The Gulf war transformed the political landscape of the Middle East, and thus the politics of the Palestinian question. Saddam Hussein’s promised “linkage” between the Gulf and Palestinian questions was in fact established, as the US sought to preserve its regional allies from a popular backlash, and thus reinforce its project of a “new international order” to encompass this troubled region. This means unblocking the Arab-Israeli stalemate and moving to solve the Palestinian question, generally recognized as the core component of the conflict.
The current debate in the Occupied Territories predated Secretary of State James Baker’s trips to the region by several months. It started with the outbreak of the Gulf crisis in August 1990 and emerged into the open virtually on the day the ceasefire came into effect in late February 1991. It concerned procedure and substance, and was mirrored by an equally intense debate on the “outside” — the PLO in Tunis, the refugee camps in the Arab countries and the Palestinian diaspora as a whole.
The atmosphere in the Occupied Territories in the spring of 1991 was somber. An international campaign was underway against the Palestinians and their leadership for their refusal to support unreservedly the US and Egyptian stance. Many Palestinians, influenced by this campaign, were convinced they had seriously erred, all the more so given the disappearance of their one-time Soviet ally.
Some Palestinian intellectuals argued that the period of psychological vulnerability brought on by Iraq’s defeat was the very worst time for making concessions. But these were minority voices: The consensus was that the Palestinians had incurred serious political losses. This atmosphere was reinforced by continued pressure on the part of occupation forces (widespread curfews, travel restrictions, a virtual ban on working in Israel) and by an end of remittances from the Gulf and of assistance from the financially strapped PLO.
In this context, calls from political activists and intellectuals for transparency and democracy were welcomed by the grassroots. Some began to outline scenarios for what became known as a prospective “transitional phase” for the Occupied Territories which would precede national independence. This looked very much like something Palestinians had always rejected emphatically in the past — namely, autonomy.
Such was the context when Baker began his trips to the region: a dominant somber mood, harsh living conditions, and open debate on the lessons of the past and ways to move forward. This immediately centered on whether or not to accept his invitation to Palestinian personalities to meet with him each time he came to Jerusalem. The debate settled along three distinct yet constantly interacting lines whose proponents attempted to influence Palestinian public opinion (the “street”): wholehearted advocacy, categorical opposition and critical support.
In the vanguard of the advocates were the public figures who predated or had been spawned by the intifada. They were at this stage supported by the Fatah elite and the PLO’s top leadership, notably Yasser Arafat. A part of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) loyal to Yasser Abed Rabbo likewise favored these preliminary discussions with the US secretary. What explains this shift from when Palestinians boycotted Baker’s predecessor, George Shultz, when he came to East Jerusalem?
The Tunis leadership around Arafat had become anxious about its isolation and fearful of a loss of influence in the Occupied Territories and elsewhere. Its coffers were empty, and it feared others might step in to fill any political void it might create by vetoing talks with Baker. As for the public figures in the Occupied Territories, their very standing within the community had from the start been linked to the existence of an international diplomatic process. With the exception of those few who came up through the ranks of a particular organization, their prestige and legitimacy came from external, not internal processes. They wished for talks in which they could participate. Only those from organizations dead set against talks would oppose them, and even they were sure to be working in favor of a more flexible approach within the organization. Independent and Fatah-aligned public figures (who together still form the overwhelming majority of that category) advocated meeting Baker.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the pro-Hawatmeh DFLP and the Palestine Communist Party (PCP) opposed talking to Baker. The PCP made its decision after an intense organizational debate between two tendencies, one around the leadership of Bashir al-Barghouti, and one backing younger, more liberal and compromise-prone people such as Ghassan al-Khatib. The DFLP’s pre-existing split was further envenomed: Intellectuals and leaders like Zahira Kamal tended to side with Abed Rabbo; grassroots militants and cadre often opted for Hawatmeh. The logic of these opposition forces, as explained by Ghassan al-Khatib in a press release and by Riyad al-Malki (whose views coincide with those of the PFLP) in a press conference, was that this was not the time to talk to those who had launched the bloody assault on Iraq; that every effort was needed to resist this attempt to separate outside from inside; that US motives were not serious; that the Bush administration only wanted to make good on its promises to the Arab regimes.
