As Sameer Abraham points out in the article that follows, no proposal for the partition of Palestine has ever been accepted by any significant number of Palestinians. Such proposals have always had the intention of securing and legitimizing the Zionist presence in Palestine. But with the “transitional program” accepted by the Palestine National Congress in June 1974 we are faced with a proposal of different intent, for this time the suggestion has come from the Palestinians themselves.

The idea that as an interim goal the Palestinians should attempt to gain control of the West Bank and Gaza has been discussed in Palestinian circles since the June war in 1967. Not until 1972, with the resistance movement ousted from its Jordanian bases and concentrated in Lebanon, was the question seriously debated. To our knowledge, its first formal presentation came during the summer of 1973, prior to the October war, and was a product of the Democratic Popular Front. The transitional program was thus a program of the left, although all the Palestinian left was not agreed on the proposal. Nor, for that matter, are they now.

The October war changed the strategic situation facing the Palestinian resistance movement. Six years before, the crushing defeat of Arab armies by Israel had cost the Arab regimes their leadership of the Arab national struggle, a leadership which was quickly captured by the Palestinian movement. The PLO freed itself from Arab League restraints, and won popular support as the premier political organization in the Arab world. The October war reversed the field and resulted in a seizure of influence and initiative by the regimes.

The successes of the Arab armies in the October war strengthened the regimes as props for American policy in the area. Prior to the October war the United States had been able to diminish but not wholly check the power of the Palestinian movement. “Black September” in Jordan in 1970 and later attacks in Lebanon in 1972 and 1973 reduced the operations field of the Palestinian movement but did not eliminate its political sway. US policy after 1973 included: 1) isolating the Palestinian movement; 2) stabilizing the military and political configuration; and 3) guaranteeing the security of Israel — all to promote the overall security of US economic, military and political interests in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. The step-by-step negotiations undertaken by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for resolution of territorial questions following the October war set a precedent for revived US activity in the area based on relations with established governments and featuring increased pressure on the Palestinian movement, notably through the Lebanese conflagration. The Camp David accords are yet another step within this policy, as the document of the Egyptian left opposition party in this issue cogently argues.

In December 1974 MERIP Reports published an article by Fuad Faris entitled “A Palestinian State? Notes on the Palestinian Situation After the October War.” Faris argued in favor of the majority position of the Palestine National Congress, which had recently adopted a proposal for establishing a Palestinian national authority on any part of Palestinian soil won back from Israel — a proposal which was understood popularly as endorsing the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. “From a revolutionary point of view,” Faris said, “a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza can only be proposed as a transitional destabilizing factor, planned as an anti-Zionist and anti-Hashemite entity by necessity.” Faris’ position was controversial at the time, and MERIP gave the article a long introduction in which we outlined the controversy, and expressed some reservation and skepticism about some of the article’s points. We asked 1) whether it was realistic to suppose that a state of the kind proposed could ever be achieved by negotiation with Israel; 2) whether indeed such a state could survive as a destabilizing factor; and 3) whether the PLO would be able to build in the necessary positive revolutionary directions.

The political conjuncture has changed dramatically since 1974, when MERIP last published a long article about Palestinian strategy. Many of the same questions still persist, and are debated vigorously in the Palestinian movement and among its supporters. New questions, problems and strengths have also arisen, deriving from the civil war in Lebanon, the breadth and depth of pro-PLO sentiment in the West Bank and Gaza, the influence of the USSR in PLO circles, and Egypt’s recognition of Israel. The Camp David dynamic, holding out the prospect of “autonomy” for Palestinians in the occupied territories, is the latest and most severe challenge posed by the US. The debate about the various facets of “transitional” Palestinian goals vis-à-vis the occupied territories has become intensely practical within this new conjuncture. Sameer Abraham’s article is a helpful contribution to this ongoing debate.

Abraham’s thesis is that the PLO leadership embarked on what he terms a “moderate” course since the October war. He identifies “moderation” as the dominant trend within the leadership, which demands and will accept Palestinian “national authority” over part of Palestine, although with decreasing emphasis on the transitional function of this demand. The author does not focus on the political origins of the trend, or on the political struggles within the Palestinian movement that has accompanied the emergence of this trend every step of the way. He does provide, though, a comprehensive catalogue of the external and internal forces operating on the movement and its leadership to compel this course: the counter-revolutionary collusion between the United States, Israel, and virtually all of the Arab regimes at one time or another; the uneasy and frequently hostile relations between the movement and its erstwhile allies among the regimes; the vulnerability of the Palestinians, reflecting the national oppression and class dilemmas of occupation and exile. Abraham concludes that this trend still predominates within the leadership and is likely to continue to do so in the absence of what he regards as realistic alternatives.

We perceive three distinct responses to this analysis among Palestinians and their supporters. Many will agree that the present conjuncture offers limited possibilities, at best, to the Palestinian people, and that the compromises outlined by this moderate faction of the movement offer the best strategy for achieving them. Many others will stress the origin and continued progressive content of the “transitional program,” contending that it remains a viable strategy of the left. In their view, the lessening of national tensions among exploited working class Palestinians and Israelis can lead to the emergence of class-based political formations which could help transcend national antagonisms. This would raise the level of popular struggle, enhance its class dimension, and thus counteract the stabilizing function of a state as envisaged by right-wing Arab forces. This faction sees the “moderate” initiatives as necessary tactical moves within the present Arab and international conjuncture, and maintains that the inherent strength of leftist forces within the PLO cadres and leadership will prevent the dominance of the Palestinian bourgeoisie.

Abraham dismisses the “rejectionist” program as one which is impossible to realize at this historical moment but the critique of the moderate course offered by these forces, still numerous within the movement, has considerable weight. Although they have not yet been able to advance a program that would halt the moves to implement the moderate strategy, the course of events since 1973, when this debate began in earnest, has certainly exposed the intent of the US, with Israel, to isolate and destroy the Palestinian movement and thus bolstered the “rejectionist” analysis of the dangers of this course.

These theoretical and increasingly concrete and practical debates over Palestinian strategy take on greater importance in the context of recent developments. The revolution in Iran and uncertainty of its course, the intensification of struggles in the occupied territories, the contradictory relationship of the US with the major oil producers, all underscore the dynamic character of the present period, creating opportunities as well as obstacles in the path of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination. Those debates are most fruitful when they include a fundamental element underscored by Sameer Abraham: the class nature of the movement and its leadership, and the class dimension of the Palestinian situation. This effort to situate his paper in the context of continuing disagreement among the Palestinians and their supporters is also a declaration of our interest in encouraging further efforts to evaluate specific conditions at any given time and appreciate their implications for Palestinian strategy.

How to cite this article:

Peter Johnson "Introduction to “PLO at the Crossroads”," Middle East Report 80 (September/October 1979).
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