The Palestinians and the Future: Peace through Realism

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VOL. 18


No. 2
P. 3
The Palestinians and the Future: Peace through Realism


The Palestine Liberation Organization's declaration of independence on 15 November 1988 in Algiers has added a new dimension to the conflict between Israel and Palestinians. The declaration signaled the PLO's desire to resolve the conflict with Israel through diplomatic compromise. More- over, the resolution envisioned in the Algiers declaration seems to be grounded in the belief that two states should exist in Palestine, that Israel is a reality, that the Palestinian state would comprise the West Bank and Gaza, that negotiations should be founded on UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, and that terrorism should be rejected as a vehicle for settling international conflicts. While the PLO action represents a giant step toward peace in the Middle East, most of these principles were only alluded to in the declaration, not stated clearly and unequivocally.**

This article examines the issues underlying the Palestinian quest for independence and proposes a program of action for the PLO in order to be a genuine negotiating partner. The article also reflects on recent political developments in the occupied territories, analyzes the present realities of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and proposes a course of action for resolving the conflict.

The recent elections in Israel and in the United States, the continuing violence in the West Bank and Gaza, the disengagement of Jordan from the West Bank, and the emerging moderation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) all have far-reaching implications for the eventual resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In Israel, the Likud's conservative policies will guide the new government, which will also be heavily influenced by the politically conservative orthodox religious parties. In the United States, the Bush administration will essentially stay the Reagan course, albeit more pragmatically. Within the PLO, the "great debate" regarding the modalities and theoretical underpinnings of Palestinian independence clearly indicate that militarily the "revolution until victory" ideology has run its course and that the recovery of Palestine will have to be achieved on the diplomatic battleground.

Israeli military preponderance and harsh occupation policies, Arab indifference to Palestinian suffering in Lebanon and in Palestine, recent Arab preoccupation with Iran, and the failure of the "rejectionist front" gradually forged new attitudes among the Palestinians under occupation. These attitudes may be summarized as disappointment with the Arab state system, despair regarding macro-Arab politics and rivalries, and a determination to face down the occupation. The new strategy of self-reliance that has evolved is simple: force the world to recognize the Palestinian reality through a bold, bloody confrontation with the occupation that would arouse international public opinion to such a degree as to force Israel to reexamine the long-term efficacy of the occupation. The emerging Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza perceived the new strategy in the context of ten realistic assumptions:

The new Palestinian generation, born under occupation, has known only one experience: an Israeli occupation perpetuated by superior military forces and propelled by a government policy predicated upon continued domination of Arab lands in mandatory Palestine.

Despite protestations from the United Nations and many states regarding occupation policies, Israel has not terminated its occupation or initiated a meaningful dialogue with Palestinians.

The Arab states' involvement in the politics of Palestine since the mid-1930s has failed either to redress the injustices perpetrated against the Palestinians or to force Israel to come to terms with the Palestinians as a people.

Macro-Arab politics on behalf of Palestine and rhetoric concerning Palestinian statehood, independence, sovereignty, self-determination, stead- fastness (sumud), and liberation have produced no tangible results on the Palestinian front. Indeed, the lot of the Palestinians in the occupied territories and even in many Arab countries has worsened steadily in recent years.

The Palestine Liberation Organization seems to be caught in a quagmire of Arab politics and internal disagreements. The ensuing paralysis has rendered it incapable of effecting a change in the status quo of the occupation. Indeed, while the PLO leadership has been busy shuttling between Tunis, Cairo, and Amman, more settlements have been built in the West Bank and Gaza, more land has been expropriated, harsher measures have been introduced, more Palestinians have been detained and deported, and more stringent economic measures have been implemented. The West Bank and Gaza economies have become increasingly dependent on Israel, and Palestinians have been unable to find any reprieve- economic or political-in neighboring Arab states.

The policy of steadfastness (sumud) proved ineffective, and the West Bank and Gaza leadership sought to replace it with a new policy that reflected the realities of the occupation, of Israel as a state, and of the Palestinians as a people. Not only did this indigenous policy reflect their continued attachment to, and presence on, the land; it has also provided them with a legitimate forum for a dialogue with peace-loving Israelis.

