The Palestinian Covenant and Its Meaning
The Question of Palestine
My Home, My Prison
Menachem Begin was in Washington recently, giving Jimmy Carter another lecture in his series on the semantics of the Middle East. The previous week Anwar el Sadat was in town, reinforcing, through Barbara Walters, his television image as the only statesman currently functioning in the world. The concern that brought the two leaders to Washington is the subject of these three books. It is the same concern that always has, is, and will be at the core of the Middle East dispute and will determine the future of the people who live there: Palestine and the Palestinians. The Sinai is essentially a sideshow; the stage on which, but not over which, wars have been fought. The Golan Heights has always had more topographical significance than political. Of all the Arab territories taken by Israel in 1967, the West Bank (Judea and Samaria to Mr. Begin) is at the heart of the Arab-Israeli dispute.
I first visited the West Bank on assignment for The New York Times in June 1967. Arriving in the Israeli half of Jerusalem a few days before the war, I covered the battle for that city and the subsequent rout of the Arab Legion from the West Bank. I watched during the next year as the Israeli occupation took hold and the military government was established, and, later, in the summer of 1968, when the first large-scale protest demonstrations broke out among the Arab residents. I returned in 1972 to report on Israel and the West Bank for the next four years. After the October war, the West Bank Arabs, emboldened by Sadat’s successful crossing of the Suez Canal, found their voice as they never had before, and staged demonstrations throughout the West Bank. The Israeli response was to tighten their hold and build more settlements.
I have always thought that the West Bank, with Jerusalem at its heart, with its 750,000 Arab residents, with its symbolism for the Palestinian movement and its genuine importance for Israel’s security, would prove to be the toughest problem to negotiate in any settlement. But eventually, I suspect, the two sides will see it in their interest to partition the area, giving Israel the border adjustments it legitimately needs for its security and consigning the rest to its rightful Arab future.
That future will ultimately and inevitably be Palestinian, either in the form of an independent state or in association with Jordan. When it comes, I suspect it will no longer pose anything like the threat Mr. Begin currently envisages. Israel, already the most powerful state in the region, will be more than able to deal with it militarily. An Israeli government drawn from the Sabra generation, more secure in its Middle Eastern identity than Mr. Begin and his East European colleagues, will not feel threatened politically. When it comes to pass, it will, I suspect, seem not so bitter a pill to swallow, especially in view of the alternative.
In the meantime—and Middle Eastern meantimes can last an epoch—there remains the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and its impact on both occupier and occupied. After watching the process at first hand, I am convinced that the business of occupation corrupts the former as much as it embitters the latter. For thirteen years now, thousands of young Israeli soldiers have spent their active duty and reserve periods quelling riots on the West Bank and in Gaza. Suppressing dissent is an odious task. I have seen Israeli soldiers, armed with clubs and battle shields, in the name of order weigh into crowds of school-age Arab demonstrators, splitting heads with abandon. I have seen Arab youths in the name of Palestinian independence taunt Israeli soldiers their own age with jeers and rocks until they provoke the bloody response they know will make the nightly news.
Occupation, even the most enlightened occupation, is a poisonous process that debases both sides. A generation of Israeli and Arab youngsters has already grown up taking the condition of occupation for granted. It has become part of their lives, distorted their dreams, cheapened their self-image, and made any kind of mutual understanding that much harder to achieve. For the sake of its own children, Israel should bring the occupation to an end.
Israel is also, in my view, planting time bombs with each of the new settlements it carves into the West Bank. Physically, they are insignificant, often little more than work camps. But their psychological effect on the Israeli and West Bank populations is deep. Begin realizes this, of course, welcomes it, and builds more. But his successors will have to defuse the time bombs later, when it will be much more difficult. The chaos and bloodshed in the streets of Hebron reflect the passion these settlements arouse.
The three books under review serve to illustrate why an accommodation will be so difficult to reach on the West Bank. The three sharply conflicting views they project dramatically demonstrate that absolutism, whether of the Begin or Arafat kind, is the chronic menace in the Middle East. Professor Harkabi’s purpose is to show that the Palestine Liberation Organization’s commitment to destroy Israel is absolute. Professor Said keeps his eye squarely on the “oppressive, colonialist” aspects of Zionism and its impact on the Palestinians. Mrs. Tawil gives her account in the sort of cant that is characteristic of some other Palestinian writings, and that provides more heat than light.
