Middle East

Middle East

The Arab System Transforms the Palestinian Issue from a Question of Liberation into an Issue of Terrorism

Israeli soldiers in the remains of Arafat's HQ
An Israeli soldier stands amid the remains of Yasser Arafat's Ramallah headquarters, Sept. 23, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

Much-maligned Egyptian commentator Amin al-Mahdy writes that Arab regimes share the blame for the Palestinians’ plight.

Historic moments usually impose on peoples and their leaders the difficult but decisive choice between creating history or falling under its wheels.

There is no doubt that the second half of 2000 was such a period for the Palestinian people, or that its effects have spread to the whole Arab world without exception. We can conclude from the results that the Palestinian leadership, and behind it the predominant Arab political and media climate, was not up to the challenge. One of the results has been that the Palestinian cause has gone back to square one. That cause has lost not only a real chance for a reasonable resolution, but also its previous gains at Camp David.

The Palestinian people’s project for a state was clearly moving forward. The state envisioned included eight major towns, 400 villages, and serious talks about two villages in the heart of Jerusalem, Abu Dis and Aizariya. The Palestinians would get a port, an airport and national carrier, and a government headquarters in Jerusalem at Orient House (Ehud Barak announced that he acknowledged Jerusalem and Al-Quds [the Arabic name for Jerusalem] as two capitals for two states, according to the Sept. 29 Jerusalem Post).

The Palestinians also had a planned parliamentary building in Abu Dis, a nascent tourism industry, reasonable customs revenue, emerging industry, trade with Jordan, Israel, and the European Union, an agriculture sector, 128,000 workers in Israel, another third of that working as unlicensed laborers in Israel, as well as respected educational institutions that projected Palestinian identity abroad. We can add to that the Palestinian police force, security forces, prisons (more than necessary), media, government administrative offices, and international economic and political support.

Perhaps most importantly, the Palestinian entity had an urban elite—a rarity in the Arab world—which had been capable of successfully leading the first Intifada and was able to address an important part of Israeli society on Palestinian rights. Palestinian President Yasser Arafat visited the White House. Many leaders, including Bill Clinton, Jacques Chirac, and foreign ministers from around the world visited the Palestinian Authority.

The declaration of a state was only two steps away. Clinton’s proposals offered much more than that, and opened the door to many opportunities for change and progress.

Arafat has admitted his mistake in refusing Clinton’s proposals (Ha’aretz, June 21, 2002). But what he should have explained was why he refused, why it was wrong, and why it took him two years to realize it. Now the situation has deteriorated to a degree that goes beyond the mistake of rejecting the Clinton peace plan. That rejection was part of a tragic cycle of mistakes that involved resorting to violence (as the Mitchell Report said) and a direct alliance with the Islamic political groups before the negotiations. This tragic cycle of mistakes overthrew the idea of peaceful negotiations and did a lot to bring down the Israeli left and the peace movement.

Amid the global battle against terrorism, violence has taken on a religious motive. Young men and women from a background of poverty, injustice, and despair were brainwashed to undertake suicide-bomb operations, with criminal results against civilians, replicating the events of Sept. 11 and telling the world that terrorism is Arab and Islamic. Thus, the moral weight of the Palestinian issue began to recede, the difference between the violence of Sharon and Palestinian violence began to disappear, and a third Palestinian “transfer,” or the “Jordanian solution,” became closer to realization than at any time in the past. If the Iraqi regime is removed by force, the ensuing political vacuum will bring this possibility even closer to realization.

If these are the losses for Palestinians on the domestic front, the external losses have been worse. The new American administration is made up of neo-conservatives who found ready at hand the proof they sought that the Palestinian leadership cannot choose the path of peace. When Arafat was asked to fight terrorism he was being asked the impossible because he had already gone too far down the road. The new, right-wing U.S. administration followed a series of policies [U.S. President George] Bush summed up, in language more moderate than that used by the rest of his administration, thus: “Arafat let his people down, he wasn’t up to it, he wasted much sweat and long, costly, and complicated effort by humiliating President Clinton’s peace efforts (New York Times, May 26, 2002)” [Quote translated from the Arabic—WPR.]

Bush’s conclusion was that Arafat must be expelled or marginalized. The strategy underpinning Arafat’s moves was that the balance of power between the Arab countries and Israel was the basis of resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It is a strategy which, in the event, presented the expansionist Zionist right with an unexpected victory.

When Arafat returned from Camp David his public carried him on their shoulders, celebrating the fact that he got nothing. Arab propaganda machines and the statements from officials in many Arab countries buoyed these odd celebrations considerably. The time was right to add conditions that would mean the problem could have no solution at all—namely, insisting on the right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel, which in effect means setting up two Palestinian states next to each other. This was accompanied by rabble-rousing attacks against Clinton and the policies of the United States, attacks which lacked any objective basis of any sort. There are many legitimate reasons for criticizing American policies, but I don’t think the Clinton peace plan is one of them.

All of this signaled that the plans for a peaceful solution to the conflict involving necessary compromises had started to go into reverse gear. At the same time, the Arab states exaggerated the victory of Hezbollah and mythologized what was only a tactical victory that did not change the balance of power. This went on for six sad months until any hope of preserving the principle of peaceful negotiation was completely lost with the political revival of Ariel Sharon, surely the best partner one could want for this dance of death.

Clinton’s peace plan was bound to be rejected by the Arab side whatever happened—because the Palestinian issue has always been the basic source of legitimacy for the Arab military republics. It is the reason for their wars against democracy and modernity itself, the constant excuse for staying apart from the free world and imposing exceptional modes of operation, including emergency laws and military courts.

The Arab military republics felt pressured by the realignment in the world order after the end of the Cold War, especially by new developments like receding national sovereignty, increasingly free markets, the rise of global definitions of human rights, the rise of international courts, and increased power being invested in the people themselves. So the Arab system tried to create what resembled a new Cold War, by allying with Islamic fundamentalism and setting up a new empire of darkness in Central Asia.

The centers of tension, such as Palestine, southern Sudan, and the Gulf (because of the U.S. military presence there), took the place of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, and served to keep the rest of the changing world at bay. The Arab system went on attacking its peoples’ minds, their dignity, and their sense of justice, freedom, and truth. And the military regimes became hereditary, cloning themselves through kings and presidents’ sons.

The Clinton proposals amounted to an attack on this Arab system and the Iron Curtains it had erected to hold off the changes wrought by the Cold War, which was, after all, an American victory. Arabs fiercely resisted the Clinton proposals, without looking at what was good or bad for the Palestinian people. When President Clinton left the White House, he took his ideals with him, leaving the way open for new tenants with a different outlook.

Arafat, then, managed to make the Palestinian people the human shield protecting the Arab system from this onslaught of modernity and freedom by allowing the Palestinian cause to remain a purely Arab issue. But if only that was all he did—in effect he gave political Islam a chance to make up for its defeat in Afghanistan and southeast Asia, and the war against it around the world. The opportunity to reinvigorate itself came in coopting the struggle of the Palestinian people. And this, in turn, perfectly served the goals of the expansionist Zionist right, under Sharon’s leadership, after the hate and revenge inflicted on both Palestinians and Israelis had left them without hope.

Political Islam did not care if the Palestinian civilian entity was destroyed or if the urban elite was marginalized in the process. And so the Palestinian issue was transformed from a question of liberation and self-determination into a question of terrorism.