Since the Gulf war, the Palestinian cause has entered an entirely new phase, one that is not merely a consequence of the war in the narrow sense. The Gulf crisis was the setting for a series of confrontations between local and international forces of such intensity that it is difficult to find a precedent. If the war fit into the formal category of a regional war with foreign intervention, it also had the character of a world war, given the international interests involved.

Economic interests and the war became one and the same. Despite the Iraqi flag emblazoned with the words Allahu akbar, and George Bush praying before the cameras, this was a secular war from start to finish. New communications technology also played a role in the battle. Not content with the usual travesty of reality, the media practically erased the distinction between weapons and itself — hence the “smart bomb.” The same communications technologies that defeated the Socialist bloc without firing a shot crushed Iraq without the need for a land war, consigning those who had hoped for one to the romantic status of European aristocrats who dreamed of the cavalry during World War I. Henceforth whoever would wage war on this scale ought to know that this is what it is like: one side waging it without risk, the other side without hope; one side accidentally losing a few dozen people, and the other losing a few hundred thousand by force of arms.

The Iraqi regime must be made to answer for its despotism. That account will be settled by the direct victims of the dictatorship — Iraqis, both Arabs and Kurds. Baghdad also has an account to settle with its indirect victims — the people of the Third World whom the Iraqi leadership claimed to champion, foremost among them the Palestinians.

To describe the Iraqi leadership as irrational and lacking in political sense is a racist and fundamentally false picture that divides the world into two mentalities: one pragmatic, rational, Western; and the other Oriental, emotional and tribal. The Iraqi regime made many mistakes — by invading Kuwait, by not withdrawing at the opportune moment, by betting that the war would not take place. But these mistakes do not mean that the regime is irrational. To the contrary, it is pragmatic, quite sensitive to the language of power, cast in the mold of Third World dictatorships typically supported by the West.

Iraq did not understand that the world in which it was trying to implant itself was already in post-transition. The Socialist bloc was already being restructured into the capitalist order, and had lost all capacity for defiance or initiative. The Iraqi leadership also miscalculated in its assessment of Europe as a political entity. Europe is a myth from the past and a project for the future, but there is no European position on major international issues. There are three or four positions, even if there is clearly a desire to speak in harmony.

Finally, Iraq miscalculated the Arab political configuration. Even though bitterness toward the US and the Gulf regimes prompted people to look to Iraq as the “savior of Arab dignity,” it was inappropriate to bet much on popular hopes and resentments. In the end, the masses came out in the streets only where they faced no danger in doing so, on the basis of deals with the government, as in Jordan, Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen and even Morocco. When demonstrating meant taking a risk, as in Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia — in other words, where organized political opposition was most needed — the masses preferred to follow the war on their television screens.

Iraq, after all, had helped to decimate the opposition it was now calling on. There was no left opposition that was not Stalinist, no Islamic opposition that was not metaphysical, and no nationalist opposition that had not lost its cultural and social dimensions. There are many local oppositions, but no movement capable of formulating these problems in terms of the Arab world as a whole.

The Place of the Palestinian Conflict

The key phrase these days is the “new world order,” meaning that from now on there is only one superpower and one political-economic camp. Is there room for the Palestinians in this new order? Is there room for a Palestinian state?

Some Palestinians are actively working to convince the US that the Palestinian cause is legitimate. Others try to convince the world that the US must do for Palestine what it did for Kuwait. This assumes that the US was enforcing international law in the Gulf, that Washington is suffering from a double standard that can be cured. US policy in the Gulf and in Palestine is based on Western economic interests and the special privileges of the US as the military protector of those interests. If we want to address the question of a place for the Palestinians in the new order, we will have to look at the problem from another angle.

A major debate is now taking place within the Palestinian national movement in the Occupied Territories concerning the situation after the Gulf war, the structure of the PLO, its internal democracy and decision-making processes, and proposals for a solution to the conflict. This current debate exemplifies the same undue haste that marked the way the Palestinians took a position during the Gulf war. There is a striking lack of modesty among those who have just discovered the idea of democracy. The question of democracy is central for our society, our national movement and its institutions, but to pose the question in a general and abstract manner constitutes a headlong flight from the practice of democracy. Remember all those “rejections of unilateral decisions,” the familiar phrase in the communiques of PLO organizations whenever one disagreed with another during the 1970s? None of those organizations put into practice within its own ranks what it was urging the others do.

