Part One: Who will fill the vacuum?
The war euphemized by Israel as “Operation Defensive Shield” was planned to create facts that would determine the nature of a future settlement with the Palestinians. The invasion has destroyed the PA (Palestinian Authority) in the West Bank. The “A areas”, where the PA controlled security, have been transformed, in effect, to “B” areas, where security resides in Israel’s hands. Thus Israel has canceled the essential component of the Oslo Accords.
The PA’s standing has been declining for years, but especially during the nineteen months of the Intifada. By invading the A areas and eliminating the PA’s security and organizational infrastructure, Israel has taken a stand: the sole function it will allow the PA in the West Bank will be to serve as a symbolic political address for future negotiations.
A basic assumption of Oslo was that Palestinian forces would act as Israel’s agent in the Territories, protecting it and its settlements. Israel finally understood, however, that the PA could not deliver. The recent intensification of suicide bombings caused loss of life and heavy economic damage, lowering the morale of its citizens. Every such attack pushed Israel’s government toward massive, decisive action. At first the PA tried to stay clear of involvement in suicide bombings. Israel, for its part, gave Yasser Arafat time to put down the resistance. The opposite happened. As suicide attacks increased, so grew their popularity among Palestinians. The PA lost ground to the popular movements: Fatah, the Islamic Jihad and Hamas.
[drop] During the Intifada, the PA played a double game. On the one hand, it expressed its commitment to Oslo and to the American mediation proposals (Mitchell and Tenet). On the other, fearing to lose its popular support, it avoided confronting the movements that carried out suicide attacks. It focused instead on a futile attempt to split Israel’s national-unity government. Since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refused to allow it political gains, the PA claimed that it had no hope to offer its people as a reason to stop the fight. By escalating the conflict, Arafat reckoned, he would foil Sharon’s campaign promise of “peace and security”. Israelis would behold his failure and the Labor Party would leave the coalition.
This assessment proved totally wrong. Instead, the Israeli street has become convinced that Arafat supports terrorism. Some of the PA’s staunchest Israeli allies in Labor have turned their backs on it. Many who condemned Sharon in the past because of his role in the Lebanon War today show understanding for the motives that led him to devastate the West Bank, bringing yet another tragedy on the Palestinian people. The PA has found it convenient to personalize the conflict, focusing on Sharon as the culprit. The true cause of violence, however, has been the Oslo Agreement itself. The present Intifada started out as a popular expression of rage against Oslo, including both partners: Israel and the PA.
It is no wonder, then, that PA leaders attempted to divert that rage. At Oslo, after all, they had put their people’s fate in the hands of Israelis like Sharon. (See “The Trouble with Oslo” in Challenge # 64 www.hanitzotz.com/challenge/Oslotrouble.html)
Sharon’s Strategic Objectives
The fog that surrounded Israel’s invasion of the Palestinian cities made it hard at first to identify the operation’s goals. Israel claimed that it went in to destroy “the terrorist infrastructure”. Yet even as the invasion was underway, Defense Minister Ben Eliezer admitted that the country would gain at best a few months’ respite.
If the operation could not uproot terror, what then was the purpose? Was it revenge against the Palestinian people, which had rejected Israel’s offers at Camp David and followed this with suicide bombings? Or did Sharon want to deport Yasser Arafat and create a new leadership? Was the aim to eliminate the PA?
On the basis of what has taken place, we can now define the Israeli objectives more clearly: 1) to defeat the Palestinian militias, over whom the PA had lost all control; 2) to spread terror among the inhabitants; and 3) to eliminate every last vestige of the PA in the West Bank, while creating a governmental vacuum.
The Gaza Strip, significantly, was not on the agenda. The first city to be invaded was Ramallah, where the IDF besieged and isolated Arafat. In Nablus and Jenin, by contrast, Israel entered in order to break the resistance organizations, which had operated in those cities with absolute freedom. Most of the suicide bombers came from them.
The siege on Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah was part of the program to eliminate the PA (except as a symbolic address). So too was the blowing up of PA buildings in the West Bank. The conquest of the Center for Preventive Security in Betunia had particular significance. This was the power center of Jibril Rajoub, erstwhile darling of the Israelis and the CIA. By going against it, Israel showed that it has no intention of ever depending again, in the West Bank at least, on an organized Palestinian security force. The army also invaded and systematically destroyed the many offices of the PA é for example, the Palestinian Broadcasting Authority, the Ministry of Education and the Bureau of Statistics, as well as the offices of civilian institutions like the International Bank of Palestine. The army gutted every computer in sight. The systematic and universal nature of this assault on knowledge shows that its target was not terrorism, but rather the entire institutional basis of the PA.
