Israel's historic option
In the first of three instalments, Azmi Bishara outlines the gradual reduction of an Arab Palestinian cause into the cause of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza
Events in the last few years suggest a qualitative change in the Palestinian cause at the regional level. No analyst or observer could fail to miss the resemblance between the current "Arab-Israeli" regional context and that of the crusader states that appeared in the Arab region in the Middle Ages.
Israel has no intention of concluding a just peace with the Arab and Palestinian peoples. By a just peace I mean one of two possible solutions. The first is the one-state solution in which Jews and Arabs would co-exist within a democratic secular state that would assimilate naturally into the region. The second is a two-state solution that guarantees the right of return of Palestinian refugees. But Israel has opted for a third course, one the Arabs have had no hand in pushing. Its model is the crusader state.
The treaties, understandings and forms of security cooperation Israel maintains with Arab regimes does not conflict or detract from this model. After all, the four crusader kingdoms could not survive on the strength of valiant knights and impregnable castles alone: for 190 years they secured themselves through a combination of fortifications, military prowess and pacts and treaties with the various Arab, Ayubid and Mameluke princes and sultans. These pacts were possible because the crusader states could capitalise on the rivalries between local rulers. But these pacts and treaties did not evolve into peace. The people of the region never came to accept the existence of the crusader states. They remained an alien implant, culturally and politically, and the test of the legitimacy of Arab and Islamic leaderships eventually lay in their ability to create the mechanisms that would sustain the fight against them. No matter how deftly they tried to blend diplomatic settlements with murder and genocide, the crusader states eventually met their demise.
It is worth mentioning that word crusader only gained currency in Europe several centuries later, thanks to 17th century European historians. The Arabs referred to them as the franj, or Franks, a term that carried no hint of religious labelling or hostility against Eastern orthodoxy or Western Catholicism.
Over the next three weeks I will consider the options Israel has rejected and the one on which it seems to have settled.
The crusader state model is an alien colonial state that establishes itself by force and survives by the sword, temporary truces and treaties, and the exploitation of discord between its neighbours. It does not seek to legitimise itself by any reference to its environment and thus is destined to remain unaccepted.
Elsewhere, colonialism and the liberation of people under occupation has never been treated as anything other than a problem whose solution lies in an end to colonisation. When it comes to Palestine, however, perceptions for any settlement are portrayed as projects for solving an intractable dilemma, the dilemma being the Palestinian cause. There is a reason for this. It serves to distinguish the Palestinian case from all other national liberation causes, obfuscating it with such issues as border disputes, religious discrimination and the Jewish question. This contrived complexity is what excluded Palestine from the process of decolonisation. But it has also become an obstacle to a lasting solution: the very complexity that is currently being used to forestall viable solutions will eventually drive the Arabs to reject once and for all the possibility of Israel's legitimacy and adhere to a concept of permanent conflict.
Anti-colonialist culture was founded on the premise that it is the duty of a people under occupation to resist and to persist in the resistance until the colonial power can no longer sustain the costs of occupation. When this culture prevailed it was impossible to contemplate the liberation of Palestine as an Arab country outside the context of an equation that might be summed up as colonialism versus Arab nationalism. Liberation was understood as a mission that fell on the shoulders not just of the Palestinians but of all Arab peoples. It was their duty to resist foreign occupation of any corner of the Arab nation. From such a perspective the battle for Palestine was more than just another Arab cause, or even part of the greater Arab cause. It came to symbolise that cause, epitomising the whole range of Arab national concerns: partition, dependency, foreign domination, the lack of inter- Arab cohesion, the legitimacy of Arab regimes, etc. The Arabs sympathised with the Palestinians at a humanitarian level and declared their solidarity with them but at the political level the question of solidarity did not arise. The battle was one and the same for all.
The battle against Zionism and Israel became the quintessential Arab concern. To strip it of its Arab context is to allow it to be reduced to a Palestinian-Israeli dispute, a petty border squabble the outcome of which will be determined by the prevailing balance of power between the two sides, having removed the Arabs from the equation.
After the 1967 War -- which is to say after the defeat of the Arab nationalist trend that held power in the frontline Arab countries -- that is the direction events began to take. Within the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leadership a socio- political class arose that placed increasing emphasis on the realisation of statehood and its own transformation into another Arab regime. With the post-war recoil from Arab nationalism, especially in Egypt, this desire would coincide with the wishes of a significant section of the official Arab order. The Egyptian regime, which in its Arab nationalist phase had been the prime aegis of the birth of the PLO formula, now decided to sever its Arab ties as far as the conflict with Israel was concerned in favour of pursuing a political settlement. Egypt's separate peace with Israel was part of a package deal that included economic restructuring and an alliance with the US.
