Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian scholar, is associate professor of politics at the American University of Beirut and a research fellow of the Institute for Palestine Studies. He is currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University, and he has written widely on political developments in the Arab world. Joe Stork spoke with him in Washington in October 1983.
How did this rebellion get started?
At least partly it was a result of Yasser Arafat’s mistakes immediately after the war. The first was when he avoided going to Damascus in the post-war months. His reluctance was understandable, in view of Syria’s role over the past few years and in particular its passivity during the last six weeks of the war. Nevertheless, this was a mistake. The bulk of the fighting forces, the cadres, the institutions and a large portion of the Palestinian people were in Syria, north Lebanon and the Bekaa. By distancing himself, he made himself an easy target for all the dissatisfaction, criticism and frustration following the withdrawal from Beirut. All of this played into the hands of the Syrians, who were able to portray themselves as the only force still in the field facing Israel. You can realize how big a mistake this was only if you understand how much of Arafat’s preeminence has always been a function of personal contact, and his personal ascendancy over other members of the leadership in face-to-face confrontations.
He and the rest of the leadership made another mistake by avoiding any discussion of the defeat in Lebanon, or any reassessment of the situation. They acted as if nothing had changed. There was no dialogue between them and the cadres. All the traveling to and fro to visit the forces scattered over seven countries didn’t help. Like everyone, the leadership was overwhelmed by what had happened. The resistance fighters had been the heroes of the Arab world: they had held off the entire Israeli army for over eight weeks, until everyone knew there was no longer any point in continuing. Then they all were dispersed and forgotten. In this situation, people in the movement needed guidance and a sense of direction. The leadership did not give them that.
It was in this setting that the rebellion arose: the leadership distant and apparently paralyzed; the men and officers in the forces full of frustration and grievances; the Syrians, newly strengthened by the Soviets, flexing their muscles and showing that they were a powerful actor with a wide margin of maneuver. Some acted in this situation out of opportunism, some out of a sincere belief that they had to do something or things would get worse, some for other reasons. Their grievances blinded them to the Syrian factor—to the fact that Syria had always sought status as a preeminent regional power, and winning US recognition as such. Syria aims to do this by ending the independence of the PLO and making it an appendage of Syrian policy, so that Damascus could claim that only it could “deliver” the Palestinians.
This blindness of the rebels also prevents them from seeing that they will never get popular support outside the circles which share their intense level of frustration and are willing to let that override what almost all of them know about Syrian intentions. The Palestinian people will never forget how this regime came to power in 1970, and over what issues, how it restricted commando activity, how it fought the PLO and Lebanese left in 1976—including its complicity in the fall of Tall al-Zaatar—and how it failed to budge after the June 25 ceasefire during the 1982 war. They are no worse than most other Arab regimes, and the PLO is obliged to have a certain level of relations with them, but the rebels will never get popular support among the Palestinian people for what is in effect a position of total dependence on Syria.
Would this have happened with or without Beirut?
The problem of the political line had been acute. There was really no strategy since 1971. There was a slogan, there was a proclaimed strategy, but in practice, there was no detailed plan for its implementation. This problem was coming to a head before the war. The war was the catalyst. There was one other initially important thing: Once the PLO had been deprived of an independent base, external forces, specifically Syria, came into play. This hastened events on another level. The slogan of democracy has been raised by Abu Musa and company, but many people assert that the PLO represented perhaps the most democratic political body in the Arab world. It certainly did. The rebels complain that Arafat behaved like an autocrat. He short-circuited the democratic process and organizational structures. That’s certainly at least partly true. But people acquiesced. There was consent of a sort. Moreover, the rebels used these techniques themselves when they could. It’s grotesque to see these same people, who could have raised their heads and done something about it before the war, suddenly in the “freedom” of Syrian-occupied Lebanon and the Syrian capital, proclaiming that there was no freedom in Beirut.
Back in midsummer, it looked like Arafat was going to pull through. Today, his situation looks more desperate. Are the reasons for this mainly external?
There are many reasons. Outside of Fateh circles, outside of people who are actually involved in the resistance, it’s my impression that Abu Musa has absolutely no support whatsoever—in the Palestinian camps and communities in Syria, in Lebanon, in Jordan, in the West Bank and Gaza, in Israel, in the Gulf or anywhere else. Arafat still retains the support of almost everybody on the mass level—even those who are very critical of him. But since last summer, while Arafat has made a lot of mistakes, the Syrians have made themselves look good by backing the Lebanese nationalists and standing up to the United States. This has helped those who move in Syria’s wake, like Abu Musa, to gain credibility. Arafat went to Tripoli because he had to get into the act. I think this weakened him further. This is one of the mistakes I’m talking about. It was getting back into a morass he was well rid of. He has put himself in a difficult situation, caught between Lebanese factions. He has got to take sides, but any side he takes loses somebody. The others are spared this problem: they’re in areas of Syrian control, and they don’t have any independent power of decision. Syrian alliances are by force of circumstance their alliances.
