Alain Gresh, The PLO: The Struggle Within (London: Zed Press, 1985).
Over the past several years in the Occupied Territories, Palestinian intellectuals and activists close to the PLO mainstream have met with Israelis from a number of political factions represented in the Knesset. Their apparent aim has been to influence the elusive center of the Israeli Labor Party.
This form of Palestinian-Israeli dialogue, a kind of pseudo-negotiation, differs from previous encounters in the 1978-1982 period, both in their participants (the Palestinian right currently, the left in the former period) and, arguably, in their substance. The current “forward march toward the Labor Party” has met with a number of stumbling blocks, the most obvious being the intransigence of Labor Party policies toward the PLO. This past July, for instance, a Dutch conference, planned to be a “trilateral dialogue” between the Israelis, Palestinians and the European peace movement, had to be postponed at the last moment; Labor Party invitees declined, after a period of flirtation, to attend an assembly with PLO representatives present.
Internal Palestinian political contradictions constitute another barrier. On March 9, for example, a Palestinian team of Hanna Siniora (the editor of al-Fajr), Ziad Abu Ziad (also of al-Fajr) and three others met with representatives of the Citizens’ Rights Movement in Israel (the Ratz Party, headed by Shulamit Aloni). The Palestinians’ statements included a familiar reiteration of support for the PLO and its policies, and also apparently noted the possibility of amending the Palestinian National Charter to facilitate a “mutual recognition” process. These statements were probably intended to resonate in larger Israeli political circles.
Amnon Dothan, in the Jerusalem Post of June 16, responded with a pointed and vicious attack that delineated a “magical transformation of dove into hawk.” Dothman found statements in the Arab press by the Palestinian participants which either denied the positions presented at the meeting or did not report them. His attack exploited a persistent feature of Palestinian politics: an ambiguous formulation of political goals, subject to several interpretations, and the lack of a clear-cut and openly stated political program.
Alain Gresh, an Egyptian Jew with an extensive knowledge of Palestinian politics, explores these ambiguities, among other issues, in this book on the evolution of PLO ideology. He offers a wealth of documents, statements and interviews, woven together by an intelligent text, that gives the reader ample opportunity for reflection and analysis, and even to reach conclusions that may not mirror those of Gresh.
For Gresh, the key questions are two:
What was the long road that led to acceptance of the slogan of building a national authority on any part of liberated Palestinian territory? What were the factors — especially the internal ones — that weighed on such a decision, and at the price of what ambiguities was agreement reached?
Gresh answers his questions well descriptively, with carefully selected material from the debates of the period that ranges over all important groups in the Palestinian national movement. Analytically, however, his perspective is sometimes too narrow. “The long road” he envisions, however hesitant the marchers, is a path toward territorial compromise and mutual recognition — an “internationalist” solution that may be shaped more by his hopes than the reality he recounts.
In his perspective, the Palestinian-Israeli dynamic is the central one in determining Palestinian politics. Although he notes Arab and international factors either as constraints on these policies or as “missed opportunities” (among them the Fahd Plan and the Rogers Plan), he does not see them as separate dynamics which at times overshadow the Palestinian-Israeli dynamic. This is especially relevant in terms of his central interest, the adoption of the political goal of an “independent Palestinian state.” The history needs to be carefully assessed at this juncture: once attacked by many Palestinians as reactionary, the independent state is now dismissed by some as radical utopianism. Indeed, when such a figure as Jordanian Foreign Minister Tahir al-Masri, himself a Palestinian from Nablus, declares in a July 6 press conference in Washington that “the agreement between Jordan and the PLO means there will be no independent Palestinian state,” it is important to examine this history to see on what basis the goal of the state was adopted, and how central it is to the Palestinian national project.
Jordan and the Independent State
It is particularly striking, when reviewing the political history of the early and mid-1970s, how strong the Palestinian-Jordanian dynamic (then antagonistic) was in determining the adoption of the goal of a “national authority” and subsequently an independent state. In this reading, Palestinian responses to the attempts by King Hussein to exert hegemony over the West Bank and the Palestinian movement were perhaps a major factor in enabling the idea of the national authority/independent state to take hold in the official program of the PLO.
A brief look at some of the texts Gresh uses is useful here. In the eighth Palestine National Council (February 1971), the first after the defeat of Black September, the PNC reiterated the idea of the unity of the East and West Banks that had been articulated when the resistance was still strong in Jordan. The PNC declared:
Jordan is linked to Palestine by a national relationship and a national unity forged by history and culture from the earliest times. The creation of one political entity in East Jordan and another in Palestine would have no basis either in legality or as to the elements universally accepted as fundamental to a political entity.
