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Palestine: The Search for a New Golden Age

Understandably, therefore, during the union with Egypt, the Ba’ath party, one of the leading forces of the call for Arab unity, lost its influence. Some of its leaders backed separatists who were working against the Syrian-Egyptian Union by opposing Arab unity itself. Syria seceded from the Union in 1961 and in the factional disputes in Syria of the following years, the Ba’ath leaders opposed a rapprochement with Nasser. Thus the Ba’athists lost the sympathy and support of the young generation throughout the Arab countries, who now saw that the party preferred to stay in power at the cost of its original Pan-Arab ideals.

The more extremist leaders of the party, isolated as they were from militant Arab sentiment, began looking for ways to regain the hearts of the masses. They thus took up the Palestinian issue as a convenient device with which to gain public support, both at home in Syria and in other Arab countries, and made promises to liberate Palestine. But by having backed separation from the UAR they had committed, from their supporters’ point of view, a crime which was too serious to be forgotten or redeemed simply by talk. Nasser, as I have said, embarrassed them all the more by setting up the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964. The party needed to show that it could take dramatic action. It was at this point that its leaders found a small group of Palestinian intellectuals13 who were ready to carry out the border attacks on Israel that I have mentioned.

Fatah carried out its first raid against a target in Israel in January, 1965, about a year after Syrian and Fatah leaders had agreed to cooperate. According to its leaders, Fatah was first organized in the occupied Gaza strip in 1956, but in fact no one had heard of Fatah before 1965. The Israeli government retaliated and the series of reciprocal “warning” actions made Fatah famous and heated the borders. The Nasser regime in turn attempted to match the militancy of Syria. These events were among those that helped to bring on the June, 1967, war, which stripped the Arab regimes’ defenses naked and exposed their anti-Israeli declarations to be as hollow as they had always been.

King Hussein, with chaos in his kingdom, seemed virtually powerless. The “Palestinian resistance” exploited the Arab defeat by establishing positions on the East Bank of the Jordan. Moreover, Arab political groups, such as Arab Nationals,14 had no difficulty in setting up political paramilitary units. The raw material for these organizations was abundant in the refugee camps, and the general atmosphere was confused and humiliating. The regular Arab armies, including “the most powerful striking force in the Middle East,” as the Egyptians used to call their army, had collapsed within hours before the Israeli war machine. The Palestinians found that it was a most appropriate time to prove their military ability to the world, and especially to their Arab brethren, who had refused to include them in the Arab armies.

Consequently, late in the summer of 1967, the Palestinian fedayeen raids against the Israeli forces started, but the Arab press and radio, including that of Egypt, refused to recognize the existence of these raids until the spring of 1968. At this time, the Israeli government decided to put an end to this new disturbing factor, which was annoying the Israelis just while they were enjoying their triumph. In the Karameh raid of March, 1968, Israeli forces damaged a huge refugee camp on the East Bank that contained a big fedayeen base. Although the Israelis captured hundreds of Arab prisoners, they also lost dozens of their soldiers, and left bodies and damaged tanks on the battlefield (something that had rarely occurred before). This offered the Palestinians “the clear-cut evidence that the Israeli Army is defeatable.” The late President Nasser praised the raiders publicly; Kabbani, the most famous Arab poet, compared them to the promised Messiah.

Thus the humiliated Arabs found in the Palestinians, who were making sacrifices and were prepared to die, not only consolation, but also a replacement for their paper armies. Arab leaders sought the friendship of Yasser Arafat and George Habash, Arab society women knit sweaters for the heroes who were split up into small cells with various names, but were united in their aim to “liberate Palestine from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea and to refuse any recognition of Zionist entity in any part of Palestine.”15 The Arabs did not take into consideration the opinion of 2.5 million Jewish Zionists who are living today in the state of Israel, of whom the vast and absolute majority will never in the foreseeable future agree to anything other than an independent sovereign entity.

How can we do the impossible—to fulfill the rights of both the Palestinians to their homeland and the Jews of Israel to self-determination? Doubtless, the options are few: there must be either a compromise or the destruction of one side. The Arab armies have failed twice, in 1948 and 1967, discouraging those who hope for a military solution to the problem. The situation is similar with regard to the guerrilla war which the Palestinians have been launching against Israel during the last four years. This war will not put an end to the Zionist entity. On the contrary, when the guerrilla war reached its peak between summer, 1968, and spring, 1969, it was helpless in achieving the aims of the liberation movement.