The real challenge is to make the connection between principles like freedom of expression, pluralism and tolerance, and our social reality and the political apparatus of our national movement. The Occupied Territories are witnessing a proliferation of plans and proposals for possible solutions of the conflict, notably in the Jerusalem press. The more restricted reality is, the richer the debate; the further we are from the necessary conditions for a solution, the more proposals we have.

The question of stages, or the “stages that will lead to stages,” has gotten more attention than it deserves in this debate. Since the Gulf war, we in the Occupied Territories have contributed to this. Have we accepted autonomy as a stage? Or has Camp David become a national demand? The strategy of stages was a step in the wrong direction, beginning with the idea of establishing a national authority on “any liberated or evacuated portion of the national territory,” followed by the idea of building a state on any liberated territory, then a state in the West Bank and Gaza, and then autonomy as a stage toward that state. The discussion of stages can go on forever, but if the balance of power does not permit the creation of a state, it certainly will not permit the stages that are intended to lead to a state.

If our goal is independence, we should work for independence. If present conditions do not permit the birth of a Palestinian state in the near future, that does not mean we should change our goal. If we reject the occupation, we have only two solutions to choose: independence (the two-state formula, Palestinian and Israeli) or equality (between Israelis and Palestinians in one state), and equality means either a democratic secular state or a binational state. Who knows whether the evolution of the conflict will not lead us by the end of the century to struggle for the abolition of apartheid and the creation of a secular or a binational state?

The autonomy Israel favors is within the framework of a treaty ratified by the Jordanians and the Palestinians. This will happen after the PLO and the Palestinians in exile have been excluded from the “peace process,” and the question of Palestine has been reduced to the “question of the Occupied Territories,” and then to the “question of the territories,” and after the water, the land and the air itself have all been removed from the scope of autonomy. What Israel would accept in the current stage and what American diplomacy is attempting to deliver is nothing more than a Palestinian endorsement of the present situation. This is utterly unacceptable. If we accept the occupation, then all we get in return is the occupation.

The Idea of American Pressure

The Palestinian national movement has made many mistakes in the course of its long history, but the Palestinian people are no less capable than other peoples who have attained independence, admittedly in less complicated circumstances. We have been drawn into a vicious circle of self-criticism by the vortex of public opinion. All the dialogues and meetings the Zionist left is pleased to grant us have had the sole result of convincing us that the whole question can be reduced to developing fair proposals. True, the Palestinians have sometimes failed to produce appropriate proposals at the appropriate time, but no one can say that the impasse today is due to a dearth of proposed solutions.

The US, Israel and the Arab countries all know that the Palestinians want an end to the occupation, but the fact is that Israel does not want to end it, and neither the regional nor the international powers are about to force it to do so. The proliferation of proposals is a reflection of this impasse, and is not without harmful effects on the Palestinians. It sows confusion in the popular movement that comprises the Palestinian strategic capital. It encourages Israel in its rejectionism and in its illusions about separating the “question of the territories” from the Palestinian question. It reinforces the conviction of local and international adversaries that Palestinian concessions are potentially infinite, that the more time passes the more will be conceded.

The intifada won international sympathy for the Palestinians by reversing the polarity between victim and executioner, but it has yet to transform that sympathy into solidarity. Eleven months after the start of the uprising, the PLO launched its peace initiative. It was fair and appropriate, but it too failed to gain much international support. Here the fault lies not with the initiative but with events beyond Palestinian control that occurred just when their struggle was reaching its peak — the collapse of the Socialist bloc, the beginning of mass Soviet immigration to Israel, and the extension of US hegemony via the Gulf crisis.

We have seen the Palestinian cause drop on the international agenda ever since the collapse of the old order. In such conditions, there is nothing to be gained by retreating once we have defined our goals. On the contrary, we must fortify our ability to endure and resist until conditions improve for our diplomatic initiative. Until then, it is essential that the entire world, and especially the adversary, have no doubt about our goals. There should be no stages proposed before the start of the negotiations, at which time their temporary character must be clearly understood by all parties.