Israel also arrested Marwan Barghouti, chief spokesperson of the Intifada, who heads Fatah and its military wing, the Tanzim, in the West Bank. This arrest is further proof that Israel is no longer interested in the existence of any popular or party base that might conceivably challenge it or resuscitate the PA. Israel has learned the lesson of the symbiosis between the PA and Fatah. The operations pulled off by Fatah, Arafat’s political organization, allowed the PA the flexibility mentioned earlier. Insofar as it was bound to Oslo, the PA couldn’t declare war on Israel. Yet Fatah, in the form of its al-Aksa Martyrs’ Brigades, was able to carry out attacks that shored up Arafat’s popularity, covering for the PA’s official passivity.
Despite the systematic destruction and chaos that Israel has wrought in the West Bank, it has left the PA leaders in place as a symbolic political address. It defined Arafat as an enemy, but it refrained from declaring war on him. In other words, Israel demolished the military and administrative wings of the PA, but it did not cut the threads to those persons who are still formally committed to the Oslo framework. Uzi Dayan, head of Israel’s Council for National Security, confirms this point: “Even when you fight with someone and make demands on him, this means there’s an address where you make the demands. It would be an error to eliminate the PA as an address, because in that case the address would become three and a half million people. To switch to a situation where we rule over the Palestinians and administer their lives would be a big mistake in the long run.” (Yediot Aharonot, Weekend Supplement, April 26.)
Why did Israel refrain from invading Gaza?
While ransacking the West Bank, Israel left the PA bases in Gaza alone. In order to understand the significance of this fact, we need to recall the original formula of the Oslo Agreement: “Gaza and Jericho first.” There was a consensus in Israel, at the end of the first Intifada, for getting out of Gaza. The question of the West Bank, however, was more complex. Israel has strategic interests there, especially in connection with Jordan, where it wants to ensure the continuation of the monarchy. A sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank would threaten the future of this kingdom, most of whose subjects are Palestinian.
The problem of the West Bank’s future troubled Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin throughout the discussions on a future settlement. He preferred that the Palestinian entity be divided into two centers of authority: one under Arafat in Gaza and the second, in the West Bank, under Faisal Husseini and the “internal” leadership (i.e., those who represented the Palestinians at Madrid). We described Israel’s sensitivity concerning the West Bank in September 1993, in a booklet (in Arabic) entitled Gaza and Jericho First: A Step Toward A State é Or A New Form Of Israeli Colonialism? Rabin was prepared, we wrote, to grant Arafat considerable leeway in Gaza. “In the West Bank, however, the Israelis want to maintain strict supervision over the Palestinian administration. They wish to give Faisal Husseini the central role. The Israeli proposal, supported by America, envisions two regimes with separate power-bases. The division of authority will leave them weak é dependent on each other and on Israel.”
As for the West Bank, we wrote, “In certain areas, a measure of authority will be given to the Palestinian entity, but only after this has proved itself in Gaza. After three to five years of such an arrangement, the Palestinians will have no basis to demand either a significant withdrawal or the dismantling of the settlements. Before negotiations start toward a final agreement, the option of a Palestinian state will seem farther off than ever. We should not expect this topic to reach the agenda.” (Since those words were written, the words “Palestinian state” have crossed the eminently readable lips of George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon, but no one is deceived as to what sort of state this would be.) During the Madrid Conference of 1991, Arafat é from Tunis é contested the division of authority that Rabin had in mind. To this extent, at least, he got his way. He then punished Faisal Husseini, distancing him from the centers of power.
Today Arafat is besieged in Ramallah, after failing to implement what Oslo required. Thus nine years later he faces an option like the one Rabin proposed at the start.
The consensus behind the Sharon Plan
PA officials like to claim that Sharon wants to re-conquer the Territories and return to the days of direct occupation. This is demagoguery. If that were the plan, Sharon would not have established a national-unity government with the Labor Party. When he did so, he was facing the new Intifada. The result has been an emergency regime, based on purposes and principles uniting all the major Israeli political currents.
Sharon’s present policy reflects the lessons he learned from the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which resulted in many losses and eventual retreat. He has understood the necessity of coordinating his actions with the United States. Luckily for him, he has found a willing ear in George W. Bush. He has also understood that the Labor Party is an essential ally in implementing his policy toward the Palestinians.
Sharon has learned that he mustn’t indulge in grandiose fantasies aimed at completely redrawing the map. He knows he had best concentrate on a single, central strategic objective: to solve the Palestinian problem in a way that will leave Israel on top.
Israel’s latest deeds amount to war crimes é of this there is plenty of evidence é but the Palestinian people does not stand today before a transfer like that of 1948. Nor does it stand before a conquest along the lines of 1967. If there is a catastrophe, we may date it to 1993, when the leadership sold its rights in return for generous bribes. The Palestinian people does stand today before an Israeli prime minister who uses his military supremacy and destructive power to achieve well-defined political ends. These have received the concurrence of both the American administration and Sharon’s Labor allies. All agree that the PA can no longer function as a partner in the Oslo process. That is, it can no longer fulfill the strategic interests of Israel in exchange for a weak Palestinian state.
