Claude Cheysson: The Right to Self-Determination (Interview)
Claude Cheysson served as France's minister of foreign affairs from 1981 to 1984, when he became European commissioner in charge of Mediterranean policy and North-South relations. He was interviewed on 11 March 1986 by Elias Sanbar, editor of the Institute for Palestine Studies' French language quarterly, Revue d'etudes Palestiniennes, which published the interview in its Summer 1986 issue (no. 20).
Sanbar: Leaving aside the obstacles arising from the actual dynamic of the Middle East situation, what is, in your opinion, the fundamental problem preventing a solution to the Middle East conflict and the Palestinian question?
Cheysson: The essential problem in the Near East is that the rights of a people-the Palestinian people-have not been recognized. And this people really exists. Even thirty years ago, they probably already had the largest educated elite of all the Arab peoples. And the years spent in the camps, in the struggle, have given them a strength, a capacity for cohesion, such that not to recognize their rights is not only scandalous but also absurd. There will be no peace in the Near East unless the Palestinians have the same rights as any other people.
Sanbar: Do you think that at the outset, the evolution of the Palestine problem may have been seen as responding to a certain geopolitical vision, a certain configuration, that the region was called upon to have? Could it be that some considered the emergence of the problem necessary at a certain level?
Cheysson: No, I don't think so. I believe that what happened was-how shall I put it?-an accident of history. Let us take the years 1947-48, when the problem crystallized. In 1947, the UN voted the creation of Israel, but at the same time provided for an Arab state. It was a difficult decision for the peoples of the region, a decision largely spurred by the guilt feelings of the leading countries of the UN for what happened to the Jewish people under Nazi totalitarianism. Still, it was a solution that appears realistic. But in 1948, part of the resolution was dropped. Why? Because the military experts explained that it was probably unnecessary, that Israel would be cut in half within a few days of the departure of the British, who remained in Haifa to prevent the arrival of heavy armaments. But this did not happen, because all of a sudden the Western powers found themselves faced with a real war in Palestine. They had just emerged from the world war and, as in several other parts of the world, cowardice prevailed: the result was that the only future offered to a people was to live in camps, without a nationality, without the possibility of employment. The proof of the future orientation is that a permanent UN agency was created. That was not done in any other case. God knows that after the war, there were large movements of refugees, the German minorities returning from the countries from which they were driven, and later India. . . . But the international community never had the audacity to say outright that the entire future of a people would consist of being locked up in camps where their children would be fed, given soap, and provided with medicines against diarrhea.
So this was the future mapped out for the Palestinians. It was supreme cowardice on the part of the international community, because everyone was fed up with war, because they made a mistake concerning a resolution adopted in 1947 which made sense despite the painfulness of the decision. Hence, the camps.. . . And they were prepared to pay money so that these people would be well washed and fed and brought up in their camps. It was an accident of history.
Sanbar: But once the "accident of history" occurred, wasn't this new given incorporated into the various calculations? Didn't certain parties rely on it to give a certain configuration to the region?
Cheysson: No, after that they tried to forget the whole business. In those days, UNRWA had enough funds to support the people in the camps. And, at the risk of appearing provocative, let's admit that the brother Arabs were not too preoccupied with what could happen in the camps-not until there were disturbances in Jordan that originated in them. But for a long time they tried to forget the problem. In Europe and elsewhere, they were busy rebuilding, people were trying to forge their future, the Arab states were consolidating their independence.
It is true that a few states took some interest in the region at that time. There was France and Britain, because they had been there a long time; the U.S., because of Israel and because Israel was part of the American domestic scene; the U.S.S.R., because it is nearby and because it always had interests in the area. That is all. Germany was being rebuilt and preferred not to hear anything about the Near East because of Israel. There were a few states which sometimes posed the question, but they preferred to forget the Palestinian people. After all, the Kurdish and the Armenian peoples had been forgotten after the First World War. So if on occasion an expert looked into the question of the Palestinian people, he would say that it would be resolved the same way it was for the Kurds and the Armenians.
Sanbar: As an outside observer, do you think the PLO could have obtained better conditions than it did during Israel's siege of Beirut in 1982?
