From June 1967 to June 1997: learning from our mistakes
The thirtieth anniversary of the June 1967 debacle has been an occasion to evoke painful memories, draw lessons, assess the causes of Arab defeat and produce a host of written analytical articles and historical essays, reminiscences and recollections. While it will still take time to grasp the profound significance of this traumatic experience in the lives of the Arab peoples, the dreams, rights and aspirations of the Arab nation remain the guiding force to sustain our commitment and empower us to achieve the legitimate goals that have eluded us, and which the June 1967 tragedy nearly dealt a fatal blow. The consequences of that dramatic setback are still being felt today.
For the continuing yearnings of the Arab peoples to be realized, what is required is a process of self-criticism and a reassessment of the intellectual premises, the behavioral patterns and the policies adopted in the pursuit of this goal. A serious inquiry questioning and scrutinizing many of the assumptions that have underpinned contemporary Arab nationalism is needed. This necessarily embodies a plan of action to prevent Arab nationalism from becoming a major and perhaps the only fallout of the June 1967 collapse. It is an act of conscience in order to shield Arab nationalism from the flaws and failures of its leaders, parties, and institutions, which at one time or another, claimed, or in reality were, the repository of our confidence and trust, and to whom we Arabs, voluntarily and even enthusiastically entrusted our national destiny.
This is particularly true of the Arab peoples’ relationship with Gamal Abdul Nasser, whose articulation of our deepest yearnings, ennobling defiance of dominance, charismatic personality and sincere commitment rendered the Arab masses uncritical and totally identified with every decision he made and with every policy he sought to pursue. The identification was of such intimacy that when he resigned in the aftermath of the disastrous defeat of 1967 the instant and stunning popular reaction calling on him to stay on was tantamount to a restorative act. While this reaction may in part have been an expression of fear of the unknown, it revealed an institutional vacuum that the masses instinctively sought to fill by an unprecedented demonstration of loyalty and affection. This was the same phenomenon that manifested itself when President Nasser died on 28 September 1970.
What happened in between June 1967 and September 1970 was that Nasser was transformed from being the unchallenged leader of the Arab people to being a President of Egypt supported and respected by the same Arab people. In other words, the following Nasser had from the mid-Fifties changed from one of unquestioning loyalty to one of sympathetic support for his leadership and policies. At the Khartoum Summit on 1 September 1967, he was success-ful in spelling out for the Arab World the famous three NOs: No to recognition of Israel, No to negotiations with Israel, and No to peace with Israel. As a result of his leadership, a state of belligerency with Israel persisted and a war of attrition, albeit limited, was ushered in to render Israeli occupation and aggression costly. The political and diplomatic damage of the military setback was successfully controlled. UN Security Council Resolution 242 drew the parameters of a peace settlement. The outcome, as envisioned in 242, was an Israel confined to the 4 June 1967 borders that would be grudgingly accepted as part of a new and emerging state system in the region.
Another result of the June 1967 war was that the Arab state system replaced the Arab nationalist project of independence, freedom and unity. This state system acknowledged the de facto legality of an Israeli state, but not necessarily its legitimacy. If the operative parts of UN Security Council Resolution 242 were to be complied with by Israel, then the Arab state system would accommodate Israel and co-exist with it. In essence, the consequence of the June 1967 war planted the seeds of an imagined new “Middle East” state system, replacing Pan-Arab nationalist aspirations. As is often the case, the Arab leaders and intellectuals admitted the unpleasant and discomforting realities but at the same time refused to submit to their inevitable permanence. The war of attrition was one aspect. Bringing the issues arising from the conflict to the UN was another and the debate about the causes of the debacle and how to address them was a further demonstration of refusal to succumb to defeat.