The countdown toward the invasion began in June 2001, when more than twenty Israelis died in a suicide bombing at the discotheque of the Tel Aviv Dolphinarium. From that time forth, Israel began employing means it hadn’t used earlier, including tanks and aircraft, with little regard for civilian casualties. It also stepped up assassinations of local leaders. The message to the PA was clear: “If you don’t do your job in keeping order, we’ll do it for you é by whatever means we choose.” Such actions undermined the PA’s authority, increasing the chaos in the Territories. These were increasingly dominated by armed bands free of PA discipline.
During the escalation, the US role was reduced to last-ditch mediation efforts, expressed in the plans of George Mitchell, George Tenet, and Anthony Zinni. The US accepted and transmitted Israel’s demand that the PA put down the Intifada as a precondition for negotiations. But growing Palestinian hatred for Israel and America placed the PA in an impossible dilemma, between the anvil of popular rage and the hammer of White House pressure.
Israel’s decision to eliminate the PA was taken after other approaches had failed. It is no light matter, for it creates a vacuum that will have to be filled by a new regime, in place of the one created at Oslo. Sharon has long recognized that a Palestinian state of some sort is inevitable. He has said so a number of times. On his view, however, the road to this state will pass through lengthy intermediary stages. These will enable the US and Israel to gauge whether the Palestinians are ready to live in peace under Israel’s supremacy, recognizing its special security needs.
What apparatus will design the stages and provide for the filling of the power vacuum? On Sharon’s concept, it will be a new international conference along the lines of Madrid in 1991. Call it “Madrid II”. The conference will endow Sharon’s plan with the blessing of the Arab world and the international community. Such support will be needed to prop up the Palestinian negotiators, who will be pressed to agree despite the damage to their people’s rights.
From the actions of Israel during the recent invasion, we may infer the geographical dimensions of the Sharon plan. Gaza, it appears, will become the central domain of the PA. The settlements there may be dismantled. The West Bank will be another story. Israel will encompass it with a security zone, in which it will station its army: this zone will include the Jordan Valley, the Hebron area, and the major settlement blocs. The Palestinian areas will be connected to one another by narrow strips. “Madrid II” will determine the nature of the regime in these areas. (See box: Revelations by Martin Indyk.)
September 11 changed the rules
Before September 11, US President George W. Bush kept arm’s distance from the region. Arafat wanted to get him involved, and here too é as in his attempt to divide the Israeli government é he apparently thought that escalation, including suicide attacks, would help. They would teach the neophyte president a lesson, showing him what could happen if he didn’t step in.
This too was a miscalculation. Bush still refuses to invite Arafat to the White House (where, in the heady Clinton days, he was practically one of the family). Despite the pressures that Arafat has brought to bear through Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the new American president has not seen fit to change his position. He has adopted Sharon’s view: no negotiations while terrorism continues. His refusal to meet Arafat has been a political card in the hands of Israel, which conditions any such meeting on Arafat’s acceptance of its terms.
The attacks of September 11 have only toughened America’s stand in all that concerns the Middle East. The attackers did not come from an enemy such as North Korea, Cuba or Iraq, rather (most of them) from Saudi Arabia, a close ally. The PA, America discovered, was not the only regime to have problems with militant Islam. Most of the Arab states cannot control it either. In the White House, consequently, Israeli stock soared.
The Arab regimes are weak. With unstable economies and growing unemployment, it is hard for them to maintain, in the face of popular anger, their corrupt and dictatorial regimes. The only opposition on the Arab street today belongs to the extremist Islamic currents, which hone the despairing masses into a threat against the regimes. Whenever the Israeli-Palestinian situation heats up, the dictators in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan find it hard to defend their American alliance. Even after September 11, which brought immense pressure from the White House and the American media, Saudi Arabia had still to condition its support for America’s war on terrorism. It told the US, in effect: we will be able to join you (in other words, to confront the militant Islamic organizations) if you adopt a more balanced stance on the Palestinian issue. Conveniently, Bush complied with a “vision” of Palestinian statehood.
Bush’s vision was succeeded, in due course, by its reward: the “Saudi initiative”. This proposes that the Arab states normalize relations with Israel if the latter withdraws completely from the Territories it occupied in 1967. The importance of the proposal does not lie in its content. After Oslo, most Arab states began to establish normal relations with Israel. The demand for complete withdrawal has never been taken seriously by Israel or the US. (Indeed, the proposal has since been watered down to the dimensions of the Mitchell and Tenet plans.) The importance of the initiative lay rather in the fact that the Saudis made it. For thus Bush received an Arab “cover” for his future international conference, which we have dubbed Madrid II.