The Council was not only delineating the Palestinian-Jordanian relationship, but using it to fight the various proposals for a “Palestinian entity” in the West Bank and Gaza that had been floated either by conservative Palestinians in the Occupied Territories or, in the opinion of PLO strategists, by the United States itself. An interesting reversal would occur within one short year. With the announcement by King Hussein on March 15, 1972, of his plan for a United Arab Kingdom, coupled with his tacit endorsement of municipal elections in the Occupied Territories, the PLO found itself gradually endorsing its own version of a Palestinian entity — the national authority — as a means of fighting Hussein’s definition of the Jordanian-Palestinian relationship, which included clear-cut Jordanian sovereignty over the West Bank.
The importance of this dynamic comes out most clearly in statements of Palestinian leaders in the post-October War period, when the new balance of forces in the area seemingly brought the possibility of a negotiated settlement much closer. An important letter sent to the PLO executive committee on December 1, 1973, by the Palestine National Front in the occupied territories argued strongly for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and, with this in mind, for PLO participation in the projected Geneva peace conference. The authors wrote: “The alternative to participation by the PLO in the projected conference on the Middle East is the regime in Amman.” These PNF leaders had been strong opponents of the earlier proposals for a “Palestinian entity” outside the framework of the PLO.
A few days later, in a major speech at the Arab University in Beirut, Democratic Front leader Nayif Hawatma again cited the Jordanian danger while arguing for a national authority: “We will not permit the return of any Palestinian land to King Hussein nor annexation by Israel: we must build an independent national authority.”
It is perhaps too contemporary a reading to argue the primacy of this Jordanian dimension in Palestinian political thinking over the last two decades. It is clear, however, that the need to block Jordanian hegemony was central in the initial adoption of the program of an independent Palestinian state, and that this program reflects Palestinian policy toward Jordan as well as Israel. The Arab dimension, in other words, has frequently taken precedence over the Israeli in determining Palestinian political programs. It is perhaps only at times inside the Occupied Territories — and among Rakah and other political groups inside the Green Line — that political programs evolved more directly in relation to Israeli policy. It is here that “dialogue” or limited joint practice have forged whatever limited links exist between Israeli and Palestinian forces.
Negotiations or Internationalism?
This is a more limited view of the accomplishments of “dialogue” than Gresh proposes. He writes:
The dialogue with Israeli democratic forces amounted for the Palestinians to recognizing — step by step — the national reality of Israel. It was no longer a matter of seeing them join the PLO’s struggle; it was a matter of hammering out jointly the principles of an understanding. It was a decisive step towards recognition of the binational reality existing in Palestine.
Gresh’s internationalist politics have led him to overstate his conclusions. This is not to belittle such a perspective, but only to question what has actually been achieved and whether real possibilities exist for a fusion of internationalism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This is extremely difficult to assess. One should not underrate the political sophistication and struggle that led first to the slogan of a “democratic secular state,” and then to the goal of an independent state. One need only contrast the stagnancy and obduracy of the Israeli position to see that Palestinian political development has been quite considerable, even far-sighted and imaginative. The fact is, though, that these goals were articulated in response to a number of dynamics besides the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic. How these slogans affected this dynamic in turn can be examined by reviewing the history of Israeli-Palestinian “dialogue” as an attempt to convey these slogans to Israelis.
Take, as one example, the path-breaking interview Nayif Hawatma gave to American journalist and activist Paul Jacobs, writing in the Israeli (right-wing) newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, on March 22, 1974. Hawatma explained his purpose in an introduction to the interview when it was published in the Beirut Le Jour:
I thought it would be useful to the Israeli people — all sectors of opinion and at all levels — to take note of the Palestinian-Israeli-Zionist struggle from the revolutionary Palestinian point of view…. I do not see why we should accept that Arab reactionaries should start a dialogue with the most extremist Israeli circles and forbid progressive forces to do the same with progressive Israeli forces. It is true that such a dialogue constitutes a threat to both Zionism and Arab reaction.
The interview clearly represented a new approach by an important Palestinian leader on the left. Initial Israeli response was predictably minimal; it was reduced even further when the Democratic Front staged the Maalot operation the next month, in which some 25 Israelis were killed. The point is not that there is a necessary contradiction between political and armed action, but simply this: Maalot, like a number of Palestinian guerrilla actions, seems to have been dictated less by strategy towards the Israeli enemy than by internal, or at least pan-Arab, considerations, whereby the Democratic Front felt compelled to assert its militancy to counter attacks on its political support for the “national authority” and the Geneva Peace Conference.