The Arab armies are not cooperating even to the extent of being able to deceive the naïve Arab masses into thinking they have formed a united front. The Arab Eastern Front against Israel dissolved in a massacre in which the blood of civilians, of Palestinian fedayeen, and of Jordanian soldiers was shed while the fedayeen were brutally defeated. The Iraqi units which had promised to support the Palestinians during the civil war of September, 1970, left the battlefield as soon as the fighting began, whereas the Syrians were too busy dealing with their own coup d’etat to aid the Front at all.

The Egyptian forces have tried to put pressure on the Israeli army during the last two years to force them to retreat from the Canal Zone, but this war of attrition has failed, and I am not among those who expect the Sudanese and Libyan forces to change the balance. Nor do I expect the Soviet-manned anti-aircraft missiles which have been so much talked about recently to be more than a limited defense system at best. Israeli superiority is guaranteed and the Israeli experts have proven their efficiency in the past.

But do the Israelis want to live by the sword forever? Moshe Dayan, Minister of Defense, expressed the idea that Israel’s fate throughout history has been to live for long periods without peace. But in my opinion, Dayan, who is highly considered by Israeli youth, made a mistake when he then quoted from the Bible to convince the Israelis of his viewpoint. The Israelis respect Dayan, but none considers him a prophet or a man of moral sanctity. On the contrary, his followers soon find that he is most pragmatic and quick to coin slogans which fit a specific time and place.

Time and place could easily prove that Dayan, his colleagues, and his counterparts in the Israeli and Arab cabinets should follow the only logical, reasonable way of compromise. What would happen if a miracle took place tomorrow and the Arabs occupied Israel and liberated Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea? What would happen to 2.5 million Jews whose right of self-determination has been recognized by all the Great Powers, including the USSR?

Would the Arabs annihilate their cousins and their present enemies? I do not think so; I cannot imagine it; I do not want it; and world public opinion will never tolerate it. Would the Palestinian Arabs occupy Palestine, to become, in effect, a large minority which might be able to replace Moshe Dayan with Meir Wilner of the New Communist Party as the leader of Israel? That is nonsense. If the Arabs prefer moderate Israeli leaders, they should initiate policies that will encourage such leaders to gain power in Israel.

Israeli ideas about a solution vary from demands for the whole of Palestine to a willingness to withdraw to the borders as of June 5, 1967, insisting always, however, on the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. If we take into consideration the long history of the Jewish people, a history full of persecution and humiliation, we reach the certain conclusion that there is not even a slight hope at this time of convincing a significant percentage of Israeli Jews to cooperate with the Palestinian Arabs in a mutual homeland and state. They prefer a small state dominated by Jews to an empire governed mutually by Arabs and Jews.

And what of the Palestinian Arabs? I have no doubt that the vast majority would refuse to live in a bi-national state with the Jews, for the same reason. The Arabs fear the Jews as the Jews fear the Arabs, and both sides want a place they can call their own.

So the common homeland must be divided between the parties, and who are the parties? On one side there is Israel, backed by many Jews all over the world—this side is clear. But the other side is indistinct. The Palestinian Arabs are legal owners of much of the land, but after the Arab League states declared war in 1948 there no longer was a Palestinian political entity: the host countries imposed on the Palestinians their own political allegiance. In 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization was established, but was little more than a debating club between Palestinians who had a double loyalty to Palestine and to the different Arab states in which they resided

Thus, the solution as I see it demands:

  1. The establishment of a distinct Palestinian Arab position; this can be done only by the creation of a representative body of Palestinian Arabs, which would work toward a solution to the problem of the Arab people of Palestine. Arab states and their people would be requested to help the Palestinians to regain their national rights without interfering in their local affairs, and to begin by recognizing that Palestinian “brothers” should represent their own case. This would be similar to the way world Jewry interacted with the Jewish Agency at the time of the British Mandate in Palestine, offering moral and physical help but leaving policy and strategic and tactical positions to the Jewish Agency.

