three conditions, Amman should obtain assurances from Washington (not Tel Aviv) about Palestinian self-determination on the basis of the Jordanian-PLO accord of February 1985. Amman could not see its way to doing that—hence the breakdown of the talks.
Is it really so outrageously perverse of Arafat to have balked at unilateral, unconditional, unreciprocated recognition of Israel, which the Israeli government itself has not solicited and has declared its intention to reject? Or is his perversity more in his hesitation to place his hope blindly in a U.N. resolution that does not even mention his people by name, to stop resistance to Israeli occupation and to give up PLO presence at the peace conference? Is he so lamentably wrong to hesitate to forget all U.N. resolutions favorable to his cause, to delegate Palestinian representation to Amman, and to throw himself upon the noblesse oblige of Tel Aviv and the empathy of Washington?
The 18th meeting of the Palestine National Congress (PNC) held in April 1987 in Algiers demonstrated, with the return to the fold of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the fundamental solidarity between the central Palestinian factions that constitute the PLO, isolating the dissident factions sponsored by Syria. The admission for the first time of the representatives of the Palestine Communist Party to the PLO Executive was counterbalanced by the admission of two specifically Muslim representatives to the General Council, thus broadening the popular base of the PLO. The Abu Nidal group was denied admission to the various PLO bodies. The 18th PNC meeting confirmed Arafat’s status as primus inter pares.
The PNC position on Resolution 242 was a retreat from Arafat’s specific but qualified acceptance of it during his talks in Amman. But the Congress’ rejection of the resolution was reasoned rather than categorical, on the grounds that 242 considered the Palestine problem as a "question of refugees" and ignored the "inalienable national rights" of the Palestinian people. On the other hand, the PNC reaffirmed support of the 1982 Fez summit peace plan and called for the development of relations with "the democratic forces in Israel" which are against "Israeli occupation and expansion." Equally significant, because of the presence of the Popular Front and the Democratic Front, was the Congress’ readiness to participate in an international peace conference "on a footing of equality" under the aegis of the United Nations, with the participation of the permanent members of the Security Council and "the concerned parties in the region," i.e., Syria and Israel. The distinctive relations between the Palestinian and Jordanian peoples were reemphasized, as was "confederation between two independent states" as the principle for future relations between Jordan and a Palestinian state in the occupied territories. In sum, the Algiers PNC meeting left the door open for peaceful negotiations while specifically acknowledging the need for a constitutional link with Jordan.
Between the PNC meeting in April and the Amman summit in November 1987, several initiatives were undertaken to reduce the tensions between the PLO and Damascus. This was partly necessitated by the festering wounds in Lebanon, but largely by the need dictated by common sense to coordinate with the "concerned party" of Syria before any international conference. One early result of these initiatives was the absence of a PLO-Syrian confrontation at the Amman summit; another has been the lifting of the siege of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.
My impression as a participant in these initiatives is that while the gap in perceptions between Damascus and the PLO is considerable, both parties are equally keen to bridge it. A rapprochement between the PLO and Damascus is a sine qua non for serious Arab preparation for peace talks. Of the three Arab core parties to the conflict (Syria, Jordan and the PLO), Syria is the senior coalition member. This is a function of its geographic position, history, traditional role and its military strength and preparedness. As to whether President Assad is committed to peace talks, the answer is that he is a signatory to the Fez summit peace plan but, like many others, is very skeptical about the outcome of the negotiations with an Israel that is so preponderant militarily and enjoys perceived unlimited and unconditional American backing. Can anyone credibly blame him for this?
The West has misinterpreted the significance of the Amman summit’s preoccupation with the Iran-Iraq war and the green light it gave for the resumption of relations with Egypt. This summit was a special session, summoned specifically to address the Gulf war. No regular Arab summit has been convened since 1982 because of tensions between Syria and the PLO and between Syria and Iraq.