There was little direct follow-up to the Hawatma interview, except the contacts that both preceded and followed it between the Democratic Front and the Israeli organization Matzpen. In the following years, dialogue outside Palestine tended towards pseudo-negotiations, as, for example, the 1976 meetings of PLO figures with the Matti Peled group, which served as a back door channel to then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Most of these meetings, like those of ‘Isam Sartawi and Sa‘id Hammami, were conducted with the approval of Yasser Arafat but without the official stamp of the PLO. On the Palestinian side, the message of the meetings was in many cases directed as much to the United States as to Israelis. Although they led to no negotiated settlement, they may have made some cracks in the wall of anti- Palestinian opinion in Europe, the US and Israel.
A Territorial Strategy: A Task For the Left?
From an internationalist perspective, the most interesting, if not the most immediately significant, meetings between Israelis and Palestinians occurred in the Occupied Territories in the years 1978-1982. The war in Lebanon marked, as it did for many aspects of Palestinian political life, both the apogee of this “dialogue” and an endpoint. Gresh, by the way, does not cover the history of dialogue inside Palestine, although it is quite relevant to his concerns.
The dialogue of these years was characterized by small living- room meetings between Israeli and Palestinian academics, larger joint forums against the occupation, and meetings between progressive Israelis and Palestinian mayors and other public personalities. Mayor Fahd Qawasma, for example, appeared at an Israeli-sponsored press forum at the foreign press center in Jerusalem in 1980, a forum cited by an Israeli activist of those years as a “high point” of this period. The dialogue, largely an initiative of the left of both sides, tended to have a component of practice (joint demonstrations against the closures of Birzeit University, for example) and at least the hope of mobilizing Israeli and Palestinian constituencies — not a common strategy, but potential complementary strategies for an end to occupation and for Palestinian rights.
One Palestinian participant in the dialogue of those years, Salim Tamari, recently spoke of it as indeed injecting an internationalist perspective into the conflict, as well as striving to influence the Israeli public to accept a two-state solution. He noted that this internationalist perspective gave way to the current “realpolitik dialogue” being conducted by the Palestinian right wing because “the internal left in the Occupied Territories was abandoned in its efforts by the left factions of the PLO [the Democratic Front and the Communists] who had previously supported it.”
The left abandoned dialogue for two reasons: It was immersed in factional strife and struggling to survive, and it saw dialogue in the current period as a prelude to negotiating positions it rejected. The left, Tamari stressed, recoiled from developing an alternative territorial strategy, leaving the right dominant over practical politics.
Among the many prerequisites for the formation of such a territorial strategy would be a rethinking of the national question. Tamari emphasizes that in the Israeli-Palestinian context, “it is neither politically expedient or correct to treat the Israeli-Palestinian relation in the classic model of the oppressor and oppressed, although relations of equity are obviously equally inappropriate. Since we are contending for the same piece of land, we need a venue for relations and acceptance of existence and presence.” This view is certainly not widely held in the Palestinian left, which has not made the formation of a territorial strategy its objective at this time. Some, especially the Popular Front, would strongly object to the terms of the discussion. Thus, dialogue (with little action) between Palestinians and Israelis rests today on the terrain of the Palestinian right (not including the overt pro-Hashemite camp). It is primarily concerned with the immediate parameters of the Hussein-Arafat agreement and its aftermath. It is in many ways a shadowplay, as it is still aimed more at the US than its direct partner/opponent. This opponent is the Israeli political establishment, rather than Israeli society.
Autonomy For Jordan
And what of the future? Here the Jordanian dynamic enters to play yet another version of its role. One scenario sketched recently in informal discussion here is a Jordanian-Israeli condominium on the West Bank, but not one that is the result of overt negotiations. Rather, a tacit power-sharing would develop, where Israel maintained territorial sovereignty and Jordan gradually is allowed to dominate the political, civil and economic infrastructure of West Bank Palestinian life. In other words, “autonomy for Jordan.” This discussion was eerily echoed by MK Ezer Weizman, who advocated “power sharing” with Jordan in the August 18 edition of the Jerusalem Post: “If today we are 80 percent in control and Jordan 20 percent — and I am not just making up those numbers as an example — the proportions could be reversed, so that Jordan has primary control, not annexation or territorial compromise but shared rule.”
This scenario could be overshadowed by another development: Deportations, which began this August, are one weapon in a growing arsenal of Israeli measures to erase Palestinian political power in the Occupied Territories. In any case, the goal of a Palestinian independent state becomes more difficult to achieve. One starting point would be to develop a strategy and political program that reflects the overlapping dynamics that mark the Palestinian struggle. The time for shadowplays is long past.