THE RISE OF THE PLO
Amidst the gloom that pervaded the Arab political landscape after the war, the battle of Karameh took place in March 1968 in the Ghor Valley of Jordan, where Palestinian guerrillas and Jordanian soldiers successfully engaged the Israeli army. This development galvanized Arab opinion and allowed Fateh to assume the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO ceased to be the protege of the Arab state system and became the rallying force of an invigorated Palestinian and Arab body politic. In retrospect, the Palestinian situation was transformed – revolutionized would be an exaggerated description – and the PLO became for the Arabs the embodiment of a hope restored and a sense of purpose rediscovered. The leaderless Arab masses were disappointed if not disillusioned by the June 1967 defeat. They entrusted (once again without questioning) the PLO with the functions of setting policies, providing leadership and devising strategies for a resumed struggle. The delegation of leadership to the PLO was premature, and given in a hurried rather than a studied way, even by the official Arab leadership, impressed by the tide of popular support for the organization.
The PLO leadership assumed that the popularity and support it had acquired gave it a license to intervene in the affairs of the Arab states, especially those where a significant Palestinian constituency resided, as a partner with the right to shape their policies. While the PLO received varying degrees of tolerance and support from the Arab states, the PLO leadership tended at times to exaggerate its own power, thus falling into the trap of those elements, regional and local, that sought to deny legitimacy to its presence, struggle, and fruits. Over the years, a series of miscalculations and mishandling of popular support dissipated the frail leverage the PLO had with the Arab governing establishments. Black September in Jordan, the alienation of Syria’s leadership, and the lengthy and, in many ways, unwarranted conflicts in Lebanon could have been avoided, or at least, contained.
In essence, Fateh, the pivotal and dominant faction in the PLO coalition, was often outmaneuvered by the disparate groups within its framework. The more radical groups, themselves divided, often took measures, adopted policies, and spelled out slogans, without prior consultation or coordination with the other coalition partners of the PLO. Competition to find supporters among the various groups – e.g., Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Democratic Front, PFLP-General Command, etc. – severely damaged the effectiveness of the PLO on the ground as well as its credibility amongst Arab and international supporters and sympathizers. Other groups had vertical links to Arab governments – Saiqa with Syria, the Arab Liberation Front with Iraq, etc. – that were much firmer, binding and constraining on them than the horizontal bonds necessary for national Palestinian cohesion and effectiveness in the pursuit of goals.
During the Seventies, the PLO was perceived as basically fragmented with factions trying to outbid each other for support. It assumed the character of an associational framework rather than the vanguard of a liberation struggle. The PLO, nevertheless, extracted from the League of Arab States recognition that it was “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” All regional and international organizations followed suit. Thus, its legal and diplomatic status was further enhanced. This enabled the PLO to enjoy an international status and acceptability that turned out not to be matched by its status or stature within the Arab system.
After recognition of the PLO, the Arab official establishment unburdened itself of the direct national Arab responsibilities for the cause of Palestine and contented itself with only diplomatic, financial and informational support to the PLO, to whom the other responsibilities, for example military, were considered to have been delegated. This limited Arab support was undoubtedly helpful, but definitely inadequate to face, let alone confront, the overall strategic challenges and threats that Israel posed. This imbalance was further sharpened by the United States’ strategic commitment to Israeli military superiority.
The designation by the Arab states of the PLO as the “sole representative” of the Palestinian people thus led it to assert an absolute prerogative of independent decision making. What followed was that every policy or decision concerning Israel’s violation or denial of Palestinian legal, human, political, cultural, or social rights became the exclusive authority of the PLO as a result of the 1974 Arab League Summit resolution in Rabat. The Arab states abandoned their national responsibility to the PLO, a weak and troubled organization with divided leadership. Within the Arab system, the PLO was given the trappings of sovereignty at the expense of the Arabs’ functional responsibility to help achieve for the Palestinian people the justice and sovereignty they remained entitled to and which Israel forcibly sought to prevent.