Many Palestinians who believe the US suffers from a double standard also accept the theory that the US can pressure Israel to do the right thing. This idea is promoted by the Zionist left. The reason is clear enough. The US option spares them the Israeli option, which requires them to become a real opposition, to create a real breach in society, to tear off the mask of false patriotism that says they must defend the absorption of new immigrants and other “national duties.” No Israeli opposition has emerged that is prepared to pay the price of its opposition and is capable of making Israeli society pay the price for peace. Thus the US has less and less reason to exert pressure on Israel.

The idea of US pressure on Israel is an Arab idea, too. The Arab right chalks up US policy in the Middle East to a simple mistake; it is up to the Arabs to show the US where its real interests in the region lie. This approach sees two obstacles to perfect understanding between the Americans and the Arabs: the American Jewish lobby, and Arab rejection (with its complement, Arab diplomatic incompetence). The truth is that US diplomatic and strategic support for Israel are not based on the strength of the Jewish lobby or the incompetence of Arab diplomacy (whose counterpart is Israeli political cunning). The Jewish lobby has grown stronger because US interests in the Middle East have increased since World War II, and Israel has demonstrated that it is a special kind of strategic ally. This lobby has acquired its own power and influence but that does not make it the dominant factor in US policy. Should US policy conclude that it is no longer possible to protect the same interests with the old policy, the Jewish lobby would suffer. We saw this happen when US Jewish organizations endorsed the idea of territorial withdrawal in the context of Camp David. If the US were as serious about resolving the Palestinian question as it was about bringing Egypt into a Western alliance after 1973, is there any doubt this lobby would line up with Washington?

The problem is not the Jewish lobby but US dominance, so greatly reinforced by the Gulf war that the likelihood of the US exerting pressure on Israel to satisfy its Arab allies can only be called an illusion. The Palestinians have been taken in by the same illusion. There is nothing wrong with addressing public opinion, and it is important to carry on a dialogue with all organizations, governmental and non-governmental. There is no room for a childish boycott of outside opinion; we must refine our message and present it in a coherent manner. But we must also be aware of the limits of this tactic, lest it become a strategy served by the intifada rather than being at the service of the intifada.

We ought to look more closely at the media’s curious fascination with the Arab-Israeli conflict. Media interest in the Palestinian cause cannot be attributed solely to the importance of the region, or to the extreme complexity of the issue. There are two other factors: Palestine is one of the last unresolved colonial questions; and the Palestinian cause reopens the Jewish question in general. The first lends strength, while the second pressures Palestinians to justify themselves, give repeated reassurances, constantly calm the fears of the other and endlessly excuse themselves. This is why so many dialogues have turned into collective therapy sessions. No other people in history has had to answer so many preliminary questions before its right to self-determination was recognized. International attention is not necessarily a sign that the solution is near.

The State of the Intifada

Many questions about the intifada and its future had been raised prior to the Gulf crisis: a sense of immobility and routine; lack of creativity in developing new forms of struggle; the organizational structure of the uprising and its ties to the masses; and, more recently, relations between the “outside” — the PLO — and the “inside,” and Palestinian democracy.

Since the beginning of the intifada, Palestinians “inside” — in the Occupied Territories — have debated what needs to be done to reach the civil disobedience stage, without clearly defining the concept or looking closely at practical ways of applying it. Many studies have been published on the mass movement, the role of the popular committees, alternative education and alternative economy. Their very existence shows that the intifada is much more than an event in Palestinian history: It has become a way of life.

It follows that certain questions cannot be postponed. If we see the intifada as a political event, we are locked into narrow calculations of immediate loss and gain. This view has often led to inappropriate escalation, forcing the intifada to support more than it can bear, yet proposing solutions that fall short of the Palestinian peace initiative. It has also mistakenly relied on Arab strength, or the Iraqi regime, or “linkage” between Kuwait and the Palestine question.

The value of the intifada cannot be measured by its ability to win independence in the shortest possible time. It is clear that the uprising has failed to defeat Israel economically. The uprising will not put an end to the occupation in a single decisive hour or year. Once we admit that, we can see that the value of the intifada lies in the fact that it makes the occupation a losing proposition in the end. It lights a fire under international, regional and local factors that can limit the occupier’s freedom to act.

The intifada has made many gains, but not to the point of surrounding the adversary and imposing sanctions. The reason lies not with the intifada but with a set of international factors. There is an historical parallel in the 1936-1939 rebellion, which was at its peak when World War II broke out and catastrophe struck the Jews of Europe. Now, just when the intifada reached its peak, the Socialist bloc collapsed, relations between Israel and Eastern Europe improved, waves of Soviet immigrants began rolling in, and the Gulf war confirmed US hegemony and Soviet insignificance.