There is a widespread delusion in Arab regimes, including the PA, that one can criticize Israel while supporting America. In fact, despite the public posturing of George W. Bush, the Israeli incursion into the West Bank has remained within the parameters of Washington’s vision for the region. Nor has it derailed the Saudi initiative. “Defensive Shield” began, in fact, on the day after the Arab summit in Beirut adopted that initiative. The incursion was not, as the Arab media portray it, a negative response to the Saudi proposal. On the contrary, it reflected Israel’s interpretation of it. The incursion was intended to transform this interpretation into a practical possibility.
The Israeli left too, with accustomed short-sightedness, has warmed to the Saudi initiative. We should understand it, however, within its context: the Arab world is re-entering the war against terrorism, whose next major target is Iraq. On the American view, the task of the hour is to defuse the Israeli-Palestinian front, in order to release all forces for the fight against Saddam. America has no interest in weakening Israel strategically or achieving Palestinian freedom. Even as Bush advances the Saudi initiative, he recognizes Israel’s right to “defend” itself, that is, to wage a campaign of destruction against the Palestinian people and its leaders. The American position is not ambivalent. It wants to settle the conflict in a way that will preserve its interests, guaranteeing both Israel’s supremacy and the survival of the friendly Arab dictators. That is the sum and substance of Bush’s “vision”. It has no place for a viable Palestinian state in charge of its own land, sea and air.
Bush’s demand that Israel withdraw from the areas it has invaded fits in with the latter’s objectives. Israel does not wish to stay in these places, as it has asserted time and again. It learned this lesson in the first Intifada: there is no profit in trying to govern a hostile population. Israel wants to rule the Territories by remote control, without concern for the suffering of the inhabitants and without providing for their needs.
The events of September 11 changed the map of the world for many, including Israel. It knows that it cannot take decisions outside the framework of US policy. Its economy depends on America’s. Likewise its security. One cannot differentiate, therefore, between the aims of Sharon and those of the White House. Both agree on the Palestinian issue: it is possible to extract this thorn by establishing a dummy-state. Neither wants a state that would fulfill the rights of the Palestinian people.
After Israel demolished the West Bank’s civilian and administrative infrastructure, Bush dispatched his Secretary of State, Colin Powell. His mission was to get a compromise. He didn’t hurry. While the West Bank burned, the Secretary stopped at several Arab states and finally Madrid. There he met European representatives, as well as the Russian Foreign Minister and Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations. Upon leaving Madrid, he had almost wall-to-wall agreement, both Arab and worldwide, for a new international conference.
In Jerusalem on the eve of his departure, Powell defined the strategic objectives of the conference-to-be: “First of all, security and the prevention of acts of terror and violence, both from the side of Israel and from the side of the Palestinians. Second, serious and rapid negotiations for achieving a political agreement. Third, economic and humanitarian support for improving the tragic condition of the Palestinian people.” (New York Times April 18.)
Sharon was quick to affirm his interest in an international conference. This represented a change of attitude. In the past, Israel had always resisted such parleys. At the end of the Gulf War (1991), the US invited it and the Arab states to Madrid for comprehensive negotiations aimed at settling the conflict on the basis of the UN resolutions. The talks floundered, but outside the international conference, with Arafat’s approval, the Palestinian team reached a separate agreement with Israel that paved the way to the Oslo Accords. The lack of an international framework for enforcing these accords is one major reason for the present deterioration.
What has happened é that Israel now agrees to an international conference? It has eliminated the PA as a source of authority in the West Bank, but it does not wish to return to direct occupation. It has no choice, therefore, but to find a third party to administer the area. Who will this be? Only an international conference can decide. Despite the lack of an official announcement, people close to Israeli military and political sources are touting the idea of internationalizing the regime in the West Bank. One such person is Alex Fishman, the military pundit for the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot. In the political supplement of April 14, he wrote: “A few months ago, when Sharon raised the program of a ‘broad buffer zone’ (which includes an IDF presence in areas between one and ten kilometers east of the Green Line), people considered this just another whim, meant to torpedo the diplomatic processé Now it appears that Sharon was thinking ahead. The buffer zones are intended to draw the map in accordance with Israeli interests. That is, the massive military presence inside these zones will establish a fact, setting a limit to the spread of the multi-national force in the lands of the West Bank.”
Fishman continued: “Because the term ‘multi-national force’ is anathema to Israeli ears, the cabinet ministers were surprised, last week, to hear the PM speaking of such a possibility and of the need to prepare for it quickly.”
According to Fishman, Sharon is engaging in preventive medicine: he doesn’t want the source of authority for an international force to be the UN Security Council, but rather a conference that will convene on a basis agreeable to Israel. Foreseeing the character of the force, however, Fishman uses as his model the “Green Berets” that were sent to Kosovo. “This is an active force,” he writes, “which imposes its rule on the sides and enforces international decisions by military might.”
