Back to square one
Tempted by the trappings of statehood, Palestinian leaders forgot they had yet to build a state, writes Azmi Bishara
From the moment the Palestinian struggle was referred to as the Arabs' first cause, one of liberation and return, of a nation usurped, to the time an Arab diplomat first used the term the "Palestinian-Israeli dispute" a political cultural age passed.
True, one could expect to find some Arabs eager to have the most slipshod Palestinian national entity knocked together so that they can get rid of the Palestinian cause forever. And it might be argued there is not so great a difference between the phrases "the two leaders discussed the latest developments in the Palestinian cause" and "leaders from both sides discussed the latest developments in the Palestinian- Israeli dispute". The arguments, though, would be false: the "dispute", after all, is not between two equally constituted sovereign entities vying, as the Zionist left would have it, over "the same right to the same land". Dispute is not a word that can be applied before even half a Palestinian entity has been created, and that on only a portion of the territories Israel occupied in 1967.
Arab officials are not the only ones guilty of this usage. A major segment of the Palestinian national movement -- the PLO, the prime shaper of the modern, post-1948 Palestinian political identity -- also started down this route when it insisted on establishing itself as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. When, after the 1973 War, which showed that the Arabs could attain a tactical victory that could be translated into political results, there arose the possibility of forcing Israel, over the negotiating table, to restore the territories it occupied in 1967, the PLO made another mistake. Fearful that the Arab states, alone (heaven forefend!), would regain sovereignty over the lands they lost in 1967, it proclaimed that "the Palestinian entity" would be established "on any territory liberated from the enemy". Then step by step, the "establishment of a Palestinian entity on territory liberated from the enemy" became the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, an interim solution, without relinquishing the internationally recognised right of return, which Israel rejects out of hand and which can only be obtained through liberation. Liberation comprises the right of return -- as a goal of the national liberation movement, not just because it happens to be supported by a UN resolution and international law.
Israel was right in saying the Palestinians had an incremental plan though the alleged premise was wrong. Israel claimed this plan aimed to gradually destroy it whereas in fact the plan proceeded in the opposite direction: from total liberation to an initial entity on any liberated inch of land to the creation of a state on any liberated territory to an interim state in the West Bank and Gaza to a two-state solution. We have now entered the stage of accepting a state on a portion of the West Bank and Gaza within the framework of the two-state solution.
The PLO was founded as a movement for refugees striving to liberate their land, not as a movement to fight the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It was founded in East Jerusalem at a time when that city was under Arab sovereignty and when the creation of a Palestinian entity meant the creation of a liberation organisation embodying the political aspirations and national identity of the Palestinian people. There was never any question of the creation of a state on only a portion of the land; indeed, in order to receive the Jordanian monarch's approval to hold the PLO constitutional assembly in Jerusalem the founders had to assure him this was not the intent.
The PLO leadership, though, was not satisfied with just being an entity. They wanted to rule a state just like the other members of the Arab League. These other states succeeded in instilling in the PLO leadership a desire to pursue its goal not under the banner of liberation but under that of "eliminating the effects of the aggression [of 1967]". The latter was an essentially Arab mission to be pursued through negotiation in accordance with UN Resolution 242, which did not address the Palestinians or the PLO, or by war, as occurred in 1973, or by diplomacy, in accordance with Resolution 338. It was not the Palestinian liberation movement's mission, though it became so, if only because the liberation movement feared it could not survive otherwise.
The PLO's confrontation with Jordan following Black April had much to do with this transition. It was then that liberation and rule over the West Bank became its prime mission, for fear that Jordan would regain control over that territory and rule it within the framework of a "United Arab Kingdom", for example. Regardless of Jordan's designs, one has to admit that a United Arab Kingdom, which would have comprised the whole of the West Bank, including Jerusalem, Gaza and the Transjordan, and which would not have sacrificed the Palestinian right to return, was a vision that opened immeasurably greater horizons than the project of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. To have said so at the time, of course, was to court ignominy and death. But that doesn't alter the fact that it's true in hindsight.