Under those conditions, the intifada was able to dress its wounds, despite the imposition of a total curfew for more than a month during the Gulf war. Herein lies proof of its real strength and a primary contradiction: Just when the political cadres have accepted the American-European agenda, the popular intifada refuses to follow the same timetable.

In the present stage, the uprising means above all rejecting any normalization of the occupation. The intifada is a state rather than an event, a situation ripe for dramatic escalation the moment suitable conditions appear. We must foster the conditions of endurance until the international and regional configuration allows the beginning of negotiations that will finally end the occupation.

The conditions for endurance must be addressed in the light of the intifada’s strengths and weaknesses. One of its strengths is its popular character, encompassing all aspects of Palestinian life. The Palestinian masses are irrevocably politicized; a new generation has been forged in confrontation with the occupier. The Twentieth Palestine National Council at Algiers in 1988 confirmed and legitimized a clear political program. The intifada’s weaknesses include the absence of a single organizational infrastructure for the whole of the Occupied Territories; the lack of balance between local initiatives and the national interest; the absence of a public (as opposed to clandestine) leadership enjoying the respect of the majority and openly supporting the PLO; the lack of an organized decision-making process; and the lack of an overall social program to regulate the economic, cultural, judicial and public health sectors (in the sense of resolving internal differences in Palestinian society).

The general strike is still the primary symbol of the movement and the only comprehensive practice that unites the masses of the West Bank and Gaza. Some are beginning to have doubts about the amount of damage a general strike can inflict on the occupier. The Unified Leadership knows that its value is above all political and symbolic, but has lately come to realize that repeated strikes over a limited period of time can also be harmful. The Unified Leadership is now issuing fewer calls to strike in its communiques, but not renouncing the strike as a means of struggle.

One further point: In the beginning, spontaneity was a sign of the intifada’s strength. It was informed by the progressive content typically present in any outbreak of popular revolt, with its fresh values and its deviation from the well-worn paths of struggle. Now the intifada has become a kind of permanent state, while Israel has developed ways to make it more costly for the people on all levels. The uprising has begun to harden and lose the bright colors of its early days. Spontaneous actions have taken on a reactionary character, inspired solely by resentment of the occupier or hatred of collaborators. Spontaneous local action is no longer an appropriate response: This stage requires organized and concerted action.

The main obstacle to creating a solid organized structure for the intifada has been and remains the lack of complementarity between the local leaders inside and the PLO leadership and apparatus outside. The relationship is disorganized and undefined. It functions through a variety of channels that reproduce the conflicts of the outside on the inside. This has the effect of blocking the emergence of an internal leadership that can take responsibility, not for negotiations but for the political leadership of the intifada and for making appropriate decisions on vital questions of daily life, instead of leaving them up to the discretion of many different “shops,” as is now the case. Despite Israel’s ceaseless efforts, not a single voice in the Occupied Territories has spoken in favor of any leadership other than the PLO. But it is still incumbent on the PLO, in collaboration with the movement inside — a vital and essential part of the PLO — to establish an internal leadership that will enjoy popular confidence. No society can tolerate a void.


Materialist theoreticians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries used to claim that criticism of religion is a preface for criticism of ideology. Today, criticism of the media spectacle is the sine qua non for criticism of “false consciousness.”

Consider the media performance in Madrid: “This speech was dramatic” or “that one had nothing new in it”; a spokeswoman was “charming.” Style, rhetoric and rhythm constitute the stuff of news. The only attempt to go beyond the spectacle is the juxtaposition of an Israeli position and an Arab position, both shorn of any historical context, accompanied by guesses as to how the US, the embodiment of neutrality, is going to bridge the yawning gaps. Any intransigent Israeli declaration is not measured against past declarations, thus shifting the compromise point to Israel’s benefit. The Arab countries and the Palestinians, to enter the negotiations, had to concede virtually every point of contention: no PLO, no UN, no representatives from East Jerusalem.

