In 1959, based in Kuwait, Yasser Arafat started a magazine called Our Palestine. In the guise of another variant of Arab nationalism, the magazine, and the small group linked to it, al Fatah, in fact promoted something new: a distinct Palestinian nationalism.
For most people then the Palestinian question was a “refugee problem”, and a problem of “Arab land”, not the question of the rights of the Palestinian nation.
The Arab states refused to integrate the refugees, and used them as a standing argument against Israel. Their proclaimed plan was to reclaim the “Arab land” occupied by Israel and to organise the “return” of the Palestinians. Israel stood obstinate. The scattered, cowed, demoralised Palestinians waited, with “the widespread belief that Arab unity must precede liberation”.*
Within twenty years all that had changed. Israel was still obstinate, but the Palestinians were widely recognised as a distinct nation. Arafat had spoken on their behalf at the United Nations. Egypt recognised Israel, and the other Arab states increasingly admitted that it was there to stay. The rough outline of a democratic policy for two nations, two states, meaning an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, had already won broad support.
Twenty-five years on, at Arafat’s death, even the US government and much of the right wing in Israel concedes in principle that the Palestinians must have the right to an independent state of their own. But in practice?
A policy in principle, on paper, is one thing. Pushing it through against the entrenched interests and inertia of the status quo is often another.
Palestinian guerrilla war; pressure on the Arab states to make war on Israel; and big-power diplomacy — Arafat tried them all, and none of them worked. What has never been mobilised — and what Arafat, by his whole political make-up, could never have mobilised — is concerted pressure by the international labour movement.
In 1959 Arafat was thirty years old. After student activism in his native Cairo he had, like many middle-class Palestinians, gone to work as an engineer in the Gulf.
That same year, a seventy-page pamphlet on the Arab Revolution by the “orthodox Trotskyist” Michel Pablo discussed the Palestinians only in a footnote and under the description, “the Arab refugees”. Radicals cared about the refugees — but they thought they saw, near at hand, an “Arab Revolution” which would create a united and, they hoped, socialist Arab republic stretching from Iraq to Yemen to Libya or maybe to Morocco. Why focus on secondary issues when the Arab Revolution would surely solve them in passing?
Nasser’s regime in Egypt had great prestige after facing down Britain and France over the nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956. Syria had joined with Egypt, under Nasser’s presidency, to form a United Arab Republic which they hoped to extend to other areas.
In Iraq, the British-backed monarchy had been overthrown in 1958, and the country was in ferment, with trade unions organising, the Communist Party winning a mass membership, and different strands of Arab nationalism contending.
In that same year, 1958, British forces had gone to Jordan to prop up the monarchy there, and US forces to Lebanon to save its conservative government.
In Algeria, a guerrilla war for independence was in full swing.
The Arab world had been dominated by monarchies and landlord regimes closely tied to Britain and France. Now new forces were stirring.
They seemed to point the way forward to independence from the old colonial or neo-colonial powers (Britain and France), to land reform, to industrialisation — and maybe much more.
The Palestine Liberation Organisation was set up in 1964 as a tool of the Egyptian government. In January 1968 Fatah would declare:
“Arab leaders have exploited the Palestine problem for their own benefit... Certain reactionary forces tried to use [the PLO] to dominate the Palestinians. Today the PLO, this pseudo-liberation organisation, is no longer playing any significant role... It did not spring from the masses themselves but was artificially imposed from above”.
The 1967 war drew Arafat from the margins to centre stage. Israel defeated the Arab states rapidly and comprehensively. The mirage of the Arab Revolution was dissipating. The Syrian-Egyptian United Arab Republic had broken up in 1961; the ferment in Iraq had been quelled by the first Ba’thist coup, in 1963; and a military coup in Algeria in 1965 had ousted Ahmed Ben Bella, the country's radical populist first leader after independence in 1962.
In March 1968 a band of Fatah guerrillas defeated an Israeli force making a raid into Jordan. The small battle gave the guerrillas great prestige.