Do they actually entertain illusions about their future with Syria?
Some of them realize that the Syrian regime has a very ambiguous and complex dialectical relationship with the US: the possibility of a liberation war with Israel, permitting the Palestinians to carry out armed struggle, is completely excluded within this dialectic. They talk about broadening the possibilities, pushing the Syrians in a certain direction, but one almost senses that they don’t believe that. They calculate that the Syrians will continue on this current line long enough for them to win the intra-Palestinian battle, and then they’ll worry about Syria. If the Syrians don’t come to a final agreement with the US over Lebanon, which is very unlikely, then they can remain in the Syrian shadow, in a situation of conflict which benefits them. On the other hand, the less realistic ones are talking absolute nonsense. Palestinian forces returning to Beirut is just out of the question. They have no understanding whatsoever of what has happened in Lebanon over these past 12 years.
Does the rebel movement have any political coherence?
No. You have extreme left, extreme rejectionists inside Fatah, and you have people who were ardent advocates of a provisional program of a West Bank/Gaza state as a short-term objective. You have people who fought the Syrians in 1976 and people who are Syrian agents. It is a very loose coalition, with little in common except the fact that they fell out with or were genuinely critical of the practices of Yasser Arafat or Abu Jihad or somebody else in the central group of the leadership sometime in the last few years. You have people who are pure as the driven snow, still motivated by selfless revolutionary ethic, and you have some of the most corrupt people in the movement. You have people who carry a very large share of responsibility for some of the stupidest things the Palestinian movement ever did, and you have some people who were very correct in the criticisms they made over the past 12 years. There’s not even any consistency to the demands for reform. There are some individuals there who, if anybody is going to be lined up against the wall and shot for negligence and corruption, should be the first ones to go.
How can an extremely politicized movement have functioned for 12 years or more without a strategy?
There was always the hope that there would be a change in the Arab world in their favor. Until the defeat in Jordan, the Palestinians were advocating conflict with Israel which would involve the Arab states on their side and lead to a shift in the balance of forces. They modified their objectives in the early 1970s to talk about partial liberation. So there was a change of strategy, but the means for achieving that were never laid out.
In fact, time was against them. The situation in the region was running very fast in the opposite direction. The changes of regime in Egypt and in Syria in 1970 are the watersheds. The October war was followed by disengagement on the Egyptian front, and disengagement on the Syrian front. All of this, of course, followed what happened in Jordan. The three main Arab fronts were now closed to the Palestinians. Commando activity was an option which by 1974 could only be exercised either from occupied Palestine or across the Lebanese border. As a result of the 1975-1976 war in Lebanon, the Lebanese border was effectively closed. Saad Haddad was set up, and earlier the Palestinians had pledged not to carry out operations.
Not because their ideas were wrong, but because the situation was changing in a way which was extremely unfavorable to them, the Palestinians were left unable to exercise the strategy of their choice: people’s war, armed struggle, carrying out commando operations to bring the Arab armies in. That was a viable option until 1970. The diplomatic option arises from this new situation—and here you can fault Arafat for never making fully explicit what he was trying to do with his new de facto strategy. I don’t think he ever tried to create a constituency for, or elaborate a strategy based on, a limited objective—a West Bank/Gaza state—using Palestinian military forces and the Palestinian social, political and economic presence in Lebanon as a base and as a political asset, diplomatically isolating Israel. The weak point was always the Arabs. The Arab states have been moving from more than a decade in the direction of separate settlements, and an increasingly cozy relationship with Washington. All of this contradicts any minimal Palestinian national objective.
The Palestinian movement had its own factions which were moving in the same direction.
All Palestinian factions moved in the same direction, actually, toward a more political struggle. The current opponents of Arafat have never put forward a meaningful explanation of exactly how they intend to implement the slogans of armed struggle from under the control of the Syrian military, which came to power in 1970 on a platform of no independent Palestinian armed action.
One could see some of these shifts, although Arafat retained a lot of ambiguity, especially on the question of recognition of Israel.