Enjoying the paraphernalia of a head of state within the Arab state system, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat triumphantly addressed the UN General Assembly on 29 November, 1974. This diplomatic achievement further enhanced the legal status of the PLO and enabled it to expand its political and diplomatic access to the world. In turn, this fact strengthened the recognition of the inalienability of Palestinian rights and the legitimacy of the PLO’s claims and proclaimed aspirations. The UN, the Organization of African Unity, the Islamic Conference and the Non-Aligned Movement were all sympathetic forums for the PLO to articulate its policies, win support, and establish a wide network of relations and assistance that rendered the cause of Palestine universally recognized as a just cause, Israel’s powerful propaganda machine notwithstanding.
Shouldering unilateral responsibility for decision making in the Palestine-Israeli confrontation made the PLO assume the character of a government. Its structure became bureaucratic. It loosened its organic bonds with many of the Arab world’s nationalist constituencies, and replaced these bonds with formal bilateral relations with the Arab states. The notion that it was the “sole legitimate representative” in matters affecting the Palestinian cause embedded it in an Arab system in which states adhered to their own sovereignty, and treated this sovereignty as conferring a right to be separate from other Arab states, all of which reinforced the disintegration of pan-Arab nationalist unity. The June 1967 defeat, which facilitated this corrosive trend, culminated in the Camp David Agreements and, on 24 March 1979, the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. From that time onwards, Arab nationalist bonds were weakened and the late President Sadat’s policies encouraged separatist, sectarian, regional and isolationist trends that continue, until today, to play havoc with Arab collective efforts to shape coherent strategies for a just, durable, and comprehensive peace. This in turn has led to the continued failure of efforts to establish among the Arab states a modicum of unity that would allow the Arabs to reclaim their collective future and enable them to partake in the task of rebuilding their fragmented – some would say shattered – patrimony.
ARAB GOVERNMENTS AND THE PALESTINE CAUSE
For the past thirty years, two intersecting political undercurrents have had significant consequences for the Palestine problem. One was that the sovereign legal status of the Arab states became accepted as legitimate and the other was the conferring on the PLO of the status of a state within the Arab state system. Prior to June 1967, Arab nationalists of all persuasions treated the sovereignty of their respective states as transitional and only to be recognized in relation to non-Arab and foreign powers. For this reason, the League of Arab States, while codifying the legality of its members’ sovereignty, expounded in its charter the paramount legitimacy of inter-Arab links and their Shared responsibilities toward common Arab causes. The charter further prescribed a binding coordination and spelled the need for an ongoing consensus. These guidelines were nevertheless frequently violated; most seriously by the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
Despite declarations that support for the ‘Palestinian’ cause was considered the ‘core’ of Arab foreign and national policies, Arab governments treated Palestinian politics and the PLO pretensions of “non-interference” with skepticism and often with suspicion and confrontation. The PLO, on the other hand, considered that it had a right to pursue its legitimate and revolutionary objectives within and from the countries of its temporary residence. The PLO, claiming it was shepherding a liberation struggle, assumed that its needs should be treated as the priority concern of the host governments. This logic found widespread sympathy among a large segment of the Arab countries’ populations but exacerbated tensions in the PLO’s relations with several Arab governments. Accusations of the PLO acting as “a state-within-a-state” became a divisive instrument leading ultimately to defusing and debilitating the widespread early support the PLO enjoyed in the aftermath of the Karameh encounter.
Factionalism within the PLO, and the leadership’s misplaced haughtiness and arrogant behavior toward the host populations, contributed to the growing weariness with the PLO, transforming its status from a rallying point of the Arab masses to a promulgator of inter-Arab controversy. In many instances the Palestine cause remained popular internationally but became problematic internally and nationally in the Arab World.
The October 1973 War brought about a new equation. With Egypt breaking through the Bar-Lev line, the Syrian army recovering Qunaitra and the Saudi imposition of an oil embargo, the Arab state system regained its credibility and effectiveness. A new balance emerged leading the Arab states to reaffirm their primacy in fashioning the strategy of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Confronting Israel was seen once again as the Arab states’ responsibility. Egypt and Syria believed that fighting Israel was serious military business, no longer to be entrusted exclusively to the PLO guerrillas. Besides, military or guerrilla action had to be coordinated with the overall priority, namely the security requirements of the Arab states involved. In other words, Palestinians had to realize their limitations in this field in order to optimize their political and diplomatic leverage and tap their potential support. Revolutionary euphoria had to become subordinate to the imperatives of geopolitical considerations and the emerging and changing balance of power in the region.
