Israel-PLO Accords: Peace or Apartheid?

David Finkel

TO PROPERLY EVALUATE the stunning developments of September, when Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) declared and signed their mutual recognition and agenda for a negotiated settlement, we must begin by asking the right question.

Starkly put, that question is: Does this accord point a new direction away from Israel’s construction of a full-fledged apartheid system in the Occupied Territories? Or does it, rather, point toward the consolidation of the apartheid structures?

There are two reasons for posing the question this way, both directly relevant to the responsibilities of U.S. activists for peace and Palestinian rights. First, the term “apartheid” is important here, not as a dramatic metaphor but as an accurate description of the framework of economic and political Jewish supremacy and privilege that the Israeli state has erected in the West Bank especially “Greater Jerusalem,” and Gaza.

Second, in the face of the calculated official euphoria of the September 13 White House signing ceremony, it is crucial to stress that this agreement in itself is not, and cannot be, “the solution” or “the dawn of peace” in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Inevitably, the agreement reflects the reality of power on the ground today, which is far too one-sided in Israel’s favor for a genuine solution to be possible at this point.

It’s important, therefore, to assess the Israel-PLO agreement in the light of the situation as it really is; to revive the campaigns that in recent years educated sections of the U.S. population to the appalling realities of the occupation; and to analyze the potential in the new situation for changing those realities in a direction that makes authentic peace a serious possibility rather than a liberals’ fantasy.

No Land Without the People

The most positive impact of the Israel-PLO accord may be on the population that has been intransigently rejectionist the Israeli Jewish society.(1)

However dubious the viability of “Palestinian self-rule” in isolated Jericho and desperately poor Gaza may be, however short any current Israeli offer may fall of the minimum requirement for Palestinian self-determination, the Israeli recognition of the Palestinian people and the PLO marks an historic end to one important component of the “Zionist dream,” a destructive fantasy entertained secretly or openly not only by the hardline Zionist right wing but also by many on the self-styled “socialist” Zionist left.

This is the fantasy that Israel would ultimately inherit the entire land of Palestine without its people, that the Palestinians could be somehow ignored out of existence or made to disappear. In finally facing the reality that the Palestinian people exist, and will exist, Israel is effectively recognizing that its own borders and the limits of its own sovereignty must be ultimately defined.

For Israel to recognize that it will permanently be a small Middle Eastern state, sharing the historic land of Palestine with the indigenous Palestinian nation, may not strike the outside observer as a monumental breakthrough. This recognition, nonetheless, has always been an absolute precondition for Israel to evolve into any kind of “normal” society rather than an armed camp susceptible to secular as well as religious messianic delusions of grandeur.

This evolution is going to require, first, a hard political and perhaps physical confrontation between that majority of Israeli Jews who want to live normal lives, and a very sizeable minority who are driven not only by ideological fanaticism but also (in the case of the militant settlers in the West Bank and Gaza) the substantial material privileges and subsidies they derive from the status quo.

It is probably apocalyptic to talk of “civil war” in Israel, where institutions of bourgeois stability are pretty strong; yet the fact remains that the hard right that opposes the agreement is well-organized, armed and strongly entrenched in the army as well as in the settlements.

The fact that three members of the anti-agreement Likud coalition in the Israeli Parliament (Knesset) abstained, instead of voting against the agreement which their leaders had violently denounced, suggests that sentiment in favor of the agreement is quite strong among Israeli Jews. One can also assume that the 17% of Israeli citizens who are Palestinian Arabs will be overwhelmingly in favor in any case, the most important change is nor necessarily so much political as psychological: Future Israeli governments will find it harder to manufacture an atmosphere of war psychosis in the absence of a “PLO terror organization” to demonize.

How Bad is It?

These positive elements, however, don’t automatically translate into changes that would make life bearable for the Palestinians under occupation.

The Palestine Human Rights Information Center Update(2) for April-June 1993 reports that during these three months “PHRIC documented 48 Palestinian deaths due to direct Israeli responsibility: 14 Palestinians were killed in April, 30 in May (a record monthly figure since 1990) and 4 in June. This brings the total number of Palestinians killed since the beginning of the uprising (December 9, 1987) to 1070. All but two were killed by high-velocity ammunition and an unusually high number of killings by Israeli snipers were documented.”

