In the preamble to the agreement signed on September 13, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization “agree that it is time to put an end to decades of confrontation and conflict.” This agreement may or may not serve that purpose. Peace and justice advocates should not be under any illusion that Palestinian self-determination is at hand. But the agreement has changed the environment in which the struggle for Palestinian rights must continue. It expresses the failure of earlier efforts to suppress and marginalize the Palestinians and the PLO. Now the challenge is to ensure that full Israeli withdrawal takes place, and that the Palestinian state that Arafat claims is in process is governed in a more democratic and accountable fashion than that embodied in the process used to secure formal PLO approval of the declaration.
The texts signed and exchanged, and the process that produced them, embody one concrete achievement: long overdue Israeli recognition of the PLO “as the representative of the Palestinian people” and acceptance of the Palestinian demand that Israel negotiate directly with the PLO. In all other respects, the matters in dispute — from how to share water and electrical power to how to share Jerusalem — are deferred to months and years of negotiations. The experience of 22 months of talks in Washington leaves little grounds for optimism regards the outcome.
The language of the agreement contains some important deferences to the Palestinian agenda — specifying the West Bank (not Judea and Samaria, as in Camp David) and Gaza as “a single territorial unit, whose integrity will be preserved”; stipulating direct and free elections, in which Jerusalem residents will participate; and anticipating the return of Palestinians displaced in the 1967 war. The Israeli agenda is mainly served by what is not in the text, and the residual powers left with the military government. There is no reference to “occupied” territories, thus implying that the question of sovereignty is an open one. There is no mention of Israeli settlements, though clearly Palestinian jurisdiction will not apply to them. In fact, except for Gaza and Jericho (whose territorial scope itself remains to be negotiated), none of the spheres of Palestinian authority pertain to land-related issues.
Much of the declaration text — like the signing ceremony on the White House lawn — projects an image of parity and equality that has no correspondence to the balance of political, economic and military forces in the territories or in the region. The one place in which this vast imbalance was transparent was in the letters of recognition, in which the victims were made to speak as if they were the victimizers. Where in Rabin’s letter, by contrast, is there any mention of Israel’s intention to forswear violence, or of the Palestinian right to a state and secure borders?
Virtually every paragraph of the agreement and its annexes will be the object of sharp struggle over interpretation and implementation. Will the oppressive closure of the territories that the Rabin government imposed, even while it negotiated this text, remain in place to compel Palestinian concessions regards the specifics of the interim agreement? How will the discrepancy between Israel’s $60 billion GDP and the less than $3 billion West Bank-Gaza GDP affect the workings of the Economic Cooperation Committee called for in Article XI? A Palestinian police force, in this context, may prove to be indistinguishable from other instances in history where a colonial power has delegated repressive functions to a stratum of the oppressed. It is not for nothing that the African National Congress has refused to serve in South Africa’s police force until it exercises power.
This agreement marks a brilliant political coup by Yasser Arafat. He has maneuvered himself and his beleaguered leadership so that Israel and the United States — the regional power and the global power — have an unambiguous stake in his survival. What this means for the Palestinians whom he claims to solely represent is still ambiguous at best. The Palestinians collectively possess considerable human and political resources, and they will need to mobilize these resources to an extraordinary degree in order to extract the maximum from this agreement. The process by which Arafat secured PLO authorization for the agreement is much more threatening to Palestinian aspirations than anything that is or is not in the text. This mobilization requires that Palestinian leaders take steps to build political consensus and unity around a program for this new phase of struggle, especially among the Palestinian diaspora communities for whom this accord holds little promise. The old-style patronage and payoffs will produce, at best, a Palestinian version of the corrupt and unrepresentative regimes elsewhere in the region. To the extent that this agreement has shaken up political possibilities, it may unlock new dynamics in both Israeli and Palestinian societies that can neutralize and supplant these old leaderships, who can now be retired with the satisfaction that they have, belatedly, served history.
US support for Israeli intransigence over the years bears a heavy responsibility for the fact that this minimal step of mutual recognition did not occur earlier, and for the untold suffering and bloodshed, chiefly among Palestinians, that this obstructionism has cost. It is one of the ironies of the situation that the Clinton administration’s rather complete identification with Israeli positions had pretty much paralyzed the official peace talks, and forced both parties to go behind Washington’s back. We in the United States who have labored for US and Israeli recognition of and direct negotiations with the PLO must continue to press for changes that might make Yasser Arafat’s recent assertion that “the Palestinians have an important friend in the White House” a little less implausible than it is today.