No meaningful change will occur in the status of the occupation without the support of the Israeli government and public or without the active involvement of the United States government. That is, in addition to the Palestinian leadership, as embodied in the PLO, the two other principal actors are Israel and the United States.

As a corollary to the previous point, the' PLO cannot expect recognition by the United States unless it accepts the decade-old conditions set by the United States: namely, recognition of UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338; recognition of Israel; and (more recently) renunciation of terrorism. While it may seem unfair to expect the Palestinian "victims" to fulfill all these conditions prior to any negotiations, international political realities and the power position of the PLO are such that the PLO has no other practical course of action. Fairness, justice, and similar value-laden concepts seem to have no place in the amoral practices of world politics. The fact is that the PLO has been shut out of the process by both Israel and the United States, and since they remain the principal players, the involvement of the PLO as the interlocutor on behalf of the Palestinians is, unfortunately but correctly, dependent upon the acquiescence of both countries. This reality is admittedly a hard pill to swallow for the Palestinian leadership but there is no viable alternative. The moderate Arab states which are destined to play an important role in the peace process and which the PLO needs for its ultimate acceptance by the United States-namely, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq-have all urged the PLO to fulfill the conditions set by the United States. West Bank and Gaza Palestinians also realize that these moderate Arab states cannot force the United States to alter its stand without major concessions from the PLO.

Although the PLO has received support from many other countries, including the European community and Soviet Union, none of these countries, either unilaterally or multilaterally, has been able to influence the United States to change its policy or to dislodge the Israeli occupation from the territories.

West Bank and Gaza Palestinians also realize that unless a major breakthrough occurs on the diplomatic front, the Israeli occupation will continue for the foreseeable future. Since they cannot effect a change, a catalyst is needed to set the process in motion. Realistically, the United States is such a catalyst.

In light of the above assumptions, which are now accepted by a majority of Palestinian leaders under occupation, the thesis of this article is five-fold: that the Palestinian cause can best be served through compromise; that the reality of Israel as a state which exists on a part of the land of Palestine demands realism in the Palestinians' quest for independent political existence; that this quest can be realized on only a part of Palestine, meaning that the West Bank and Gaza, once liberated from Israeli occupation, should constitute the final territorial solution for Palestinian statehood; that if the PLO desires to become and to remain a viable partner in the negotiating process as the "sole, legitimate representative" of the Palestinian people, it must adopt a political program that is clear, moderate, realistic, and devoid of nuances and buzzwords; and that in the modem international political system, there is an ongoing struggle for power and peace among nation-states whose behavior is governed by perceptions of security. In such a system, questions of righteousness and justice are always tempered by realism in the context of the national interest defined as power.

These assumptions reflect a few elementary facts. Primary among them is that Israel is here to stay as a national state for the Jews. Second, Israel is tied to the United States in a unique relationship-moral, economic, political, cultural, and military-the likes of which does not exist between states anywhere else in the world. Third, because of a number of factors, including domestic American politics, the possibility that this special relationship may significantly weaken in the foreseeable future is very slim indeed. Fourth, the PLO has had very bad press in the United States and, therefore, unfair as it may seem, it must go the proverbial extra mile to prove its good intentions. Fifth, the Arab states are often preoccupied with their own internal or regional problems and border conflicts which have little or nothing to do with the Palestine conflict. And, finally, the moderate Arab states on which the PLO has relied to further its diplomatic agenda have close economic and military relations with the United States and are dependent upon it as a countervailing force against Soviet influence in the region.

Recent Developments

The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has entered its twenty-second year, and the Palestinian uprising (intifadah) is one year old. Jordan's King Hussein has decided to disengage from the territories, and the PLO has signaled its willingness to engage Israel in peace talks (the Abu Sharif statement) and has declared Palestinian independence. In the meantime, the intifadah is becoming more political, the occupation harsher and more oppressive.

