In the early 1960s, before the major US escalation of the war in Vietnam, a negotiated settlement to that conflict was in reach. Such a settlement was supported by the leaders of the Soviet Union, China, France, Cambodia and North Vietnam, and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. The United Nations, through then-Secretary General U Thant, put great effort into setting up negotiations. The essential precondition of such a settlement was recognition of the South Vietnamese people’s right to self-determination, a precondition the United States would not abide. In February 1965, an embittered and frustrated U Thant was moved to comment that

I am sure the great American people, if only they knew the true facts and background to the developments in South Vietnam, will agree with me that further bloodshed is unnecessary. And that the political and diplomatic methods of discussions and negotiations alone can create conditions which will enable the United States to withdraw gracefully from that part of the world. As you know, in times of war and hostilities the first casualty is the truth. [1]

The peace accords the US finally signed in January 1973 were "hardly different in essentials" from the proposals of the early 1960s — except that in the interim at least several hundred thousand people had perished. [2]

A similar situation exists in the Middle East today. An international consensus exists for resolving the Palestine-Israel conflict. The major obstacle to a negotiated settlement is the refusal of the governments of Israel and the United States to recognize the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination. The US decision in December 1988 to open talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) involves no change in the explicit US rejection of a settlement that includes Palestinian independence. Here, as earlier in Vietnam, the first casualty of this campaign of rejection has been the truth.

International Consensus

Since the early 1970s, an international consensus has favored a two-state settlement of the Palestine-Israel conflict — that is, a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the Israeli state within its pre-1967 borders. Such a settlement does not fully redress the colossal injustice that was inflicted upon the Palestinian people in 1948. It offers, for instance, nothing to the hundreds of thousands of dispossessed Palestinians living in Arab countries and elsewhere. But it does, as former Israeli intelligence chief Yehoshafat Harkabi writes, “by its very existence…give rise to developments that diminish the enmity and strengthen the trust” between Palestinians and Israelis. [3] Moreover, such a settlement does not preclude more desirable political arrangements, such as confederation or a binational state. Rather, a two-state settlement is the necessary precondition for any such arrangements to become part of the political agenda.

How have the principal protagonists — Israel and the PLO — responded to this international consensus? Israel’s ruling Likud favors extending Israeli sovereignty over the whole of the Occupied Territories. Labor supports the annexation of roughly 40 percent of the West Bank, with Jordan exercising control over areas of “dense Arab settlement.” As Hebrew University professor Hanan Hever observes, “Ultimately, there never have been fundamental differences between Peres and Shamir. Both of them have worked under the a priori assumption that some sort of occupation must continue.” [4] Not even Peace Now, the main extra-parliamentary grouping, officially supports Palestinian statehood; only in November 1988 did it come out in favor of negotiations with the PLO.

The PLO, by contrast, has during the past dozen years moved steadily closer to the international consensus. Here I can only sample the record, which has been systematically mangled by the US media. [5] In January 1976, the PLO supported — according to then-Israeli ambassador to the UN Chaim Herzog it even “prepared” — a UN Security Council resolution calling for a settlement based on the 1967 borders with “appropriate arrangements…to guarantee…the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of all states in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries,” including Israel and a new Palestinian state in the Occupied Territories. The resolution was backed by Egypt, Syria, Jordan and the Soviet Union. The United States vetoed the resolution; Israel refused to even attend the session.

In October 1977, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko issued a joint statement calling for the “termination of the state of war and establishment of normal peaceful relations” between Israel and its neighbors, with internationally guaranteed borders and demilitarized zones to enhance security. The statement also spoke of “the resolution of the Palestine question, including insuring the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.” The PLO endorsed the statement, but the Carter administration disavowed it in the face of furious opposition from Israel and its partisans in the US. “It carries by implication the foundation of a Palestinian state,” explained one Israeli official. [6]

In April 1981, the Palestine National Council (PNC) passed unanimously a resolution endorsing the Soviet Union’s peace proposal of the previous February, which enunciated the following “basic principles”: “The inalienable rights of the Arab people of Palestine must be secured up to, and including, the establishment of their own state. It is essential to ensure the security and sovereignty of all states in the region, including those of Israel.” In the years since then, the PLO has reiterated its support of the international consensus with increasing regularity and clarity, culminating in the PNC meeting of November 1988 in Algiers. A few weeks later, meeting with a delegation of five American Jews in Stockholm, Yasser Arafat issued an authoritative clarification of the Algiers documents which explicitly endorsed the “principle” of a “two-state solution of Israel and Palestine” and “accepted the existence of Israel as a state in the region.”