By the end of 1968 Fatah had taken over the PLO. It still defined Palestine as “an indivisible part of the Arab homeland”. Palestinians were “an integral part of the Arab nation” but themselves defined in the PLO charter as only a “community” or a “people”, not a “nation”.
It conceded rights only to “the Jews had normally resided in Palestine until the beginning of the Zionist invasion” (i.e. before the start of the 20th century). It aimed for “the elimination of Zionism in Palestine”.
By 1969 Fatah spoke of a future “democratic secular” or “democratic non-sectarian” state in Palestine. Some understood this only as an opening gambit to legitimise the old aim of “eliminating the Zionists” by showing that Israelis had refused the offer of religious minority rights in an Arab state. Others took the shift away from the old line of “driving the Jews into the sea” more seriously.
By 1971 left-wingers in the PLO, notably the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, were edging towards “two states”. At first they proposed an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza (occupied, since 1967, by Israel) but as an intermediate stage towards destroying Israel. DFLP members started to talk (secretly, because of Israeli government bans) with Israeli radicals.
The basic idea that the core question was one of the rights of two peoples, not of one “land”, or just of refugees, had been formulated by the Israeli revolutionary socialist group Matzpen. In 1966 it declared: “Should the Palestinian Arabs decide to establish an independent state... the states which at present control parts of the territory west of the Jordan... should, by mutual consent, make the necessary territorial arrangements to facilitate the establishment of this state”. Meanwhile “the right to self-determination of the Israelis will be recognised”.
By 1974 the Fatah-led PLO was willing to accept the DFLP’s tentative, “transitional”, two-states policy. In 1978 Arafat went further, declaring that if a Palestinian state were established in the West Bank and Gaza, he would “renounce any and all violent means” to reconquer more territory.
In 1970 and in 1982 Fatah and the PLO lost the military bases they had had in Jordan and Lebanon. They became exile political machines, chiefly geared to diplomacy.
Arafat’s characteristic political method, then as ever, was to keep himself as leader of the Palestinians by riding several horses at once. The Arab revanchist; the Palestinian nationalist; the champion of armed struggle; the diplomat; the advocate of coexistence; the de facto ally of resurgent Islamists — he could be any of those, alternately or successively, to keep the show on the road.
Possibly a different leader, with more straightforward methods, would have seen Palestinian politics fragment. Arafat succeeded in keeping the Palestinian cause on the political agenda.
But it did not advance decisively. The method of saying whatever suits can be very serviceable for solid, established powers. For someone in Arafat’s position — who by the time of his death was a “president” without real control over even his presidential compound in Ramallah, repeatedly wrecked by Israeli assaults — it cannot serve so well.
A stable, clear policy which can rally support from below is necessary if you lack power “from above”.
In 1987-8 a mass revolt exploded in the Occupied Territories — the first intifada. The Palestinian people become an autonomous political force, not just through the guerrilla battles and exile politicking of the previous 30 years, but by mass participation.
Arafat and the PLO were pushed towards more political definition. In 1988, they formally and explicitly recognised Israel’s right to exist.
The Oslo Accords of 1993 followed. But the PLO never found the clout, in the negotiations and diplomacy that followed Oslo, to give Oslo’s vague promises of Palestinian self-determination enough weight to counter the solid pressure of the accomplished facts, the status quo, the ever-advancing Israeli drive to build settlements in the Occupied Territories.
The play-safe policy for the USA was still to hold close to Israel, now as a solid asset against political Islam and against the ambitions of Saddam Hussein.
THE LABOUR MOVEMENT
Much of the labour movement has lagged behind the evolution of the PLO’s thinking, and without the excuse of the terrible difficulties and pressures operating on the PLO. Time is running out as Ariel Sharon establishes more and more “facts” in the West Bank. A clear, unambiguous campaign by the international labour movement for “two nations, two states” — Israel out of the Occupied Territories, and an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel — is urgently needed.
* Rosemary Sayigh, Palestinians: from peasants to revolutionaries, p.149.