Azmi Bishara, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, teaches at Birzeit University. Joe Stork spoke with him in Jerusalem in late October 1993.
How do you assess the present situation?
For or against the agreement is no longer relevant. But I don’t think there’s anything to celebrate.
So you don’t think it’s any kind of a breakthrough?
It is a breakthrough, but for whom? No question, this is a historic moment. With Camp David, the forces in the Middle East for or against were more balanced. This time, Syria is tactically negotiating better terms, but Syria is not against the agreement. Iran is against it in an ideological sense, not in any practical way. Underlying this moment is the Israeli-American format imposed on the Palestinians after the Gulf war. And there is no active coalition of international forces against this format.
But the Israeli ban on the PLO did not hold.
After Labor won the election in Israel, Peres was given the multilateral negotiations. Peres, unlike Rabin, is not totally oriented to American dominance. For Peres, the orientation was Europe. He was the architect of the 1956 war with Britain and France, and German-Israeli relations. But he also identified with the change of Europe. The Madrid formula is an American-Likud formula, which Peres did not identify with. In producing the Palestinian delegation, they also produced its inability to deliver.
Labor, while it was in the opposition, opened up to the middle classes. Israel is no longer merely a country of settlers, farmers and industrial workers. A huge middle class has built up in the cities. In times of luxury, it could be very nationalistic. It voted the Likud into power. But these middle classes have no strong doctrinal attachment to the Occupied Territories.
Peres’ wing of the Labor Party always wanted to represent the technocrats and industrialists. This stratum has dreams of Israel being not only the regional military superpower but the regional economic superpower. Economically, a superpower needs peace in surrounding markets.
Does this managerial stratum share Peres’ European orientation?
They are very American in their style but they know that Europe is nearer to the Middle East. The stock exchange is more important than the territories, especially if withdrawal from the territories leads to recognition and normalization.
How was Rabin brought around?
For him, the Palestinian issue is an issue of public relations, not a strategic issue. The strategic issues are Syria, Iraq. He came around to see that maybe it could open worlds for Israel if he were to shake hands with Arafat. In addition, Gaza had really become ungovernable. A state exists to govern; if it can’t, there is a crisis. Gaza produced the crisis.
Rabin also needed a political achievement badly. His invasion of Lebanon in July was a mistake. He came out of it with nothing. He really wanted a deal with Syria. But he came up against Israeli public opinion on the Golan, opinion that was to some extent funded by the Jewish organizations in the United States. Rabin cannot agree to an immediate total withdrawal from Syria. But he wants total peace for phased withdrawal. Syria says phased withdrawal means phased peace. Rabin cannot sell this. He recognized he could sell the Israeli public a Palestinian deal much more easily, given the weakness of the PLO.
Peres gave Arafat a stick, which he grasped because he was drowning. The fact that he grasped it doesn’t deserve much admiration. There’s no statesmanship involved.
Is the question today whether there will be a state?
The Israelis know now that a Palestinian flag will be there and that it is not so awful. The breakthrough was to accept the idea that in some small city, Jericho, there would be a “total” solution, and within the Arab areas the process would be finished in five years. Most Israelis are now accepting the idea of a Palestinian homeland, or protectorate. But the aspirations of most Palestinians go far beyond what the Israelis are willing to “give.” The problem is that, given the unequal structure of the negotiations, everything seems like doing the Palestinians a favor.
Proponents argue that this agreement transformed the situation psychologically, that the terrain the Palestinians are operating on is better than what they were operating on before.
For their leadership, yes, but not in the refugee camps. They are concocting economic fantasies now about becoming like Singapore and Malaysia. People are dreaming of being a cheap labor force — it’s unbelievable! The dream of the capitalists is to have a cheap labor force. I don’t understand why I should have this dream.
What should the Palestinian opposition do?
First of all, we should decide where we are in terms of the Arab world. Is Israel going to be for Arab progress? For democracy in Jordan, in Yemen, in the Maghrib? Imperialism was a very important factor in destroying the democratic streams in Arab nationalism. I can’t understand the production of these nationalist dictatorships and Islamist movements without the 1967 war. The question is not only where we stand as Palestinians, but where we stand as progressives.