  2. So that the Palestinian Arabs can achieve such an aim, the Arab states should decide that King Hussein and his Hashemite dynasty have no power west of the Jordan River; it must be obvious that Arab unity will never be achieved without recognizing the equal rights of the Arab states. Exploitation by the Arab states of the catastrophe that befell the Palestinians must cease.

  3. Palestinian Arabs must honestly examine their situation and develop a practical program that corresponds to the facts, although this does not necessarily mean they must accept the partition of Palestine as eternal. On the contrary, both the Israelis and the Palestine Arabs could and should aim to reunite their common homeland, and I hope that such reunification could take place as both sides gain confidence in each other. Now the only practical solution open to them would be to establish an Arab Palestinian state side by side with the Jewish state of Israel.

The Israeli government has opposed a Palestinian state, as have most of the Israeli parties outside the ruling government coalition. The attitude of the government was made clear in the summer of 1967 when it prevented a meeting of mayors and dignitaries claiming to represent the population of the West Bank. The Israelis refused to allow the meeting because they were then waiting for a conciliatory telephone call from King Hussein, a call that never came. Still, after the six-day war, many left-wing and liberal intellectuals in Israel advocated some form of reconciliation with the Palestinians in the occupied territories, and their views were fairly widely published.

The late Levi Eshkol, then Prime Minister, invited several dozen prominent people from the West Bank and Gaza to a series of private meetings. But the Arabs who attended complained that Eshkol merely preached at them, asking why they did not “act for the sake of peace.” Anwar Nuseibeh, a well-known Palestinian lawyer who had attended the meetings, told me that he informed Eshkol that he would go to Cairo, Amman, or any other Arab city to deliver a message concerning a settlement, if Mr. Eshkol would offer one.

Mr. Eshkol, however, preferred not to make detailed offers to Gunnar Jarring, to the Arab states, or to the Palestinians who had come under Israeli rule. He was waiting for direct negotiations which, as he should have known, would not take place—for many reasons, the most obvious being that there is no single Arab side. Each of the rival Arab nations would demand different and often incompatible terms. The decision of the Arab states at Khartoum not to talk to Israel was partly a device used to cover over the differences among the Arabs themselves.

Mrs. Meir, who succeeded Eshkol, was more forthright about a Palestinian state. She said she had “never heard” of the Palestinian people and did not recognize their existence. Such views, however, were much criticized in Israel by liberal and left-wing intellectuals and journalists and Mrs. Meir has recently adopted the more diplomatic position formulated by Abba Eban—that there is room for only two states between the Mediterranean and the Iraqi border. The Prime Minister has been quoted as saying she would not mind the establishment of a Palestinian state east of the Jordan River, where most of the population is of Palestinian origin—but not west of the Jordan.

The position of King Hussein of Jordan is strikingly similar, if exactly opposed, to Mrs. Meir’s. He is ready to offer autonomy to the Palestinians on the West Bank but only after they are liberated—i.e., after a Jordanian military government has replaced the Israeli one and imposed the divine will of His Majesty on the people.

The Syrian Arab Republic, ruled by the Ba’ath party, cannot cooperate with the Iraqi Republic ruled by the same party. Both governments, however, daily call for the “liberation” of the Palestinian Arabs as a step toward creating “one Arab union with an eternal message.” Syria and Iraq are thus opposed to recognizing an independent Palestinian republic.

In fact the most favorable Arab comment on the creation of a Palestinian state has come from Egypt, where Ahmed Bha Eddin, the editor of Al Mussawar, and Yussef Siba’i, one of Egypt’s widely known writers, published articles supporting the idea as early as 1967. Mohammed Hasanin Heykal, the editor of Al Ahram and generally considered to be one of the more influential commentators in Egypt, wrote on July 23, 1971, in a bitter attack on Hussein, that if the Israelis should withdraw, the population of the West Bank would not return to Hashemite rule but to a Palestinian state.

The relation of these views to Egypt’s future policies remains to be seen. Certainly such sympathies for a Palestinian state are shared by many university professors and students and by independent left and liberal opinion in Israel, including some politicians. Certainly realistic Arabs in the occupied territories and throughout the Palestine diaspora desire such a state, and some would like to organize representative groups among the Palestinians.

