Return of the PLO
Hopes for a negotiated two-state deal have been crushed. The centre of Palestinian political gravity will shift back to the PLO.
After Jenin, it is easy to see why the Palestinians are accused of wallowing in professional victimhood. Palestinians have fought and bloodied their foes for decades; sometimes with uncontrollable zeal, but more often to little, perhaps even pathetic, effect-witness the recent sight of a failed suicide bomber dragged across a street by an Israeli robotic device.
Throughout the history of the conflict, it is Israel that has proven the master of carefully directed fury, from the callous and calculating terrorism of its pre-state underground to the most recent lynching of the Palestinian Authority (PA).
During the 1948-49 war, Israel’s assaults on Palestinian civilians were part of the drive to build a Jewish state upon the debris of Arab Palestine. Deir Yassin in April 1948 was a notorious milestone on the road to Jewish statehood. But it was not the worst of Israeli excesses. Hundreds of Palestinian civilians were summarily executed at Safad, Lydda and Ramleh, Al-Dawayima, Safsaf, Sa’sa, Eilaboun, Jish and Majd al-Krum, amongst others between May and November 1948.
From a Zionist perspective, Palestine’s depopulation was the sine qua non for Israel’s existence. But after the trauma of 1948, and as the Palestinian national movement recovered in the diaspora, the purpose of Israel attacks shifted somewhat. Rather than depopulation, “retaliation” against Palestinian population centres now had the purpose of breaking the Palestinian will to pursue the struggle.
Throughout the following four decades, Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians continued: Qibya in the West Bank in 1953, Gaza in 1956, Kfar Qassim in Israel in 1956, As Samu in the West Bank in 1966, Nabatieh refugee camp in Lebanon in 1974, Beirut in 1981, to name an arbitrary few. This exercise finally found its most ambitious expression in Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June 1982 when thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese civilians were killed and wounded in Sharon’s first stab at geopolitical engineering.
Countless Israeli air raids, commando assaults, naval strikes, assassinations, and one blood-soaked intifada later, the Oslo accords of 1993 were finally meant to set the scene for a historical compromise based on two states along the 1967 borders that would end the existential conflict.
But after 33 years of occupation and seven long and fruitless years of negotiations, neither Israel’s leadership nor its polity at large was ready to take the real steps required to end the conflict. Even the most left-leaning Israelis persisted in the belief that “compromise” meant further Palestinian concessions within the areas occupied in 1967, rather than a viable partition of the land along the 1967 ceasefire lines.
The breakdown of the Camp David talks illustrated the gap between the two sides, exacerbated by Sharon’s walk on the Haram/Temple Mount in September 2000 and Israel’s subsequent suppression of Palestinian protests. During the second intifada, 1,400 Palestinians (30 per cent under 18) have died, with 20,000 wounded.
Jenin can thus be seen as the latest episode in a long-running Israeli attempt to break the Palestinian national movement by attacking its soft civilian underbelly. It is perhaps best summed up by Israel’s latest tactical innovation: the use of armoured bulldozers against urban centres of civilian resistance. In many ways, Sharon’s assault on the PA represents a return to the raw confrontations of 1948 in the land of Palestine, albeit with an even greater imbalance in the tools of confrontation on each side.
Some of the consequences of this last round of the conflict are already clear. Even before Israel’s April assault on the PA, Sharon had established 34 new settlement outposts on the West Bank, (to add to the 150 odd settlements already in place), and plans are apace to expand Jewish settlement into densely populated Arab areas of Hebron and East Jerusalem. As the long-term architect of Israeli colonisation of the West Bank, Sharon’s current war is as much a strategico-ideological defence of the whole settlement enterprise as anything else.
Indeed, the apparent defeat of the PA can only serve to fire the right-wing’s enthusiasm for yet more radical solutions; including a return to the basics of “transfer” or ethnic cleansing as practised in 1948 and now supported by 46 per cent of the Israeli electorate. The future of Israel’s Arab population (about 20 per cent of the total) is being debated in Israel with unprecedented candour. Even Labour party ministers such as Ephraim Sneh now advocate an exchange of populations: in any final peace settlement, areas with a majority of Israeli Arabs would be ceded to a Palestinian state in exchange for Israeli settlements in the territories.