Of these 48 deaths, 35 occurred in Gaza. Fifteen were children, including one 20 months old. Ayman Nasser, 22 years old, died under interrogation in Ashkelon prison. The details of the killings documented by PHRIC include a shepherd grazing a herd of sheep when struck by four bullets fired by soldiers from 200 meters; a 13-year-old girl playing outside her home in the afternoon shot and killed by a bullet in the head from 350 meters by soldiers, apparently for the fun of it; several killings by “undercover units,” i.e. Israeli army death squads; etc.

Even more devastating has been the impact of Israel’s “closure” of the West Bank and Gaza at the end of March. Before closure some 120,000 Palestinian workers entered Israel daily for work, representing 30% of income earned in the West Bank and 50% in the Gaza Strip. Cutting off this source reduces annual per capita income in Gaza from roughly $1200 to about $600, creating not only extreme misery but an actual threat of starvation for some of its people.

Closure has also devastated the Palestinian commercial and industrial sectors (since the beginning of 1993 the Israeli authorities have issued no licenses for setting up new industries) as well as agriculture. Vegetable and citrus farmers are unable to harvest and market their crops. The Israeli journal Challenge reports: “Most of the crops will end up damaged or sold at cheap prices. Twenty-five percent of the laborers who work inside the Occupied Territories are employed in the agricultural sector.”(3)

Apartheid In the Making

The closure intensifies the destruction of the Palestinian economy produced by a quarter century of occupation and by the 1990-91 Gulf War catastrophe. Such daily atrocities as the systematic destruction of Palestinian olive trees, confiscation of land for settlements, the drying up of Palestinian wells as water tables are depleted for high-tech settlement agriculture and settlers’ swimming pods, the extraction of taxes from the wages of Palestinians working in Israel with no benefits returned to them—all these are, precisely, defining attributes of an apartheid system in the making.

When Yitzhak Rabin ordered the Occupied Territories sealed off, barring its people from entering Israel in the wake of a series of stabbings of Israeli civilians and killings of soldiers, he was escalating the brutality of this system to a new level—yet at the same time, admitting that the occupation itself is not viable.

Of particular importance for the Palestinians is the effect of “closure” on Jerusalem. Not only is East Jerusalem, the political and cultural heart of Palestinian life, sealed off from the rest of the West Bank. Jerusalem is now defined by Israel as a Greater Jerusalem, extending nearly from the West Bank towns of Ramallah in the north to Bethlehem in the south. Greater Jerusalem is now the biggest center of Jewish settlement, obliterating many Palestinian villages, and the “closure” cuts all the routes by which Palestinians can travel between the northern and southern West Bank.(4)

Thus another feature of apartheid: The dominated population is divided into small units, physically isolated from each other, while the dominant population living on the same land enjoys its own rights, its own legal and political system, freedom of movement (new roads in the West Bank allow them to avoid most contact with the Palestinians) and all other privileges of citizenship.

It’s crucial to understand that the Israel-PLO agreement in itself touches virtually none of these central issues. True, the promised withdrawal of Israeli troops from population centers may reduce the level of killings. It’s even possible, though not guaranteed, that most of the roughly 13,000 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons or in hideous camps may go free. Yet the issues of Jerusalem, of refugees, of closure, of settlements and the destruction of Palestinian economic life, are all deferred to negotiations that are supposed to begin within two years.

In fact, as Israeli leaders like Shimon Peres, the PLO leadership and even some of the dim bulbs in the U.S. policy elite understand, two years of inaction are a sure recipe for an uncontrollable social explosion. Hence Bill Clinton’s highly publicized attempts to organize rapid infusion of cash from Europe, Japan, Arab oil kingdoms and North America into the Occupied Territories in order to show the population some tangible benefits.

But whatever the Palestinians actually gain from the accord will be, primarily, not what they are given from outside but what they organize to take into their own hands. Perhaps the potential exists for a renewed Palestinian campaign of non-violent defiance (the only weapon of mass struggle realistically available to them) of the petty and sadistic restrictions the occupation places on daily life.