The October War undertaken by Egypt and Syria in 1973 reconsolidated the Arab states’ role in the overall management of the Arab-Israeli conflict, confirming a trend that had started with Jordan’s earlier crackdown on the Palestinian guerrillas in the notorious Black September. The PLO guerrillas’ exodus to Lebanon made this vulnerable country the only arena for the Palestinian movement to air its grievances and aspirations and the only theater for guerrilla operations against Israel. As other Arab states were gaining and consolidating their sovereignty, primacy and prerogatives, in contrast, the state in Lebanon was losing its hold on its sovereign prerogatives. This in turn led to a tragic paradox, a total breakdown of civilian life and the ensuing factional uncivil wars that planted the seeds of Lebanon’s destruction and the PLO’s new exodus and dispersal in 1982. In Lebanon, the PLO and the Lebanese National Movement led by Kamal Jumblatt, the charismatic socialist leader, constituted a formidable political alliance. Shielding the Palestinian military in its only operational arena undoubtedly resonated among Lebanon’s frustrated population, its revolutionary romantics, the socially deprived and the pan-Arab nationalists. In a way, this allowed the progressive forces of Lebanon to be a magnet to those throughout the Arab World who sought to pursue revolutionary dreams and activities. While this Lebanese progressive Palestinian coalition enabled the PLO to sustain its military operational options, the political consequences were the sharpening of the internal divisions inside Lebanon itself.
That the Palestinian military option should be concentrated in Lebanon was perceived by many in Lebanon as an unfair burden to be carried solely by that country. It also gave Israel pretexts for savage retaliation. Earlier arrangements between the PLO and the Lebanese state, e.g., the Cairo Agreement, that defined the scope of relationships, were thrown off balance by the socio-political polarization taking place; for example, the allied Palestinian-Lebanese National Movement forces fought intermittently and ferociously with the right wing militias of the Lebanese Front. The social and political hemorrhage resulting from the numerous atrocities provided the opportunity for Israel twice to invade Lebanon and establish, directly and with a local mercenary militia (the South Lebanese Army), a foothold that has disabled Lebanon, even at this writing, from exercising its sovereignty over its occupied southern part, in utter contempt and defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 425 and other relevant ones. Lebanon, for more than eighteen years, became the arena where regional and international powers settled their accounts by proxy. Equally unfortunate, especially after August 1982, a new Palestinian dispersal took place and lingering divisions among the Lebanese were reinforced.
With Lebanon exhausted by its civil wars, Israel’s invasions of 1978 and 1982, the near ruin of Beirut, and the mortal blows visited on the Lebanese citizens and the Palestinian residents there, the Arab state system intervened to address the problem: prevent the further internal hemorrhage and erosion of Arab credibility, and limit the damage to the Palestinian cause. The result was, on the one hand, the Taif Agreement on 22 October 1989, which found a new formula for social peace in Lebanon, and on the other hand, the opening of a PLO dialogue with the U.S. as a result of the PLO’s acquiescence to the operative parts of Security Council Resolution 242, and its acceptance of language on “terrorism,” as requested by the U.S.
THE ROAD TO THE INTIFADA
In the 1980s, the Arab World was jolted by a series of traumatic developments that compounded the already existing complex conditions. Besides the theatrical 1978 visit of President Sadat to Jerusalem, which led to the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, the fall of the Shah of Iran, and the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, there was a reigniting of inter-Arab disputes and conflicts. With Egypt’s suspension from the League of Arab States, since its treaty with Israel was considered a clear violation of the League’s Charter, a void was created which nearly paralyzed Arab cooperation, let alone Arab unity.