Do we still think there is a possibility of building a democratic, progressive Arab world? If we do, we cannot become a bridge to the Arab world for Israeli capital.
What are the options?
We are nearing the failure of this so-called nationalism represented by the Syrian factions. The Islamic tendency is moving toward a crisis. The Palestinians should analyze the situation soberly. The bourgeoisie understands there was a defeat, that someone should sign the surrender, and Arafat did that.
Some people are ready to free themselves from this duality of being for and against the agreement. Not because they are for it, but because they want to go a step further and try to define a scenario for our relationship with Israel and our relationship with the rest of the Arab world. Can we see here a democratic alternative? If I sit in my house and complain, it’s not an alternative.
What are the priorities for intellectual and political work?
If Palestinian democratic forces want to have a political culture in the future, the fetishism of the Palestinian state should stop. It’s a very young slogan. I have brochures from the PLO research center in Beirut from the 1970s speaking about the Zionist conspiracy of the Palestinian state. Left Zionists and Arab rightists alike speak about it as if in the end there will be a Palestinian state. I don’t think it necessarily leads to a Palestinian state. If a state does emerge, it will be the achievement not only of the agreement but also of the struggle against the realities the agreement reflects and reinforces.
We need to be for values, like equality and freedom and the right of people to have food and the right of women to control their bodies. Somehow we have to start to educate the cadres of Fatah, of the Popular Front, of the Democratic Front. That’s what I do with my students, educate them as to how this agreement does not embody equality. You have to show that behind these facades of diplomats drinking punch in Taba together there is no equality whatsoever. There’s somebody begging for every prisoner. And somebody is still demanding concessions for recognizing the PLO.
The Palestinians are the weaker party, but if they had nothing, there wouldn’t have been an agreement.
Of course, the intifada produced the readiness of Israeli society to accept what was suggested. It is the best time for Israel to do business with the Arab world. We should really not think in terms of pressure on Israel that brought the agreement. On the contrary, just remember June 11, 1967, when the Israeli government wrote a letter to Johnson telling him of its readiness to give back all the territories for Arab recognition. Put things in historical perspective. Israel has now gotten recognition without withdrawal.
During the Gulf war, there was real unease among older Israelis and political leaders. Tel Aviv was literally empty during the Gulf war. People did not want to make a demonstration of steadfastness or show how Israelis are different. They fled. It was clear then that there was a different attitude in the way that this society behaved in a time of war. Maybe it began during the Lebanon war, but clearly this society is not behaving the way it used to. The same people disappointed the Likud when it came back to them with a radical right-wing criticism of the agreement. The Likud found itself speaking to the margins. I still believe the Israeli people are willing to give more than the leaders are willing to do.
In this coming period, each one of these committees set up under this agreement is going to be the scene of sharp struggle. Do you see possibilities for an alliance of Palestinian-Israeli forces around these struggles?
On the whole, Israelis feel that these questions will be solved around the negotiating table. Leave it for the professionals. The peace movement in Israel doesn’t see any need for separate, independent action. On the contrary, they want to strengthen their position inside Israel and obtain more representation on the delegations. I don’t see how you can organize Israeli movement for Palestinian demands unless you operate outside of the negotiations in order to change the balance of forces and not merely reflect it.
Do you think the PLO understands this?
They understand it, but I don’t think they want it. Arafat is a hostage of Rabin’s recognition. When Rabin came to Cairo with something like 15 proposals, Arafat accepted all of them. There was not one item of contention. Their strategy now is only to please.
What should the role of progressive forces be?
We should not join it. We should, to the extent that we can, maintain a critical, independent position. There’s a lack of places to do this. All the Palestinian newspapers are for the PLO or one or another Arab regime. There’s no independent paper so we can express ourselves. Maybe, if we want to help, we should start with a newspaper that’s critical about what’s happening in society and politics.
You can’t boycott the agreement, but you can’t support it.
It means not engaging in any struggles for a share of power, not supporting its themes and not supporting the leadership of the PLO. Of course, we should struggle around questions like national sovereignty, equality with Israel, elections and a constitution, but boycotting could be part of the struggle. You can’t just turn your back, I’m sure of that.