Palestine: A New Urgency

Against the Current No. 18, January/February 1989

David Finkel

EVEN WHILE Palestinians around the world justly celebrated the second great political victory of the Intifada — the opening of official “dialogue” between Washington and the Palestine Liberation Organization, in essence a U.S. recognition of the PLO as the only authentic voice of the Palestinian people — events in Israel and the Occupied Territories gave a somber preview of things to come.

Just like King Hussein’s earlier declaration, renouncing Jordanian claims to the West Bank and stating that the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem must be the territory of an independent Palestinian state, the U.S. policy shift represents not a “change of heart” but a concession to the extraordinary power the Palestinians have won through their year-long ongoing mass insurgency in the Occupied Territories.

The consequences of the Intifada also include, in this writer’s opinion, certain signs of stress fractures in the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship” that might enable the Palestinians to make huge gains toward their goal of independence in their own homeland. In no way, however, does this suggest a loosening of the Iron Fist of Israeli violence against the Palestinians in the short run.

Quite the contrary. Immediately following George Schultz’s announcement of the U.S.-PLO dialogue, Israeli soldiers killed four mourners at a funeral in the West Bank city Nablus.

“There will now be a great increase in killings, beatings and tortures,” Israel Shahak stated in a phone conversation. Professor Shahak, an Israeli activist and writer and long-time campaigner for the exposure of human rights violations, describes himself as “very pessimistic about the next several months at least, when both Labor and Likud are resolved to crush the Intifada by a very great increase in cruelty of all kinds.”

Shahak, who also translates collections of articles from the Israeli Hebrew press, believes that a debate currently raging in respectable Israeli newspapers over proposals for forced removal (“transfer”) of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians has received far too little international attention.

The new Likud-Labor “unity” government in Israel, with Yitzhak “Iron Fist” Rabin continuing as Defense Minister and Moshe Arens taking over the Foreign Ministry, portends in Shahak’s view both an extremely brutal policy and a major Israeli propaganda campaign to regain the shaken confidence of the U.S. Jewish community.

“The Israeli decision to greatly increase the pressure against the Uprising was taken before the Palestinian Declaration of Independence (made by the Palestine National Council at Algiers in mid-November). But it is normal Israeli policy to react with the most extreme ferocity to any PLO moderation, especially moderation that is appreciated by world opinion,” Shahak notes.

Continuing Mobilization

Another problem confronting the movement was noted by Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab in a report from the Occupied Territories (Middle East International, December 16,1988):

“After the 18th PNC session closed with the declaration of independence and its political program, a sense of confusion prevailed in the occupied territories. There was a sense of anti-climax as the reality of lack of any change hit home…The Islamic fundamentalists [and] Popular Front [for the Liberation of Palestine] … decided to declare alternative strike days from those called for by the Unified Command. And in addition, certain sectors of society were talking publicly about the need to slow the intifada down now that the focus had shifted to the political front.”

Indeed, a collapse of the unity and momentum of the Uprising would immediately nullify all the political-diplomatic gains of the Palestinians in the past year. Should the Intifada be dissipated in the flurry of excitement over negotiations, dialogues and hypothetical peace conferences, the Palestinians’ Declaration of Independence itself would be reduced to an empty gesture — as futile and meaningless as so many past proclamations of “revolution till final victory” have been.

However, as Daoud Kuttab noted in the same report, the relative calm that prevailed before the first anniversary of the Intifada did not last long. “The blitz of demonstrations and clashes that erupted over the weekend of 10-11 December caught the Israelis off guard.” A Palestinian sit-in took place at Red Cross headquarters in East Jerusalem against conditions at Ketziot (“Ansar 3”) prison camp, where detainees seized during the past year “are said to have been on hunger strike since the beginning of December” against unspeakable prison conditions.

“Palestinian demonstrators overwhelmed the small number of Israeli policemen and forced them to leave the area. The policemen soon brought up reinforcements and were able to crush the demonstrators, beating up and arresting large numbers after firing teargas canisters. Workers of international agencies and consulates — including the British consulate — were overcome by fumes from the tear gas. The following day further demonstrations took place throughout Jerusalem, mostly by school children… These demonstrations have adequately answered the question of whether the intifada will slow down or pick up steam.”

In short, whatever conservative arguments may exist for a tactical cooling off of the mass Palestinian resistance struggle will mostly likely be overwhelmed by the reality of escalating Israeli violence, not to mention the Palestinians’ acute understanding that the Uprising is the only reason for anything they have gained.

Meanwhile-questions that take on real significance in the context of the continuing Intifada — what are the key factors underlying the new U.S. policy? What are likely to be its practical implications? And what strategic conclusions follow in the U.S. for activists in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for human rights and self-determination? It is still early to attempt a definitive analysis, but certain points deserve particular emphasis now.

(1) The U.S.-Israeli relationship remains the decisive base leg of what Noam Chomsky has aptly called the “Fateful Triangle” of the Palestinian conflict. For over twenty years that special relationship has been founded on (i) a massive economic and military subsidy of the Israeli state, as a base for projecting U.S. power in the Middle East, and (ii) an unbroken “rejectionist front” blocking any solution that would give the Palestinian people national self-determination and security in even a fragment of their historic homeland.