When Secretary Powell described the aims of the international conference, he listed them in an order like that which was applied to the Balkans: security, a political agreement, humanitarian and economic aid. There the US first went in and demolished the nation, just as Sharon has done in the West Bank. Here, as there, the conqueror will return in the guise of a force for peace, coming to rescue the Palestinian people. The UN emissary to the Middle East, Terje Larsen, has described the human catastrophe that took place in the refugee camp of Jenin. Thus he prepares the ground for a new Occupation é this time by the international force é under the cover of humanitarian aid: first bombs, then blankets. The non-governmental organizations and the Palestinian bourgeoisie will play a vital role in these recuperative actions, which will focus on stability and security é not sovereignty. Official pronouncements aside, the purpose of Colin Powell’s journey was not to get a cease fire, but to show Arafat that the days of the PA in the West Bank are irrevocably over. Instead of marching toward Jerusalem like a martyr as he promised, Arafat will return defeated to Gaza, in a worse position than when he arrived eight years ago. He is bargaining over conditions of surrender, not new gains. The battle has been decided by the United States, the international community, and now, also, the Arab regimes. The Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, has told a London-based newspaper, Sharq al-Awsat, that monitors would not be sufficient to create the kind of separation necessary between Israeli defense forces and angry Palestinians. “We now want international forces to protect the Palestinians and ensure security along the lines of what was done in the Balkans.” (Cited by Patrick E. Tyler in The New York Times April 29.)
We find further confirmation of this forecast in Amir Oren: “Barghouti has been arrested,” he wrote in Ha’aretz on April 19. “Jibril Rajoub has been whittled down to size. Other organization heads have been labeled terror-impresarios and declared ineligible. After all this, there remains no West Bank leadership to talk to. This is a sorry state of affairs, and to lift himself out of it Sharon needs another approach é for example, Gaza as a Palestinian state, though not the final one, with Mahmoud Dahlan at its head (and Arafat its honorary president) é and without settlements; as for the West Bank, we’ll deal with that when the Palestinians there come back to their senses.”
All that remains for Arafat’s faithful is to secure their personal interests in the Territories: jobs, monopolies (over cement, petrol, cigarettes, and other items), the distribution of aid money and a measure of political presence for Fatah if it behaves itself. Sharon, for his part, has expressed his readiness to let Arafat participate in the international conference, because he understands that without him, Israel will have a hard time getting approval for its plan.
To sum up Part One: the concept of Madrid II suits the position of both Sharon and Bush, who concur that it’s impossible, under present circumstances, to achieve a final agreement with the Palestinians. They seek an interim solution that will last a long time. The pronouncements about a Palestinian state are lip service, providing the political horizon they need in order to bring the Palestinians under the aegis of an international force. Whatever may be the composition of this force, its chief task will be to guarantee the security of Israel, as well as American interests in the region.
During the Intifada, Israeli attacks were carefully planned. Their objectives suited the regional balance of forces. This cannot be said for the Palestinian side. The PA has been confused and divided. The major Palestinian movements (Fatah and the Islamic groups) have acted each according to its own program. While Israel always took account of international developments and the reactions of the Arab world, careful to keep its military operations from escalating into total war, the Palestinian side shrank into itself, ignoring what went on outside. From the moment the Intifada erupted, the PA shrugged off responsibility. It was the sole recognized authority in its areas, and yet its security forces looked on helplessly as Palestinian youth at the checkpoints, armed with stones, fell before Israeli fire. As we said in Part One, the PA found itself in a complex and embarrassing dilemma: on the one hand, it could not stop the Intifada é and hoped, in fact, that it would bring political gains. On the other, it couldn’t openly join the fight because of its commitment to the Oslo Accords, which forbid taking arms against Israel. As a result of this predicament, it lost face both with its people and with its Oslo patrons.
Fatah is the largest Palestinian organization and the only one whose leaders belong to the PA. Arafat, to the present day, heads both the PA and Fatah. Yet in relation to the Intifada, Fatah chose to behave in a manner diametrically opposed to the PA. Given its military operations against Israel, a line developed é at least for public consumption é separating Arafat from Marwan Barghouti, head of Fatah’s military wing, the Tanzim. Here was a strange kind of co-existence, between a government that condemned armed operations and an organization, financed by it, which carried them out. Fatah members explained this dichotomy as follows: We are not committed to the same agreements that the PA signed at a time of weakness.
Fatah did not choose armed struggle from idealistic motives. Barghouti represents a stratum within the organization that has found itself, since 1994, outside the charmed circle of influence. Many of these outsiders were grassroots leaders during the first Intifada. When the PA arose, they hoped that their contributions to the cause would at last be rewarded. This did not happen. Most of the senior positions, as well as the monopolies, were taken by those who came from Tunis.
The deprived Fatah cadres bided their time. Their hour came with the onset of the new Intifada, which originally expressed the people’s hatred not only for Israel, but for the “Tunis group” too. Fatah hoped to build its own power center and thus transform the balance of forces within the PA.
The Tanzim competed with Hamas for popular support. It adopted ever extremer methods and goals, as expressed in its new name: “the al-Aksa Martyrs’ Brigades”. Having begun with attacks on the IDF and the settlers, it switched to suicide attacks in the heart of Israel. Thus it aped the methods of the militant Islamic groups, which acted from religious inspiration, not objective analysis.
