The PLO in the World Order


The PLO in the World Order  Avraham Sela and Moshe Ma’oz (eds), The PLO and Israel: From Armed Conflict to Political Solution 1964-1994. London: Macmillan, 1997. Pp.x + 310, index. £30 (cloth). ISBN 0-333-72370-8. Roland Dannreuther, The Soviet Union and the PLO. London: Macmillan, 1998. Pp.ix + 222, index, biblio. £45 (cloth). ISBN 0-312-17223-0.

In his introduction to this series of essays on the PLO’s military and political Odyssey, Avraham Sela writes that ‘the ability of any society to critically disregard its past is an indispensable step toward openness of mind, mutual tolerance, and human relationships within and between nations’. It applies to Serbs and Kosovars, Croats and Muslims, Orangemen and Sinn Feiners – and of course, to Israelis and Palestinians. It is also true that this is easier said than done. Dialogue with a demonised enemy does not smoothly overcome historical trauma. The Palestinians thus named the areas and the alleyways of their refugee camps after former neighbourhoods and suburbs. The Jews initiated a day of remembrance and fasting, Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av) to commemorate numerous tragedies, stretching back as far as the destruction of the First Temple in the year 586 BC. Both peoples suffered, but it is also the sense of marginalisation and lack of national recognition in history that serves to bind Israelis and Palestinians.

It took more than 15 years for the PLO to come into existence after the debacle of 1948 – and then only as an instrument in inter-Arab rivalry. During this temporal hiatus, the Palestinians placed their trust in the hands of the Arabs states and thereby in the ideology of pan-Arabism. What then contributed to the ethnomobilisation of the Palestinians? In his essay, Emile Shaliyeh lists several central factors. The inability of the Arab states to effect any meaningful resolution of the question certainly forced the Palestinians to be responsible for their own national destiny. The defeat of 1967 proved to be death knell of pan-Arabism in Palestinian eyes. On the other hand, the struggle of the FLN in Algeria provided a successful model for the PLO. As Shaliyeh argues, several radical states, including Syria, Libya and Iraq, provided the political space and enabled the PLO to operate. Moreover the existence of the 1948 generation in transnational camps – a refugee diaspora – meant that the PLO could call upon different ideological, geographical and financial resources to aid them. The presence of organisational structure also enhanced the ability to enlist the Palestinian communities. All of this is highly reminiscent of the Jewish experience; the emergence of the Jewish national movement in the nineteenth century; the paradigm of Irish republicanism for the Irgun Zvai Leumi; the payment of the Zionist shekel; the enlistment of American Jewry after the Holocaust. Even the political factionalism was mirrored.

In his essay, Yezid Sayigh suggests that the Arab states blocked Palestinian attempts at statehood. Although East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank were in Arab hands prior to 1967, the idea of a Palestinian state was quietly buried. Only in 1959 did Nasir and Iraq’s Qasim call for a Palestinian ‘entity’ or ‘republic’. It was no surprise that sumoud (steadfastness) became a Palestinian political strategy. Yet the Palestinians, like the Israelis, were imprisoned by memory and myth.

The period after the Six-Day War can be defined as a period when Israelis and Palestinians tried to search for their national adversary, groping in the political darkness. Although the United Nations agreed in November 1947 to the creation of both an Israeli Jewish state and a Palestinian Arab one, Golda Meir symbolised the myopia for the Israelis after 1967 in the emblematic comment ‘There is no such thing as the Palestinians?’1 This was taken up by Menachem Begin and the Likud who for ideological reasons sought to delegitimise Palestinian nationalism2 and even legislated for it during the 1980s when ‘contact’ with the PLO became a criminal offence for Israeli citizens.3 The acceptance of the PLO eventually came with the election of Yitzhak Rabin in 1992.4