Egypt's rupture with the Arabs began with its disengagement from the Palestinian cause. When, at the Rabat summit, Egypt declared its support for the PLO (against Jordan) as "the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people" and, subsequently, for "the independence of the Palestinian will" (against Syria), it was, in effect, engaged in severing Egypt's connection to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It was doing so by shifting premises, turning the cause of Palestine into the Palestinians' cause.
This trend coincided with the aspirations of a new class of PLO leadership. A concrete example is to be found in Yasser Arafat's insistence upon separate Palestinian and Jordanian negotiating teams in Washington. What was the result? A separate Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty and a confused and floundering peace process, unregulated by any principles, between Israel and the PLO leadership, a process that remains in progress a decade and a half after the Jordanian-Israeli treaty.
These developments help explain why the official Arab order now regards the siege against the Palestinians and the brutal Israeli bombardment of an imprisoned society in Gaza as a Palestinian problem, and why that order is divided between those who are in solidarity with the Palestinians and those who blame them for exposing themselves to Israel's wrath. Such is the need to establish an unpopular position such as this that patriotic sentiments in Egypt are being channelled away from a natural inclination to side with the Palestinians against Israel towards fear of a "Palestinian invasion".
The decision to abandon the Palestinian cause is a result of the convergence between two types of perceptions or attitudes. The first is that Arab regimes see it as being in their own interests, and in the interests of their countries, to move away from any concept of the Arabs as a political entity with an overarching set of national security and other common political, economic and strategic interests. The second is that they believe it is also in their interests for the leadership of the Palestinian liberation movement to become another Arab regime that mimics their own.
Arab regimes welcomed the mutation of the PLO into the Palestinian Authority because this met their need to hand "the cause" to a Palestinian regime that purported to "solely represent" the Palestinian people and express their "independence of will". Palestine was thus transformed from an occupied Arab land into an entity that could haggle with Israel over the borders of a hypothetical Palestinian state. The "Palestinian cause" was turned not only into the Palestinians' cause, but further reduced to the cause of only those Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. The struggle for Arab liberation and unity was diverted into a drive to create another Arab political entity. The conflict with Zionism and its implications for the region was reduced to a border dispute.
Instead of the fight for liberation we had the search for solutions that produced a negotiating process between occupier and occupied designed to skirt what should have been the only subject on the table, i.e. an end the occupation. Negotiations segued into a political process in which solutions and remedies are tailored according to the prevailing balance of power and at a time when the political elite of the people under occupation is being blackmailed on the grounds that it must remain acceptable to the international community.
Against this backdrop, the political and media rhetoric in the Arab world has fallen back on such terms as "international legitimacy" and the "international community". Unfortunately, these are hypothetical worlds, and worlds away from the real one, which was abandoned: the Arab/Palestinian fight for liberation against Israel, Zionism and Western colonialism.
The international community is a mythical being. It is a term invented especially for the purposes of appeal and persuasion; in practice it means a current balance of international powers that is tilted heavily in favour of the US.
The negotiated two-state solution, or the two states that are supposed to result from negotiations, is a product of the current search for solutions to "an intractable" dilemma. The irony is that the very context that led the Arab official order and the PLO to accept the notion of a two- state solution which, by definition, jeopardises the Palestinian right to return, is the same context that led the Arab order to accept balance of power as sole arbitrator and to throw in its lot with US strategy. This is what enabled Israel to drain even the two-state solution of any substance, refusing to withdraw from occupied Jerusalem, to return to the 1967 borders, and retain its settlements in the West Bank.
The two-state solution, void of substance, is the only solution that negotiations can produce under current circumstances for at this stage the "two sides" will never contemplate a one-state solution, let alone allow it on the negotiating table. To reject the two-state solution is to reject the only solution that, at the moment, could form the basis for peaceful co-existence in the Arab region. It is not an entirely just solution, but it would be unanimously accepted by the Arabs if it met their minimum demands, i.e. the restoration of Jerusalem, Israel's return to its 1967 borders and recognition of the Palestinian right to return. Yet Israel has already rejected this option and its current aim is to place such a solution entirely out of reach in the future.