Posted on May 09, 1994 in Washington Watch

The euphoria that surrounded the White House signing of the Israel-PLO Declaration of Principles was nowhere in evidence last week in Cairo at the signing of the Gaza-Jericho interim agreement.

There was a heavy dose of realism in the air, a clear and unequivocal sense that the Israelis had squeezed too hard, that the Palestinians had been forced to give up too much, and that the agreement, while still workable, left the Palestinians in an extremely weak position.

Critics are noting that `Arafat did not achieve what Mandela won in South Africa. Such comparisons are a historic to the point of being absurd. The campaign to make South Africa a unified democratic state had strong U.S., European and Soviet support for decades. An effective international sanctions regime, operating with the full support of the United States, was one of Mandela’s most effective weapons.

Over the past 20 years Arafat has had, at best, the passive support of Europe. Most of that time, he found the full power and authority of the United States, the world’s greatest power, aligned against his movement and its aspirations. To a great extent, the problems that complicate the implementation of the Israel-PLO peace agreement stem from malformations in Israeli and Arab politics during the past 25 years of struggle.

The Israel-PLO conflict became part of the larger East-West struggle. The Israelis, especially during the Reagan years, received a green light to pursue the goals of expansion into the West Bank and Gaza, annexation of East Jerusalem and the eradication of the Palestinian national movement.

This systematic and sustained campaign weakened the leadership of the Palestinian national movement and created conditions ripe for the emergence of regional extremist and rejectionist movements that now threaten the chances of peace. Likewise, the Israeli government is confronted by extremist forces (including the former Likud government) that have enjoyed significant U.S. support and now operate as a law unto itself in Israeli society and in the occupied territories.

It is within this historical context that one can justify the current agreement.

I could agree in the abstract with the position espoused by, for example, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine that the best solution is a comprehensive peace based upon Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 (and other relevant resolutions) which call for full and unconditional Israeli withdrawal and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with its capital in East Jerusalem – but would Israel ever agree to that formula, and which U.S. Administration or European government would force such a solution?

Dreams can be entertaining and even sustaining, but politics is the art of what is possible, not what is, in the best case, desirable. Substituting our dreams for reality is a recipe for unmitigated disaster.

The critics aside, reality – as somber as it is – dictates that we understand the circumstances on the ground before defining our goals and outlining a realistic plan to achieve them.

In this sense, the fears of the Israeli right wing are the hope of the Palestinian people. The Gaza-Jericho accord can be (and I believe that it is) the first step toward an independent Palestinian state. The path is neither neat nor quick – the details left unresolved in the accord ensure as much – but avenue for achieving more is there, as the Likud and their allies can plainly see.

There is the possibility that Palestinian critics of the accord could also be right and that the accord merely lays the groundwork for a continuing and grim occupation. What the critics fail to see, unfortunately, is that they and other Palestinians will be the force that decides when and how the process ends. The Palestinian people and their leadership have the opportunity, if they grasp it, to control their own fate.

The delay in implementation, the apparent fuzziness of the accord and the absence of euphoria in Palestinian society are not necessarily bad. Too much euphoria would lead to expectations that would place an undue burden on the Palestinian authority. One of the greatest dangers facing any transition government is the failure to meet unrealistically high expectations (witness, for example, the difficulties in Russia and Poland). Low expectations, on the other hand, actually give the Palestinian authority some needed breathing space.

But sooner or later, real change must occur. The national authority must be in a position to deliver services and create economic growth if it is to win support and expand its popular mandate. An effort must be made to mobilize Palestinian talent and resources toward the task of nation-building.

Chairman Arafat has often proudly referred to Palestinians as the state-builders of the Middle East. He notes the role that Palestinian entrepreneurs, administrators and civil servants have played in building several Arab nations. The question remains whether these talented and creative Palestinians have been adequately consulted or utilized in drawing up plans for administering the Gaza-Jericho areas. Something akin to a Palestinian peace corps should be created to recruit Diaspora Palestinians and bring them to work in Gaza and the West Bank, even if only for a year at a time. In this way, they can share their experience and their insights in the nation-building experiment.

Palestinian and Arab capital also must find its way to the territories. This will not happen unless a climate suitable for such investment is created.

To create a free-market economy that will spur rapid economic growth will require an economic plan that fosters private sector development. Tax-free enterprise zones must be created, and other incentives provided to lure investors to the newly autonomous areas. Ultimately, the big dream of an independent and thriving Palestinian economy will be achieved only if the small dreams of private investors and entrepreneurs also have the chance to come true. An economic commission should be instituted to promote investment and to help foster and expand industrial and commercial activity in the territories.

A great deal more could also be said about what needs to be done toward institutionalizing Palestinian democracy (which must extend beyond tolerance of free speech) and using non-violent direct action to expand Palestinian rights and ultimately win a total end of the occupation. However, one step that would significantly advance the Palestinian cause is upgrading the Palestinian mission to Washington. The Palestinians have lacked a serious voice in Washington for too long. It is now more critical than ever to find a seasoned and respected diplomat who is capable of shaping the policy debate in Washington and also winning support in key sectors of American society for Palestinian aspirations.

Now is the time to take seriously the need to provide both leadership and a strategy aimed at winning U.S. support for Palestinians rights.


A note:

I was in Cairo as part of a U.S. Presidential delegation invited by the White House to represent our government at the recent signing ceremony.

I and Mel Levine, a former Congressman from California, as co-Presidents of Builders for Peace, were asked by the Administration to assemble Board members of Builders for Peace to largely comprise this U.S. Presidential delegation.

The group was divided evenly among Arab Americans and American Jews, and included some of this country’s most prominent leaders in both communities.

We flew on Air Force 2, and during our 17 hours on the ground in Cairo we met with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel, the Israeli Minister of Security Amnon Shahak, PLO Chairman Yasir `Arafat and chief PLO negotiator Nabeel Shaath.

As a group the U.S. delegation was impressed with the historical significance of the event and the urgency to commit energy and resources to make the accord work. Especially those who were leaders in the U.S. business community – both Palestinian Americans and Jewish Americans – saw the need and opportunity to help grow the Palestinian economy. They are ready and able to participate in investment opportunities in the West Bank and Gaza. They asked hard questions of Chairman `Arafat during the long session with him, and received positive responses to their concerns. Now is the time, all agree, to get to work to expand the accords and to build a real peace.

Some will continue to mouth slogans of the past, but the wall has fallen and there is no going back. Now is not the time for old slogans and old dreams: it is the time to build institutions and create real facts on the ground in Palestine. Or, to paraphrase Marx, as I have before, this is not the time to criticize reality, but to develop and use the power to change it.

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