The Palestinian path to the handshake on the White House lawn and the declaration of principles was similarly tortuous, often violent and long drawn out. Significantly it was only a few short years after Fatah’s take-over of the PLO that the first signs of the acceptance of the reality of the state of Israel began to be seen. Muhammad Muslih has written a useful paper detailing the transition of the PLO from a position advocating a Greater Palestine to one of gradualism directed towards eventual partition. At the twelfth Palestine National Council (PNC) in Cairo in June 1974, the delegates accepted the establishment of the ‘people’s national, independent and fighting authority on every part of Palestinian land to be liberated’.5 This significantly implied the possibility of a Palestinian entity side by side with Israel. Hitherto, only a secular democratic state of Jews, Christians and Muslims had been the official PLO stand.6 Acceptance of Israel and the right of Jews to national self-determination was anathema, and even a Palestinian mini-state in Gaza and the West Bank had been rejected. The secular democratic state thus became the absolutist dream, to be realised at some point in the remote future; it was replaced in the interim by a strategy of incremental stages – a territorial sausage slicer, seemingly to eliminate Israel, replaced it. This first stage in recognising the ‘other’ came in part through the growing importance of the West Bank Palestinians themselves who through living under occupation perceived the political reality much more acutely than their brothers in exile. The ambivalence of language in 1974 suggested a latent willingness to explore and perhaps embark on the diplomatic road while still emphasising the PLO’s readiness to ‘struggle by every means’. Resolution 242 was once more rejected by the Palestinians as a psychological step too far. The outcome of this move at the twelfth PNC was to fragment the PLO into maximalists who could not compromise and those who gradually came to recognise a two-state solution. Thus Abu Nidal left Fatah in 19747 while Sa’id Hammami and ‘Isam Sirtawi began to voice the two state option, mutual recognition and mutual security guarantees. Both men were assassinated by rejectionist Palestinians for literally being ahead of their time. Fear of the rejectionists, self-preservation and the spectre of Palestinian disunity persuaded Arafat to move at a snail’s pace for over a decade.

Muslih identifies three transition phases, focused on the programmes, which the PLO adopted between 1974 and the nineteenth PNC programme in November 1988. Clearly while external events such as the Camp David agreement, the Lebanon war and the Intifada certainly influenced the direction of the PLO, there was an undoubted, if politically procrastinated, rendezvous with realpolitik. For example, the PLO exhibited a positive attitude towards those peace plans which recognised Israel and provided for its security. Rather than talk about driving the Jews into the sea,8 which had been the rhetoric before 1967, Israel as ‘occupied Palestinian land’ became secondary and greater emphasis was placed on the West Bank and Gaza. The thirteenth programme of the PNC in 1977 endorsed the idea of maintaining contact with ‘Jewish democratic and progressive forces … which are struggling against the ideology and practice of Zionism’. Although there were overt contacts with anti-Zionist Jews on the left who had few followers, even at this early stage discussions with members of the Israeli peace camp such as Uri Avneri and Liova Eliav – some of whom did not discard the label of ‘Zionist’ – were taking place. The pretence of speaking to members of the far left eventually gave way in the 1980s to a full blown dialogue first with the Israeli left and then with the mainstream Peace Now which was in essence an umbrella organisation for liberal Zionists.