Crucial Passage

The PNC meeting ratified two important documents, the Declaration of Independence and a Political Communiqué. The Declaration was based on the 1947 UN Partition Resolution. The central feature of the communiqué was the call for an international conference based on UN Security Council Resolution 242 and “the legitimate national rights of the Palestinian people” — in particular, the right to self-determination. Here is the exact wording of the crucial passage:

[The Palestine National Council] insists on the…need to convene an effective international conference on the subject of the Middle East problem and its essence, the question of Palestine, under the auspices of the United Nations and with the participation of the permanent members of the Security Council and all parties to the conflict in the region, including the Palestine Liberation Organization, the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, on an equal footing, with the provision that the said international conference shall be convened on the basis of Security Council resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973) and shall guarantee the legitimate national rights of the Palestinian people, first and foremost among which is the right to self-determination, in accordance with the principles and provisions of the Charter of the United Nations concerning the right to self-determination of peoples, the inadmissibility of seizure of land belonging to others by means of force or military invasion, and in accordance with United Nations resolutions concerning the question of Palestine.

Even before the PNC issued its final documents, there were extraordinary efforts made in this country to discredit them. The New York Times ran an editorial on November 12 condemning the results of the Algiers meeting just as it was convening. For three consecutive days, the Times and much of the rest of the media featured the presence in Algiers of Abu Abbas, the Achille Lauro hijacker.

Contrary to claims repeatedly made in the US media since Algiers, Resolution 242 was not accepted “only in the context of all other resolutions on the problem, including ones challenging the legitimacy of Israel.” [7] On the contrary, the UN resolutions on the Palestine question are invoked only insofar as they ratify the Palestinians’ demand for self-determination. Abba Eban, Israel’s former foreign minister and one of the architects of Resolution 242, raised what he called the “awkward fact” ignored by the media — namely, that “compared with Mr. Shamir, the Palestine National Council is almost a devotee of 242…. While some governments have not explicitly endorsed 242, Mr. Shamir is the only prime minister in the world who has actually turned it down.” [8]

US and Israeli government and media responses to the Algiers meeting bore some remarkable resemblances. No longer able to deny that the Palestinians had clearly and fully accepted the principle of partition, the claim now is that they have done so “40 years too late.” Having failed to follow the lead of the Zionist movement in 1948, the Palestinians, so to speak, missed the boat.

But did the Zionist movement ever accept the principle of partition? Unlike the Palestinian Declaration from Algiers, the Israeli Declaration of Independence does not speak of the creation of a Jewish and an Arab state in Palestine. This omission was not inadvertent. David Ben Gurion, according to his biographer, scrupulously “deleted any reference to the partition plan” the evening before the declaration was made. [9] Israeli historian Simha Flapan argues that none of the Zionist parties gave up the aspiration of a Jewish state in all of Palestine. Their acceptance of the 1947 resolution was “a tactical acceptance, a step in the right direction — a springboard for expansion when circumstances proved more judicious.” [10] Avi Shlaim, another Israeli historian, argues that the partition borders were, for Ben Gurion, of only marginal importance because “he intended to change them in any case; they were not the end but only the beginning.” [11]

Specifying Borders

Along these same lines, US critics of the PLO charge that the Algiers Declaration does not specify the borders of the Palestinian state. This is true, but the accompanying Political Communiqué calls explicitly and exclusively for “Israel’s withdrawal from all the Palestinian and Arab territories which it has occupied since 1967, including Arab Jerusalem.” One may disagree with these projected borders, but there is nothing ambiguous about them.

Consider the Zionist record on borders. There is no mention of them in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Again, this was no oversight. There was heated debate within the Zionist movement as to whether or not to include the Partition Resolution borders in the Declaration. The matter was put to a vote and the majority decided against. Abba Eban points out that upon being admitted to the UN in 1949 Israel “made clear that the boundary question was open for negotiations and that we were not bound by the territorial provisions of the 1947 partition resolution.” [12] According to Shlaim, Ben Gurion defined his movement’s ultimate goal as a Jewish state “on both sides of the Jordan…. The eastern border in Ben Gurion’s map…was not the Jordan River, but the Syrian desert, at the furthest edge of Transjordan.” [13]

Nor has the thinking of significant Zionist elements changed in recent years. In February 1988, the Platform Committee of Herut (the core of the Likud bloc) stated that the right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, including Jordan, is “permanent” and “not subject to any higher authority.” Yitzhak Shamir accordingly declared in December 1988 that “there is no room or reason for a second Arab state within the Land of Israel and it won’t arise.” [14]

No US-Israeli critique of the Palestinian movement would be complete without reference to “terrorism.” The PNC did not categorically renounce terrorism, the critics charge. In fact, the political communiqué explicitly rejects “terrorism in all its forms,” though the document also affirms the Palestinians’ right to “resist foreign occupation” and “struggle for…independence.”