The Arab states have finally taken notice of the intifadah, a development that is expected to accelerate with the termination of the Iraq-Iran war. The international community has also come to view Israel's occupation of the territories from the perspective of the uprising. Israelis, both peace- oriented liberals and annexationists, have also come to accept the Palestinian intifadah as a national movement that must be reckoned with and not as a passing disturbance caused by unorganized, stone-throwing teenagers. The PLO has also responded to the intifadah and has been able to assume a leadership role. It has been successful in four specific areas: directing the orientation of the uprising; defining the tactics and strategies of the uprising; maintaining a unity of the leadership on the ground; and persuading the Arab states to treat the PLO as the representative of the Palestinians and as the medium through which the Arab state system should communicate its policies regarding the Palestinian conflict. In addition, because of its pervasive influence in the occupied territories, the PLO has begun to translate the gains made on the ground by the uprising into a realistic political program leading to negotiations with Israel.

The Intifadah and Its Impact

Events of the past year have made clear that the current uprising is not a passing phenomenon; it reflects a new Palestinian determination to eliminate the occupation. This determination is home-grown and honed by the inhabitants' daily encounter with the occupation. It also reflects a new-found courage and a rational, articulated realism.

The intifadah has led to five positive developments. The first is a reaffirmation of the basic axioms regarding the conflict: that Israel and the Palestinians are the two essential protagonists in the conflict; that the Palestinians are the primary mover in the Arab world's relations with Israel; that negotiation based on compromise is the only realistic means to resolve the conflict; that military preponderance cannot resolve an endemic political problem; and that no solution will endure without the recognition of Israel as a state and of the Palestinians as a political community with national political rights, including the right to self-determination.

The second positive development has been the emergence of official Palestinian moderation. Partly in response to the intifadah, partly in recognition of the reality of the state of Israel, and partly out of frustration with the inefficacy of military violence, the mainstream Palestinian leadership, both inside and outside the territories has begun seriously to examine the option of diplomacy and negotiation with Israel. The views were expressed in a written piece by Bassam Abu Sharif, adviser to PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat. The piece was originally written for possible publication in The Washington Post, but was eventually distributed to the Western media at the special Arab summit in Algiers early in the summer of 1988.

The Abu Sharif statement makes several important points. It stresses that there is symmetry between the objectives of Israel and the Palestinians in the area of peace and security. Likewise, both the Jewish people and the Palestinian people have the right to "run their own affairs" based on nonbelligerence and neighborly economic and political cooperation. The statement also affirms Palestinians' willingness to hold direct talks with Israel regardless of what party is running the government. It also contends that if Israel and the United States refuse to talk to the PLO, an internationally supervised referendum should be held in the West Bank and Gaza to allow the population to choose their representative; the PLO will abide by the results. Finally, it states that the PLO would accept a transitional UN mandate in the territories prior to independence.

Most prominent Palestinians throughout the world have endorsed the Abu Sharif statement. Indeed, the moderation expressed in the Abu Sharif statement became official PLO policy on 15 November 1988 in Algiers with the declaration of an independent Palestinian state. Recent interviews with West Bank and Gaza leaders have also revealed overwhelming support for the statement.

The third positive result of the uprising has been the Palestinianization of the conflict. Although the Arab states agreed at their 1974 summit in Rabat that the PLO was the "sole, legitimate representative" of the Palestinian people and although this statement was reiterated at the 1988 summit in Algiers, it was King Hussein's dramatic address on 31 July 1988 that made the final break. Hussein's speech included several critical points: withdrawal of Jordanian sovereignty from the West Bank and the recognition of the primacy of the PLO in the territories; admission of the reality of a Palestinian political identity with national aspirations separate from those of Jordan; support for the establishment of a Palestinian government under the leadership of the PLO, thereby signaling that the PLO would be the only legitimate interlocutor in any peace negotiations with Israel; and a change in the nature of the economic, educational, and political links between West Bank and Gaza Palestinians and Jordan.