Muslih evaluates the nineteenth PNC and Arafat’s declaration of independence of a Palestinian State in 1988 correctly as the conclusion of a peace policy pursued since 1974. However, it was not as clear-cut as Muslih implies. Arafat’s fear of the rejectionist Palestinian organisations led him to obscure this historic watershed in verbal subterfuge. Although he did indeed agree to ‘renounce all forms of terrorism, including individual, group and state terrorism’, these comments were actually made by Arafat at a press conference after the PNC meeting in Algiers and after an address to the United Nations in Geneva.9 The press conference came after repeated postponements and was clearly designed to appease the United States who insisted on a specific form of words, which were not clouded in ambiguity. Both the Popular Front’s George Habash and the Democratic Front’s Naif Hawatmeh correctly pointed out in a joint statement that Arafat’s comments were not PLO policy and did not commit them.10 Indeed the PNC declaration which implied the right of Israel to exist as a sovereign state through the use of indirect language and inferred statements was actually preceded by a statement of support for ‘the right of peoples to resist foreign occupation, colonialism and racial discrimination and their right to struggle for independence’.11 Although in practice, Fatah had given up international terrorism in 1974, Arafat did not consider ‘domestic terrorism’ as encompassed by his pronouncement. He thus agreed with the rejectionists in this area. Since he was unable to control the Intifada, he blurred the division between terrorism and civil disobedience.12 The major difference between Arafat and the rejectionists was situated in cross border attacks on Israel. Whereas Arafat called for an end to Fatah’s attacks, the rejectionists did not feel bound by any such restriction. The PLO as a whole was thus blamed for the cross border attacks of the rejectionists. All this in turn allowed the Shamir government — and in particular Netanyahu – to wreck the PLO-US dialogue in 1989-90 in claiming incorrectly that the PLO had not renounced violence.13 There was thus a commonality of interests of the Israeli government and the Palestinian rejectionists. Muslih rightly describes the PLO’s political Odyssey as incremental; however, it did not end, as he argues, in 1988 at the nineteenth PNC. Indeed, his comments that it was only after Oslo that Arafat departed from the general consensus implied in PNC programmes make better sense if the 1988 breakthrough is seen as a precursor to the Declaration of Principles in 1993. Moreover, Arafat should be regarded as the arbiter of a policy of incrementalism rather than the PLO itself.

The PLO had once defined Jewish nationalism as a base for world imperialism placed strategically in the midst of the Arab homeland to combat Arab liberation, unity and progress. Such an approach did not simply fade away in the period of rapprochement. In another essay, Barry Rubin points out that as late as 1993 one of the founding fathers of Fatah, Khalid al-Hassan, quoted an old antisemitic forgery: ‘As George Washington said, “(Jews) cannot live except by sucking the blood of others. The Israeli political leadership is like a coward seeking protection from a strong man…. Israel is the United States’ slave'”. Clearly the PLO’s learning process about the nature of the Jewish State progressed only step by step. Naomi Chazan’s essay on the involvement of Israeli and Palestinian women in the peace movement suggests that there are undoubtedly different levels of accepting the reality of the Israeli state within the Palestinian struggle. An essay by Susan Hattis Rolef shows that this process towards acceptance and mutual recognition was not one-sided. In an overview of Israeli policy towards the PLO, she remarks that it took 19 years for Rabin and Peres – from 1974 to 1993 – to conclude that there was no other choice but to talk to and negotiate with the PLO. Shimon Peres, a disciple of the hawkish if pragmatic founder of the state, David Ben-Gurion, was not regarded as a dove in the 1970s when he served in Rabin’s first administration. Hattis Rolef argues that it was only when he replaced Rabin as head of the Labour Party in 1977 that he began to move towards the left. For Rabin, the change was much slower and was ultimately catalysed by the Intifada.

An underrated impetus which propelled Arafat towards his declaration of a Palestinian state alongside Israel in 1988 was the ascendancy of the ‘new thinking’ of Mikhail Gorbachev in the USSR. Roland Dannreuther’s book suggests that the USSR’s uneasy and unpredictable relationship with the PLO was ultimately a disaster for the Palestinians – yet another example of backing losers. The Soviet Union had always been uneasy in its relationship with Zionism. Indeed, after 1948, it attempted to differentiate between Israel and Zionism. Moreover, Zionism was a psychological and ideological irritant for the USSR – and especially for many Communist Jews embedded in the Soviet power structure. Both Communism and Zionism had captivated the Jews with Biblical imagery and had competed for their allegiance. Indeed, the Balfour Declaration and the October Revolution in 1917 occurred within days of each other.14 Lenin always opposed Zionism but condemned antisemitism.’5 Stalin similarly opposed Zionism but created and manipulated antisemitism. This approach became further blurred when Stalin wished to utilise the impending birth of the state as a paradigm for anti-imperialist struggle and an instrument against the British presence in the Middle East. Thus when the State of Israel was established in 1948, Gromyko was making essentially socialist-Zionist speeches at the United Nations whilst the NKVD was arresting Soviet Jews who wished to leave for Israel and incarcerating them for long periods in the Gulag.16 Such was the subtlety of Stalin’s policy. The ‘Black Years of Soviet Jewry’ bore witness to the decimation of the Jewish intelligentsia in the USSR and a virulent antisemitism.” Indeed it was strongly rumoured at the time of Stalin’s death that Soviet Jews were about to be deported en masse to Central Asia or to the Jewish autonomous region of Birobidzhan on the Chinese border. Although the Soviet Union formally recognised Israel in 1948 and supplied it with arms via Czechoslovakia, it veered between a policy of delegitimisation as a state and of simultaneously propelling it towards the negotiating table with the Palestinians. Ben-Gurion’s decision to opt for a western orientation rather than a neutral stance further pushed the Soviets towards the Arab national camp and eventually towards the Palestinians.

