Toward A New Palestinian Strategy

James Zogby’s Column

There is a desperate need for a new Palestinian strategy.  What is now being done is clearly not working.  More of the same will only produce more suffering, more tension and ever deepening disaster.

A reassessment is long overdue.  To begin such an effort, it is important to outline some of the constants that define the parameters of the current situation.

The first of these, I believe, is the simple fact that the Sharon government is unwilling to make peace on terms that provide the Palestinians with their basic rights.  This government’s current objectives appear to be:

the military defeat of the Palestinians;

the dismantling of the Palestinian  Authority and the delegitimization of its leadership;  and

the end of the Oslo process and the  imposition of “peace” on Israel’s terms.

Secondly, it is clear that given the reality of U.S. politics, the Administration will not intervene to restrain Israel’s aggressive behavior.  They are not pleased with Israel’s actions and would like to see a negotiated settlement to the conflict on the terms outlined in Secretary Powell’s Louisville speech.  But they will not act in a public or decisive manner to pressure Israel.  Therefore, despite the fanciful hopes or the insistence of some Arabs, there will be no U.S.-led Kosovo-style rescue, or Kuwait-style liberation-nor will there be a U.S.-imposed, or even U.S.-supported peacekeeping or protection force sent into the occupied lands.

In fact, there will not even be a U.S.-supported U.N. resolution that calls for the formation of any of the above.  Given the absence of any possibility of any outside rescue effort-it is important to look elsewhere.

Thirdly, not only are Palestinians losing on the ground, but they are losing the information battle in the U.S.   There is no organized Palestinian information effort in the U.S.  Israel and its well-funded supporters, therefore, have a clear playing field which they use to their advantage.  They have succeeded in defining the terms of the current debate and in demonizing the Palestinian Authority, its president, Yasser Arafat, and in portraying themselves as the victims and the Palestinians as the aggressors.

Fourthly, there will be no European rescue.  The EU, as well as other international players: the Russians, Chinese, the non-aligned, OIC, etc.-will express concern or condemnation and pass an occasional resolution, but they will not act.  They have no real leverage-or better, no interest in using whatever leverage they do have, since they do not wish to force an open confrontation with the U.S.

Fifthly, even the Arab states, though deeply distressed and even angered at the unraveling situation, will not be able to be the external force that can rescue the situation.

Finally, back to the Israeli context, it is important to recognize that the collapse of the peace process and the resumption of violence has hardened Israeli opinion.  As a result, Sharon’s hand has been strengthened and the Labor party has been weakened to the point of collapse.

I am eager to debate any or all of these six observations.  Not whether they are “just”-clearly they are not “just”-but whether they are correct in describing the set of circumstances we face, as I believe they are.

Complaining about what is unjust not a strategy.  Politics is not a whine.  What is needed is to identify what can be changed and to lay out a path to produce that change-that is what politics is all about.

If these observations are correct, then:

going to the U.N. with yet one more proposed resolution will not produce change;

making more appeals for international solidarity will not make real change;

and more violence against Israelis  (whether soldiers, settlers or innocent civilians) will not make change.

I can hear someone complaining right now, about the right to “armed struggle against occupation”.  And it reminds me of a story.  In 1979, while I was running the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, here in Washington, DC, I had the pleasure of hosting the late Tawfiq Zayyad, Mayor of Nazareth.  At one town meeting we organized for him, he received a hostile question from a young man who challenged Zayyad’s criticism of PLO-led guerilla attacks from Lebanon.  The questioner ended his remarks, reminding the mayor of the “inalienable” right of an occupied people to use armed struggle to resist occupation.

Zayyad responded “it is correct that you have the right to armed struggle.  But when you use that right as badly as you have used it-then you forfeit the right-and have to find a better way to liberation”.

I believe that is where we are today.  The suicide bombings in Israel and this bizarre effort to turn the West Bank into South Lebanon by introducing new weapons systems are destructive and, I might add, stupid.  They have resulted in increased suffering and done great damage to the Palestinian cause.

Violence, in any form, at this point, only begets more violence.  As one Palestinian leader noted a short while ago, “When we use stones, they use guns.  When we use guns, they use tanks”, and so it goes.  If this is the case, and it is, then what possible good would rockets be?

And with Israel’s domination in information control, they have been able to transform the reality of every event to meet their political needs.  The stonethrowers become violent criminals and assassinated young men become “ticking bombs”-with no evidence presented or needed to make their case.

It is, therefore, critical to find a new way.  To begin, however, it is vital that the violence must end.  This will be hard to do.  Anger is deep and real, and passions are high.  Furthermore, Israel’s brutally aggressive behavior continues and only seems to deepen this anger and heighten the passion.  But it must, nonetheless, be stopped-even if it is done at great cost to the Palestinian Authority.

It must be stopped because this violence is totally counterproductive.  What good has it brought?  What has it yielded other than death-for Israelis and, in retaliation, for even more Palestinians?

Not only has it not produced any good and only brought increased repression and more suffering for Palestinians-but this violence has repeatedly sabotaged the efforts of the Palestinian Authority to negotiate and create more favorable conditions on the ground.

It has been politically disastrous as well.  The bombings and killings have damaged the Palestinian cause, and have allowed the likes of Sharon and Netanyahu to transform their public personas in the West from the brutal bullies that they are into defenders of a beleaguered people.

With the violence ended, the Palestinian people can then begin a full-scale campaign designed to change the political dynamics in their favor.  The two arenas most in need of change and potentially most responsive to change are the publics and their opinions both in the U.S. and Israel.

There is currently at work in the occupied territories a small and courageous group of young people engaged in civil disobedience against the occupation forces.  Their efforts should be supported and become massive.  Large scale and completely peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins and disruptions of traffic can occur in Jerusalem, on West Bank roads and at check points.  Only if they are preceded by a period of peace, and are themselves completely peaceful, can these actions have their desired impact. 

As Martin Luther King and other practitioners of such tactics have taught, the genesis of this approach is that it is like “jui-jitsu”.  When facing a more powerful foe, never play into his power, but attempt to turn his power into his weakness.

A peaceful march of tens of thousands of unarmed Palestinians converging on the city of Jerusalem from all points in the West Bank, carrying banners that read “Let my people pray” or “Let my people go home” would tie the hands of the Israeli military.  If they use violence-they would lose.   If they allowed the march the Palestinians would find new power and win.

A key point here is to empower the Palestinian people and to enable them to regain their victim status and to strip the Israelis of their mantle of self-defense.  

There are hundreds of similar little tactics that could be developed into a comprehensive campaign.  They should be explored.

All of this must be complemented by a political peace initiative launched by the leadership and proposed to the people of Israel.  It should hold out the terms of a comprehensive peace-based on terms that meet the legitimate needs of all parties.  And it should be realistic.  For example, while the Barak offer was clearly unacceptable, it appears that the Clinton offer, especially after the parties narrowed their differences at Taba in January 2001, was more acceptable.  To be able to put this Clinton “plus” back on the table, coupled with a period of peace and a campaign of non-violent protest-might have a transformative impact in Israel and in the U.S.  It would certainly cause Sharon some great discomfort.  He needs the violence to survive-a real peace campaign would weaken his hold.

These are but some ideas, borne out of my frustration with the current situation.  I realize that the anger in Palestine, today, is so great and the pain is so deep, that it may be hard to find a new way.  But we must discuss a new approach.  Vengeance is destructive and counterproductive.  And the current path has led to a dead end.

I look forward to a debate.

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