What lies behind these offending phrases? On December 7, 1988, the UN General Assembly debated a resolution which, among other things, “reaffirmed the inalienable right to self-determination and independence of all peoples under colonial and racist regimes and other forms of alien domination, and upheld the legitimacy of their struggle, in particular the struggle of national liberation movements.” [15] The resolution passed 153-2, with the US and Israel casting the two negative votes (Honduras abstained). Thus in calling for the PLO to renounce its right to “resist foreign occupation” and “struggle for independence,” the US and Israel are demanding that it join them off the spectrum of world opinion. Not even the apostle of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi, made in his time the kinds of demands on the Palestinians now being invoked by Israel and the US. During the Palestinian revolt in the late 1930s, Gandhi wrote to philosopher Martin Buber:

I am not defending the Arab excesses. I wish they had chosen the way of non-violence in resisting what they rightly regarded as an unwarrantable encroachment upon their country. But according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds. [16]

There is of course a certain numerical perspective to lend to this matter of terrorism and political violence. Official Israeli figures count a total of between 350 and 400 Israeli victims of “PLO terrorism” since 1967. At least this many and almost certainly more unarmed Palestinian civilians have been killed by Israeli troops in the Occupied Territories in the past 12 months alone. [17]

A fourth charge against the PLO is that a minority within the organization still rejects a political settlement with Israel. True, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and other, smaller groups did demur from the majority “two-state” view in Algiers. But they agreed to defer to the will of the majority. It is the essence of democratic discourse that the minority is entitled to its views, so long as the will of the majority is respected.

Menachem Begin, remember, denounced the 1947 Partition Resolution as “an illegal act.” [18] His rejectionism did not obstruct negotiations with the mainstream Zionist leadership in 1948. Why is the rejectionism of the PFLP and others held an obstacle to negotiations with the Palestinian leadership today? In both cases, dissidents have tactical differences with the mainstream but share the strategic consensus. The difference is that the Palestinian consensus accepts the partition principle, while the strategic consensus within the Zionist movement did not — and does not today, as the almost daily utterances of Yitzhak Shamir attest.

Finally, the partisans of Israeli rejectionism charge that “the Palestinians can’t be trusted.” This view finds its most succinct formulation in the words of Israeli cabinet minister Abraham Sharir: “It may not be nice to say so, but the Arabs are born liars.” [19] The question of trust is fundamentally a historical one. There is by now a rich documentary record bearing on the interactions between the Zionist movement and the Palestinian Arabs. It is only necessary to mention here the experience of the last decade.

The Camp David Accords constitute the first and, to date the only, full peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state. Former Israeli intelligence chief Harkabi observes that the Accords make no less than five explicit references to UN Resolution 242 and thus preclude Israel’s annexation of the Occupied Territories. “The historical truth is that in the Camp David Accords Mr. Begin conceded that the West Bank and Gaza Strip would not be part of Israel.” [20] Yet the “Fundamental Guidelines of the Government” issued in 1981 state that “at the end of the transition period set down in the Camp David agreements, Israel will raise its claim, and act to realize its right of sovereignty over Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip.” [21] Harkabi concludes that “I am deeply troubled by how evasively Israel has conducted itself in its first agreement with an Arab state. On the basis of this experience, why should other Arab countries want to conclude agreements with Israel?” [22] Abba Eban makes the same point. Comparing the “Fundamental Guidelines” with the Camp David Accords, he remarked that he was unable to find any precedent “in the jurisprudence of any government for such a total contradiction between an international engagement and a national statement of policy.” [23]

The July 1981 ceasefire agreement between Israel and the PLO serves as an excellent basis for evaluating the question of trust between Israel and the Palestinians, since it is the nearest precedent we have to a full peace treaty between them. All independent observers concur that the PLO scrupulously observed the terms of the accord almost to the eve of the Israeli invasion in June 1982, notwithstanding repeated violations and murderous provocations by Israel. Moreover, we now know that hardly had the ink dried on the July 1981 ceasefire accord before Israel began preparations for the invasion of Lebanon, waiting only for — indeed, desperately trying to evoke — a suitable pretext to launch it. [24] The historical record thus suggests that the Palestinians have at least as good grounds for distrusting Israel.

Flagrant Moderation

If the alleged grounds for rejecting the most recent Palestinian peace initiative are without substance, then why will Israel not negotiate with the PLO? Why have both Labor and Likud denounced the Algiers documents so unequivocally?