Ambiguity was predictable in a situation where there was nothing on offer, no quid pro quo. In one of the key documents of the rebellion, Abu Musa’s memorandum to the Fatah meeting in Aden in January 1983, he ends a long passage extremely critical of the policy of compromise by saying, in effect: of course, if something serious were really on offer, then perhaps it would be possible to make a deal. The problem for Arafat and the rest of the leadership is that nothing serious was ever on offer. They were being required to take a leap of faith on the say-so of their sworn enemies, in a situation where even their well-wishers had grave doubts that there would be any quid pro quo, and where there were always lots of people only too glad to put the knife in when it turned out the leadership was wrong.
To carry people along with his policy, Arafat would have had to explain it more explicitly, create confidence that compromises would not actually be made in return for nothing. He never did this. There was always suspicion the leadership would give away something for nothing. When the crunch came, during the 1982 war, his acute political sense told him he couldn’t manage it. He would have had to go out on a limb and declare his willingness to recognize Israel in return for a Palestinian state with the full knowledge that neither Begin nor Reagan would give the Palestinians any such thing. Now it is even less possible for him to do so: you have people who always accepted the West Bank/Gaza state (which is in effect a two-state solution, whether you recognize Israel or not) outbidding him from Damascus. Things have changed.
Where are the key elements of the PLO bureaucracy right now? Who’s controlling them?
The executive is where the chief executive is physically. Many of the formal structures are in Damascus or Tunis. In practice, Arafat carries a lot of stuff around with him in his hip pocket.
Like the checkbook?
The PLO treasury is in Damascus, but nobody can do anything with it except by decision of the Executive Committee. The Fatah treasury is not in Damascus, so the power of the purse has not been won by the rebels. The rebels have managed to gain access to other purses.
Among the Executive Committee, is Arafat’s support solid?
Yes. More important than the Executive Committee is the Fatah Central Committee. All of them except Abu Salih and Qadri are with him. That was one of the strengths of the movement, the ability of the central leadership group to stick together. One of the greatest tragedies of the last two years is the deaths of Majid Abu Sharar and Abu al-Walid. [Abu al-Walid was assassinated in late September 1982, near Baalbek in Syrian-occupied Lebanon. His killers have not been identified. Majid Abu Sharar was assassinated by a sophisticated bomb attack in a Rome hotel in early October 1981. Every indication is that Israeli agents were responsible. —Eds.] Abu al-Walid was the most realistic of the central Arafat group, and Majid was the most realistic of the reform group. Neither would have allowed either the excesses on the part of the leadership which provoked the split, nor the actions of the rebels.
If the opposition has no support at the mass level or at the executive level, where is their support?
It’s among the cadres and the military, specifically those in Syria and the Bekaa. Maybe 20 or 30 percent are partisans of each side, while the majority are in the middle: sympathizing with the leader because they know what he represents is right and sympathizing with the opposition because much of what they’re demanding is right. But even in Syria and the Bekaa, where most of the cadres have joined the rebels, some have no doubt done so under duress or with misgivings.
Would this whole phenomenon have been absorbed within the movement if it weren’t for the Syrian factor?
It would have taken a different course. Very few of these people are able to stand up to Arafat face to face. One of their leaders reportedly said, when talking about some compromise proposals during the summer, “What do you want? You want me to just sit down and meet him? He’ll kiss me, fool me, run me around and we’ll have a reconciliation, and that will be it.” This is why it only happened after they left Beirut, when they were safely under the shadow of the Syrian army. This is not true of all of them. Some of them before the war would stand up and trade verbal blows with Arafat in meetings. But he usually outwitted them, and in Beirut he was so much stronger because of his mass popularity and his control of the military and political apparatuses.
Did these people want it to go to an open split?
Some of them, I think, have wanted to do this for a while. You’ve got a lot of thwarted ambition here. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who know a lot of things are being done wrong, and who are helpless. Many do not want a split. Others, I feel, do.
How important is Abu Salih?
He’s totally unimportant. He’s insignificant.
Who are the important figures?
Well, they’ve all been mentioned in the press. You’re talking about a number of officers in the military forces. They had spent over ten years preparing for a military confrontation with Israel which, when it came, in many ways went off better than anybody expected. But they had to leave Beirut. They found themselves dumped in Syria or elsewhere. If events followed the course they seemed to be following in the fall and spring of 1982 and 1983, there was going to be a withdrawal from the rest of Lebanon. They faced the prospect of being under Syrian control, becoming even less significant political pawns than they had been in south Lebanon. Before the war, they were always able to say “Yes, but there’s a confrontation coming in which we are the decisive people.” The confrontation came and the confrontation went. And suddenly they were all faced with a sort of void. This is one reason these people were so euphoric about the Shuf battles recently. There was again a chance to get back into the center of things. Arafat was in a situation where he was negotiating with the Lebanese over the withdrawal of the forces from Lebanon. For his opponents, this was somebody negotiating the negation of their very reason for being. It was very hard for the military commanders to contemplate that. Only the “Yes, sir” officers were able to go along. More independent-minded guys in the officer corps rebelled at the very idea.