There was no long-range planning, no assessment of consequences. Not a single one of the militant groups took account of the international or regional frameworks that might be relevant to the present Palestinian situation. Had they done so, they might have refrained from total confrontation at a time when all the Arab regimes, including the PA, still adhered to the so-called “peace strategy”.
Barghouti lacked political clout, as was evident in his opportunistic attitude toward the PA. A key figure in the latter, he took part in the decision of 1993 to adopt the path of negotiations and give up armed struggle. If later he changed his mind, he should have worked to replace the PA. Instead he chose to lead the war against Israel, while relying on his immunity as a member of the Palestinian parliament. This odd policy has brought him today to an Israeli cell.
We should mention another contradiction in Barghouti’s stance. In 1993 he and the rest of the Fatah leadership adopted a “theory of defeat”. This went, in effect, as follows: “The Palestinian people has no choice but to accept the Oslo Agreement. The Arab world is against us, the Soviet Union has collapsed, and the United States is the only superpower.” Anyone who opposed this reading of the situation was accused of adventurism. In the spin given by Fatah Public Relations, the ugly duckling of defeat at Oslo became the swan of victory under the leadership of “our brother and commander Abu Omar” (Arafat).
We may ask, “What major change has taken place in the past ten years, enabling Palestinians such as Barghouti to leave their earlier defeatism and shift to a program of total war?” Just as that defeatism was wrong when the Palestinian leaders signed the Oslo Agreement, so today’s new warriors cannot square their actions with reality. They call for armed confrontation with Israel, but they lack the minimal means to carry it out or, once they start, to protect their people from the consequences.
Jenin: legend or tragedy
On the eve of Israel’s invasion of Jenin, Shirin Abu Akleh, reporting for the Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera, described the situation: “If the Israeli army invades the camp and carries out a massacre, this will be a defeat for it. But if it holds back from invading, that too will be a defeat. Either way, the Israeli army will wind up losing.” This notion mirrors the distorted thinking of the Palestinian opposition groups. As the battle approaches, they admit that their armed forces have holed up in the camp alongside civilians, but they don’t describe the potential massacre as a disaster to be avoided é rather as a defeat for the enemy! It is in the nature of massacres that they expose the criminal face of the foe, but they do not necessarily bring about his defeat. (In 1948 the Israelis perpetrated several massacres, but they did not suffer defeat.) The loser is the people, abandoned to its fate with no one to defend it.
Munir Shafiq, a senior pundit for the Islamic movement, calls it a travesty to equate Jenin with Sabra and Shatila. He compares the camp rather with Stalingrad. Fighters and civilians stood together, he writes. “The Jenin camp was the victor in this battle, because it rose up and killed and held out for a long time and fell as a martyr.” He proposes such martyrdom as a model for the future. (Al-Hayat April 28.) The two Islamic movements, Hamas and Jihad, adopted the second Intifada, but they disregarded the lessons of the first. During years of heroic popular struggle (1987-1991), Palestinian society managed to maintain its basic life-functions without bringing on itself the kind of destruction and collapse we see today. Islamic extremism views that first Intifada, nonetheless, as a chimera, because a secular leadership conducted it, and because it confined itself to the Occupied Territories, rather than striking at Israel’s heart. The new Intifada seemed a golden opportunity: Hamas would show itself as the only movement still to believe in armed struggle. It exalted individual suicide attacks to the status of a total strategic program. The Islamists consider them the ultimate weapon for defeating Israel. Khaled Mashal, a major Hamas leader recently deported by Jordan, told Al-Jazeera a few months ago: “If no one interferes, Hamas will be able to vanquish Israel within five years.”
We should bear in mind that the Palestinian problem does not constitute the central part of the Islamic program. It is one of several concerns, along with Kashmir, Afghanistan, Chechnya, the Philippines and Kosovo. The Palestinian people is largely a hostage in the fight that Hamas wages. It has no way to defend itself against reprisals. We find, with Hamas, the same disregard for the people that Osama Bin Laden had in declaring war on America, without taking account of the Afghan people é or the destruction the American response would bring.
Instead of learning a lesson from September 11 and its sequel é namely, to adjust its methods to the situation é Hamas went in the opposite direction. Its suicide attacks increased geometrically. As a result, the Palestinian people has become a target in America’s war on terrorism. The attacks enabled Washington to unleash Israel, which sallied forth. Did anyone ask himself: “How can Hamas defeat Israel at a time when it can’t even unseat the PA?” Hamas leaps forward and the people pays the price, void of leadership and without a real program for fighting the Occupation. The Bin Laden syndrome é militant rhetoric in the absence of the power to change reality é is typical of all Islamic fundamentalist movements. In no important Arab state have they succeeded in taking power.
