Talking to the Palestinians

EARLY ONE hundred years ago, the progenitor of cultural Zionism, Ahad Ha’am visited the Land of Israel for the first time. 0n his return, he wrote an acerbic article in Hamelitz, the St Petersburg Hebrew daily. Although his central theme was his castigation of the Hovevei Zion settlers for unethical financial practice, he also registered another more telling observation. He commented: “We tend to believe abroad that Palestine is nowadays almost completely deserted, a non-cultivated wilderness, and anyone can come there and buy as much land as his heart desires.”

The article, “Emet mi-Eretz Israel” (Truth from the Land of Israel) was written in 1891 and subsequently launched a wave of protests. Ahad Ha’am’s sharp words pierced the precious image of a golden future. Naturally, many tireless builders of the new Zion resented such “Truth from the Land of Israel”. They regarded it, with some justification, as being counterproductive to the task of wielding the Jewish masses into a cohesive unit for the creation of a Jewish homeland. Even so, ignoring the reality of the other inhabitants of Eretz Israel was an historic self-delusion for Diaspora Jewry. It established a mental obstacle which future generations would shrink from overcoming.

Since 1967, the Palestinian Arabs have publicly considered themselves as a people and that process of self-definition is still evolving. It is something which many in Israel and the Diaspora have found difficult to countenance. On both sides of this bitter conflict, there are those who are unable to accept that there is another people who feel just as strongly for the Land.

The desire to wish away the Palestinians expresses itself in varying degrees of non-recognition. At its most extreme, it leads to a desire to expel the Palestinians. In addition, the use of certain public relations techniques indirectly fortify such sentiments. Many people, for example, accept the view that Jordan is Palestine simply because the Palestinians constitute a majority in the Hashemite Kingdom. What is left unsaid is that this view also begs the question as to why Palestinians choose to remain on the West Bank if Jordan is their real homeland. Attitudes, both overt and covert, which argue for vacating the territories, reinforce the belief that peace between Israelis and Palestinians is a utopian myth, an unobtainable goal and undesirable objective, both now and in the future.

Peace, it should be noted, is made between deadly enemies and the crawl towards a settlement is neither a romantic nor a rhapsodical process. Yet even those who deeply believe in a rapprochement accept that peace with the Palestinians is as elusive as ever. Mr Peres, to his credit, wishes to include the Palestinians in an international conference, yet no parallel gesture has emanated from PLO circles despite constant encouragement from a number of Arab leaders. Instead, there is a well-worn reliance on tired formulae and outdated programmes. The weakness of the Palestinian struggle is the weakness of their leadership. The PLO as a Palestinian national movement is so multifarious and fragmented that it has been unable to deal unequivocally with the recognition of Israel or even to state unambiguously its own geographical goals. A servant with so many rival masters is unable to walk in one direction. If we are to believe that Mr Arafat is a moderate figure, then he has been—even as a national symbol for the Palestinians—totally unable to solder together the disparate pieces and move them in a constructive direction. The portage of an olive branch which is a recognition of the need for dialogue together with a Kalashnikov rifle which seeks to extinguish its participants is an unhappy contradiction. Indeed, logic dictates that the Larnaca and Achille Lauro incidents undermine the Palestinian approach to Washington, rather than complement it. When armed struggle does not focus on sabotage and military targets, but instead seeks out the disabled, the elderly and the children, is there any other name for this except terrorism? Even when such acts are described as “justifiable terrorism”, they lead neither to national liberation nor to national salvation. And it is an understatement to claim that such attacks strengthen the demands of the inflexible and the irrational within Israel. Such acts also produce the inevitable retaliatory raids and continue the cycle of violence.

