One of the lesser known aspects of Palestinian politics over the last eight years has been the steadily growing contacts between a number of Palestinian and Israeli progressive groups and individuals in the occupied territories. Though unreported, those contacts have not always been clandestine. They have involved a much wider circle than more publicized meetings between the small leftist parties on both sides of the “green line,” such as Matzpen and the Communist Party.
The Palestinian side has included a number of prominent mayors elected in the 1976 municipal elections—Bassam Shaka of Nablus, Karim Khalaf of Ramallah, Ibrahim Tawil of al-Bira, Fahd Qawasma of Hebron, and Muhammad Milham of Halhul (before Qawasma and Milham were exiled by the military government in 1980). It also included members of the powerful, but now banned, National Guidance Committee, a group of representative nationalist leaders associated with the PLO and formed in the wake of the Camp David Accord to articulate the political consensus in the West Bank. Over the last four years, most of these leaders have been alternately restricted to their hometowns, imprisoned or deported. In the case of Shaka and Khalaf, they were maimed by Israeli terrorists.
On the Israeli side, the meetings have included left of center groups in the Israeli political scene such as Sheli, Shasi, the Citizens’ Rights Movement, Peace Now and the Black Panthers. Sheli is the party headed by journalist and activist Uri Avnery. Shasi is the Israeli Socialist Left, one of the components of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality. Dissident members of the Labor Alignment, such as Yossi Sarid, Ya’ir Tsaban, and Meron Benvenisti and Shulamit Aloni of the Citizens’ Rights Movement have also participated. Yossi Sarid is a consistent critic of Labor policies. He came under heavy attack at the most recent party congress for his stands. Ya’ir Tsaban is a former leader of Israeli Communist Party (Maki). Meron Benvenisti is former vice mayor of Jerusalem. In the tenth Knesset, elected in June 1981, the Democratic Front has four seats and the Citizens’ Rights Movement one.
The initial impetus for these contacts came from the 1974 decision of the Palestine National Council to establish a Palestinian “national authority,” the 1977 PNC demand for an “independent Palestinian state” and the subsequent calls for a common dialogue between the Palestinian national movement and “progressive Israelis.” The actual contacts that did take place, both in the occupied territories or in Europe, caused considerable controversy and often opposition. This was because the PLO executive had deliberately left ambivalent the objectives of such a dialogue and the definition of “progressive Israelis.”
An important development in this process came immediately before the recent invasion of Lebanon. A number of lecturers from Najah National University (in Nablus) and Birzeit University published a series of articles prominently featured in al-Quds and al-Fajr, the two leading Palestinian dailies published in Jerusalem. Here the question of a common political platform between Palestinian supporters of the PLO and progressive Israelis was heatedly and, for the first time, openly debated. Those who supported the dialogue were motivated by two overriding considerations. One was to encourage those tendencies in Israel which opposed the extension of Israeli sovereignty to the occupied territories and supported Palestinian statehood. The second goal was to preempt Israel’s’ effort to foster collaborationist groups such as the Village Leagues and their subsidiary “Peace Front.” These groups are now involved with the civil administration’s project to establish “alternative” municipal councils in the West Bank—the first step to create a local alternative leadership to the PLO.
In addition, elements on the left among the Palestinian academics supported the dialogue as a means of infusing a socialist and internationalist perspective into discussion of the Palestine-Israel conflict. Implicit in their argument was a call for mutual recognition between the PLO and the state of Israel as a necessary political prelude leading to Palestinian independence. It was this point which generated much of the political controversy. During the war, signals from the PLO leadership—including Yasser Arafat’s meeting with Uri Avneri and similar statements by PLO representatives—fueled this debate.
Opponents to the dialogue fear that the Israeli military authorities will make use of the Arab-Jewish contacts to convey the impression that an alternative “moderate leadership” has emerged among the Palestinians in the aftermath of the Lebanon war. As early as mid-July, the West Bank civilian administration was propagating the views of a group of West Bank intellectuals associated with a new Israeli-supported newspaper, al-Taqqadum. According to a July 17 report in Ma’ariv, they have “condemned terrorism and called for Arab-Jewish coexistence.”
The proponents of the dialogue point out that it is precisely to prevent such quislings from gaining credibility that they have launched their activities. They present their initiative as an extension of the new PLO strategy of forging alliances with the Israeli peace camp. As they see it, an essential prerequisite for their success is full and consistent support from the leading nationalist forces in the occupied territories.
The most formidable dilemma currently facing leftist proponents of the dialogue is the sudden plethora of meetings between pro-Jordanian Palestinian elements and leading members of the Labor Party. These developed following the Arafat-Hussein rapprochement in October. The left is now saddled with the task of fighting on two fronts at once: for a realistic strategy of solving the territorial sovereignty question, and against any restoration of Jordanian hegemony in the West Bank and Gaza.
As the Palestine National Council approaches its upcoming but still unscheduled meeting, several issues raised by these Israeli-Palestinian contacts have now been elevated to the agenda of the highest Palestinian legislative body. These issues include the question of mutual Palestinian-Israeli recognition, the respective roles of Syria and Jordan in the proposed negotiations, and the nature of the transitional program for the PLO. The paramount task of the resistance movement in these deliberations is to arrive at a consensus on these issues without engendering a split in its ranks.