Harkabi’s analysis of the Palestinian Covenant would be easy to dismiss if it were not for his credentials. A former Israeli general and chief of military intelligence who is now a professor of Arab affairs, he has built his scholarly reputation on his often-disputed contention that the Arab means exactly what he says. Harkabi has been making this case for a long time, and in the exultant years between 1967 and 1973, his was a lonely voice in Israel. While the nation’s leaders, including Moshe Dayan, dismissed Sadat’s war talk as so much Arab braggadocio, Harkabi took it seriously. When the October war bore him out, Harkabi assumed oracular status among Israel’s community of Arabists. His work now has semi-official status. The Israeli Embassy in Washington and the pro-Israel lobbying group, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, have distributed paperback versions of his book to journalists, members of Congress, administration officials, and others. Nonetheless Harkabi remains an independent thinker. He recently told Anthony Lewis of The New York Times that Israel has no choice but to end its occupation of the West Bank precisely because of the determined Palestinian resistance to continued Israeli rule. He is now for a Palestinian state.
But Harkabi regards the Palestinian Covenant, which was adopted in 1964 and amended only once four years later, as the basic political expression of the Palestinian movement. He describes it as the “doctrinal bond” that defines the PLO to itself and the world. Dissecting the Covenant article by article, Harkabi interprets it as an unambiguous call for the total destruction of the State of Israel and the restoration of all of Palestine to the Palestinians. All parts of the Covenant, he finds, “converge into a total negation, as a matter of principle, of the existence of the State of Israel in any form or size.”
Reluctantly, Harkabi concludes: “I cannot help feeling that the Covenant is an ugly document…not the manifesto of an extreme, lunatic fringe faction, but the essence of the outlook of the center and mainstream of the Palestinian movement.” Edward Said disputes this interpretation. He gives primary emphasis not to the Covenant, but to the more flexible positions endorsed by the Palestine National Council, of which he is a member, and concludes that the mainstream of the Palestinian movement is in fact prepared to coexist with Israel. Harkabi, however, is impatient with such talk of flexibility. The Covenant is what counts, he warns his audience, read it and weep.
It seems to me that Harkabi’s literal reading provides the strength of his book as textual analysis and its weakness as a political guide. His rigid adherence to the Covenant takes no account of the shifting, evolving quality of the Palestinians’ discovery of themselves and their national possibilities—a process vividly described by Professor Said. Harkabi sees the Covenant as cast in concrete. Even though it was written in the 1960s, he believes it constitutes the PLO’s political program for the 1980s. For Harkabi, Palestinian aspirations and objectives exist in a vacuum, unaffected by the wars and revolutions that swirl around them. Since I find that notion hard to accept, my inclination is to view Harkabi’s analysis as a “worst-case” portrayal of Palestinian objectives. It is still valuable, however, as a historical examination of the philosophical roots of the Palestinian movement.
Professor Said comes to the subject from an entirely different perspective. A Palestinian-American who is a respected professor of English at Columbia University, he offers a passionate and forcefully argued account of the development of Palestinian identity, its historic collision with Zionism, and its prospects for the post-Camp David period.
Palestine, Said notes, does not exist geographically. It survives as “an idea, a political and human experience and as an act of sustained popular will.” Said regards that as a minor miracle and sets out in his book to explain why. He thoroughly documents, from history and literature, the built-in prejudice against Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular in Western thought. Quoting from nineteenth-century Western travelers to Palestine and from American intellectuals such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Edmund Wilson, he demonstrates that Arabs are routinely portrayed as picturesque but pathetic figures, “synonymous with trouble—rootless, mindless, gratuitous trouble.”
From the writings of Herzl, Weizmann, and other early Zionists, Said illustrates, as the Israeli author Amos Elon has done before him, the nearly total disregard Israel’s pioneers had for the native Arab population they were planning to displace. Herzl, for example, proposed “spiriting the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our own country.” All of this, he wrote in his Diaries in 1895, should be done “discreetly and circumspectly.”