Among the military cadre, was there a proper sense of the place of the military struggle?
The military officers, however much they were under the thumb of the political leadership, had some responsibility for addressing this before 1982. Regarding what Yezid Sayigh calls the operational level—choosing weaponry, choosing the proper strategy to use in facing this inevitable Israeli onslaught—these people bear, to my way of thinking, enormous responsibility for burdening down the Palestinian forces with heavy artillery, armor, anti-aircraft batteries, huge logistical detail, large unit formations which were utterly useless, instead of the RPG, the Kalashnikov, small unit tactics of dispersal, hit-and-run, the only fighting that did any good against Israel, which cost virtually all of the 500 Israeli casualties. They bear as much responsibility as the political leadership for the mistaken operational approach, in fact more. Second, they still bear the burden of demonstrating that they have an alternative as to what should have been done in Lebanon. What are Palestinian options in the current phase? They have not answered this question. Some may be satisfied to be an auxiliary of Syrian foreign policy in Lebanon—that, in effect, is what they are currently. When Syria wants to deescalate the conflict, they will be cantoned in Shatoura or shipped back, if necessary, to Palmyra. The Syrians don’t have anywhere near that measure of control over the Lebanese factions they support, but the Palestinians, because of their unique situation, are in exactly that position. The burden of proof is on them for coming forward and convincing us that they represent a decisive answer to the problems of this difficult phase, and can establish some means of continuing armed struggle, long-term war of national liberation. They certainly haven’t done that yet.
One of the factors in this increasing weight of the regular military, after 1975, was the Lebanese situation.
Yes. The Palestinians in Lebanon were fighting a two-front war. They fought the Syrians, the Lebanese army and the Kata’ib, all of which required this level of armament, this level of operational strategy. Whatever they did, rightly or wrongly, they did at least partly out of a need to protect their civilian populations. They built up assets, points on the board—yes, that’s true. You had a situation where Israel and other opponents had armed an enormous number of hostile local forces very well. The operational approach chosen to deal with the Israelis was incorrect, but when the other guys behind you on the local level have tanks, you’ve got to have tanks. When the other guys have artillery, you’ve got to have artillery. Maybe that whole spiral could have been avoided by a more intelligent policy in Lebanon, but that’s another question.
How central is Arafat to what happens now?
He will continue to represent the Palestinian community as far as Arab and international public opinion is concerned. His problem is reestablishing his credibility inside the movement. He’s going to have to make the right moves and events are going to have to help him. The whole chain of events in Lebanon since the spring has really undermined him for a variety of reasons, and I frankly don’t see that situation changing. The Syrians are posing as the great champions of Arabism against American imperialism, and as the champions of Lebanese independence. Everybody knows the Syrian regime for exactly what it is, but still it’s hard to fault them when they seem, for a change, to be doing what they say, if only temporarily. Arafat always survived by playing one Arab force against another. Nobody seems to have noticed in the last few years that there are no more Arab forces to play against the Syrians. Egypt has eliminated itself militarily and politically as a force in the Arab world. Iraq has self-destructed completely by starting a war with Iran. Saudi Arabia has been revealed to be a twelfth-rate power of no significance. Suddenly, there is no one for Arafat to play off against the Syrians. The Syrians are the only Arab power. They’re backed by the Soviet Union, they have an army which is in the field, they’re confronting the United States and Israel.
And the Israelis are not going to hit them, which is the only reason they can get away with this posturing. The Israelis are totally self-absorbed now. There is a bit of calculation in that. They’re letting the US get into trouble, so that it really needs them and they can impose their terms when the time comes. At bottom, the key factor is that there is a new set of internal constraints on the projection of Israeli power. These are probably not permanent, and they can be overcome, but at the moment it’s not a charade. Israel is not very likely in the short term to project its power. There is no Israeli option to intervene at the moment, because of these constraints. Eventually, it will change, and sooner or later the Israeli military will be able to carry public opinion with it for another adventure.
How do you assess Arafat’s prospects now?