The need to acknowledge reality
Given the present balance of forces, Hamas with its suicide bombings cannot defeat Israel any more than the PA’s approach é through negotiation é could gain independence. Not that there is anything wrong with negotiation in itself, and not that there is anything illegitimate about armed struggle against occupation. The problem is not one of method. The decisive factor is the current balance of forces, both worldwide and regionally. This does not permit oppressed peoples today, including the Palestinians, to make significant moves toward independence.
The ability to achieve national objectives does not depend on willpower only or the readiness for personal sacrifice. It depends on objective circumstances that derive from military force, economic stability, a viable social order, and a sound political framework. None of these components may be found today among the Palestinians.
A mere eight years ago the Palestinian people was intoxicated by phony peace celebrations. It supported normalization, trusting Israeli leaders such as Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak. Today, the same thoughtlessness prevails as it squares off against its occupier, without the means to do so. Eight years of PA corruption, lies and dictatorship have not bred a single serious attempt at alternative leadership. Arafat remains the only leader in sight é without program or prospect.
Part Three: National Liberation in the Global Village
Occupation is oppression, but in general, people don’t struggle to exchange one form of oppression for another, even if the new form bears a national label. The right to self-determination has ceased to be a separate national question, to be solved by each particular people. In the present capitalist reality, peoples that are left to their fate are likely to starve.
Suppose Israel were to withdraw from the Territories, erect a long fence, and abandon the Palestinians to their fate (an idea many Israelis favor). No viable state would then arise in the Territories. The Palestinians lack the requisite economic infrastructure. They would continue to depend on America, which will not permit the emergence of a state that might challenge, economically or otherwise, the region’s existing regimes. The American puppet, “Palestine”, would not be able to solve the problems of poverty, unemployment and refugees.
The leaders of the present Intifada have neither an ideology nor a social program. They make do with slogans, as if to say: “We’ll get rid of the Occupation and then everything will be fine.” Behind such a notion lurks the narrow class consciousness of the Palestinian bourgeoisie. Like their colleagues in the other Arab regimes, they too dream of finding a niche in the new world order. If they get their niche, the entity that arises beside Israel will be one of poverty and underdevelopment. Most of its people will feel frustrated at having been cheated again. Such an entity will not be able to supply security, health, education or employment. The basic problem, then, is not territorial, rather economic, social and political.
The struggle for Palestinian independence cannot be separated from the struggle against the Arab dictators. The latter provide the basis for American hegemony in the region. They fret, with good reason, over every revolutionary movement. They oppose the Israeli Occupation only when it arouses disturbance in their own backyards. Most of them accepted Israel at the first Madrid Conference. They recognized it as part of the system. Nothing essential has changed since then.
The supreme interest of American foreign policy is the maintenance of the capitalist system, which requires, in our region, control of the oil fields. This interest keeps both Israel and the Arab dictators in their dominant positions.
The principle of self-determination can take on flesh, therefore, only if it includes revolutionary messages linked to the fight against capitalism. Otherwise, the principle gives way before the megalomaniac vision of Bush, the dubious initiative of Sharon, and the deceptive promises of Arafat.
Thus a viable Palestinian state can only come into existence within the context of revolutionary change in the region. The Arab world regards the socialist vision as unrealistic and unacceptable to the masses. The left, instead of fighting against political Islam, has copied its behavior. Rather than promise a better world through socialism, its leaders prefer to edify their listeners with glowing descriptions of the paradise awaiting the suicide bomber.
The future depends on international solidarity
The most urgent task facing the Palestinian people is to build an alternative leadership, which will fight the Occupation on a new and different basis. Instead of depending on the United States and the Arab regimes, it will need to be ranged against them. It must not be confined to a religious or national framework. It must develop, rather, on an internationalist basis. Will the Palestinians manage to bring about such a change? The answer is Yes é but not alone, rather as part of a global effort.
This effort must not limit itself to the Arab world. It is not just the Palestinians who suffer from a problem of leadership. Right-wingers and Fascists, democratically elected, are members of many Western governments today. All are corrupt. All are financed by big capital and pursue its interests. They send armies to war and create new poverty in order to preserve their capitalist way of life.
As I write these lines, a wave of pro-Palestinian demonstrations sweeps the world. Central figures in the anti-globalization movement even went to Ramallah, bypassing Israeli tanks and entering Arafat’s compound to show solidarity with him. Such well-intended actions miss the mark. Progressive westerners do not help Palestinians by protecting their dictator. They could help them, rather, by working in their own countries for the overthrow of the capitalist system, which keeps dictators in power. The Palestinians need new strength. They can get it from other liberation struggles, as well as workers’ movements in the developed capitalist countries. They can no longer bear the burden alone. The years of isolated struggle have exhausted their resources. Israel’s war against the Palestinians is part of the global campaign that America wages against all who oppose the order it wants to foist on the world. Israel represents the capitalist system, the Palestinians the oppressed. Alongside the Palestinians are the Argentines, the Salvadorans, and the South Africans, who yearn for the moment when the working class and the progressive forces in the West will awaken to join them in the struggle against their regimes.