To prove itself capable of ruling whatever territories were turned into a state by international decree, the PLO began to act as if it were a state. It set up offices abroad as though they were diplomatic missions and tried to play a game of one-upmanship with Israel, exchanging boasts along the lines of more countries recognise us than recognise you. But none of this meant anything. Israel didn't have to prove itself through such games. It proved itself by building a nation, firstly by populating the country with Jews and creating an Israeli identity and ethos; secondly by building an army, an economy and governing institutions; thirdly by developing an organic alliance with the US. Israel, for example, could get along quite well with an India that had a PLO Embassy and that refused to recognise Israel, and it continued to get along until eventually India recognised it and then entered into an agreement of strategic cooperation with it. The game of let's pretend has limits. There is a big difference between a real state and a hypothetical one, even if the latter's representatives can sit around a table imagining themselves equal to the former's representatives, even if Palestinian and Israeli kids can play in the same youth orchestra, conceived of by some European philanthropist as a way to illustrate the possibilities of mutual co-existence and brotherly love, as opposed to the same kids pelting each other with stones, even if Palestinian writers can engage in fruitful debate with their Israeli "counterparts" as an alternative to the "mutual exchange of violence", and even if Palestinians can "liberate" international peace prizes as the symbolic alternative to true liberation. There is a big difference. Unfortunately, today we are witnessing the consequences of the obfuscation of this difference.
By pretending to be a state the PLO hoped to transform 242 into a resolution concerning the Palestinians so that it would be able to claim back territory in accordance with the principle prohibiting the annexation of others' land by force and set up rule in the West Bank and Gaza. The result was that Israel was rewarded with a liberation movement that had abandoned its original calling, structures and alliances while the Palestinians were still without a state. The second result was that the 1967 boundaries were transformed from the eventual lines of a peace agreement, as was the case with Syria and Egypt, to the ultimate hope in eventual negotiations over a lasting solution to the Palestinian cause. The third is that the Palestinian people became one of "two sides", and now have to prove themselves worthy in order for the occupying power to negotiate with them. It seems even Islamist resistance movements such as Hamas are being lured into the game of proving themselves in an attempt to win the acceptance of the international community, an almost impossible task for any Islamist movement.
These may be the rules of the game of nations but they are not the rules by which national liberation movements should play. For the moment Hamas is hesitating at the threshold. If it steps across it will go down the same slippery path as the liberation movements that preceded it.
The PLO lost the structure, vision, alliances and rights of a liberation movement before it even became a state. Because it wanted the prerogatives of state so prematurely it had to accept the obligations of a state prematurely. This entailed not only calling off the resistance, as nations do once they achieve independence, but also fighting the resistance, now termed "terrorism".
The former Palestinian resistance movement is now being asked to "fight terrorism", not just in body, to protect Israel, but in soul. Israel isn't interested only in a truce or ceasefire. It wants an end to the movement of Palestinian refugees, the people who never had a chance to exercise civil disobedience because they were never under Israeli rule, who never had the advantages of living under direct occupation because they were the victims of the ethnic cleansing of 1948 and whose only means of breaking back across the borders into their former country and of breaking the silence that engulfed them was the gun.
It was the Palestinian refugees that created the Palestinian national liberation movement. It was from beneath that umbrella that there emerged the anti- occupation resistance movements, on the one hand, and, on the other, the drive to create a Palestinian state as an end in itself.
Who among us has not met that loathsome specimen that is forever trying to shed his connections with the people who gave him the initial leg up on the ladder to success? Such people's sense of self- importance is so great that they suppress all memory of those to whom debts of gratitude are owed. Such inflated egos quickly reveal a propensity for other evil.
The case is not all that different with certain offshoots of the Palestinian refugee movement. They too combine self-centeredness with a willed amnesia. "Yeah, yeah, we heard that already," their every action seems to proclaim. "Do you have to keep harping on about the refugees and Jerusalem?"
Among such people we must count those who shot to the limelight through the Palestinian cause to the degree that they began to symbolise it, but then developed interests of their own, distinct from the interests of the cause that gave them their start and from the interests of the people that cause is meant to represent. This was when they began to privatise the Palestinian cause, after which the refugees simply became a bother.
When refugees become too much of bother for the Palestinian state enterprise something is terribly askew. A state without the right to return is not just a perversion, it is a burden on the cause of Palestinian refugees, of Jerusalem and of the struggle against Zionism.