The coincidence of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and the occurrence of the Islamic Revolution in Iran had a decidedly deep impact on the Arab World in the Eighties. The two developments tended to pull the region apart. The Arab League sought, from its temporary headquarters in Tunis, to rally the Arabs toward a strategy to limit their losses and salvage as much as possible of the Arab consensus. Through the Fez Summit in September 1982, the League was able to realize this limited objective in the aftermath of the Israeli devastation of Lebanon and the new exodus of the PLO.
Egypt’s defection from the Arab ranks in this period emboldened Israel to strike at will. Its raid on Iraq’s nuclear facilities, its invasion of Lebanon and its complicity in the Sabra and Shatila massacre, all accomplished with no serious damage to its strategic cooperation with the U.S., put the Arabs at a basic disadvantage. This was further compounded by the war between Iran and Iraq that sapped the energies and vitality of the Arab states in general and of Iraq in particular. In the early Eighties, Iraq’s projection of power, while welcome among the Arab Gulf states as a deterrent to the possible “export” of Iranian revolutionary ideas, was also a source of anxiety as to possible future attempts to promote its territorial claims and seek political and economic hegemony in the area. Thus, fear of Iran and anxiety toward Iraq provided an opening for bringing the Gulf states together into a new subregional council the Gulf Cooperation Council – that subtly constituted a separate caucus within the Arab state system.
Let us take a quick look at the landscape of the Arab nation during this decade:
1. Egypt was immobilized as a factor in the Arab-Israel conflict. When, for example, Israel invaded Lebanon, Egypt could not contribute to make it costly for Israel by withdrawing its ambassador from Tel Aviv let alone sever diplomatic relations, as was expected by most of the Egyptians themselves.
2. Iraq’s war with Iran and its devastating consequences weakened the Arab side of the strategic balance with Israel.
3. The continued and bloody strife in Lebanon before and after the Israeli invasion of 1982 furthered the transformation of Lebanon from an experiment in democratic pluralism to be emulated to an example of intrusive communal wars to be shunned and avoided.
4. The 1982 invasion of Lebanon also resulted in the dispersal of the Palestinian Resistance and the PLO transfer of its headquarters to Tunis.
5. Israel extended operations into North Africa with its raid on the PLO in Tunis, and the U.S. also launched a North African raid, with an aerial attack on Libya.
6. Israel continued its annexationist policies in Jerusalem and settlements and deportations in violation of relevant UN resolutions and in total contempt of the international community. That Israel could pursue its aggression and violations with impunity was due in part to the U.S. shielding it from condemnation and international sanctions and in part to the license that Arab divisions and separatist pursuits provided.
The fragmentation of the Arab body politic, the plummeting of the Arab collective’s credibility, and a growing perception that an Arab effective strategy was not forthcoming, led the Palestinians inside the occupied territories to take the initiative in fashioning their own resistance independently of the Arab establishment but with the expectation of Arab popular support. The Palestinian Intifada – the Uprising – that started on 9 December 1987 brought a modicum of sensibility and coherence to the Palestinian cause after years of dispersal, factionalism, and lack of focus. The Intifada settled many contradictions within the movement. It defined the parameters of Palestinian objectives. Resistance was to be confined to the territories occupied after June 1967. It put to rest both the so called “Jordanian options” as well as the cherished hope of a “secular democratic state” in historical Palestine.
Equally important, the Intifada organized civil society inside the occupied territories, defined clearly its deference to the PLO leadership and its guidelines, treated the national unity of the Palestinian people as its principal vehicle, and decidedly assumed the right of rendering resistance functional, operational and performance oriented. The Intifada uplifted the Arab peoples’ spirit, inspired the conscience of the world, and prepared the way for concrete political and diplomatic achievements. Once again, nearly twenty years after June 1967, the Arab nation was on the threshold of regaining hope and focus.
As a result, the Palestinian National Council meeting in Algeria was ready to declare a Palestinian state within the boundaries rendered legitimate and generally acceptable by the Intifada’s authenticity. International legality as defined by the various UN resolutions spelled out what Palestinian rights to self-determination were in the occupied territories of June 1967. On the 20th anniversary of the June 1967 defeat, new vistas for Palestinian national rights were introduced.
