Europe’s attitude could influence the decisions of the next Palestine National Council, Yasir Arafat told members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg on September 14, 1988. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairperson urged Europeans to assume their share of “international responsibility” for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The prospect of European recognition of a Palestinian state and provisional government, he said, would powerfully support Palestinian moves to abandon armed struggle for diplomacy.

Arafat’s problem in Strasbourg was to shift the recognition question away from the incessant US demand for unilateral PLO recognition of Israel toward an international demand for mutual Israeli-Palestinian recognition. Recognition of Israel was implicit in everything Arafat said, especially in his reference to a “Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel.”

The PLO’s lengthy and uneven conversion from the rifle to the olive branch has been dramatically hastened by the immense political success of the unarmed intifada. It was surely because of the uprising that the Socialist group in the European Parliament got up the nerve to invite Arafat to Strasbourg, where Israeli Labor Party leader Shimon Peres has been their customary guest from the Middle East.

Arafat emphasized the need to carry out the unfinished business of United Nations Resolution 181 of November 1947, calling for partition of British mandate Palestine between an Arab and a Jewish state. Former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban called Resolution 181 “Israel’s only birth certificate,” the PLO chairman recalled. But Resolution 181 called for an ndependent Arab Palestine alongside Israel. A just peace, said Arafat, cannot be achieved through selective application of one half of the resolution while dumping the other half.

Arafat’s endorsement of “the Charter of the UN and all its resolutions” could be the basis for convening an international peace conference “under UN auspices and with participation of Security Council permanent members and all the regional parties to the conflict, including the PLO and Israel.” He added that the PLO favored placing Gaza and the West Bank under United Nations administration “or an internationally-supervised European force,” which could “stay on after the establishment of the independent Palestinian state for as long as the Security Council deems necessary to guarantee the security of everyone concerned.”

The head of the Europarliament Socialist group, German Social Democrat Rudi Arndt, who in his speech of greeting had joined the chorus demanding that Arafat “recognize Israel,” showed impatience when the question arose again at the press conference the next day. “I don’t see the point of posing that question again and again,” snapped Arndt. “Anyone who can read understands.”

Arafat greeted Israeli peace activist Abbie Nathan with a friendly “Shanatova” Jewish New Year greeting. Nathan, owner of the “Voice of Peace” radio station, reminded the press conference that he risked being imprisoned under the 1986 Israeli law banning contacts with PLO representatives. Ecumenically, Arafat claimed that the Palestinian people had “given the world its three monotheistic religions” and promised that the future independent Palestinian state will be politically and religiously pluralist.

Arafat’s main message was that achieving all this sweetness and light was the responsibility not just of the Palestinians, nor even just of Palestinians and Israelis, but of the international community. Europe bore a special responsibility. “The European socialist movement and others in the Western world exerted special efforts to help set up the State of Israel,” Arafat insisted. What the PLO wants is for Europeans to be bolder in supporting peace negotiations, especially at this conjuncture when the intifada and the Soviet-American effort to reduce regional conflicts offer a moment of opportunity.

The invitation to Arafat was a relatively bold move on the part of the European Socialists, whose practice has long been to keep quiet and support the Israeli Labor Party. But Shimon Peres’ rigid rejection of the PLO has exasperated his fellow Socialist International leaders. Retired Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky publicly accused Peres of “betraying the Socialist International” by “giving the impression that he would make peace” and then “doing nothing.”

Anger exploded at the Socialist International bureau meeting in Madrid last May when Peres repeated the familiar refrain that Israel can’t find any Palestinians to negotiate with. Italian Socialist leader Bettino Craxi retorted bluntly that Peres’ own government was “blocking every prospect for peace, violating human rights and breaking international law.” Amid applause for Craxi, Peres stalked out. Spanish, Swedish, and Danish leaders supported the Italian position.

Perhaps the most important political evolution since the intifada has been a more active West German effort to promote Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. Willy Brandt’s keen appreciation of historic German guilt had contributed to one-sided support for Israel in the German Social Democratic Party as well as the Socialist International. Now there are signs of a new evaluation of German responsibilities. Social Democrat Norbert Gansel struck the note that best summed up the consensus. German policy toward the Middle East must be “neither anti-Israel nor anti-Palestinian,” Gansel said during a Bundestag debate on the Middle East last March.

In this spirit, the German Social Democratic chairman of the Europarliament Socialist group, Rudi Arndt, took the lead in inviting Arafat to Strasbourg as an unofficial visitor, while the French Socialist Party tried to block Arafat’s visit, largely for domestic political reasons. Building a strong Jewish lobby is a key element in the current French effort to recompose the political spectrum around a “center” defined by its rejection of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s anti-Semitism. Arafat’s presence on French soil — even though technically on international territory at the European Parliament in Strasbourg — dismayed the organized Jewish community, which in France as elsewhere is the most conservative part of the Jewish population. Under Mitterrand, Paris has renewed the very special relationship with Israel that existed in the 1950s, when Paris and Tel Aviv worked hand in hand to build atomic bombs and combat Arab nationalism in Algeria and Egypt. On the eve of Arafat’s visit to Strasbourg, Mitterrand referred to Gaza and the West Bank as the “disputed” rather than “occupied” territories.

In the first exercise of its modest new power to ratify or reject international trade agreements, the Europarliament has expressed its disapproval of Israeli violations of human rights in the occupied territories by holding up ratification of the trade agreement reached last December between Israel and the European Community Council of Ministers. The message is that Israel will lose important European markets for its produce unless it accepts and cooperates with a November 1986 European Community decision to grant the same trade status to the occupied territories as to “neighboring countries” — a de facto first step toward recognition of Palestine as a country separate from Israel and Jordan.

How to cite this article:

Diana Johnstone "Arafat Goes to Strasbourg," Middle East Report 155 (November/December 1988).

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