Posted on September 20, 1993 in Washington Watch
The critics have had their say about the Israeli- Palestinian “Declaration of Principles.” The PLO has been attacked for `selling out,’ for surrendering Palestinian rights to Israeli might, for betraying their historic mission to establish an independent Palestinian state and protecting the rights of Palestinian refugees, and for forsaking Jerusalem.
A careful reading of the “Declaration” shows none of these charges to be true. In fact, by agreeing to this accord the Palestinian negotiators have given up none of their inalienable rights except one: the right to use armed resistance against the state of Israel. And this `right,’ I would point out, had become increasingly meaningless and counterproductive, a `right’ which had resulted in more Palestinian casualties and more repression of Palestinian rights without bringing about a meaningful improvement in the life and well being of the Palestinian people.
It is clear that, in confronting the state of Israel, a state that had overwhelming power that it would not hesitate to use in the most hideous of ways, a state backed up diplomatically by the U.S.—Palestinian `armed struggle’ was never an effective weapon. Every Israeli casualty, historically, resulted in 40 Palestinian casualties or 100 Palestinian prisoners or 1,000 dunums of confiscated Palestinian land.
Palestinian rights were not, I believe, brought to the center of the world debate by hijackings and bombs in supermarkets. What kept the Palestinian issue alive all these years was the steadfastness and political will of the Palestinian people, the strength of Palestinian institutions, the ingenuity of Palestinian diplomacy, the courage of the Palestinian mothers and fathers who taught love of their country to generations of Palestinian children, the creativity of the Palestinian artists and poets and the love and commitment of Arab peoples and governments for what never stopped being their cause.
All of these combined were forms of non-violent Palestinian political struggle. They found their highest expression in the first few years of the intifada, when a creative mass movement put the Palestinian issue before the eyes of the world. The children with their stones, the mass protests, strikes and the development of an independent Palestinian infrastructure—these were the weapons that dramatically pushed the Palestinian cause forward.
Here in the U.S., the intifada transformed public debate. The Palestinian children who lost their lives as Israelis traded bullets for stones challenged the conscience of Americans in the same way that, a generation ago, black civil rights demonstrators had done.
But a fanatic Likud government and an American foreign policy incapable of quick change ( for well-known domestic political reasons) frustrated the intifada. The courage of the children and their largely non-violent struggle did not reap their deserved reward. Adroit manipulation of the Madrid process enabled the Palestinians to insert themselves as an independent force, and even that success did not produce a victory.
But two years later, with the peace process in danger of collapse, the Palestinians quite cleverly snatched victory away from the jaws of defeat. In the process they have given up a weapon that no longer served their cause (if, in fact, it ever had) and accepted purely political and economic tools as their weapons of choice.
The negative critics say the Palestinians have lost their leverage, but, in fact, their real leverage will increase and their political strength will grow. There is no military solution to this political problem—just as Israel has not been defeated, the will of the Palestinians is the strongest weapon that people have in the struggle for national liberation.
What army freed Lithuania? What war reunified Germany?
By accepting a phased approach to a solution, the Palestinian people are accepting the challenge to build the infrastructure of a state from the ground up. Economic, political and social institutions which the Israelis would never have allowed to be built will now take shape. In two to five years time Palestinians will have created new and irreversible realities in Palestine. These new factors plus their will to be a free and independent people will create the leverage that will make statehood a reality.
And two to five years of building prosperity and security and a stable civil society will have the additional effect of transforming political opinion in Israel and removing resistance to Palestinian statehood even among American Jews. In that new political climate it will be possible to negotiate those issues that currently seem insoluble. In that new context, it will be possible, as Walid Khalidi once put it, “to think the unthinkable.”
The problem with the negative critics is their inability to recognize process and change. They presume that in three years Israel will be the same as it is today and that Palestinians will be in the same condition they are in today. In reality, both societies will change dramatically over the interim period.
This is not to suggest that the process will be simple of that change will come easily. There is still a great many details to be negotiated and added to the accords—but already the Palestinian political capital in the U.S. has doubled. Already their leverage has increased. The PLO’s ability to use this leverage to secure Israeli compliance with the spirit and letter of the accords is greater today than it was at any time during the Madrid process.
With Israel’s withdrawal from all Palestinian population centers, with “full authority” being established in Gaza and Jericho, with independent Palestinian development in the entirety of the territories—this accord must be seen as a victory. A small victory, perhaps, but a step on the read to a much larger victory.
Having been witness not only to the signing ceremony in Washington, but having also been involved full-time in for the struggle for Palestinian rights here in the U.S. for the past 20 years, I want to add two further dramatic developments which resulted from this accord.
In fact, a taboo was broken and a myth was shattered last week—a taboo and a myth, I would add, that not only impeded Palestinian rights, but also created enormous hardship for those who supported Palestinian rights in the U.S.
By negotiating with and formally recognizing the PLO and by signing an accord containing multiple references to “the Palestinian people” the Israeli government has for the first time acknowledged the existence and legitimacy of a distinct national community of Palestinians.
In the West, the political focus of the Middle East policy debate had historically been the Palestinian failure to recognize Israel. But for Arabs the defining issue of the Middle East conflict has always been the refusal of many Western states and Israel to recognize Palestinian national rights.