Israel’s achievements are mainly the result of a regional process that liquidated the national element in the policies of Arab governments. The PLO found itself after the Gulf war without Arab allies for a different strategy. There is also an international process, the collapse of the bipolar international system, which is not altogether beneficial for Israel. Israel has achieved some of its historic goals, but the matrix of history is shifting now. Israel’s mistake is its pursuit of new goals using methods belonging to the old historical matrix: It continues to refuse any territorial compromise and any notion of a Palestinian state.

The Palestinians’ mistake, on the other hand, is to renounce old goals and prematurely cast their fate with a “new world order.” The Palestinian strategy assumes that the US is going to exert pressure on Israel. We know something about self-fulfilling prophecies, but we may have something to learn about self-falsifying prophecies: If everyone depends on American pressure, the US will have no reason, in the end, to exert any pressure.

Israeli pundits consider it a mistake to challenge the US. Israel can be strong in the negotiations, they conclude, but the option of not negotiating is no longer available. A central issue is whether or not Israel is negotiating with the PLO. For many, especially in the Zionist left, the question is superfluous. The right wing has a totally different perception. We are living a postmodern experience: Everybody has his or her narrative of Madrid. Both sides are technically right. For the left, the PLO obviously appointed the delegation and controls its activities. For the right, the PLO has been forced to hide behind media personalities from the West Bank and Gaza.

Choosing one or the other interpretation means deciding, on an essential level, whether Israel is negotiating with the PLO — which means discussing the Palestinian national issue — or whether it is negotiating possible solutions to the question of territories under its military occupation with a delegation from the territories. The latter implies a “Kurdization” of the Palestine question, reducing it to a question of national minorities.

The Palestinians can continue to act as if they are independent of the PLO, but they should stick to the position that there is one Palestinian national issue, it is represented by the PLO, and its solution can only be self-determination. The Palestinians should refuse to go along with any autonomy which is not a stage toward self-determination. Such a stand would mean that the PLO is not excluded, even though in a formal sense it is absent.

Israel allows the Palestinians to pretend that they are not PLO, but insists that they should be ready to speak about autonomy with no connection to succeeding phases. If the Palestinians agree, the “process” will do the rest: Israel will lead the Palestinians on the long and twisted path of negotiating small details of autonomy; Israeli acceptance of each detail will look like a great compromise. This will produce a deformed autonomy, a functional Jordanian-Israeli-Palestinian compromise, with the participation of old and new elites of the West Bank and Gaza. Financial support will be available to sunder links between a Palestinian diaspora and the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli right will then be able to claim, with truth, that “we have not spoken to the PLO after all.”

The Israeli historical thesis on the conflict always consisted of two parts: There is no Palestine question; but if there is, it is not central for the region. The Israeli government is convinced that the Gulf war confirmed the second part of their thesis. Now they are moving to validate the first part by reducing the Palestinian issue in the negotiations to the problem of a Palestinian minority under Israeli rule. What remains is a problem of Palestinian minorities in other Arab countries, which is not an Israeli problem.

The Israelis made it appear that their participation in Madrid was a great compromise. True, Israel, like Syria, would have preferred not to join. But hesitation was no more than a tactic to improve its starting position. Palestinian and Arab euphoria after Israel was “dragged” to Madrid was misplaced. Building a new settlement on the Golan Heights was no mere provocation. It is an assertion of the peace-for-peace thesis. Moreover, Israel knows very well that the other parties had no better strategy than coming to Madrid.

Beyond the question of the balance of power in the region, Palestinians and their sympathizers must, now more than ever, formulate the alternatives as clearly as possible. Either equality between nations in nation-states, or equality among citizens in a binational state. Autonomy (and lately US whispering into the ears of Palestinian delegates about self-government, which is more than autonomy and less than a state) is empty of any content if it does not deal with one of these two options. If the Palestinians are a minority in Israel, autonomy turns the occupation into apartheid. We should demand equality, not autonomy. Equality comes first, and autonomy then is a privilege. If, on the other hand, the Palestinians are considered a nation, then their right of self-determination should be recognized. After this right is recognized phases toward its implementation — like autonomy — can be discussed.

Stages work only if both sides agree to their nature. We can invent as many stages as we like, but if the other side does not concur, the stages become ultimate solutions. There is no use in the Palestinians alone seeing autonomy as a stage toward self-determination. Compromises become contradictio in adjecto if carried out as a solo pursuit.

How to cite this article:

Azmi Bishara "Palestine in the New Order," Middle East Report 175 (March/April 1992).

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