New Strategy Debate Continues: Where to go from Here?

James Zogby’s Column

I was both surprised and gratified by the response my article “Toward a New Palestinian Strategy” received.  To date it has been translated into seven languages and been reprinted in dozens of newspapers, websites and internet listserves. CNN featured a special discussion, as have a number of other news outlets.

Most important to me have been the hundreds of emails and letters I have received, more than 95% of which have been positive.  The responses have been both passionate and committed.  Many offered support, and a significant number even expressed the desire to go to Jerusalem to participate in a Palestinian non-violent movement.

Well over one-half of those who wrote were Arabs or Arab Americans (most often, Palestinian).  The majority of the remaining letters came from Americans and others who read the article in English-language papers.

While, as I noted, the support for developing a new Palestinian strategy was the overwhelming thrust of the letters, there were several other important themes that emerged, which I want to explore in this article.

1-Empowerment, the cure for despair

In addition to the legitimate anger that most Arabs feel toward Israeli policies, there is also a disturbing despair.  What is desperately needed is a restored sense of optimism, a new energy to help shake off the feeling of futility.

The enemy is not just the occupation, it is the loss of hope. 

It is, after all, this hopelessness that has given rise to the tragic cult of suicide that has taken hold in some quarters.  While the practice has been given a theological overlay, at the end of the day, what is, in fact, occurring is that our young are killing themselves because they see no hope in living.  Death has become an attractive alternative to life.  In addition to vengeance, death has come to be seen as an act of empowerment, and a catalyst for some kind of change.

This disturbing inversion of reality (and distortion of religion) is a tragedy, for which we must seek a cure.  Our young need hope. They need to see the possibility that the future will provide them with the opportunity to lead a productive life, to nurture their families, and to build a better society.

It is the sense that these human goals are beyond reach that has led to the despair and the self-destructive violence.

Despair is also at the root of the passivity that many now feel.  When this revolution devolved into shootings and suicide bombings, only a few could and would participate.  The rest of the society have become passive observers and victims.  They lost power-the power to act to change their own lives and create a new reality.  All they can now do is wait for the next revenge bombing and then seek cover as they prepare for the next brutal Israeli assault.

What I learned from the responses to my piece was that many Arabs want to be engaged.  They want to take charge and feel empowered.  Many respondents reacted eagerly to the invitation to debate, to explore something new.  They want to feel creative and in fact they were.  The ideas culled from their letters are both fascinating and politically astute.

2-Responsibility and self-liberation

Another by-product of despair and passivity is that to some degree, the anger and violence have turned inward.  Some of the responses to my article spent too much time and venom focused on the Palestinian Authority and President Yasser Arafat.

I acknowledge, of course, that it is legitimate to criticize one’s government (after all, I criticize my government).  But engaging in criticism as an end in itself, is itself an expression of paralysis.   If, at the end of the day, this entire exercise in seeking a new strategy becomes a harangue against the leadership, then nothing productive will come of it.  Additionally, it is important that supporters of Palestinian rights not reinforce the shameful and wicked Israeli campaign of vilification and demonization of President Arafat.  

While it is true that this is not about Arafat, but is about the Palestinian people, on another level, this is about Arafat.  He is the target of Israel’s campaign precisely because he remains a potent symbol that Sharon seeks to destroy.  Delegitimizing and humiliating the leader is a powerful way to destroy or weaken the national movement he has led.  This Israeli campaign must be combated.

The young people who have set up a tent in front of the Israeli tanks surrounding Ramallah, and are daily taunting and challenging the Israeli soldiers should be a model for our efforts.  They have sought no one’s approval, but have responded only to the question “What can I do to make change?”    The targets of this discussion of a new strategy should remain the end of the occupation and the liberation of the Palestinian people.

Part of this effort must be self-liberation.

My mother was fond of saying to me “You can only be responsible for what you can be responsible for”.  She was cautioning me against shifting blame for my circumstance on others.  It is my responsibility to change what I can change and not act as if “only such and such would change, then my life would be better”.  

Some of those who rejected the challenge to find a new strategy sought to absolve themselves from doing so using the excuse that nothing will change under the present leadership.  That is itself the essence of passive surrender and despair.

But, as I noted, the overwhelming majority understood that they could make a difference and they have written either volunteering to do so or asking for ideas as to what they can do.

3-Starting where we are

Many of the Arab Americans and scores of the Americans who wrote to me were captivated by the idea of developing a new strategy and were eager to start doing what they could here in the U.S.  They proposed a campaign of actions and information that could be implemented in communities across the U.S. and that might create an impetus that could carry over to the occupied lands.

We did this to a degree in 1987-1988, but conditions limited the impact of this effort.

In late 1987, we began a U.S. campaign in support of Palestinian rights.  Running simultaneously with the Presidential campaigns we: challenged candidates to address the issue; brought the question of Palestinian statehood to a vote in several state political party conventions; and built a national coalition in support of Palestinian statehood.

In addition, some of us engaged in non-violent resistance actions.   My wife and I, for example, were part of the groups that were arrested sitting-in and blocking the entrance to the Israeli Embassy.  Although our efforts drew U.S. media attention, they were not sustained.

Our political campaign, on the other hand, was quite successful.  Ten states passed pro-Palestinian resolutions (since these were the only ten states where the resolutions were introduced, we had a perfect record).  Working through the Jesse Jackson for President campaign, I was able to lead the first ever debate on Palestinian rights from the podium of the Democratic National Convention, while on the convention floor over 1000 delegates carried Palestinian flags and pro-peace banners.

The Israelis and pro-Israel groups in the U.S. were shocked.  An article in the Israeli press noted “Israel’s supporters shamefully flunked at the convention….never before had so many PLO flags been seen waving on so many American TV screens.”

Our efforts generated significant U.S. press attention as well, but in the absence of Arab media coverage (the many Arab satellite TV networks were not in existence then), our U.S. efforts did not generate any synergy in the region.

The respondents to my article want to first assume their responsibility to act here in the U.S. to start to develop a new strategy.  Many, however, also want to go to Palestine if a way can be found to use their energy and ideas and commitment.

In any case, a door has opened and many have decided to engage in this discussion and action.  A meeting will be held in the coming weeks to organize such a campaign.  It is, as I noted, quite gratifying.  The debate continues.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.