Once the initial shock of King Hussein's speech had passed, most Palestinian leaders in the territories supported the Jordanian move. It formally and officially ended the fifty-year involvement of the Arab states in Palestine, thus placing primary responsibility on the shoulders of the PLO and forcing it to enter the diplomatic arena as a credible negotiating partner. Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and Gaza have recently become more vocal in support of this role.

Another positive outcome of the intifadah is the new self-reliance of Palestinians under occupation. Their steadfastness (sumud) in the face of the occupation and the need to adjust to the hardships caused by the intifadah have forced them to seek self-sufficiency and self-dependency. Focusing on community survival on the land, new means of self-reliance have begun to emerge: popular committees, "victory gardens," and social and economic mediating structures. Locally run schools, health clinics, and local police forces have also appeared. This drive for self-sufficiency is the beginning of organized efforts to provide local answers to shortages created by Israeli reactions to the intifadah. Well-organized charitable societies and other associations that provide medical care, jobs for mothers, nursery schools, care for orphans, and libraries have gradually developed in the territories over the years. As providers of health, education, and welfare services, these indigenous organizations could form a credible infrastructure of a future independent political community.

Another positive development of the intifadah is the call for Palestinian independence. There are indications that discussions about independence have been taking place among some elements of the Palestinian leadership since early 1987. The intifadah gave the issue a new urgency while King Hussein's disengagement speech gave the process added immediacy.

Prior to the nineteenth PNC, press commentaries on Palestinian independence focused on the declaration of independence document that the Israeli police allegedly found in the office of Faysal al-Husayni in August 1988. The document raised several interesting points:

First, the proposed government was to consist of two parts: one for Palestinians in exile, the other for those in the occupied territories. Second, the envisioned independent state was to incorporate the areas originally allotted to it in the 1947 UN partition resolution: the West Bank, Gaza, and the Galilee (the latter of which has been under Israeli control since 1948). The envisioned Palestinian state was to be a republic based on free elections and freedom of political activity, human rights, and economic opportunity. It was to be headed by Yasir Arafat with Faruq al-Qaddumi serving as foreign minister. The existing PLO Executive Committee, with some additions, was to serve as the cabinet, and the Palestine National Council (PNC) was to become the new parliament. The popular commit- tees on the ground, which have supervised the daily activities of the Palestinian community during the uprising, were to assume a more official status as part of the administrative structure of the new government. The declaration also called for the creation of an independent Palestinian state on Palestinian soil, not through a "government in exile" but through a "provisional government" on the ground. Once formed, the provisional government would appoint an official delegation to negotiate with Israel. These negotiations were to focus on five points: the final borders between Israel and the Palestinian state; political and physical links between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; Jewish settlements in the occupied territories; the nature of relations between Israel and the Palestinian state; and the right of the refugees to return or to receive compensation in accordance with UN resolutions.

This document reflected new thinking by the Palestinian leadership, as if a new and more politically mature group of leaders had arrived on the scene in the occupied territories. The document was analyzed at length in the Israeli press and became a focus of discussion within the Palestinian community. It became the basis for the draft declaration of independence debated at the nineteenth PNC, and the 15 November declaration of independence by the PLO in Algiers seems to embody most of the principles contained in the Husayni independence document.

A Program of Action

Most observers agree that the intifadah has created an irreversible situation in the occupied territories, one which cannot be ignored. The stone-throwing youth and the occupation's policies of force, beatings, and shootings have compelled the world to attend anew to the problem of Palestine. Disempowered as it may be, a Palestinian community does exist in the territories, and it is determined to rid itself of the occupation. Yet, for the intifadah to be translated into a positive program of action, the three principal actors in this conflict-namely Israel, the PLO, and the United States-must actively engage in collaborative efforts toward a solution. While the Arab state system constitutes a fourth actor, several states have already indicated that they would accept positions put forth by the PLO. This task will be arduous, especially since each of the three actors views Palestinian demands for self-determination differently. Although any pro- gram of action must involve the three actors, this discussion focuses on the role of the PLO in this process and on the specific steps that the organization must take. In order to define the parameters of this role, it is first necessary to describe the domestic situation in both Israel and the United States.