Cheysson: I don't think so, unless you think that the physical destruction, the physical sacrifice, of the PLO leadership would have led to a better future by further enhancing the image of Arafat. Even so, there would not have been any quick resolution. During the siege of Beirut, we French took a gamble: we believed the time was right for comprehensive negotiations to be started and, as you certainly know, Arafat lent support to this line of reasoning. I am convinced that, trapped in Beirut, he was ready to lay down arms, naturally with the understanding that his people would be protected, and on condition that negotiations would open and that the PLO would be a partner in those negotiations, as clearly it must. That is what was behind the resolution France put before the Security Council and which the Americans vetoed. So our calculations were unfounded. In my opinion, the American veto was a political mistake.
Sanbar: As I recall, this so called "Franco-Egyptian" initiative concerned simultaneous and reciprocal recognition between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It seems to me that the United States worked tirelessly to exclude these two new partners, France and Egypt, who had tried to take advantage of a moment of extreme crisis to unblock the situation. My question is as follows: in so acting, was the U.S. primarily interested in preserving its zone of influence as a kind of exclusive fief, or was it expressing its refusal to find a solution?
Cheysson: First of all, I should say that the joint Franco-Egyptian resolution came only after the French resolution I mentioned had been vetoed by the U. S. This second resolution was formulated when Arafat had already agreed in principle to leave Beirut, unfortunately without the opening of negotiations. We involved the Egyptians in the initiative because we felt it was a mistake not to have the support of the entire Arab world, which means including Egypt. The draft resolution was submitted to the Security Council, where it remains, for it was never voted upon. The reason I mention that it is still on the table is because, according to United Nations procedures, any country can request a discussion of the draft (now completely outdated) at any moment.
But to come back to your question. The U.S. made it clear that if we pushed the Franco-Egyptian resolution, they would veto it, and that was not our goal. I don't think the U.S. acted as it did because it wanted to preserve a zone of influence in the region. I become more and more convinced, as time goes on, that in the final analysis, the only thing that counts for the United States in the region is Israel, because it is directly tied to American domestic problems. History over the last fifty years or more has shown that the U.S. has no firm, coherent foreign policy except when foreign policy issues are directly related to domestic politics. In my opinion, the fact that U.S. political parties have taken a stand on South Africa and apartheid means that U.S. foreign policy on South Africa will now be clear-cut. I believe that in the Near East, Israel's interest is the determining factor.
Sanbar: I think we can say that clear-sighted and patriotic Arabs today are disappointed with French policy. Has this policy actually changed, or is it that this particular conjuncture does not lend itself to France's playing the role it would prefer?
Cheysson: I should recall that foreign policy is set by the president of the republic, and I believe that it is absolutely beyond dispute that he has not changed his political orientation. But the style, the presentation, of this policy has been more cautious since the change of government: men who succeed one another in the same post do not necessarily present things the same way. When I was foreign minister, I was convinced that for any policy proposed by France to have weight, it had to be very clearly-even provocatively-stated, so as to provoke reactions abroad. Among these reactions, some would be favorable, adding to the weight of the initiative and to France's authority.
My successor, who is a very able man, is more inclined to artful diplomacy than to provocation, and it is possible that he is right. The situation in the Near East today is more stagnant than ever, and therefore lends itself less to new initiatives than was the case two or three years ago. This stagnation is, moreover, something which troubles me greatly, first of all because I think of the men, women, and young people involved whose futures are completely blocked, who have no hope. Even in war, even in the depths of misery, people can mobilize themselves in a constructive way if they have a glimmer of hope. But when you're in despair, there is considerable danger that the marginals will resort to terrorism or violent action. I distinguish between the two, even though terrorism manifests itself in violent form.
Sanbar: Turning now to Israel, a number of elements lead one to believe that somewhere along the line it has opted for a vision of security based on the notion that the core will be better preserved if the surrounding environment is in shambles. Take for example the tragic situation in Lebanon, where the Israelis fueled-I don't say invented, but fueled-communal exclusiveness and based their entire security strategy on developing communal antagonisms. In your opinion, was this an operative strategy over these last years? And if so, do you believe it is an intelligent means of safeguarding the security of a state?
Cheysson: Did Israel intend from the outset to divide its adversaries? It is possible, even instinctive. But whether or not this really was the intent initially, there is no doubt that it became Israeli policy thereafter. And, at the risk of being provocative, I would say that the Arabs showed Israel the way. Israel probably would have done it anyway, but the division among the Arabs encourages Israel in this kind of activity.