The close of the Eighties witnessed a gradual restoration of relative order in the Arab system. The end of the Iraq-Iran war promised to bolster the overall Arab negotiating position with Israel. It was believed that a normalizing process with Iran would hasten a rapprochement with the Gulf states, add significant leverage to Arab clout in the international arena, and inhibit the spread in the Arab World of Iran’s version of Islamic fundamentalism. With the declaration of the state of Palestine on 15 November 1988, the improved status of the PLO, and the restoration by the Intifada of a clear sense of Arab purpose and direction, it was decided that when the issue of Palestine was to be discussed in the United Nations General Assembly on 29 November 1988, Chairman Yasser Arafat should address it. He was expected to expound on the importance of the Declaration of Statehood to the future of peace in the “Middle East.” When the application for an entry visa was submitted through the normal channels, the U.S. Secretary of State, George Shultz, violating the Headquarters Agreement with the UN, denied a visa to Mr. Arafat. Promptly, the Arab group initiated proceedings to move the UN General Assembly to Geneva with two dissenting votes, the U.S. and Israel. This voting record, parenthetically, continues to characterize the voting pattern of both countries on most issues relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Moving the UN General Assembly to Geneva was a diplomatic boost that carried with it certain risks. The U.S. sought, especially through Egypt, to compensate its procedural defeat with a measure of substantive achievement. This became possible in view of the thaw in Soviet-U.S. relations, and the desire of the PLO to usher in a dialogue with the U.S. and to probe the possibility of the U.S. exercising some pressure on Israel to “relent” on its intransigence. While there was much wishful thinking in the PLO’s assessment of the U.S. possibly distancing itself from Israel’s policies (President Bush and Secretary Jim Baker made critical remarks of Israel’s excesses in lobbying, etc.), the PLO was willing, despite advice to the contrary, to acquiesce to the U.S. condition that the PLO not only denounce but also renounce “terrorism.”
With Iraq at peace – or no longer at war – with Iran, an improvement in the Arab strategic situation became possible. During the Iraq-Iran conflict, Egypt played a significant role in assisting Iraq, making the latter take the lead in the move to readmit Egypt to full membership in the League of Arab States. This in turn made it possible for Egypt to regain its pivotal position in Arab affairs, albeit with the constraints and conditions that its treaty with Israel imposed.
With Egypt’s return to the “Arab fold,” Iraq back as a potential contributing factor to the overall Arab equation, and the League’s Tripartite Commission (Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait) successfully ending the conflicts in Lebanon through the Taif Agreement, signed on 22 October 1989, a reasonable start in reconstructing the Arab system was taking shape. Moreover, the Intifada continued to challenge Israel’s occupation and mitigated the limitations that the Camp David Agreements imposed on Egypt’s strategic economic and diplomatic mobility.
THE GULF WAR AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
The Arabs entered the Nineties in a relatively orderly fashion, hoping for a period of restored stability. In the middle of 1990, however, the promise and the system broke down. The reconstructive process was short-lived and then aborted and the Arab system was seriously damaged – some would say fatally – by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on 1 August 1990.