Recent events on the West Bank and in Israel have hardly been favorable to this aim. In July, Hamdi Can’an, the former mayor of Nablus and one of the few leaders who had been considered loyal to the Hashemite kingdom, joined with Sheikh Ali Ja’bari, the mayor of Hebron and Can’an’s chief rival for leadership of the West Bank mayors, in calling for elections to create municipal and local councils in the occupied territories. Such elections would enable the population to express their opinions and to elect a new leadership to deal with the new political situation in which the Palestinians find themselves, now that they have been deserted by all the Arab governments.

Mr. Can’an’s call for elections created a stir on the West Bank, where there had been a general apathy about political action. Groups of young men started to collect signatures for petitions requesting that local elections be held which were to be submitted to the military government. The spokesman of the military governor declared that such elections could be permitted only in those areas where the majority of the inhabitants ask for them. But the Israeli Minister of Police, Schlomo Hillel—the Prime Minister’s representative in all political dealings with West Bank leaders—was even more discouraging. In an interview with Haaretz published early in August he said bluntly that since political activity on the West Bank would in the end lead to anti-Israeli resolutions, none would be allowed.

In saying this Mr. Hillel was at least being consistent. In the summer of 1970 he had also rejected an application by Mayor Ja’bari to convene a gathering of West Bank notables. In his Haaretz interview, moreover, he made it clear that he preferred King Hussein to the Palestinians as a neighbor on Israel’s eastern borders. Only two days before Hillel’s interview appeared, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan had also stated that he preferred Hussein remain in power since, according to Dayan, the Jordanian monarch had never claimed Jerusalem to be his capital, while the Palestinians could be expected to insist on their rights in that city.

Hillel’s statements were soon challenged. The East Jerusalem daily Al Quds, which is usually rather mild in its editorials, sharply attacked him and especially his argument that no occupying power could allow political activity in occupied territories. The paper cited the example of several countries—Egypt, India, West Germany, and Japan—in which the occupying powers not only allowed political activity to take place but permitted the formation of political parties and eventually of national governments. Al Quds accused the Minister of Police of implying that the rights of West Bank inhabitants were limited to “eating and drinking”—while they were denied rights to publicly discuss or do anything about their political future.

It is clear, then, that the organization of a Palestinian state would necessarily mean reconciliation and compromise with the enemy and this has kept many people on both sides from openly declaring their sympathy for it, especially since the Israeli government seems so committed against it. At the same time, no great power openly supports the idea and this is a major obstacle to implementing it. I should add, however, that two such states, Palestine and Israel, in the land of Palestine might be the first step toward a federal union which would reunite Palestine and inspire a Middle Eastern unity open to all peoples striving for liberation and social, political, and economic progress. Such a unity might open the way to a second Golden Age for Arabs and Jews alike.

A solution of this kind can only be delayed by shortcut plans such as the Rogers Plan (which means returning to the 1967 war status quo, in order to preserve the pro-American “friendly” regime on the East Bank), the four powers’ initiatives (which mean to maintain the four powers’ interest), the reported secret talks between Israeli and Jordanian leaders (which may, at best, assure Israeli and Hashemite rights), and a partial agreement on the Egyptian front (which may reopen the Suez Canal for the benefit of Egypt and the foreign powers).

Those who undertake such attempts believe that there may be a solution which will ignore the desires of the Palestinians; history has proven such assumptions wrong time and again. The Palestinians made the 1949 Armistice agreements unworkable, and they helped to cause the 1967 war; I have no doubt that they have in their power the means to abort any attempt to make peace which does not include them. And whatever their power to disrupt, their claims to a nation of their own are legitimate. The Palestinians must be part of any just and lasting solution to the conflict in the Middle East.

Letters

An Exchange on Israel and the Palestinians February 10, 1972

Palestine & the UN December 2, 1971

  1. 13

    Yasser Arafat is an engineer; George Habash is a doctor.

  2. 14

    Quawmiyon El-Arab, in Arabic, another Pan-Arab movement, which “gave birth” to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The Ba’ath created El-Saaiqua. The Communists established El-Ansar (The Partisans), etc.

  3. 15

    Yasser Arafat in a Reuter’s dispatch from Amman, December 6, 1970.

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