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The Palestinian Position: An Exchange

In response to:

Whose Peace Now? from the December 20, 1979 issue

To the Editors:

The main fault with Mr. Avishai’s article “Whose Peace Now?” [NYR, December 20] is the wholly distorted picture of the Palestinian position regarding their participation in the New Outlook conference in Washington. His preference for the untrue version is hard to understand, since he had ample opportunity to check the details as given him both by Palestinian participants and by me personally. He does not even mention the fact that he had in his possession a version which is so different from the one he elected to accept as the true one. The need to misrepresent the circumstances leading to the mayors’ decision to stay out of the conference may be guessed from the analysis and conclusions offered by Avishai, all of which fall to the ground once the true explanation is accepted.

The real facts are still obscure only in the US where the matter is treated not as simple information which can be ascertained but as a creed which cannot be questioned. But the true story is well publicized and I can do no better than offer the version as published in the Jordanian daily al-Dustur on October 26, one day before the conference opened. In my address to the plenary session on the 27th I quoted the relevant passages from the Jordanian paper adding that I could testify to their accuracy, having been involved in the matter all along.

Text of al-Dustur:

Washington—a cable from Basim al-Mualim.

The PLO has put an end to the arguments about the question of which individuals would go to Washington in the next few days to participate in the New Outlook conference….

The PLO had previously announced that it had no objection that a number of Palestinian mayors from the West Bank should participate in this conference as a delegation. However, the mayors have announced their resolution not to attend the conference out of apprehension that their participation may be interpreted as sign of compliance with an activity taken within the framework of the Camp David agreements.

Faced with such a position the PLO has preferred not to take the risk [of a rebuff] by demanding the mayors’ participation. But wishing to take advantage of the conference which would enable the Palestinians to establish contacts with certain circles in order to explain that they are not a band of terrorists as claimed by Israel, the PLO has taken the decision to send Raymonde Tawil of Ramallah to attend the conference as a representative of the Palestinians of the West Bank. The PLO has also asked an American individual of Palestinian descent to participate in this conference in his capacity as a prominent Palestinian intellectual.

Palestinian sources have confirmed to al-Dustur here that the Israeli government had passed word to Mr. Bassam Shaka, the mayor of Nablus, to the effect that he shall not be permitted to leave the country in case he applied for a permit to attend the conference.

At the same time the Israelis have stressed before the American authorities their well-known position to make sure that the State Department refuse a visa of entry to Isam Sartawi, Sabri Jeries and Mrs. Hamami, the widow of the late Said Hamami [who was assassinated in London in December 1977 by Iraqi agents because of his open advocacy of peace on the basis of a Palestinian state alongside Israel] in case they request such visa….

These are the basic facts to which the following may be added for clarity. The decision of the mayors was largely influenced by the fact that the Palestinian Communist Party, which is the only one allowed by the military government to operate unhindered in the occupied territories, came vigorously out against any Palestinian participation in a conference held in Washington. The person who was asked by the PLO to speak for the organization at the conference was Professor Hisham Sharabi, a Palestinian refugee teaching now at Georgetown University. His was the most important message in the conference, calling for a reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians on the basis of mutual recognition. And lastly, the three PLO members mentioned in the report were indeed invited to attend the conference, and expressed their willingness to come even when it became clear that the mayors were not coming.

Based on this information any one who reads Avishai’s article can see how vacuous his analysis and conclusions must be, relying as they do on the grossly distorted situation he preferred to adopt for presentation to his readers.

Mattityahu Peled

Moza Illit, Jerusalem

Bernard Avishai replies:

I carefully reported the reason—not the excuse—for the mayors’ decision to boycott the conference. They were loath to appear as possible candidates for the transitional Palestinian regime envisioned by the Camp David accords. But I also noted that it is the policy of the Fatah leadership to wreck the autonomy negotiations, and—what seems to them the same thing—to deter the political ambitions of any Palestinian leaders who might become rivals to PLO authority in such matters. Just this policy line was invoked by Professor Sharabi, Raymonde Tawil (who spoke for the mayors), and the other Palestinians in attendance who criticized the implied purpose of the conference and professed loyalty to the PLO while pointedly refusing to acknowledge their mandate from it. It was also specifically endorsed in a letter, read to the participants during the keynote session, from Professors Fasheh and Tamari on behalf of Birzeit University. It is the final cause of the mayors’ “apprehension” to which Basim al-Mualim alludes in his report.