Even Mohammed Milhem, the man at the centre of the British talks controversy, virtually typifies the lack of clear thinking in Palestinian strategy. Before his hasty and illegal expulsion by the Begin government in 1980, Milhem publicly and privately discussed his willingness to recognize the Jewish people as both a nation and a state. This position directly opposed the much-trumpeted PLO National Covenant which absurdly regards the Jews as a religious minority and calls for a democratic secular state. Many figures in Israeli military and political life remained in contact with him before and after his expulsion even if some disputed his two states proposition. In juxtaposition to his image as a moderate, Milhem has also made many vitriolic and indeed irrational comments about Israel and, of course, he was the person who refused to place his signature on Mrs Thatcher’s declaration. These incompatible projections of Milhem reflect the confusion that exists in the internecine struggles of Palestinian politics.

Earlier this year, before Force 17 and the Palestinian Liberation Front enlarged the myriad warring organizations, there were a number of meetings between Israelis and Palestinian supporters of the PLO. These included well-known Labour members of the Knesset such as Ora Namir. Moreover, a number of doves who previously refused to entertain the idea of meeting PLO members, even informally, now countenanced the possibility of discussions. Philip Klutznick, an important Diaspora figure, and Shlomo Lahat, the Likud mayor of Tel Aviv, publicly commented that the PLO was ultimately Israel’s negotiating partner. An opinion poll of over 1,200 Israelis taken earlier this year showed that an amazing 26.6 per cent favoured direct talks with the PLO—without preconditions. It seems that the reason for this change of opinion was a perception that the Palestinian national movement, including the PLO, was moving away from violence. Ironically, the recent terrorism is in opposition to West Bank opinion. The East Jerusalem weekly, El Biader el-Siass, recently published the findings of the first opinion poll on political questions conducted on the West Bank since 1967. Significantly, it registered an overwhelming 79 per cent in favour of furthering the dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. Such hopes have now been dashed and replaced by an entrenched vigilance.

Yet there still remains the fundamental problem of talking to the Palestinians. Even if there are few with whom Israel can discuss peace, it is important not to subsume Palestinian national aspirations under an Israeli-Jordanian dialogue. Even in Mr Reagan’s America where few support the PLO, opinion polls show an increase in support for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, from 29 per cent in 1975 to 46 per cent in 1982.

In the Diaspora, communal leaders seem to have abrogated their duty to participate in the search for peace in the Middle East. Public contact between Jews and Arabs in Britain has decreased to the point of non-existence during the last fifteen years. Instead, Diaspora Jews are expected to be enthusiastic participants in the often mindless propaganda war. Rabbi David Goldberg was right to accept an invitation to address CAABU (the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding) at the House of Commons recently, if for no other reason than to indicate the illogical nature of our impregnable isolationism.

How can the dialogue with Palestinian nationalists be initiated? An important contribution would be a cessation of violence. Elias Freij, the mayor of Bethlehem, has called upon Yasser Arafat to institute a moratorium on the military campaign against Israel. It is an eminently sensible suggestion and one which King Hussein privately and President Mubarak publicly have placed before the PLO leader. But whether Yasser Arafat is capable, psychologically or politically, of rising to it is another matter. Mr Arafat’s response was to declare a restriction on violent actions outside the “occupied territories”, but whether this even includes Israel is, as usual, left vague and undefined. The PLO showed that it could maintain a ceasefire when it studiously avoided attacks on Israel’s northern border for a year prior to the invasion of Lebanon. And it should be apparent to most that Mr Arafat’s policies have done little to better the lot of ordinary Palestinians. The Amman agreement was certainly a step in the right direction, but it is still valid to ask why there remain such difficulties in changing course? Is it only a question of keeping all factions satisfied? Or is it something more fundamental? It gives rise to the suspicion that at heart, Yasser Arafat is unable, emotionally and ideologically, to abandon his aspirations for a Greater Palestine in Israel and the West Bank.

Mr Peres clearly believes that two monologues do not make a dialogue. He told the United Nations:

I call upon the Palestinian people to put an end to rejectionism and belligerency. Let us talk! Let us face each other as free men and women, across the negotiating table. Let us argue, but not fight. Let us arm ourselves with reason, let us not reason with arms.

Mr Peres’s words deserve to be heeded by both Israelis and Palestinians—the alternative is violence, terror and the rule of madmen.

 Jewish Quarterly Winter 1985

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