This opposing argument was expressed mainly by PLO-affiliated groups. The Islamic movement, including Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, remained dogmatically opposed to peace with Israel. At the same time, not being entirely sure of immediate prospects, they did not want to jeopardize their position within the body politic. They preferred to see the initiative take its course and most likely fail. Their leaders spoke up in the mosques, but did not organize demonstrations or adopt a high opposition profile.
Critical supporters included some university professors, journalists and other members of the liberal professions who were willing to accept the meetings with Baker if certain precautions were taken. Based on experience, they argued, the US was not a trustworthy partner. Palestinians should prepare themselves to respond to an American-designed plan, building up solid technical and political briefs immediately. They also warned against letting the intifada drift, and reminded advocates and opponents that the day-to-day problems of the population were in need of their attention.
The Palestinian street during this period continued in a collective state of depression and frustration, fraught with apathy and bitterness. People were nonetheless willing to try anything that might possibly relieve their suffering. This applied to the “Islamist” as well as the “secular” street, in the absence of a better alternative.
Those who began to meet with the US secretary of state did so resolutely, backed by Yasser Arafat on the outside and feeling no strong brakes from the street. The opposition’s position was weakened when people close to the PFLP and PCP continued to meet with all Western foreign ministers (such as those from Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy) except Baker himself, although these governments had actively supported the US during the Gulf war. What was the point of boycotting the alliance head, people asked, while speaking to subordinate allies who simply insisted that they fully supported the US initiative?
Hour Of Decision
The next phase was that leading up to the Algiers Palestine National Council (PNC), which made the decision to attend a regional conference without the PLO. The previous alignment persisted. Those Palestinians who had met with Baker insisted that they had received guarantees from him in the name of the US. The opposition argued against accepting the concessions Baker was imposing on the Palestinians. Critical supporters argued that the decision should be made, one way or another, as soon as possible. If the decision was favorable, the Palestinians should state their minimum conditions for attending. This group warned that Baker was deliberately vague in his “assurances,” his objective being to bring them to the conference rather than to establish the conditions for a settlement. They noted that the Palestinians were key to the participation of the Arab states and had this leverage.
After the PLO’s decision to attend the opening session of the Madrid conference, advocates considered that the debate had been decided in their favor, and that they now represented the Palestinian consensus. Their position was strengthened by the last-minute formal decision of the Palestine Communist Party (rebaptized the Palestinian People’s Party or PPP) to attend the negotiations. This was based on agreements concerning the decision-making process for the negotiations, and the inclusion of two PPP supporters in the 14-member negotiating team. The DFLP-Abed Rabbo was also represented, along with Fatah and “mainstream” independent personalities. In fact, “the inside,” led by Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi, played a major role in convincing the majority at the PNC and in the PLO Central Council to give their approval. Despite various compromises as to the agenda and composition of the delegation (no PLO, no Jerusalemites, no separate Palestinian delegation, no prior end to settlement activity) the PLO link was clear due to its role in selecting the delegation, which would be under the direction of Jerusalem residents. It would be wrong to stay out of the talks, they argued, since national aims — namely, independence — could be advanced through them.
At this juncture, tensions within Fatah came to the fore. They included personal and organizational aspects. Various groupings vied to be included in the delegation, since this might be the first step on the road to positions of responsibility in the autonomy (and independence) period. The inside and outside leadership came under heavy pressure from all sides. Sari Nusseibeh and Ziad Abu Ziad, who had been named to the advisory committee, declined to go to Madrid, allegedly so as better to support the delegation from the home front, but in fact out of pique and in order to prepare the ground for a projected power realignment. Nusseibeh criticized Faisal Husseini’s personalized decision-making procedures. Organizationally there was tension between lower and upper echelons of Fatah. Cadre who had previously supported negotiations now began to express reservations about the extent of compromises. A whispering campaign criticized the leaders for their quarrels. The cadre also felt that too many non-Fatah personalities were being drawn into the delegation and given leading roles.