The answer is not hard to find. The PLO mainstream is committed — indeed, has been committed for the past decade and more — to an accommodationist settlement of the Middle East conflict. The truth is that the Israeli government dreads such Palestinian moderation. “It seems,” Harkabi writes, “that the Likud definition of an ‘Arab moderate’ is one who is prepared to hand over the territories and their Arab residents to Israel without protest.” Much the same can be said about the Labor alignment, as its bitter denunciation of Algiers so vividly illustrates. [25] As Harkabi caustically observes, “any sign of moderation on the Arab side is depressing, while the frequent manifestations of Arab extremism are seen as a heaven-sent blessing that proves the point.” [26] Historically, Israel has had recourse to every imaginable device to isolate the Palestinian moderates precisely because they put in such stark relief its own unrelenting rejectionism.

Avner Yaniv, an Israeli political scientist with impeccably mainstream credentials, contends that Israel always has preferred — indeed has actively encouraged — Palestinian intransigence, so great does it consider the “political menace” posed by a moderate PLO. For, unlike Arafat since the 1970s, “all Israeli cabinets since 1967,” as well as “leading mainstream doves” have been adamantly opposed to the formation of a Palestinian state in the Occupied Territories. Consequently, Israel has resorted to every conceivable subterfuge — including murderous unprovoked attacks on southern Lebanon — “for the purpose of weakening PLO moderates and strengthening the radicals” and “ensuring [the PLO’s] inflexibility,” thereby “saddling the PLO with a common platform which, owing to its denial of Israel’s right to exist, would never make the PLO palatable to European and American opinion.”

The “political menace” of PLO moderation accounts, in Yaniv’s view, for the Israeli decision to invade Lebanon in 1982. In particular, the PLO was “visibly engaged in a process of reorientation leading to a far more compromising approach toward the Zionist state than previously” and increased pressure was being exerted by the US administration “to deal with the PLO directly” since its mainstream was no longer wedded to extremist demands and was “basically moderate.” As Yaniv succinctly poses the dilemma for Israel in the summer of 1982: “Israel had essentially two options: a political move leading to a historical compromise with the PLO, or preemptive military action against it.” To fend off the PLO’s “peace offensive,” Israel finally chose “military action.” In short, “destroying the PLO as a political force capable of claiming a Palestinian state on the West Bank” was “the raison d’etre of the entire operation.” [27] This is why Algiers evoked such a bitter reaction in Israel and the US: flagrant moderation. Algiers ignited yet another “peace panic.” It threatened — in the words of Walter Ruby, the Jerusalem Post correspondent from Algiers — to “render Israel’s diplomatic defenses almost untenable.” [28] An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman observed that the Palestinians’ acceptance of 242 “is not considered by us a recognition of Israel” because of “the way they mention it, with conditions.” [29] That, in a word, is the core of the problem: not recognition of Israel, but the “conditions” — i.e., recognition of the Palestinian people’s reciprocal right to self-determination and statehood.

Substantive Dialogue?

In December 1988, the US government, bowing to intense international pressure, agreed to open a “substantive dialogue” with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Once the dust had settled, it quickly became clear that this move amounted less to a policy turning point than a recognition that its own extreme rejectionism had become politically untenable. So little does the “substantive dialogue” mark a new departure in US thinking that, as I write these lines, Secretary of State James Baker is quoted in the morning paper to the effect that “it may be that you can have meaningful negotiations that do not involve the PLO.” [30]

To date, the only “substance” in the “substantive dialogue” seems to be unilateral warnings to the PLO that it must desist from all acts of so-called terrorism — including any armed resistance to Israeli occupation forces in Lebanon. Meanwhile, Israel escalates its already massive repression in the Occupied Territories and continues its murderous and unprovoked attacks on Lebanon, striking “terrorist positions used for staging attacks against Israel” — for example, a schoolyard southeast of Beirut that left three people dead and scores of schoolchildren wounded. [31] The US rebuked Arafat when he allegedly threatened Bethlehem mayor Elias Freij. Yet earlier the unambiguous threat of Prime Minister Shamir, that “if the Arab residents of the West Bank and Gaza will start to fight against Israeli security forces with live ammunition, no remnant will remain of them, and then the uprising will come to an end” apparently did not disqualify him from participating in the “peace process.” [32] Indeed, although Shamir’s remarks were widely reported, they elicited no official US comment, let alone condemnation.