I remember a visit to President Asad, who said to me, "What I cannot forgive Egypt for is that at the moment when there was a prospect of global progress between the Arabs and Israel-the time of the Vance-Gromyko Accord-Egypt prevented it by making peace for itself, while at the same time allowing all Israel's forces to redeploy to the north, against Syria." Asad thus held Egypt responsible for this division. One could also say that by excluding Egypt from the Arab League, the Arabs worked against their own interests by formalizing the division.
Sanbar: Broaching the question of Palestinian self-determination, one notes that certain rights are conceded to the Palestinians on a piecemeal basis, but never these same rights as a comprehensive whole. For instance, the right to a land; the idea of a national community with an identity, a personality; the idea of a relatively localized national territory. But why is it always a question of fragments, of parts, and never the whole-that is, the right to self-determination? Why is this question of self-determination so difficult to obtain?
Cheysson: I should point out that the European Economic Community (EEC) of nine, then ten, and now twelve, has always affirmed in its declarations on the subject the right of the Palestinian people to self- determination, to legitimate rights. Certain members of the EEC, including France, specify that this means the right to choose state structures which are normal for a people.
What is missing? In trying to assemble one or several negotiating tables, there is always someone missing. In my opinion, the positions King Hussein outlined in his agreement with Yasir Arafat showed good sense. You cannot make peace without Israel, or without someone who speaks in the name of all the Palestinians-not just for the Palestinians in the occupied territories, or for those in Syria, or for those in the Gulf, but for all Palestinians. And that someone, the Arabs have declared on numerous occasions, is the PLO. The EEC has always affirmed that the PLO should be a partner in the negotiations.
Nor will there be any peace without Syria, which plays a key role but which no one has yet managed to interest in the negotiations. That is a serious problem. And since the U. S. is involved, the other superpower must also be involved, since it has at least as great an interest in the region by virtue of history and geographic proximity. Moreover, we need the U.S.S.R. because it has special relations with at least one country in the region, Syria, which must be brought to the bargaining table.
Finally, I would add that I do not believe there will be a partial peace, a step-by-step peace. Progress can be made, but peace implies dealing with all the problems involved. One used to have to talk of Sinai, but now one must speak of the Golan, the West Bank, the future status of Lebanon, of Jerusalem, free access to Jerusalem for the three "religions of the book," and so on. All that must be discussed. I hope, too, that certain future economic issues involving cooperation among neighbors will also be brought up by the parties concerned. Which brings me to an idea I'm very attached to: an international conference, hopefully not too large but which nonetheless would include all the regional powers-states and peoples-and a few outside powers, including, for example, the permanent members of the Security Council. There should be several sets of negotiations, ideally taking place simultaneously. One would have to interest Syria in particular: the Golan and the future of Lebanon; another, on Jerusalem, would have to include the various religions. Perhaps another would deal with economic problems. There would be different negotiations, different tables, according to the type of issue addressed.
But up to the present, it hasn't been possible to get everyone's participation. So efforts are made to convene two or three interested parties around a small conference table, in the absence of the big comprehensive one. But since key players are missing, and, in particular, the representative of the Palestinian people (which must be present at all the negotiations), the small table ends up being overturned before anyone can even sit at it. Or, if the negotiation is held, like Camp David, it isn't satisfactory to the others. So all of a sudden you have the largest Arab country excluded from subsequent discussions, which in my opinion is very serious.
Sanbar. Don't you think that a prior recognition of the right to self- determination-which is not negotiable, being a right of all peoples-would facilitate negotiations?
Cheysson: The EEC has always affirmed the right of self-determination. Speaking, if I may, as a Frenchman, let me say that I cannot understand how a civilized country can reject this right, a right which is valid for Namibia, Cambodia, Afghanistan, for the Palestinians, and for the Sahrawis. The day we renounce our belief in that right, how could we intervene anywhere in the world? In the name of what principle? In the name of what principle could we even offer our views? Mankind is organized into various peoples, and each has inalienable, legitimate rights, among these the right of self-determination. I don't understand how a country can deny this short of being deeply totalitarian. Remember the American position when there were colonial empires; it was a position that had considerable force in the world, and gave Americans the stature they should have as champions of self-determination and independence.
Sanbar: I believe we have reached the core of the issue.
Cheysson: Yes, and I simply cannot understand how this can be a problem!
Sanbar: Unless this right, for some, is not viewed as inalienable. . ..
Cheysson: International law cannot differ according to whether those involved are yellow, white, or black, or from this or that part of the world. It is inconceivable.