The opposition (now minus the PPP) intensified personal as well as political attacks on the advocates. At least one common Hamas-PFLP-DFLP communique was issued. (On the outside, the PFLP “froze” its participation in the PLO Executive Committee.) Critical supporters feared that the Palestinian position would be weak because attention to pre-conference politics had left the negotiators not well enough prepared technically. Regarding the criteria by which the delegates (14 members and six advisers) were selected, the critical supporters felt that the leadership, once the selection had finally been made, should not have given in to further lobbying which led to scores of people being sent to Madrid in one capacity or another. Mistakes at this stage, they argued, would cost the Palestinians in the long run.
On the street, hope was rising that something may actually be achieved at the end of the process, that US policy may have indeed shifted, that its “assurances” could be taken seriously.
Madrid and After
The good performance of the Palestinian delegation and the excellent international media response produced a euphoric peak for the advocates of negotiation, and the negotiators themselves. The Palestinians had influenced international opinion, and attempts to exclude the PLO from the process had been thwarted.
Even as Hanan Ashrawi, Haydar ‘Abd al-Shafi and Faisal Husseini assumed public preeminence, a leadership group appeared to emerge within the negotiating team (Sa‘ib Erakat, Nabil Qassis, Mamdouh al-‘Aqr, Ghassan al-Khatib). With the exception of Husseini and Erakat, these were not originally Fatah supporters. This troubled some Fatah people in the Occupied Territories, but not enough to break the euphoria. The opponents were weakened by the Madrid triumph, while critical voices warned against overestimating the significance of a ceremonial function and noted that President Bush, in his speech, had retreated from his previous position by not mentioning the land-for-peace formula. The Palestinian street, immediately before and during the Madrid conference, wholeheartedly supported the negotiators, including the famous demonstrations in which participants decorated Israeli army jeeps with olive branches. Those who had gone to Madrid felt they had scored a significant public relations victory. Hanan Ashrawi asserted that the Palestinians had “won the first round.” Some, including Haydar ‘Abd al-Shafi, took a more sober line. “Town meetings” were held before and after Madrid, generally in an enthusiastic atmosphere, although many critical remarks and questions came from the public. There were also a few open debates with opposition figures. But the controversies within Fatah now reached new levels with the announcement that “political committees” had been formed throughout the Occupied Territories. A list of their membership was read to the public and the returning Madrid delegation at the latter’s first press conference. Faisal Husseini and the other delegation leaders were clearly taken by surprise. Sari Nusseibeh, the principal sponsor of this initiative, was thus able to coopt part of Fatah’s organizational hierarchy, which had long felt neglected and bypassed. It marked a partly successful effort to establish a unified hierarchy in an increasingly splintered organization (with Nusseibeh at the top).
The initiative also reflected a genuine desire by a number of Fatah organizational leaders to stabilize matters on the ground, and to make sure that Fatah remained in control. They wished to support the negotiations while ensuring that they did not deviate from legitimate national aims. The committees were thus a vehicle for ensuring organizational control and political integrity. An undesirable side effect was the creation of new competition, this time for membership on the political committees. The power struggle at the top stretched downward into the grassroots.
Husseini and ‘Abd al-Shafi (who stands outside the organization), among others, criticized the committees as hastily and poorly planned. They did not negate their utility, but argued for their reorganization. Another group within Fatah, even more critical of the Nusseibeh initiative, was composed of those cadre who felt that the controversy would harm the intifada as well as the organization. They also condemned it as an attempt to bring Fatah into the open and transform it into an ordinary, Western-style political party.
The Fatah leadership in Tunis quickly decided to freeze the activities of the new committees even as a number of designated committee members advertised their withdrawal in local newspapers. The committees were replaced by a smaller “political preparatory committee.” This confusion prompted some to urge reducing the number of people to be sent to the next round of talks, possibly modifying the delegation”s composition and forming groups of technical experts.
The opposition stepped up its criticism, and accused Arafat of having “thrown himself into the arms of the Americans.” George Habash sent a personal plea to ‘Abd al-Shafi to resign from the delegation. Meanwhile, critical supporters warned against overestimating the impact of Madrid. They voiced fear that the delegation was not sufficiently prepared for future negotiations, and that personal politics held primacy over administrative and organizational procedures. Faisal Husseini, they maintained, decided too many questions himself, with insufficient delegation of responsibility. This open critique from outside the delegation also found a discreet echo within. On the street, people began questioning the proceedings as well, fearing that they were witnessing a developing struggle over spoils before the battle had even been fought.