As to the efficient cause of the mayors’ boycott, Mualim’s (and Peled’s) claim—i.e., that the PLO had “no objections” to the mayors’ participation but were unwilling to chance “a rebuff”—seems to me pure speculation and, on the face of it, false. Coincidentally, I was myself present at a New York meeting in early June at which the conference organizers were cautioned by their most reliable intermediary that Arafat would not assure Palestinian participation at the conference even though its location was changed from New York to Washington out of consideration for Palestinian sentiments. Hitherto, the New Outlook people had expressed confidence that the mayors and other West Bank-Gaza leaders would show up. But it was assumed then, as Sharabi, Tawil, and their colleagues have not tired of insisting since, that Arafat and the Fatah leadership make such decisions. I plead no special knowledge of these machinations, but Arafat does not confide in Israeli generals or in Jordanian journalists either. And even if Peled’s version were plausible, I do not see how he expects to exonerate the “Palestinian position” by it: Mualim’s report after all alleges that the mayors had resisted PLO expressions of “no objection” regarding their participation, but only to prove their absolute allegiance to the PLO line.

I determined to ignore the gossip and pose the political problem. Had the PLO wanted them to engage Israeli Labour Party officials in Washington—or Begin’s government in Jerusalem—the mayors would have done so: Communist Party influence is of no consequence on the West Bank and Gaza as compared with that of the PLO. Peled might be less cavalier about this fact in view of warranted American, Egyptian, and Israeli concern that the Palestinian state not become a Soviet satellite. Moreover, Basam Shakha’s reluctance to apply for an exit visa for fear of its being denied by Israeli authorities still seems to me too feeble an excuse to be disputed. It seems worth noting that the mayor of Nablus, and the other mayors, have recently proven to be somewhat more combative than this in defense of deeply felt purposes.

General Peled must realize also that the intentions of Sartawi, Jiryis, and Mrs. Hamami are not pertinent to what he terms the “Palestinian position” since (by his own account) Professor Sharabi represented the PLO directly, though (unlike his account) not explicitly, at the symposium. But his claim does raise the matter of PLO intentions and actions which he does not consider. That organization would demonstrate that it is not “a band of terrorists” by stopping its random murders of Israelis, not by attending conferences. We need not take it as a sign of moderation that the PLO should want to “establish contact with certain circles,” but as a sign that it is holding to its stated objective of isolating Israel, and provoking the superpowers to impose a PLO regime on the West Bank and Gaza in spite of legitimate Israeli fears. So I took Professor Sharabi at his word: the PLO opposes the autonomy plan even if Israeli settling of the West Bank were ended, proposes that the American government abandon the Camp David accords and accommodate the PLO in advance of some manifest demonstration of reciprocal recognition by Palestinians and Israelis, and claims to be the exclusive spokesmen for Palestinian interests.

In spite of his great charm (and private equivocations), Sharabi made little impact on “certain circles”—American scholars, officials, and journalists, and American Jewish moderates—given the rigid and authoritarian position he was there to defend. His unexceptional call for a two-state solution was hinged on some all-sided recognition of the “process of Palestinian uprooting, expulsion, and subjugation,” and on the condemnation of the only successful peacemaking effort in thirty years. Granted, Camp David does not call for a Palestinian state; but neither does it preclude such a state, and it sets in motion a process of negotiations that, if pursued, would virtually assure one. Sharabi admitted this much to me afterward, and I am therefore at a loss to understand why Peled thinks his speech so encouraging.

Furthermore, General Peled does not reveal whether he expected Sartawi, Jiryis, and Mrs. Hamami to say something different from Sharabi. Did he expect them to claim openly to represent the PLO leadership and to endorse some transitional and democratic process? If so, he would have to explain Sartawi’s standing in the PLO, and why, for example, the latter recently was reprimanded in Beirut for accepting Chancellor Kreisky’s peace prize with Lova Eliav. But the PLO’s direct, if unacknowledged, participation in the symposium is beside the point. Arafat would have proven his statesmanship and moderation by keeping PLO officials away this time, and by acquiescing in the mayors attending as mayors with some vague proxy from Fatah. By the way, since nobody will speak for the “Palestinian position” but the PLO, Peled should know that Professor Sharabi conveyed to me his good opinion of my report.

Which brings me to a final comment on General Peled’s reckless charge that I “distorted the circumstances” of the mayors’ decision in service of some “creed that cannot be questioned.” I have regularly cited Peled’s sharp criticisms of Israeli government policies since 1973, especially in this journal. It seemed right to do so often because he has so often been right. So I cannot believe he does himself credit by accusing me suddenly of deception motivated, presumably, by some discreditable notion of solidarity. Why is it so unreasonable to expect Arafat to risk democratic politics, a short (five years) period of peaceful transition, and a moratorium on violence now that the prospects for Palestinian self-determination seem so good? To expect him to show the political courage of, to take only the most recent example, Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo? Peled is to be admired for his efforts to understand his enemy, but these cannot rescue Arafat from having to make tough choices.

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