Should Palestinian violence continue, Sharon is likely to repeat April’s “Defensive Shield” operation in the West Bank and may extend his war to Gaza, despite the prospects of an even bloodier re-enactment of Jenin in the refugee camps there. He is still bent on the political, perhaps physical, elimination of Arafat, and his ultimate goal is no less than the total subjugation of the Palestinian national movement.
But Sharon also seems to have learnt a more nuanced approach. Rather than pursue his demand for the removal of Arafat and the dismantling of the PA, he now proposes that “reform” of the PA and its leadership is the necessary condition of political dialogue. During his last visit to Washington, Sharon capitalised on the US administration’s antipathy towards Arafat to suggest that the moment was ripe to reconfigure the PA to the US’s and Israel’s liking. In other words, the Palestinians would not only have to demonstrate peaceful behaviour but would also have to devote themselves to a process of internationally supervised democratisation that would eventually rehabilitate them as partners in peace.
Sharon has thus sought to capture a legitimate Palestinian domestic concern and aims to use it to hold the peace process hostage to an indeterminate definition of Palestinian democracy. Certain people in the US administration have succumbed to this tactic: “The Palestinian leadership that is there now… is not the kind of leadership that can lead to the kind of Palestinian state that we need,” Condoleezza Rice told Fox News recently.
Behind Rice there is an even deeper well of US support for Sharon. Only two out of 100 US senators had the courage to distance themselves from a recent unqualified statement of support for Sharon’s policies. And that has been topped by the public endorsement of ethnically cleansing the West Bank of its native Palestinians by Republican House majority leader Dick Armey.
Consequently, the outlines of the solution that has served as the underpinning of the peace camp on both sides since the mid-1970s are beginning to recede. As “Sharon’s way” has moved to occupy the Israeli centre, the very notion of a viable two state solution is being called into question.
Meanwhile, Sharon has been busy doing what he does best: creating new facts on the ground. Over the past weeks, Israel has been setting up new fences and buffer zones across the occupied territories outside the main Palestinian urban centres. The purpose of these new security zones will be to demarcate the de facto boundaries between the two sides.
Far from eliciting an Israeli return to anything like the 1967 borders, the coming diplomatic tussle will centre on forcing Israel’s retreat from the April 2002 lines. Although in conflict with his own right wing over the issue of whether the Likud should concede the principle of Palestinian statehood, Sharon may well still offer a political solution, even a “Palestinian state,” as a sop to the US administration and international opinion. But this will be nothing near the minimum required for a fair and sustainable peace, and Sharon has already declared his refusal to dismantle a single settlement.
Despite the faint stirrings of the unsteady peace camp, there is no alternative within Israel. The Israeli Labour party, tainted by its association with Sharon, and unwilling or unable to suggest a viable alternative, has lost all credibility with the Palestinians-and its own electorate. Bibi Netanyahu, the only possible successor to Sharon is even further to his right.
The irony of this is that the moment for peace-making may never have been better. As Hussein Agha and Rob Malley argue in Foreign Affairs (May-June 2002) the Oslo process’s assumption of step-by-step incrementalism and open-ended interim solutions has had its day. Any attempt to revive the process on this basis will replicate the disaster of the Oslo years. Furthermore, the outlines of a sustainable final status settlement are no great mystery, and are nestled somewhere within the “parameters” outlined by Clinton in December 2000, that are still acceptable to most Palestinians and Israelis despite the violence of the last two years.
The way forward requires presenting a package that can appeal to both publics over the heads of their leaders. Agha and Malley say that this process can only be credibly led by the US, and should involve a coalition of European, Arab, and other countries and institutions capable of providing economic, political and military support to both sides such that it would be hard for either leadership to refuse. “As violence continues to threaten and the outlines of a fair agreement lie idly by for all to see,” conclude Agha and Malley, “the notion of simply waiting for [Arafat and Sharon] to finally negotiate a deal or for the two sides to gradually regain trust in each other is ringing increasingly hollow. The time has come for an effort that is neither top-down nor bottom-up, but outside-in: the forceful presentation by external actors of a comprehensive, fair, and lasting deal.”