Dannreuther’s brief explanation of the changing attitude of the Soviet Union towards Israel suggests that it came about due essentially to the demonstrations outside the Moscow synagogue when Golda Meir, the Israeli Ambassador, attended Jewish New Year services in September 1948.18 However, the ingredients for the anti-Jewish campaign against ‘cosmopolitanism’ had reared its head earlier with the Zhdanovschina and its criticism of the intelligentsia” in September 1946, although it became overtly antisemitic from the beginning of 1949.

Russia had always been driven by strategic interests in the Middle East and Dannreuther details the religio-ideological impetus to liberate nonSlavic peoples such as the Greeks and the Arabs from Ottoman control. Dostoyevsky, he points out, believed that the Second Coming of Christ would take place in a country under the Russian flag. Yet, with the Bolshevik coup, the new Soviet authorities were decidedly uninterested in the Holy Sites in Palestine.

Dannreuther provides a somewhat truncated background to Soviet attitudes towards Zionism. It was indeed a complex issue, but it was also characterised by ignorance, political expediency and racism as well as ideology. Although the Comintern did permit the establishment of the Palestine Communist Party (PCP) in 1924 as a purely anti-Zionist group, composed of Arabs and Jews, it desperately attempted to dilute the ‘Jewish nature’ of the organisation. For example, the Comintern castigated the PCP in 1929 for referring to the massacre of Hebron’s Jews as an anti-Jewish pogrom – it preferred to describe it as a genuine anti-imperialist rebellion.20

Krushchev’s decision to support the emerging nations of the Third World in the 1950s was essentially a departure from traditional policies, which essentially centred on Turkey or Iran. The stand-off between East and West through fear of the nuclear nightmare meant that Egypt and Syria now became objects of Soviet support and instruments in the Cold War. Indeed the Soviets even acquiesced in Nasir’s dismantling of the Syrian Communist Party in 1958 and they remained impassive when Communists were persecuted in all the main countries supported by the USSR, Egypt, Iraq and Syria.

Dannreuther argues that these somersaults could still be justified within the framework of Marxism-Leninism. ‘If ideology is defined less as a rigid set of doctrines and strategies, connected to the particular dogmas of Marxism-Leninism, and more as the particular Weltanschauung through which the Soviet foreign policy elite viewed the world, its central role becomes clearer’. Dannreuther asserts that effectively the Soviets divided up the world between the forces of reaction and the forces of progress and that despite bending and veering here and there, policy was broadly filtered through the Marxist-Leninist ideological prism. Alternatively, it could be argued that Leninist expediency emerged as the central tenet of Soviet Communism and that such flexibility could be rationalised through ideology rather than the other way around. The Soviet elite, particularly under Stalin, disliked those who asked questions about such matters. Thus those who drew the line at some point – and this included a disproportionate number of Jews – found themselves outside Soviet society. Many figures of Jewish origin such as Pavel Litvinov and Yuli Daniel were thus involved themselves in the dissident movement in the 1960s. Others such as Anatoly Sharansky became Zionists and immigrated to Israel.