Cracks Emerging?

(2) While this pact has survived minor diplomatic crises, the Pollard spy scandal, Irangate and several Middle East wars, the Intifada has opened real crevices. To serve the interests of U.S. imperial power, Israel must be above all stable-adventurist, but secure in the rule of its own colonial mini-empire in the West Bank and Gaza.

The Intifada has finally demonstrated what no Arab state army could — the fundamental instability and ultimate unviability of the occupation The U.S. ruling class would have no objection if Israel could successfully starve or bludgeon the Occupied Territories into submission; but failing that, Israel is expected to produce some political formula to resolve the issue.

There is no value for money in subsidizing an Israeli military that, in a crisis, would have to police the Territories rather than protecting vital American interests in the oil fields, northern Africa or wherever. Washington is fully aware that the Shamir government in Israel has no such political formula to offer.

(3) American Jews, who had already been shocked by the graphic coverage of shootings, gassings and systematic beatings of Palestinians in the first months of the Intifada, became even more outraged since the Israeli election over the religious parties’ demand to end recognition of non-orthodox conversions to Judaism.

While it’s deeply regrettable that this socio-theological squabble over the Law of the Return — which is a noxious and racist law to begin with — has generated at least as much if not more emotional response as the killing of over four hundred Palestinians, the political fact is that American Jews’ anger with Israel cut off the possibility of a sharp Jewish backlash against the U.S.-PLO dialogue. For once, the vaunted Zionist lobby found itself to be an apparatus without an army.

(4) The budget-cutting priorities of the U.S. government (briefly discussed in the editorial statement in this issue of Against the Current) cannot help but collide with the insatiable Israeli need for bigger and bigger U.S. subsidies.

Without even mentioning the annual military aid package, there is the issue of the looming collapse of the corporate empire owned by the Israeli Histadrut — the semi-corporatist Zionist trade union federation which is also the largest capitalist employer in the country — and of the quasi-socialist kibbutzim, which by their own admission are three billion dollars in debt.

Washington’s favored Israeli politician, Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, is the Finance Minister in the new governing coalition, and will no doubt be looking for more than a little help from his U.S. friends. The United States has no lack of clout to exert on behalf of serious political concessions from Israel, if it chooses to do so.

(5) The quite spectacular relaxation of U .S.-Soviet tensions has a double- edged impact on the Middle East conflict. On the one hand, it tends to remove the Palestine-Zionist confrontation from the stranglehold of Cold War global politics, a change which is unequivocally positive.

At the same time, the retreat of Moscow from many of its commitments to Third World movements strongly suggests that the Soviet Union will be less of a counterweight-to the limited extent it ever was one-to U.S. influence in Middle Eastern affairs. This has undoubtedly strengthened the political hand within the Palestinian movement of the right-of-center bourgeois nationalist leadership around Yasser Arafat. This leadership has been carrying out a quite spectacular tum toward the United States in recent months.

Some Palestinian activists are understandably dismayed by the unilateral acceptance of concessions dictated word for word by the U.S. government. As Anan Ameri, president of the Palestine Aid Society of America, puts it:

“So far we are making all the concessions, and Israel none. Because I want the Palestinians’ suffering to end, I am for two states. Israel is going to be there whether we like it or not. But accepting this is only one side of the equation — when is the U.S. going to address the issue of Israeli terrorism and the Palestinians’ right to exist with national independence and security in their own state?”

Fighting Rejectionism

In fact, the most crucial point for the entire peace movement in the United States-not just the pro-Palestinian forces-to grasp is that U.S. policy in the Middle East is, and remains, rejectionist. It is this U.S. rejectionism that must be confronted.

The State Department, fully aware of Israeli intentions to launch new waves of brutal repression in the Occupied Territories, has made not even the smallest gestures to require Israel to renounce terrorist activities against the Palestinian population (to say nothing of atrocities Israeli air and ground assaults continue to commit in Lebanon).

Even in the act of announcing the U.S.-PLO dialogue, Secretary Schultz reiterated U.S. rejection of an independent state for the Palestinians. While the present relatively small rift between Israeli and U.S. government policy has the potential to become much larger, it remains a tactical split within the shared ground of rejectionism.

In order to shift the ground, the emergence of a serious grassroots movement in the U.S. in support of a real Middle East peace, which must include the principle of the right of Palestinians to national self-determination in their own independent state, is an essential part of what is needed.

The best vehicle for such a movement would be a coalition effort, bringing together the forces already committed to a just Middle East peace, to take this issue into the disarmament, religious and anti-intervention movements.

The moment is ripe. Thanks to the heroism and sacrifices of Palestinians in the Intifada, the proponents of militarism, rejectionism and guaranteed Israeli domination no longer enjoy the hundred percent monopoly on information and political discourse to which they have so long been accustomed.

Israeli brutalities are certain to esca­ late precisely because the Israeli ruling establishment has no political answer to the Palestinian peace initiative, the recognition of Israel’s existence and the continuing mass mobilization in the Occupied Territories. The entire U.S. peace movement must make this critical situation a central focus of concern. The stakes have never been higher.

January-February 1989, ATC 18

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