The problem with this plan is that the US administration is not interested. What the US wants most from the Palestinians and the Israelis now is quiet-to allow the coming invasion of Iraq to proceed with as little background noise as possible. Faced with imminent mid-term congressional elections and all too aware of the domestic costs of antagonising the pro-Israel lobby, Bush will play it safe. The current US enthusiasm for a regional conference on the middle east thus falls squarely within the domain of crisis-management and is a far cry from the kind of process Agha and Malley-and the historical moment-demand.
So for the foreseeable future it looks as if the notion of a “return to the Clinton parameters” and a comprehensive final status package is an illusion. The two sides will not get there on their own, and the US will not take upon itself the task of making both sides-and Israel in particular-an offer they cannot refuse. Given this, the current conflict will continue, sometimes on a low flame and at others at full-blast. For most Israelis, every act of Palestinian resistance now confirms that they cannot be trusted as political partners, and every Palestinian concession seems to be proof that the only thing the Palestinians understand is brute force. In such an environment there is a question as to how long the Israeli public will continue to believe that there is any hope for a negotiated solution.
On the Palestinian side, similar ominous trends have also begun to emerge. As long as military force remains Sharon’s prime means of engagement, and settlement expansion continues, there is a near consensus that military resistance to occupying Israeli troops and settlers is morally and politically justified. There is however a growing realisation of the cost and disutility of suicide bombings, (the Rishon Letzion attack was for the first time condemned by the PA as an act of terrorism). But the long-term dilemma facing the PA is that it cannot be seen to act primarily as a security force in the service of the occupation rather than its own people. Conversely, without demonstrating its grip on security it will not be able to “rehabilitate” itself in the eyes of the US, let alone Israel. Caught in this trap, the PA-with or without Arafat-may have no choice but to muddle through without a decisive move in either direction.
At the same time, the issue of political reform has indeed come to the fore, but its chances of success are inversely proportional to the fervour with which Israel and the US cling to the hopes of sponsoring a more amenable leadership to Arafat’s. For while much has been made of the “old guard-young-guard” split within Fatah and the PA as presented by Khalil Shikaki in Foreign Affairs (February 2002), neither the current nor the next generation of leaders can claim legitimacy as Arafat substitutes while under the Israeli boot. It is not the case, as Shikaki claims, that: “the young guard recognises Arafat’s leadership, but does not derive its legitimacy from him, indeed, it is Arafat who needs to demonstrate credibility to the younger leaders.”
Indeed the “young-guard” such as Gaza Preventive Security chief Mohammad Dahlan and Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti (currently imprisoned by Israel) have derived their legitimacy almost entirely from their intimacy with Arafat himself. While there will have to be an eventual successor to Arafat, this is not the time for an alternative leadership to seek to impose its legitimacy against his.
But regardless of the political debate surrounding the immediate future of Arafat and the PA, the military wings of Fatah and the other Palestinian political factions will be digging deep underground and preparing for the next phase of bloody armed resistance. Gone will be the hopes for an imminent end of occupation and with them the belief in a meaningful political process.
No matter how the issue of reform plays out, it is unlikely that Arafat’s successors will be enlightened democrats rescued from the wreckage of the PA. More likely is that they will be the hardened veterans of Sharon’s war seeking revenge and retribution.
In the longer term, as the PA fails to deliver on either good governance or independence, the centre of Palestinian political gravity may well shift back to the outside-to the diaspora where over half of all Palestinians live and to the PLO as the umbrella for Palestinian nationalism everywhere. As long as it is at the mercy of Israeli firepower, the PA, under its current or any subsequent leadership, will not have the freedom of action or credibility to sign and deliver a solution that can carry the majority of the Palestinians with it.
Within Israel, the Arab citizens are likely to feel more alienated than ever and their fears will lead to more radicalism in support of their Palestinian brethren outside. Likewise, in the refugee camps and elsewhere in the diaspora, different Palestinian factions will be seeking to draw upon the groundswell of sympathy felt by a new generation of Arabs touched once more by the drama of Palestine. Just as happened in the 1950s, the trauma of 2002 will revive the fortunes of Palestinian armed struggle from outside. In response to Israeli tactical innovations, Palestinian militancy will develop its own more dangerous tools of violence.
Spring 2002 seems to have brought us back to basics; back to where we started in 1948, an all-out existential war for the land of Palestine. Only this time the way forward will be harder and more hazardous than ever before-not least for Israel itself.