In his excellent final chapter, Said provides a sophisticated analysis of the Camp David accords, the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, and subsequent developments—all from the Palestinian perspective. Sadat’s genius, he writes, was to confront Israel on the terrain where it had been preeminent prior to 1973—the battle for US public opinion. Up to that time, Said argues, Zionism had become so entrenched as a central principle of liberal, enlightened thought in the United States that any challenge to its precepts or performance was tantamount to anti-Semitism. He believes Sadat changed all that with his historic trip to Jerusalem in 1977 and has been winning the public relations battle ever since. But Said feels that Sadat made a crucial mistake in abandoning pan-Arab and Palestinian interests when he yielded to the temptation of making a separate peace with Israel. He believes, as do most Arabs I have talked to, that the Israeli-Egyptian treaty signed on the White House lawn undercut the Arab prospect of ever recovering much of the territory captured in 1967.
Said describes the proposals for Palestinian autonomy on the West Bank and Gaza that grew out of the Camp David accords as a cynical cover for sustained and indefinite Israeli domination, underwritten by the United States and Egypt. Autonomy, especially as defined by Begin, strikes him as a guarantee of “continued Palestinian national non-independence.”
Said is uncompromising in his argument against the Camp David accords. He refuses to concede even the possibility that limited autonomy might grow into something better later on. His tone is harsh, but his argument seems cogent, at least so long as the Begin government survives, and he makes it easier to understand why the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza have so far boycotted the process called for by the Camp David agreements.
In view of that analysis, Said’s conclusion is unexpectedly upbeat. He sees the Zionist and Palestinian experiences as being “in fierce conflict with each other for periods of time, but fundamentally reconcilable if both peoples make the attempt to see each other within a common historical perspective.” And, he writes, “for the first time in our struggle against Zionism, the West appears ready to hear our side of the story.”
In contrast to Said’s elaborately reasoned argument, Raymonda Hawa Tawil’s book offers an account of an embattled life based on passion and personal courage. Political theory has never been her talent, she admits. Instead, she paints herself unblushingly as the Palestinian Joan of Arc. In the first fifteen pages, she tells how she managed to get herself arrested by both Israeli and Jordanian authorities, persuasively making the case that there is no peace for the outspoken of either nationality on either side of the dispute.
Raymonda Tawil was born into a well-to-do Palestinian family in Acre, the coastal fortress town that was incorporated into Israel in 1948. She grew up under Israeli rule, learning fluent Hebrew and making many Jewish friends in school. She was separated from her mother and brothers who had fled to Amman, joining them only later, as a young woman. She married and moved with her husband to the West Bank town of Nablus, only to find herself under Israeli rule again after 1967. Her book provides a striking picture of the disruption and frustration that have been the lot of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians for thirty-five years.
An activist and feminist, she is a West Bank rarity: an upper-class Arab woman who has an independent mind and a strong social conscience. When I was reporting from Israel, I would see her demonstrating in the streets of Nablus and then smartly turned out later the same day at a cocktail party at the American consul general’s house in Jerusalem.
The Israeli military authorities could never quite decide how to deal with her. They would have tea at her comfortable Nablus house one day and call her in for questioning the next. Finally, exasperated by her incessant agitation, they bestowed on her more notoriety than she could ever achieve on her own by putting her under house arrest for several months. Suddenly she became La Pasionaria of the West Bank, the subject of countless articles in the Western press. As the Israeli writer Lesley Hazleton commented recently: “The dedication of this book might justifiably have read: ‘To the Military Government of the West Bank, without whom this book might never have been written.’ ”
Tawil recounts all of this in a giddy, self-indulgent style that probably makes her seem less serious than she is. In addition to her Palestinian nationalism, which is genuine, she is a strong advocate of Arab feminism. She has fought in the second cause as much as in the first and some of the best passages in My Home, My Prison deal with the constraints imposed by Arab male chauvinism and the social ostracism she encountered when she tried to shake them off. She describes in detail how Arab women have found equality in the ranks of the resistance movement. Getting clubbed in the streets and arrested by the Israeli occupation authorities, she writes, did more for the status of Arab women than anything else.
Taken together, these three books tend to illustrate the size of the gap that remains in the Arab-Israeli dispute rather than the distance that has been covered. Professor Harkabi’s view is the mirror opposite of Professor Said’s and neither, probably, would agree with Mrs. Tawil. They are three separate voices all chanting in tones of lament, but with different melodies.
Zionists & Palestinians December 4, 1980