The true significance of the Amman summit, therefore, is that it was held with the presence of Assad, Arafat and Saddam Hussein of Iraq, and that it paves the way for a regular summit meeting to address the Arab-Israeli conflict—a necessary preparatory step to the peace talks. Egypt’s "return" may increase its military, political and economic role in the Gulf countries, but it does not necessarily enhance its role or credibility in the decisions that have to be taken collectively by the three main Arab parties in the conflict: Syria, Jordan and the PLO.
For several years now much time and energy have been expended on the issue of an international conference versus direct talks. This has been at the expense of any crystallization of substantive principles for the resolution of the conflict. There is little difference between direct talks with or without the umbrella of an international conference if such a conference is purely ceremonial. It is difficult to see what attraction a ceremonial international conference would have to the Syrians, the PLO or, for that matter, the Soviets. Conferences, qua conferences, do not solve conflicts. Surely the key to a successful international conference (ceremonial or not) and even to direct talks is intensive, high-level albeit quiet pre-negotiations with and between all the principal protagonists (Syria, Israel, Jordan and the PLO) with maximal persuasiveness exerted by the superpowers on their respective friends.
In the light of historical experience accumulated since the Balfour Declaration, the recent uprising in the occupied territories and the configuration of power in the Arab world, the building blocks of what seems to me an honorable and pragmatically just settlement would appear without equivocation to be the following:
—the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights to the international frontiers, with demilitarization of the evacuated areas under U.N. supervisory observers and contingents stationed therein;
—the territorial partition of Mandatory Palestine along the 1967 frontier;
—a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip (linked by a non-extraterritorial road), living in peaceful coexistence alongside Israel. This Palestinian state would be in confederation with Jordan and precluded from entering into military alliances with other countries, whether Arab or not;
—the designation of West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. Extraterritorial status and access to the Jewish holy places would be assured, and a Grand Ecumenical Council formed to represent the three monotheistic faiths (with rotating chairmanship), to oversee interreligious harmony. Reciprocal rights of movement and residence between the two capitals within agreed-upon limits would be negotiated;
—an agreed limited return of 1948 Palestinian refugees to Israel proper and their unrestricted right of return to the Palestinian state. Those unable or unwilling to return would be compensated;
—agreement that the Jewish settlements existing in the occupied territories in 1948 would remain under Palestinian law, the others to be evacuated but not dismantled;
—explicit reciprocal recognition between Israel, the PLO, Jordan and Syria;
—Arab summit and Islamic summit guarantees of the settlement as the point final;
—superpower and great power guarantees (inside and outside the U.N. Security Council) with sanctions;
—an interim transitional period of fixed and limited duration.
Important sectors of Israeli public opinion, not only on the left of center but at the center itself, favor a settlement that might be acceptable to most Palestinians. They are aware of the dangers of indefinite domination of another people, but this is not the thrust of popular Israeli sentiment nor of the thinking of the Israeli leadership. The Israeli scorpion is determinedly uncognizant of the Palestinian fellow creature in the same bottle. Paradoxically, a Palestinian state in the occupied territories within the 1967 frontiers in peaceful coexistence alongside Israel is the only conceptual candidate for a historical compromise of this century-old conflict. Without it the conflict will remain an open-ended one between the maximalist concepts of Zionism and those of its Arab and Muslim hinterland, whatever palliative measures are taken in the meantime.
One would have thought the Jewish genius capable of grasping effortlessly the need for an honorable and viable settlement in light of the geographic, demographic and ideological realities of the Middle East. Even archaeology adds its imperative plea in the form of the debris of so many past regional empires. The path to integration into a region would not seem to be via emphasis on extraneousness and escalating dependence on the outside. The breaking of bones is no passport to peace.
 "Thinking the Unthinkable: A Sovereign Palestinian State," July 1978, pp. 695-713; and "Regiopolitics: Toward a U.S. Policy on the Palestinian Problem," Summer 1981, pp. 1050-1063.