There’s no question, he’s really in a corner. In Beirut, during the siege, as he said, “We felt we were besieging Tel Aviv.” That was the psychological atmosphere in Beirut. Those under siege didn’t feel they were under all that much pressure. Ultimately the city would have been destroyed around our ears, but it was not a life or death situation. People felt the military forces could have held out for many months. Ultimately they would have had to leave because the Lebanese wanted them to leave. That’s why everybody agreed without exception, unanimously, that they had to leave. And all the fighting from the end of June until combat stopped on August 12 was about the conditions for leaving. But it was not as desperate as this current situation. What he’s done in Tripoli, or what has been ascribed to him in Tripoli, has undermined his support among the only two independent factions, the Democratic Front and the PFLP, who sympathize very strongly with the Lebanese communists and the Lebanese resistance.
It’s not a stalemate with nothing happening. It’s a stalemate where his position is deteriorating. There are those people, especially inside the PFLP, who just want to throw in their lot with the rebels and the Syrians. On the other hand, there are people in the leadership of both of these groups, including Habash and Hawatma, who perceive things in terms of Palestinian freedom of action from Syria, and see that Arafat is the only possible bulwark against Syrian hegemony over the Palestinians, the only guarantee of their own independence as organizations.
Could this momentum change?
Yes, if the Syrians are absolutely cynical in another round of fighting, and again treat the Abu Musa people like a bunch of gurkhas, send them in to take this ridge, use them to capture that hamlet, let them take the brunt and blame, and then snap them back on a tight leash, something could change. At the end of the last round, in September, the Syrians pulled them back to Shatoura unceremoniously, as part of a Syrian-American understanding. It took the wind out of their sails for about 72 hours. Something could change if it happens again—and it will, because neither the Druze nor the Shi‘a nor any of the Lebanese factions want Palestinians directly involved as an independent force. The rebels can’t accept this, because it means they’re living on borrowed time. Their only hope is that the situation gets totally out of control, which it probably won’t. The Syrians cannot afford to allow the situation to get out of control because of the overriding importance of their relations with Washington. This is what in the long run helps Arafat. The rebels are not fighting the Palestinian battle up in the mountains. They sincerely think they are, I’m sure, but there’s no direct Palestinian interest in the Shuf conflict, because a) the Palestinians are not wanted there by the Lebanese, and b) because they are no longer a powerful independent force controlling their own actions in the mountains.
Are the lines between the rebels and Arafat broken? Is there still a possibility of rapprochement?
There has always been an ambivalent attitude toward him in the movement. Since the war, all of the frustration and the rage that had formerly been pent up and directed against the Israelis is now being turned inwards. Now Palestinians are devoting their energies to confronting Palestinians. If the split is consecrated, we’ll have Jordan’s Palestinians and Syria’s Palestinians. What was an independent actor will now become two appendices.
In any case, the war ended a phase. Something new was required. The ones with the most illusions are the ones in Syria, with Abu Musa. They still haven’t fully accepted the fact that a page has been turned and that something new will have to arise. I don’t think most of the others have either. Maybe Arafat will hasten the process of developing something new, maybe he’s irrelevant. Maybe what is going to emerge is going to have to wait on the resolution of this struggle over Lebanon, because in the current Arab balance of forces, very little is possible. The impatience on the West Bank and Gaza is justified, but it can’t lead anywhere. There is nothing on offer. The Reagan plan does not exist because the Israelis are not going to accept it. And in any case it does not meet minimum Palestinian national requirements. What the Israelis are offering is what people already have: They’ve got the stick. Even if the West Bankers go to the Jordanians or disavow Arafat, neither of which I think will happen, it’s not going to resolve anything, because there’s nothing on offer.
The question we haven’t really addressed is potential change in Israel.
Now there’s where something could happen. If they get into another war with Syria, with heavy casualties, that will complete a fundamental revolution that started with the siege of Beirut. The limits to Israeli power are clear. Israel does not have unlimited force projection capacities. It cannot reach Libya and Iran and Senegal. It cannot reach Beirut, really. It couldn’t stay in the Shouf. Another 100 or 200 killed this year will get them out of more of Lebanon. They can’t do it. They’re not as big a gendarme as they’ve projected themselves as being. If they’re so foolish as to get into another war, this might complete a process which began in 1982. It’ll require changes in the Arab world, too. There’s nothing to make you act the way the Israelis are acting like the state of disarray in the Arab world now. If I were the Israelis or the Americans, I wouldn’t pay any attention to the Arab states. They’re not worthy of attention, only of contempt. This is Arafat’s bad luck: All the other regional powers, including Israel, Egypt and Iraq, are paralyzed, by coincidence, in the 1982-1983 period, and he’s left face to face, single-handed, with the Syrians.