The usually well-informed Israeli correspondent Nahum Barnea recently reported in Yediot Aharonot that

Relaxed and happy in his lot, Yitzhak Rabin met the leaders of the Peace Now movement this week. In his last meeting with this group, six months ago, he was agitated and nervous and he attacked them harshly. Now he was appeased, and Tsali Reshef, one of them, perceived in his relaxed attitude and in the very fact of his willingness to meet them a sign that Rabin considers himself the victor. If Rabin were a different type of person, he would have spread his fingers and made a “V” sign. In his good spirits, he said some interesting things. For example, that the decision of the American government to carry on discussions with the PLO was a successful affair. The Americans received from Arafat a commitment to stop the terror, and in return they paid a very cheap price — low-level discussions, after all only with the American ambassador in Tunis. The Americans are satisfied now. They do not seek any Middle East [political solution], and they will grant us a year, at least a year." [33]

The “substantive dialogue” may thus actually turn out to be a boon for Israel. In connivance with its American ally, Israel gets on with the dirty business of crushing the intifada relatively free of public scrutiny, with attention riveted on a substance-less “substantive dialogue.”


[1] Cited in George Kahin, Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam (New York, 1987), p. 245.
[2] Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York, 1988) pp. 188-90, 230. Just as the New York Times has repeatedly suppressed Palestinian peace initiatives, so it did not report U Thant’s 1964 efforts until — in Kahin’s words — “after the die had been cast, not until March 9, 1965, after the United States had mounted its sustained air war against the North and landed the first US ground troops in Vietnam.” Kahin, p. 245.
[3] Yehoshafat Harkabi, Israel’s Fateful Hour (New York, 1988), p. 225.
[4] Tikkun (March 1988).
[5] See especially Noam Chomsky, The Fateful Triangle (Boston, 1983), ch. 3, and “Thought Control in the US: The Media and the ‘Peace Process,’” Middle East Report 143 (November-December 1986).
[6] Washington Post, October 3, 1977.
[7] Editorial in The New Republic, December 5, 1988.
[8] Jerusalem Post, December 3, 1988.
[9] Michael Bar-Zohar, Ben-Gurion: A Biography (New York, 1978), p. 162.
[10] Simha Flapan, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities (New York, 1987), p. 33.
[11] Avi Shlaim, Collusion Across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement and the Partition of Palestine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 16.
[12] Flapan, pp. 34-35; see also Abba Eban in Jerusalem Post, December 3, 1988.
[13] Shlaim, p. 46.
[14] New York Times, December 23, 1988.
[15] UN General Assembly, Forty-Second Session, Agenda Item 126.
[16] Paul R. Mendes-Flohr, ed., A Land of Two Peoples: Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs (New York, 1983), p. 111.
[17] Hadashot, May 29, 1987, for official Israeli figures. See also Fateful Triangle, p. 74. The number of reported Palestinian casualties in the intifada ranges between 350 and 450.
[18] Geoffrey Aronson, Creating Facts: Israel, Palestinians and the West Bank (Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1987), p. 62.
[19] In These Times, May 10, 1988.
[20] Harkabi, p. 91.
[21] Aronson, p. 237.
[22] Harkabi, p. 92.
[23] Cited in Fateful Triangle, p. 62.
[24] See Fateful Triangle, pp. 195-196. In his Dilemmas of Security: Politics, Strategy and the Israeli Experience in Lebanon (Oxford, 1987), Israeli political scientist Avner Yaniv reports that the Israeli invasion “had been preceded by more than a year of effective ceasefire with the PLO” (p. 21). He cites a November 4, 1983, article by Abba Eban, who observed that during the year preceding the invasion “no Israelis lost their lives in Galilee or anywhere else in northern Israel” (p. 251). According to Harkabi (pp. 99-100), even Yitzhak Rabin admitted in the Knesset that, for the duration of the ceasefire preceding the invasion, Israel’s northern settlements were attacked only twice, both times following Israeli air strikes into Lebanon.
[25] The one glaring lacuna in Harkabi’s book is his failure to even mention Labor’s views. Yet his scathing critique of Likud applies with equal force to Labor, at least since 1967. Shlaim concludes that “when it comes to dealing with the Arabs, Ben-Gurion had more in common with Zeev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin than he did with the moderates inside his own party” (p. 610).
[26] Harkabi, p. 122.
[27] Yaniv, pp. 20-23, 50-54, 67-70, 87-89, 101, 105, 113, 143, 294.
[28] Jerusalem Post, November 26, 1988.
[29] Jewish Press, November 24, 1988.
[30] New York Times, March 15, 1989.
[31] New York Times, March 1, 1989.
[32] New York Times, October 18, 1988.
[33] Yediot Aharonot, February 24, 1989.

How to cite this article:

Norman Finkelstein "The Scourge of Palestinian Moderation," Middle East Report 158 (May/June 1989).

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