Palestinians were called “refugees” or “Arabs.” In Hebrew literature, they were often referred to in Biblical language – “strangers” in the land of Israel. More recently the Likud governments of Begin and Shamir termed them the “Arab inhabitants of Judea and Samaria.” In the Camp David Accords, for example, Begin wrote that this term should be used in the official Hebrew text. Palestinians were never viewed as an independent people.
There was the implicit assumption that if recognition were given to the Palestinians as a distinct people or as a national community, then they would ultimately be recognized as having national rights to self determination or statehood.
In a telling comment before the National Press Club in 1985, Rabin said that a dialogue between the United States and the Palestine Liberation Organization was “unacceptable” because: “Whoever agrees to talk to the PLO means that he accepts in principle the creation of an independent Palestinian state between Israel and Jordan.”
As someone who has fought the arcane battles over platform language at several past national and state Democratic and Republican conventions, I can attest to the blanket refusal of pro-Israel supporters in the United States to even accept the term “Palestinian people.”
To invalidate the PLO and the notion of Palestinian peoplehood, a taboo of near religious proportions was established around the PLO – no talks, no contact, no recognition. Any U.S. politician who violated the taboo could pay with his or her political life.
To therefore witness not only the signing of the recent agreement and the handshake between Rabin, `Arafat and Clinton, but to see the steady stream of visitors to `Arafat’s hotel here in Washington, including former President Carter, former President Bush, American Jewish leaders and leaders from the Senate and Congress, suggests just how dramatically the ground has shifted in recent weeks.
The taboo has been broken and for the first time there emerges for clear public view a Palestinian people represented by their own leaders and presenting their own grievances, history and hopes for the future.
Some critics suggest that `Arafat is only now being accepted because he has surrendered Palestinian tights, but that ignores the reality of the text of the accord Abu Mazen signed. True, `Arafat put down his gun and carried only an olive branch and true, he accepted an interim process rather than demanding an immediate state—but he did not surrender the right to a state or the right to Jerusalem or the right of the ‘48 refugees to return.
And those politicians and American leaders who came to see `Arafat did not behave as though they were witnessing the last rites of a dying movement. People of the stature who visited the Chairman here do not spend time with losers. They came fully aware of the fact that the PLO had won a victory and a state is in the process of being born.
As distressing as the PLO taboo had been, Arab Americans and progressive Jewish Americans who supported resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict on the basis of mutual recognition faced yet another hurdle. The idea that the Middle East conflict was in all probability “insoluble” complicated political discourse not only between the two communities but also within policymaking channels at the State Department and in Congress.
The conventional wisdom that emerged proffered several theories, all of them a historic and unfair but nevertheless pervasive. What was described as the “age-old” enmity between Arabs and Jews, it was argued, was too “deeply rooted” to overcome. Another suggested that the Middle East conflict was “too complex” to allow a solution. Still another popular notion was the idea that Jews and Arabs were congenitally flawed and therefore were not capable of the kind of compromise and dialogue peace required.
It therefore was a shock to the political culture of this country to read the finished text of the Gaza/Jericho agreement. It was subtle, complex, comprehensive and masterfully constructed to allow for future accommodation. And it was the result of tough, secret negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves.
The collective gasp of pundits and policymakers alike upon news of the breakthrough was thus a reaction to the shattering of much-cherished myths. Suddenly, peace was indeed possible.
In a masterful stroke, President Clinton invited both Israeli Prime Minister Rabin and PLO Chairman Arafat to the White House for the signing ceremony, in effect to give public witness this new chapter in Middle East history. Equally significant was the White House invitation to Arab American and Jewish American leaders to attend the signing ceremony itself and then a smaller White House session with President Clinton, Vice President Gore and Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
Not only did Rabin and Arafat shake hands, but after a day of witnessing this historic breakthrough, Arab Americans and Jewish Americans took their own steps toward reconciliation. Plans, meetings and discussions already are being laid to help support and build upon the agreement signed last week. Interestingly, in all of those discussions, no one spoke of the past. Rather, all eyes focused instead on the detailed work to be done in order to build a better future.
And, in fact, there is a great deal of work to be done. This agreement is not an end, but only a beginning and it will shift our priorities but not lessen the load.
What is important is that not only are we committed to the work that will build peace, but the President himself is now totally invested in this process.
I attended a smaller meeting with the President and Vice President two days after the signing and once again we discussed the work to be done. This week we will have three meetings at the White House and State Department to discuss ways of mobilizing support for the implementation of the accords, to bring private investment to develop the Palestinian lands, and to seek out other non-traditional sources of training and support to build Palestinian infrastructure.
Peace is not yet at hand. All the issues have not been resolved. This is not a time for celebration. It is time for hard work.
The critics say `No’—that is easy to do. The critics are content to live with the pain of the real injustices of the past—that is painful, but also easy.
What is difficult but right and necessary is to recognize the small victory that has just been won, and to take advantage of the doors that that small victory opens. We must accept the good will of those who would work with us to create a better future, and we must put aside the pain and the cry for retribution (no matter how justified), and learn instead to build new realities that will lead inevitably to an independent Palestinian state and a more secure, peaceful and prosperous Middle East.
We must do this because it is right, and because people’s lives depend on it.
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