If such a struggle meets with the kind of international solidarity and media attention it deserves, Israel might begin to pay a higher political price for acts of arbitrary arrest, housing demolitions, confiscations and terror against the population of the Occupied Territories—atrocities it has perpetrated with virtually no cost for a long time.

The answer to the question posed at the outset of this analysis—does this agreement point away from apartheid, or toward a consolidation of it?—demands largely, I believe, on whether this kind of Palestinian popular movement from below is reborn. This will largely determine whether Israel and its godfather, the United States, decide once and for all that the Occupied Territories must become independent rather than a permanent bantustan.

Why Now?

The media smugly noted the weakness that forced Yasser Arafat to accept an agreement with Israel that settles none of the fundamental issues. Actually, Arafat gained in “statesman” status, from the imperialist standpoint, precisely because in the negotiating process he bypassed, or even wrecked, the representative institutions of the Palestinian movement, the very structures that give the PLO credibility with Palestinians, both in their homeland and their international diaspora, as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” (These factors are discussed by Edward Said in his critique of the negotiations process in The Nation, September 20.)

The factors that produced Arafat’s weakness are real enough: the financial crisis of the PLO since the catastrophe in the Gulf, the fading of international support for the Palestinians as they were smeared as accomplices of Saddam Hussein (inaccurately, but who cares?), the desperation of the population under occupation and in the refugee camps, the resulting growth of Islamic movements as an alternative to failed nationalism.

Less well understood are at least two other sets of factors. The first are the weaknesses on the Israeli side Despite the billions in annual subsidy from the United States, the social as well as financial costs of occupation are at long last beginning to take a visible toll on Israeli society. Its education and housing systems are in serious crisis, drained by the expenditures on privileged life styles for the settlers.

Israeli elites are worried by the deterioration of their army as a fighting force. Erosion of military discipline and effectiveness is an inevitable result when armies are assigned to brutalize a civilian population (as seen in the case of the Salvadoran army, or the U.S. armed forces in Vietnam). The Israeli population is unwilling to accept the deaths of soldiers in operations, as in southern Lebanon, which have notably failed to cripple the military capacity of Hezbollah fighters.

Finally, there are the changes in the needs of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East We can only touch briefly on these here, but a much more in-depth discussion is in order.

Since the 1960s—if not the late 1940s —in the world of the Cold War, U.S. political and military needs were well served by a militarily powerful State of Israel in permanent confrontation and chronic warfare with the Arab world.

Israel emerged as a regional policeman, guaranteeing the primacy o1 Western and particularly U.S. interests in this strategically crucial area. Arab states became entangled in ruinous arms races and dead-end rhetorical nationalism that short-circuited both economic development and revolutionary possibilities. Arab rulers aligned themselves either with Washington or Moscow, thus ensuring that Arab politics would remain disunited and incorporated into the Cold War system.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War and the decreasing ability of the United States itself to sustain the vast subsidy of Israel, a new set of priorities are emerging for the U.S.Israeli “special relationship.” Today, instead of a permanent state of Arab-Israeli war, U.S. capitalism would benefit more from a general Arab-Israeli peace, and a regional economic configuration in which Israel becomes the center of a Middle Eastern trading block.

Such an arrangement would guarantee that the Middle East economic zone would not become an Arab nationalist bloc, potentially more friendly to European than to North American capital Israeli leaders like Foreign Minister Peres, the real architect of the Israel-PLO accords, seems to understand this well. It’s hardly an accident that Israeli leaders were beginning to speak of a “Middle Eastern NAFTA.”

Such a vision hardly spells paradise for Palestinian or other Arab workers slated to play the role of the Mexicans. On the positive side, it creates potential for a more developed class struggle in the Middle East. Further, the goal of regional cooperation may make it no longer worth while to permanently resist Palestinian demands for political independence.

The Struggle for a State

These somewhat speculative perspectives should not obscure the pressing need for a just political solution for the Palestinians right now. Toward this end, it’s important to correct at least one particular piece of historical mystification created in the official hype of the September 13 White House ceremonies.