Not only was the Arab system challenged by the invasion: The underpinnings of Arab nationalism and Arab identity were severely questioned and openly attacked. Iraq’s invasion was a clear violation of both the UN and the Arab League charters. It was inevitable that both organizations would be seized of the issue and condemn Iraq. The U.S. and the Western powers were concerned about economic and strategic consequences, and the invasion accelerated the political pressure for a U.S. sponsored intervention. Earlier threats by President Saddam Hussein against Israel had intensified and fueled the campaign against Iraq in the U.S. The efforts of Arab leaders to redress Iraq’s infraction were without success. At the Cairo Summit meeting in August 1990, attempts at a solution arrived at through Arab mediation were disregarded by the majority of the Arab states. Kuwait considered any suggestions or advocacy of Arab mediation to be an act of “betrayal” that should be treated as a “pro-aggression” stand. A divided Summit sanctioned U.S. intervention. The breach within the Arab ranks was so profound that it exacerbated the earlier disarray caused by Egypt’s treaty with Israel. The subsequent UN-authorized enforcement measures on Iraq, led by the U.S., were devastating, derisive, and costly to the Iraqi people, and destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure. The outcome of the war emasculated Iraq’s sovereignty and undermined Iraq’s territorial integrity. Iraq was excluded from all consequential decision-making in all Arab deliberations. The tremendous suffering and impoverishment of the Iraqi people and the death of hundreds of thousands of women and children later heightened the crisis of conscience throughout the Arab World and belatedly began to outweigh understandable Kuwaiti opposition to normalization with Iraq
The liberation of Kuwait by the U.S.-led coalition put the U.S. in a position to organize a major conference in Madrid on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and usher in what later became the current “peace process.” With the subsequent collapse of the USSR, and thus the removal of the countervailing global power, the new international equation made it clear that the U.S. alone was determining the pace of the negotiating process. Yet twelve rounds of negotiations failed to bear any substantial results.
While the negotiations were taking place in Washington, Israel decided to harness its new geopolitical status – given its strategic cooperation with the U.S. and its political clout in the Congress – by opening a secret channel to the Palestinians in Oslo while negotiations were taking place in Washington. The Oslo Agreement replaced arrangements and understandings that the Madrid conference in October 1991 prescribed as predicates of the Middle East peace process. With the decision to replace the Madrid terms and understandings with those of Oslo, the PLO relieved its negotiating partners – Syria, Jordan, Lebanon – and itself from any coordinating responsibility.
The basic flaw in the Oslo Agreements lies in their failure to extract from Israel an acknowledgment that it is in the occupied territories as an occupying power. This flaw has enabled Israel to avoid any legal compliance or any of the responsibilities mandated by the Fourth Geneva Convention. This has been fatal to the Palestinian side in what is taking place currently in the U.S. sponsored “peace process.”
The U.S.-Israel Strategic Cooperation project first spelled out early in the Reagan Administration by then Secretary of State Haig has become a prevailing reality in the Middle East. U.S. policy is based on the containment of Arab nationalist and Islamic fundamentalist forces throughout the region. This policy requires the “dual containment” of Iraq and Iran, with a continued defanging of Iraq and a persistent treatment of Iran as a “rogue” state to be isolated and neutralized – recent election results not withstanding. It means the rejection of governments such as the Arbakan Islamic government in Turkey, which was supported by political and popular forces keen to prioritize their Arab and Islamic associations rather than accommodate Turkey’s adjunct role to NATO in Central Asia and the Middle East. It means efforts to prevent Arab states “ganging up” against Israel: for example, the Alexandria Summit of 29 December 1994, between President Mubarak of Egypt, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and President Al-Asad of Syria was quickly followed on 3 January 1995, at U.S. instigation, by a summit convened by President Mubarak in Cairo to which Israeli Prime Minister Rabin was invited along with King Hussein of Jordan and Chairman Arafat of the PLO. The U.S. will continue to pressure Arab states to lift their economic boycott on Israel prior to its withdrawal from occupied territories. And the U.S. is committed to the consistent shielding of Israel from condemnation and sanction, as in the recent veto by the U.S. of near unanimous resolutions opposing Israeli settlements in Jebel Ghoneim.
There is no need to amplify on the nature of U.S.-Israel relations and their adverse effects on Arab legitimate rights and national interests. The Arabs, however, have yet to fashion a coherent strategy toward the U.S. that would diminish and neutralize its pro-Israel bias. An objective or even-handed policy remains possible and ought to be adopted.
Palestinian national rights and the need for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories remain vital Arab objectives with wide international support. Despite this level of international commitment and support for Arab causes a surreptitious deference is evident in the attitude of the Palestinian, Jordanian, and Egyptian leaderships to the unilateral role of the U.S. This is often explained by the argument that Israel will only respond to U.S. pressure – a pressure that the U.S. has the capacity to exercise but definitely does not have the will. This paradox must be resolved, but the question is how?