Like the Zionists, the PLO, however, provided an ideological conundrum for the Soviet Union due to its divergent components. Was the PLO simply a reactionary nationalist grouping or a genuine representation of a progressive anti-imperialist force? Were the Popular and Democratic Fronts a revolutionary vanguard or simply propagators of ‘infantile leftism’? All these approaches were adopted and discarded by the USSR between 1964 and 1991.

At first, the Soviets refused to support the PLO either ideologically or financially under its first leader Ahmad Shuqayri. The PLO was perceived as a creature of the Arab regimes, which the USSR sponsored anyway. Although the Soviet Union broke off diplomatic relations with Israel as a result of the victory in the Six-Day War, it regarded Palestinian military actions as ill-conceived especially since they were backed by China. In 1968, Soviet attitudes changed due to a heightened awareness within the Arab world of the Palestinian question. They were now favourably depicted as ‘partisans’ even though their political programme left no room for compromise with Israel. The PLO’s rejection of the Soviet peace plan in December 1968, however, led to further criticism of their methods of struggle and in particular the demand for a ‘democratic secular state’. Not only were they condemned as adventurers and Maoists, but as Dannreuther points out, the Soviet media compared their stand to Trotsky’s refusal to consider a realistic compromise at Brest-Litovsk.

Even so, despite the debacle in Jordan in 1970, Moscow continued to support the PLO in the hope of a negotiated settlement with Israel. For example, the Soviets received PLO delegations following the purge of Communists in the Sudan in 1971 and later after Sadat had expelled all Soviet advisors from Egypt. Soviet support for the PLO in the 1970s was conditional on their promotion of a realistic and moderate political programme. In a memorandum to the PLO in October 1973, Moscow stipulated that the price for Palestinian representation at the Geneva conference in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War was an acceptance of a mini-state alongside Israel. Dannreuther points out that there were several discussions between Arafat and the Soviet Ambassador to Jordan as early as 1971. Significantly Moscow found Fatah ambivalent on the question of a mini-state and the more radical organisations were adamantly opposed to it. This state of affairs was reflected in the first hesitant step on the diplomatic road at the twelfth PNC in 1974. Even so, the Soviet media reported the terrorist incidents at Ma’alot and Kiriat Shemonah sympathetically by the rejectionist groups in 1974 despite the fact that several of them had broken off official contact with Moscow. This contrasted with the sense of outrage in Israel with whom there was no diplomatic relations. Menachem Begin, whose political star was in the ascendant and who would become Prime Minister within three years, told the Knesset, ‘two-legged beasts, Arab Nazis perpetrated this abomination’.21 The Soviet shift to a formal commitment to a Palestinian state brought a hardening of the line in terms of ideology and a further imbalance in its perceived role as mediator in the Middle East. The USSR thus supported the ‘Zionism is Racism’ resolution at the United Nations in 1975 and Gromyko commented that Israeli intransigence on the Palestinian issue mean that ‘the very existence of the State of Israel could not be guaranteed’.

Despite the more amenable attitude to Palestinian aspirations by the Carter administration, the PNC refused to accept UN Resolution 242 much to Soviet displeasure. Both superpowers attempted to reconvene the Geneva conference but could bring neither the Israelis – now led by Menachem Begin – nor the Palestinians to recognise each other simultaneously.

After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the USSR began to favour the Popular and Democratic Fronts at the expense of Arafat and Fatah. These groups together with the Palestine Communist Party began to coalesce as an opposition bloc under Syrian suzerainty. This reflected the Soviet Union’s suspicion of the centrist ‘petty bourgeois’ Arafat and his growing interest in western approaches and specifically in direct dialogue with the United States. Indeed, it was now the United States that seemingly had the better possibility of becoming the interlocutor between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Andropov interregnum in 1982/3 produced a much more aggressive policy on the Middle East and accelerated criticism of Arafat. The Amman agreement in February 1985 which established the basis for PLO-Jordanian co-operation on the peace process catalysed the formation of the rejectionist Palestine National Salvation Front under Syrian influence a month later. Moscow attempted to coerce both the Democratic Front and the Palestine Communist Party to join in an attempt to create a rival body to the PLO. They were also prepared to invite the leaders of those factions opposed to the Amman agreement for discussions in Moscow. The USSR was disadvantaged by its continued refusal to resume diplomatic relations with Israel. Thus, though it formally desired a two state solution and mutual recognition, the USSR found itself promoting the rejectionists who did not believe in this vision – an outcome of the fact that the Kremlin could not accept Arafat’s independent nationalism and his courting of the West. The US’s approach was relatively even-handed.