The return of a strong Likud-religious bloc to the Knesset as a result of the recent elections means that any serious change in the Israeli government's position vis-a-vis the West Bank and Gaza will occur only as a result of pressure on the government, and not because of any voluntary desire to share the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean between Israelis and Palestinians. It is tempting, therefore, to become pessimistic about the prospects for peace. However, upon further analysis of the sources of pressure that may be brought to bear on the Israeli government, one may detect reasons for hope. The sources of this pressure are both internal and external. Internally, the Israeli public has begun to develop a different perspective on the Palestinians. Whether doves or hawks, liberals or annexationists, Israelis can no longer ignore the presence of over two million Palestinians in Israel/Palestine. More and more Israelis are begin- ning to question the efficacy of the occupation and to debate the possibility of talking with the Palestinian leadership, including the PLO, about the future of the territories. The intifadah has brought home the realization that Israel cannot rule over almost two million Palestinians forever. Soldiers, retired generals and other army officers, academics, and, of course, the peace bloc have already spoken in favor of peace with the Palestinians. Even some of the most ardent supporters of the Shamir-Likud position on the territories have stated that they would be willing to negotiate with the Palestinians after the intifadah subsides. The sector of the Israeli public that supports a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians is destined to grow larger and more influential, irrespective of the increasingly harsh Israeli response to the intifadah.

The other pressure that Israel may face in the near future would come from the international community, including the United States. For this to occur, violent confrontations on the West Bank and Gaza involving more Palestinian casualties must continue; the PLO must advocate, in word and in deed, a moderate, feasible, unambiguous political program calling for a diplomatic resolution of the conflict; and the American public and government must push for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. The latter prerequisite will to a large extent be determined by the actual behavior of the PLO and by the U.S. media's perception of its behavior. If the PLO is able, through its political program, to convince the United States (government, media, and public) of its serious, realistic desire for peace, then the Bush administration would find it exceedingly difficult not to engage in dialogue with the PLO. Of course, for this to happen, the PLO must meet the conditions set by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1975, namely, the acceptance of UN resolutions 242 and 338, the recognition of Israel, and the renunciation of terrorism. Once a U.S.-PLO dialogue commences, Israel will begin to feel the pressure. Unfortunately, in the official U.S. government view, the documents produced by the Algiers PNC, while a positive step toward peace, did not go far enough to persuade it to initiate dialogue with the PLO.

In the United States itself, the Bush administration will continue the search for a peaceful settlement. While the Bush administration is expected to adhere to the broad outlines of the Reagan initiative of September 1982, the dramatically changing circumstances in the last year (e.g. the intifadah, the PLO's moderation, Jordan's disengagement from the West Bank, and the termination of the Iraq-Iran war) will encourage U.S. foreign policy makers under the leadership of the new secretary of state, James Baker, to take a more pragmatic approach toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Unfortunately, the Algiers declaration did not generate a positive response on the part of the Reagan-Bush administration. It seems another declaration is needed if the PLO desires to become a viable partner in the peace process. Such a declaration will in effect build on the positive action taken by the PLO in Algiers. Commendable though it may be, the Algiers statement failed to explain clearly and unequivocally the PLO's position on the three R's: recognition of UN resolutions 242 and 338; recognition of Israel; and renunciation of terrorism.


In light of the above, what should the PLO's program of action be?

First, a clear recognition must be extended to the State of Israel in the context of the 1947 UN Palestine partition resolution, which the PLO has already accepted in Algiers. UN General Assembly Resolution No. 181 (II) of 29 November 1947 (Partition of Palestine) establishes a Jewish state, which was to consist roughly of the coastal strip, the Negev, and lower Galilee, and an Arab state, which was to include the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and most of the Galilee.