Trying to answer this question in the present circumstances is considered by the Arab “neo-realists” to be an exercise in futility. I venture to submit that there are avenues, approaches and policies that can assist in pulling the Palestinian cause from the present entrapment in which both the Madrid and especially the Oslo Agreements have put it. The present difficulties and obstacles cannot, however, be underestimated. They are daunting and require bold and studied initiatives. True, some of the suggestions and recommendations that follow will be protested, argued against, and strongly criticized by the U.S. There will be attempts to even preempt their discussion, let alone their adoption and pursuit.
The suggestions and policy initiatives that can be recommended require:
1. The PLO must restore its framework as the expression of Palestinian national unity. The present condition of the PLO is not functional, while its chairman operates from Gaza without sovereign prerogatives. His authority, for all intents and purposes in the area of the Palestinian administrative domain, is thus derived from Israel’s paramountcy. What is recommended, in my view, is that the PLO leadership should entrust the existing and available local leadership with transitional functions so that it exercises its mandate by authorization from the PLO’s national leadership. This in a way resembles the organizing and working equation that existed between the PLO leadership and the Palestinian negotiating team after the Madrid conference led by Haidar Abd al-Shafi.
If this organizing principle is accepted, the PLO will become the restored framework of Palestinian peoplehood, which includes all sectors of Palestinians in the occupied territories, in the refugee camps and in the diaspora. This, obviously, is not the case now. Furthermore, the local authority with the elected legislative council will reinforce the transitional character toward a state rather than the blurred and equivocal legal status of the present Palestinian Authority. In turn this will correct the basic flaw introduced by both Madrid and Oslo, namely the failure of Israel to be acknowledged by these agreements as the occupying power. This will also restore the legal status quo ante that the UN has repeatedly and consistently asserted must be the basis for any resumed negotiations.
2. In view of the pattern from Israel of provocative and proven violations of international legality and UN resolutions, Egypt and Jordan should freeze their diplomatic relations, and even withdraw their ambassadors – and embassies. Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem, building of settlements, and refusal to reorganize its status as an occupying power constitute more than sufficient reasons to suspend the existing formal diplomatic relations.
I realize that this suggestion probably will not be seriously pursued but it should not be ruled out given the growing popular resistance in both Egypt and Jordan to these “normal” diplomatic relations.
3. There is a need to restructure the League of Arab States to render it more in tune with the people’s political culture in addition to being guided by the official policies of its governments. The League should provide a forum for Arab civil society to convey its views, suggestions, and programs to the official councils and summits. In other words, the League can become a catalyst and a bridge between the state and society in the Arab World. Government differences would be exposed and hopefully sensitized to the growing uniformity of Arab popular opinion and its resilience.
Arab regimes would then discover that democratic participation can be a source of strength for the overall national purpose rather than an experiment that should be feared and avoided.
4. The Arab nationalist discourse, in turn, should be associated with commitments to human rights, women’s empowerment, environmental quality, and cultural openness and enlightenment. Arab nationalism, which remains the rational and viable expression of a valid identity, has been associated with coercive and authoritarian regimes on the one hand and with the failure to defend Palestinian rights effectively.
A revised Arab nationalist project reflecting the yearnings of the new generation and an enhanced quality of education, as well as behavior and policies that attract and inspire rather than repel and cause despair, is the task and the challenge of an emerging Arab vanguard intelligentsia.
This is the least that can be done. We who have been, for the last thirty years, associated with AAUG (itself an outcome of the 1967 debacle) should be a vehicle to assist in the project of reclaiming and redeeming the Arab future.
Clovis Maksoud is Professor of International Law and Organizations and Director of the Center for the Global South at American University, Washington, D.C. He is the former Ambassador of the League of Arab States to the United Nations and the United States.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Association of Arab-American University Graduates and Institute of Arab Studies
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