The elimination of the PA ushers in a new phase. Israel’s attempt to rule by remote control has failed. The resultant political vacuum will force the Palestinian working class to re-organize. The long road to independence must continue from the point where the leaders deserted it, prior to Madrid and Oslo. The Palestinian people can draw on the positive example of the first Intifada. National demands will gain new content as they become part of an internationalist effort to build a socialist leadership on a global scale.
For Israel the future is far from rosy. Its dirty war against the Palestinians shows how incapable it is of relating to them as equals. Its barbaric behavior has deepened the contradictions within Israeli society, creating ever larger numbers of conscientious objectors. As a step toward internationalism, the Palestinians ought to welcome all who want to join them, Israelis too, in the struggle for a new future, free of occupation and racism.
The Revelations of Martin Indyk
Martin Indyk, former US Ambassador to Israel (twice), now writes a column for the Hebrew daily, Yediot Aharonot. In its weekend supplement of April 26 (on p. 13), he describes a plan that Bush’s advisors will seek to impose if the Israelis and Palestinians fail to return to the peace process. The advisors “éare thinking in terms of a big response, really big. Sharon’s idea of an international meeting can then serve to impose on both sides the establishment of a Palestinian state. “How will this imposed solution look?
“Concerning the Palestinians, because of Arafat’s failed leadership and the collapse of PA institutions, this solution will require an international protectorate for a three-year period, which will remove control of the Palestinian state from Arafat’s hands. With the help of guarantees from the Arab states, this international body, headed by the US, will be responsible for establishing the institutions of the new Palestinian state. These will be democratic, professional, transparent and open to criticism. This body will supervise the formulation of the new Palestinian constitution, in which the “ra’is” (president, i.e., Arafat é Ed.) will have a function like that of the president in Israel. It will also supervise the inflow of aid on an enormous scale for building the state’s economic infrastructure. The trustees will also need an international military force, to be headed by the US, which will maintain order, confront those who oppose the agreement, and build the new Palestinian security apparatus.”
With regard to Israel, Indyk writes, the imposed solution can oblige it to dismantle isolated settlements in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank. The other settlements will be concentrated into three blocs, as envisioned at Camp David. The two sides will negotiate on final borders, on the future of Jerusalem, and on the refugees “(omitting the right of return to Israel).”
Some may ask, “How can Bush impose such a thing, when he can’t even achieve a cease fire?” Indyk answers that if the conflict intensifies, endangering vital American interests é “oil and regional stability” é “the world’s only superpower, with massive international backing, will be able to do what it wants.”
In effect, Israel has revised the basic assumption of Oslo, where it relied on Palestinian forces to act as its agent in the Territories, protecting it and its settlements. Israel has now understood that the PA isn’t able, militarily or politically, to deliver the goods.
Sharon has learned that he mustn’t indulge in grandiose fantasies aimed at completely redrawing the map of the Middle East. He knows he had best concentrate on a single, central strategic objective: to solve the Palestinian problem in a way that will leave Israel on top.
The pronouncements about a Palestinian state are lip service, providing the political horizon that is required in order to bring the Palestinians under the aegis of an international force. Whatever may be the composition of this force, its chief task will be to guarantee the security of Israel, as well as American interests in the region.
The principle of self-determination can take on flesh, therefore, only if it includes revolutionary messages linked to the fight against capitalism. Otherwise, the principle gives way before the megalomaniac vision of Bush, the dubious initiative of Sharon, and the deceptive promises of Arafat.
Israel’s decision to eliminate the PA was something new, after other approaches had failed. It is no light matter, for it creates a vacuum that will have to be filled by a new regime, in place of the one created at Oslo.
Arab leaders are expected to press Mr. Arafat to accept an unprecedented level of supervision, assistance and guidance in rebuilding the Palestinian Authority, whose security forces will be instructed to crack down on terrorists and cooperate with Israeli and Western intelligence in preventing terrorism. éAmerican, European and Arab governments would undertake aggressive steps to rebuild the Palestinian Authority, and a new Palestinian security force that would operate under United States, British and Arab guidance to stop terrorism against Israel.
é Patrick E. Tyler, “New Strategy Set by U.S. and Saudis for Mideast Crisis,” New York Times May 1, 2002.
The most demanding aspects of the peace agenda are yet outstanding, as the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, reminded Bush administration officials in a series of interviews this weekend. Prince Saud told a London-based Arab newspaper that monitors would not be sufficient if Mr. Bush was to create the kind of separation necessary between Israeli defense forces, still parked just outside many Palestinian towns and cities, and angry Palestinians. “We now want international forces to protect the Palestinians and ensure security along the lines of what was done in the Balkans,” he told the newspaper, Sharq al-Awsat.