Posted on December 07, 1998 in Washington Watch

The Wye process is in a shambles. Nevertheless, when President Clinton travels to Gaza next week to address a meeting of the Palestine National Council (PNC), analysts throughout the Middle East will debate the meaning and significance of the visit. Let me offer a personal reflection on its importance for Arab Americans.

First and foremost the visit to Gaza represents a major step in the developing U.S.-Palestinian bilateral relationship. If the trip goes as planned, despite continuing Israeli efforts to obstruct the peace process, the United States will be indicating that its effort to work with Palestinians can be independent from the attitudes and behavior of the other party to the peace process.

Even partisans of Israel have become infuriated with the actions of Prime Minister Netanyahu since his return from the Wye meetings. He seems as determined to strangle the life out of his own creation at Wye as he was to kill the Oslo creation of his predecessors.

While it might have been assumed that Netanyahu would make a post-Wye gesture to appease his right-wing allies, the almost perverse intensity with which he has sought to redefine and block his own agreement has been shocking.
And yet despite the near hopeless mess Netanyahu’s obstructionism has created, the President of the United States appears determined to move forward with plans to go to the West Bank and Gaza.

Some critics of the visit have sought to diminish its importance by characterizing it in the negative. The President, they say, is only going to Gaza to urge the Palestinians to renounce their covenant. Such an evaluation can be rejected as simplistic for at least two reasons. First, the Untied States has already formally accepted the fact that the PNC has altered its covenant. And certainly Clinton does not have to travel to Gaza and address the PNC to make such a point.

I have met with White House and State Department officials to discuss both the visit and the President’s remarks. At this point it appears that the White House seeks to send a far more significant message with this visit–not only a strong statement of support for peace, but a signal of greater recognition of the Palestinian people and their rights.

While some may dismiss such signals as incomplete and hollow symbols–such symbols can be the defining issues of politics.

The struggle for Palestinian rights has not only been a physical struggle for land. Because of the tactics used by Israel, it has also been a profound political struggle against efforts to vilify and dehumanize the Palestinian reality.

In the United States this struggle became quite intense. During the 1980s, the PLO was outlawed and no contact was permitted with its agents. PLO leaders were forbidden to speak in the United States thereby denying Americans the right to be informed of official Palestinian views.

Those of us who sought to support Palestinian rights or to call for dialogue with the PLO were denounced and ostracized by both political parties. Arabs can easily recall the names of those U.S. political leaders who paid a price for daring to call for such dialogue–from Jesse Jackson to Paul Findley, Democrats and Republicans alike were politically hurt by their support for justice and dialogue.

Just 10 years ago, we organized our strongest challenge to the anti-Palestinian hysteria that had come to define U.S. politics. Organized in the heart of the 1988 Jesse Jackson for President Campaign we entered the political process determined to demand recognition of Palestinian rights. Our call for Palestinian statehood won in resolution debates in 10 Democratic Party state conventions. And with a significant number of supporting delegates, our Jackson campaign came to the National Democratic Convention to call for the first ever national political debate for Palestinian rights.

The leaders of the party did their best to block our efforts. I was told that if I persisted in my campaign I would be held responsible for destroying the party. Jackson, himself, was threatened. And yet we persisted.

We were seeking an end of the taboo that had been placed on all things Palestinian. We had proposed simple compromises–inserting the words “Palestinian self-determination” or even “the rights of the Palestinian people” in the Party’s platform. These were all rejected, because we were told, acknowledging the existence of “Palestinian people” implied recognizing them as a national community with the right to self-determination.

And so having failed to achieve any success in negotiations, I rose to the podium of the national convention to present our platform resolution. A sea of supporters waving “Palestinian statehood now” banners filled the hall shocking Israelis and pro-Israel supporters. In outrage an editorial in the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv noted “once an Arab lobby representative took the floor, even if for a mere 10 minutes, Israel lost the battle. Israel’s supporters shamefully flunked at the convention…. never before had so many PLO flags been seen waving on so many American TV screens.” The Jerusalem Post quoted a prominent Israeli supporter saying, “I’m scared…Nothing like this has happened before…. [We] went all out to keep this issue from being debated on the floor, and we were unable to prevent it.”

We did not win our fight in 1988–but the taboo had been shattered. The battle continued to be waged. As predicted, during the 1988 presidential campaign Republicans sought to smear the Democratic Party for having allowed “pro-PLO” elements to have entered their party.

We continued to fight, a fight now made somewhat easier because we had achieved some recognition for our abilities and our organization.

Even with the 1993 signing on the White House lawn the struggle against the anti-Palestinian taboo continued. The hostile legislation that has continued to come from the far right in Congress is but one indication that the struggle has not ended.

I recount all of this in order to make clear my point that when President Clinton goes to Gaza to address the PNC it represents a breakthrough that we will celebrate. When the President speaks, as he did in January of 1998 of the “rights of Palestinians to live as a free people”, he acknowledges that for which we have been fighting for decades.

It is true that the peace process is still marred by the asymmetry of power between Israel and the Palestinians and between the political power of Israel’s supporters in the United States and those who support Palestinian rights. It is also true that despite signed agreements, Israel continues to make a mockery of peace by building settlements and roads, confiscating more land and imposing new burdens and conditions on an already beleaguered Palestinian people. And it is true that Israel continues to be the beneficiary of a U.S. double standard.

And yet when the President goes to Gaza his visit represents an important departure from the past and a breakthrough on which we can build for the future.
Arab Americans who have paid a price of 30 years will feel vindicated and strengthened. Palestinians are now being seen as an independent people and their institutions are being respected.

Much remains to be done. But what is important is that we will continue our struggle for Palestinian statehood and for Israeli withdrawal from occupied lands somewhat freed of the taboos that have inhibited our efforts for so long.

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