The departure for Washington was preceded by several decisions: Nusseibeh would go, with the title “head of the technical team,” and Husseini would not. The delegation would remain unchanged, while membership of the advisory committee was reduced and the number of accompanying staff drastically cut. The PLO refused, however, to agree to the formation of entire groups of technical experts from the inside, probably for fear of losing control over the decision-making process.
Several warning signs coming from the US were ignored or glossed over during this period. These signals suggested that the US would not play an active role in furthering the process, but behave simply as a technical host in Washington. When Israel delayed sending its negotiators to Washington for the session scheduled for December 4, 1991, the Palestinian side stated that they would go and wait. The intent was to expose Israel’s bad faith, but this deprived the delegation of the initiative which it had previously held.
The opposition mocked the waiting posture and the de facto exclusion of the PLO through US denial of entry visas. Critical supporters urged the delegation to maintain the initiative by going to Washington, waiting one day, and returning home immediately, to show resolve and to pressure the US into playing a more active role. The street, too, was shocked by the waiting and “corridor” diplomacy. This was perhaps a turning point for public opinion, which began once again to lose interest in a process whose initial promises seemed unlikely to be realized in the foreseeable future.
Advocates of negotiation, and the delegation leadership itself, were shocked to discover that the press was not interested in Israel’s failure to show up in Washington. The first round of what were to be substantive talks bogged down in the corridors of the State Department for close to two weeks. The delegation was disappointed in the US; the critics were disappointed in the delegation. Riyad al-Malki and ‘Ali Abu Hilal (who supports DFLP-Hawatmeh positions) gave a press conference the day before the negotiators’ return, partly covered by Israeli television, in which they vehemently criticized the delegation. Palestinian opinion also swung in a markedly more critical direction.
Critical supporters of the talks felt that the Palestinians had lost the Washington round on various grounds: They had passively waited almost a week for the Israelis; coordination with other Arab delegations broke down as the Syrians and the Lebanese held round after round of talks while the Jordanians, Palestinian and Israelis haggled over modalities. This diminished the contention that the Palestine question was at the heart of the Arab cause. Finally, it was a mistake to agree in advance to resume talks on January 7, 1992, according to these critics. The delegation should have consulted public opinion first.
The advocates, on the other hand, felt that they had done what they needed to promote the Palestinian cause in the international arena, and had given up nothing of substance. In the street, skepticism took on a note of cynicism. Criticism of the delegation in general was heard, and the legitimacy of the process itself began to be questioned. The Islamists now adopted a more confrontational stance. At the end of December 1991, Hamas prevented Faisal Husseini from speaking at a public meeting in Tulkarm; the next day a Hamas activist was killed under murky circumstances. But the majority was not yet ready to slam the door for good, particularly as it felt the PLO leadership was still committed to the negotiations.
Developments early in the new year seemed to show that the negotiators had not been deaf to the criticism. They postponed their departure to Washington in the wake of Israel’s expulsion orders against 12 Palestinian activists. Arafat also secured a postponement on the part of all the other Arab delegations. At an emergency meeting, the negotiators decided it was up to the PLO to decide when and whether they would go to the next round of talks. Most significantly, they spoke of the need to regard the negotiations as long ones which would not achieve major gains in the near future, but which had to be used to influence public opinion and the peace process in the US and Israel.
When the UN Security Council unanimously condemned Israel for the planned deportations, and the Palestinian team left for Washington, the opposition became more vehement than ever. Hamas, the PFLP and DFLP-Hawatmeh issued a new joint communique. It considered the UN resolution a mere face-saving device, and multiplied calls for protests and strikes against the deportation orders, most of whose victims were from their ranks.
The rules of the game promise to be the same in 1992. The three-way debate in the Occupied Territories will continue, with an increasingly important role for the Palestinian street as it is ever more actively wooed by the various sides. And new developments are likely to arise in three sensitive areas: relations between the “inside” and “outside,” developments within Fatah and political dynamics within the negotiating team itself.