Sanbar: Speaking of law, do you believe there is an equally indisputable principle according to which an occupied territory must be evacuated?
Cheysson: Once again, I will simply refer to the positions of the EEC, which are also those of France. I am disturbed by the interpretations allowed by certain countries-countries which historically were the great proponents of the establishment of an international legal order. Occupation by force of arms is to be condemned and must cease. Among the rights of a people is the right to self-determination. Freedom of navigation on the high seas or in international airspace is also a right which cannot be violated.
Sanbar: In that case, how does one explain that the original expulsion of the Palestinian people from their country, now taken over by Israel, is no longer even mentioned? And concerning the territories occupied in 1967, how does one explain. that there is unanimity virtually everywhere in saying, "It's true that these are occupied territories, but they are territories to be bargained for and from which Israel will not withdraw unless certain conditions are met"? I am thinking in particular about prior recognition of Resolutions 242 and 338....
Cheysson: The end of a military occupation must always be accompanied by practical modalities, if only to allow the power which had been the occupier to assume its responsibilities. Thus, withdrawal from zones of occupation entails discussions which are absolutely necessary, especially since the successor must be decided upon; under international law, the legitimate heir to the West Bank of the Jordan is currently not defined at the state level. It must, therefore, be defined. And there is no disputing that withdrawal from the zones under occupation must be regulated by international law.
The concerned states must also receive normal guarantees assured by international law concerning internationally recognized borders. For us, this naturally includes the state of Israel.
Sanbar: One notes that there were not the same hesitations when it came to condemning one party's occupation of Lebanon, perhaps because a Lebanese state exists while a Palestinian state does not. But beyond this problem of a state apparatus, isn't there also a basic issue of law, per se?
Cheysson: In international law, one would say that the state of war must end and that this cessation entails evacuation from the occupied territories. From the standpoint of international law, withdrawal from the territories is the same whether the territory is that of a sovereign state or that of a state not yet defined. But the fact that it is necessary to define the state which will have sovereignty in the presently occupied territories once they are evacuated complicates the issue and explains why international negotiation is necessary.
Sanbar: Are we talking about one negotiation?
Cheysson: I don't see how withdrawal from the territories can be imposed without having first defined the state to be sovereign in those territories.
Sanbar: In that case, I don't think it would be too extreme to say that the recognition of the Palestinians' right to self-determination should be a precondition to negotiations aimed at ending the occupation and establishing a comprehensive peace.
Cheysson: Negotiations are meaningless without this recognition of the right to self-determination, just as negotiations are meaningless if the various parties do not mutually recognize each other's right to exist. In other words, if the PLO does not recognize the existence of Israel and if Israel does not recognize the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people.
Sanbar: It seems we always come up against the stumbling block of chronology. What should take place first? What should take place later?
Cheysson: That is why-and here I am expressing my own personal view- it would be desirable to have several discussions taking place simultaneously. Note that I say discussions, not yet negotiations. These would make it possible to delineate the various problems and then to have the comprehensive negotiations.
Sanbar: How can the Palestinians be required to recognize Resolution 242 in advance without having their right to self-determination recognized? Isn't this condition a way of putting off negotiations forever?
Cheysson: There is the argument, which you know well, concerning the fact that the PLO Charter, which has never been revoked, calls for the elimination of the state of Israel. It's an argument which has weight and which, in any case, has an important psychological effect in some quarters. But the opening of negotiations would answer all these problems, since the very act of sitting around the same table signifies mutual recognition, does it not?
And this is why we French had hoped that the dramatic situation in Beirut during the siege would trigger negotiations. The fact of besieging a civilian city was very embarrassing for the Israelis; the Palestinians were also in a difficult situation and, in exchange for the opening of negotiations, would have agreed to have their troops either disarmed or placed under a control which would have prevented them from acting. We hoped, but we failed. But one day we will have to come back to negotiations.
Sanbar: Are you hopeful in today's situation?
Cheysson: I would be dishonest if I said I had hope for the immediate future, and I don't want to be dishonest with your readers. I am not hopeful because we have not yet been able to mobilize the various parties who must be at the negotiating table, or tables. I am not hopeful because the upsurge of fanaticism, which manifests itself in a terrorism now extending far beyond the regions where it was born, clouds people's thinking and covers many of the problems with a veil of passion that significantly distorts people's judgment.