It was, we were repeatedly told, Anwar Sadat’s visionary 1977 trip to Jerusalem and the far-sighted Camp David Accords of 1978, that blazed the trail for today’s Israeli and Palestinian leaders to achieve mutual recognition. Like much official history, this version of events is pretty much the exact opposite of the truth.

The one unambiguously positive aspect of the new Israel-PLO accord, to be sure, is precisely mutual recognition, something which is at least two decades overdue To be precise, recognition is overdue from the Israeli side. As early as 1974, the PLO proposed its first two-state program, which could only mean recognition of the state of Israel. Israel, then as now under a Labor Party government, categorically refused; Israel did not want to be recognized by the Palestinians because it would then have to recognize them.

Instead, Israel insisted that peace could only be negotiated with Arab states—not with the Palestinian people, who in any case, as then-Prime Minister Golda Meir had asserted, “never existed.” Nonetheless, both international and internal pressure grew for Israel to deal directly with the Palestinians and their representative, the PLO. In 1976, U.S. and Soviet presidents Carter and Brezhnev even announced a joint initiative toward a two-state settlement; the idea died when the hysterical response of the Israel lobby in the United States caused Jimmy Carter to turn tail.

Anwar Sadat’s journey, the Camp David accords and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty occurred at precisely the right moment to short-circuit the pressure for Israeli-Palestinian mutual recognition and negotiations. It’s important here to recall that the Egypt-Israel-Camp David was far more than a normal treaty between states; Sadat, Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin, without consulting the Palestinians, wrote into their accords “Palestinian autonomy” under Israeli sovereignty in the Occupied Territories—the very foundation of the neo-apartheid system that Israel has subsequently constructed.

Camp David legitimized the occupation and allowed Israel the military and political freedom of maneuver to massively bomb Lebanon in 1979 and then invade and virtually destroy it in 1982, and to reject recognition and direct negotiations with the Palestinians for an additional thirteen years. Thus the real legacy of Camp David, America’s last diplomatic triumph in the Middle East, was many tens of thousands of lives lost, unspeakable human misery and an additional decade-plus of political gridlock. The only clear-cut winners have been the international arms dealers, and assorted religious fanatics from the Iranian mullahs to the lunatic Jewish Temple Mount Faithful and their U.S. Christian fundamentalist fan clubs.

This historical context is worth keeping in mind as we evaluate the ambiguous future of the new Israel-PLO plan. Will this accord finally set in motion, as the Palestinian leadership is promising even as Rabin vigorously denies, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state? Such a solution is not possible on the basis of the present, overwhelmingly lopsided Israeli preponderance of power—but will the agreement open the possibility of changing the balance so that it does become possible?

Political activists in the United States need to make sure that the necessity of an independent Palestinian state is forced back onto the agenda of the debate on U.S. policy. For the underlying issues remain to be addressed, let alone resolved. And there should be no misunderstanding of what’s at stake in the Palestinians’ continuing struggle. No independent state, no justice; no justice, no peace.


  • This characterization only applies to the peoples directly involved in the conflict In fact, as many Israeli commentatora have noted, the mainstream Jewish organizations in the United States, which have been monolithically loyal to Zionism for decades, have been more rejectionist in their attitudes toward the Palestinians than the Israeli-Jewish population as a whole.
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  • These comprehensive updates can be purchased for $60 per year from PHRIC-International, 4201 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 500, Washington DC 20008. The main office for the Palestine Human Rights Information Center is in Jerusalem.
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  • Challenge, May-June 1993, 7. This important magazine, produced by a collective of Jews and Arabs, is a most valuable resource. Annual subscriptions are $30 in the United States. Write Challenge, P.O. Box 32107, Jerusalem 91320, ISRAEL Also of great value on the occupation is News From Within, published by the Alternative Information Center, P.O. Box 31417, Jerusalem. U.S. subscriptions to NFW are $45 peryear.
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  • The status of Jerusalem is vividly featured in the July-August issue of ChalLenge.
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  • November-December 1993, ATC 47