Second, the geographic area of the envisioned Palestinian state will only and unequivocally consist of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This is the final territorial solution of the proposed state. The future of the Palestinians living in Israel, in the Galilee, and elsewhere, will have to be determined at a later date, primarily by Israel. While proclaiming their Israeli citizenship, Palestinians in Israel have supported the intifadah, have accepted the PLO as the "sole, legitimate representative" of the Palestinian people, have denounced the occupation's harsh measures in the territories, and have supported the recent call for Palestinian independence. Should the independence debate include the Galilee, where a majority of Israel's Palestinians live, it would be interesting to watch closely their attitudes toward both Israel and the new Palestinian state and to observe their political choices. It is expected that most of them would not want to move to the new state but would continue to strive for equal rights as citizens of Israel.

Third, the PLO must recognize UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, in and of themselves irrespective of other UN resolutions, as the basis for negotiations. This recognition must be clear, unequivocal, and not subject to conflicting interpretations. In the context of these resolutions, the PLO hereby should declare its commitment to a two-state solution in Palestine, i.e., a Jewish state and an Arab state.

Fourth, the foreign policy of the Palestinian state should be based on the principle of regional economic and political cooperation, especially cooperation between itself and its two most immediate neighbors, Jordan to the east and Israel to the west. Also, a commitment to peaceful coexistence regionally and internationally and to the charter of the United Nations should be a guiding principle of the new state. The PLO should also renounce terrorism of all kinds from all sources, including state-supported terrorism, for whatever objectives.

Fifth, the National Covenant issued by the PNC in 1968 is now obsolete because the PLO's thinking has shifted from a unitary state containing both Palestinians and Jews to two separate states, one for Jews and one for Palestinians. The covenant's continued existence impedes rather than contributes to peace; therefore it should be declared null and void.

Sixth, the legal basis of the state must be addressed. The West Bank is presently ruled by a vague combination of Jordanian municipal law, Palestinian law dating back to the British mandate, and Israeli military orders, while Gaza is ruled by the same British and Israeli laws, plus Egyptian military statutes. The PLO should set up a commission of legal experts to recommend a legal code for the new state.

Seventh, the governing structure of the new state must be defined. The legislative functions of the state should be assigned to the Palestine National Council (PNC), whose other functions would include electing the president of the envisioned state and members of the cabinet (currently the PLO Executive Committee). Once the Palestinian state is established on the ground, then its president would be elected nationally by secret ballot. This assumes, of course, that the envisioned state would be a presidential republic. In exercising its legislative functions on the national level, the PNC should also be guided by resolutions adopted on the local level by local councils and committees wherever Palestinians live in large numbers, ranging from Kuwait to the West Bank and Gaza to Lebanon.

As part of declaring an independent state, the PLO should also establish a provisional government (which could be a variation of the present Executive Committee) with representation from the West Bank and Gaza. Once this is done, the PLO should begin intensive diplomatic contacts for the purpose of obtaining international de facto recognition both of the state and of the provisional government. De jure recognition would be sought once the state is physically in place on the ground.

Once a declaration including the above points is issued by Arafat on behalf of the majority of the Palestine National Council (PNC), it should be communicated to the government of Israel and to the United States directly. An invitation should be extended to the Israeli government for negotiations based on this declaration. The Security Council's permanent members and the UN secretary-general should also be invited to arrange for the proper forum of the negotiations, either bilaterally, between Israel and the PLO, or through an international conference. The modalities, timetables, and agenda of the negotiations would have to be approved by Israel and the PLO.

The UN partition resolution of 29 November 1947 called for the establishment of the two states in Palestine "two months after the evacuation of the armed forces of the mandatory Power has been completed but in any case not later than 1 October 1948." Israel came into existence in May 1948. It is time, forty years later, for the Palestinian state finally to see the light of day. Hopefully the wanderings of both peoples are coming to an end.


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Emile A. Nakhleh, a professor of political science and departnment chair at Mount Saint Mary's College, Emmitsburg, Maryland, is the author of several studies on the occupied territories, including. "The West Bank and Gaza: Twenty Years Later," The Middle East Journal (Spring 1988).

**JPS went to press before the 14 December 1988 press conference in Geneva in which Arafat clearly met all U.S. conditions for entering into a dialogue-Ed.