By 1986 it was clear to Arafat that although the PLO had suffered a critical decline in its political standing in the Middle East, Gorbachev’s decision to restore diplomatic relations with Israel despite Syrian opposition could open doors and therefore further encouraged Arafat’s supporters within the PLO to float trial balloons about mutual recognition in 1988. In part, this took place because Gorbachev followed Andropov’s policy of economic self-interest in cutting back on Soviet aid to weak client regimes and in military adventures. Despite both the direct Soviet and the implicit Palestinian recognitions of Israel, the Shamir government refused to respond to these dramatic moves and indeed exhibited profound reservations about Soviet involvement in the peace process. Eventually Moscow achieved its desire for a Middle East Peace conference, but by the time the Madrid Conference opened at the end of 1991, Soviet  Communism was expiring rapidly with only days to live. To the end the USSR-PLO relationship remained prickly and unpredictable. Ironically, the Soviet Union in its death throes fully opened its gates for the first time essentially since the early 1920s and allowed hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews to leave for Israel. The Soviet Union had become the midwife in the rebirth of the Zionist imperative of aliyah (emigration) – an ideological volte-face which deeply enraged the PLO, yet brought home in no uncertain terms the reality and permanence of the state of Israel as a Jewish homeland.

NOTES 1. Sunday Times, 16 June 1969. 2. Menachem Begin, Ma’ariv, 14 December 1973. 3. Colin Shindler, Ploughshares into Swords? (London: I.B. Tauris 1991) pp.168-9. 4. Barry Rubin, Revolution until Victory (London: Harvard University Press 1994) p.245. 5. Journal of Palestine Studies 3/4 (1974) p.224. 6. Yehoshafat Harkarbi, Fedayeen Action and Arab Strategy, Adelphi Paper No. 53 (London: Institute of Strategic Studies, December 1968). 7. Yossi Melman, The Master Terrorist (London: Sidgwick and Jackson 1987) pp.66-72. 8. PLO Radio, 2 June 1967. 9. Phil Baum and Raphael Danziger, Middle East Review XXII (Autumn 1989) p.17. 10. Independent, 25 January 1989. 11. Shindler, p.139. 12. Tikkun IV/3 (May-June 1989). 13. Shindler, pp.140-47. 14. Arieh Rafaeli (Tsentsiper), Ba’maavak l’geulah (Tel Aviv: Davar 1956) pp.29-34. 15. Harold Shukman, Lenin’s Nationalities Policy and the Jewish Question, Bulletin on Soviet and East European Affairs No. 5, May 1970, pp.43-50. See also V.I. Lenin Collected Works, Fourth edition Vol.29 (Moscow: 1965) pp.252-3. 16. Mordechai Namir, Shlichut B’Moskva (Tel Aviv: Am Oved 1971) p.336. See also Avigdor Dagan, Moscow and Jerusalem (London: Abelard-Schuman 1970) p.37. 17. For a full account of the period, see Yehoshua A. Gilboa, The Black Years of Soviet Jewry (Brandeis: Little, Brown 1971). 18. Namir, pp.65-8. 19. Gilboa, p.158. 20. Sondra Miller Rubenstein, The Communist Movement in Palestine and Israel 1919-1984 (Boulder: Westview 1985) pp.158-63. 21. Menachem Begin, Major Knesset Debates Downloaded by [SOAS, University of London] at 04:36 09 March 2015 bates, Vol. V, ed. Netanel Lorch (Jerusalem: University Press of America 1992) pp.1891-5.


Terrorism and Political Violence, vol.11 no.3 Autumn1999

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