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Rethinking the Palestinian National Movement

This is a piece that I have in this weekend's Haaretz that is largely a response to an article earlier in the month by Professor Avineri.

Earlier this month Prof. Shlomo Avineri argued on these pages that the real Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) did not occur at the hands of Israel in 1948, or even after 1967, but rather was a result of "the inability of the Palestinian national movement to create the political and social institutional framework that is the necessary foundation for nation-building."

Avineri's piece ("The real Nakba," May 9) is important: It recognizes the reality of Palestinian national consciousness and the legitimacy of their claim to statehood. He should be praised for correcting the tendency to depict the Palestinians as history's victims, thereby ignoring their own role as actors in their fate.

The powerful conclusion Avineri draws from his argument is that a failed Palestinian national movement is bad news, both for the Palestinians and Israel. Yet his line of thinking falls short, in ways that could make for very flawed policy prescriptions.

The Palestinian national movement has undoubtedly suffered from self-inflicted wounds, a common phenomenon in the history of liberation movements, both successful and unsuccessful. The internal dynamics of liberation movements are a useful, albeit limited, tool in explaining the trajectory of their achievements or shortcomings. Such an emphasis can, in part, be a byproduct of looking at national movements from an overly Zionist perspective.

Why? Because the success and achievements of the Yishuv (Jewish community in Palestine) and the Zionist state-building enterprise suggest that those movements that fail to conform to this norm are somehow defective, that therein lies the source of their failure. This line of thought however ignores what may be called Zionist exceptionalism both in the movement's inner workings and in the external conditions under which it operated, sometimes devastatingly hostile and at other times uniquely accommodating.

Overall, Avineri--and he is not alone in this--tends to downplay external factors, which in essence constitute the environment in which the Palestinian-Zionist national struggle has played out. A recent essay by Fred Halliday, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, posits the existence of a "post-colonial sequestration" syndrome, which he uses to describe how certain peoples miss their moment of national independence, even as empires are on the decline and new states are created.

There are many reasons why this happens, often both arbitrary and contingent on factors such as power politics, wars, colonial favoritism, accidents and, yes, leadership. Halliday tells the story of the Palestinians and the Tibetans to illustrate his point, and there are many other peoples who might fall into this category - such as the Kurds, the Tigreans and the Saharawi of Western Sahara.

While it would also be wrong to blame the Palestinian predicament exclusively on the harshness of the post-1967 Israeli occupation, that factor should at least be given its due weight. The entrenched infrastructure of occupation, built over the past 40 years and tacitly agreed to by the international community, is quite remarkable. It includes the obvious settlements and checkpoints, but also encompasses planning, zoning and land-use arrangements, all aspects of population registration, and the huge number of Palestinians that have passed through Israeli prisons perhaps as high as 20 percent of the population.

It is problematic to impose on the Palestinian national movement and its aspirations a straitjacket shaped by Zionist history. Building a state and its institutions have not historically been a central aspect of the Palestinian narrative, and with good reason.

In a remarkable speech delivered last month at the Palestine Center in Washington, D.C. (which can be found in the resources section of the blog), former Palestinian negotiator Ahmad Khalidi described how "the main Palestinian impetus after 1948 was that of return; reversing the loss of Arab land and patrimony, rather than the fulfillment of classical, post-colonial self-determination via statehood."

The Arafat moment

In the Palestinian national Zeitgeist, the scramble for statehood is understood as a relatively recent and perhaps even a passing phenomenon. To argue, as Avineri does, that there is a historical constant, dating from 1937 to 2007, to the Palestinians' failure to successfully engage in state-building may be missing the point. It might be more useful to view the Palestinian national movement as having passed through three relatively distinct phases since 1948, each lasting approximately 20 years.

Between 1948 and 1968, there was precious little by way of a national movement. During these years, the aftershock of the Nakba was most keenly felt, much of the Palestinian population was forced to relocate, and Israeli, Jordanian and Egyptian rule was imposed over what used to be mandatory Palestine. The second period, from 1968 to 1988, might be described as the years during which the Palestinian national movement emerged, led by Fatah. This movement was framed in terms of a liberation struggle predicated on return, armed resistance and the achievement of maximalist goals. Only after 1988 did the Palestinian national movement make the attainment of statehood a central goal, following the Algiers Declaration and the inauguration of diplomatic ties with the United States.

In 2008, the phase in which statehood assumed center stage may well be drawing to a close. With regard to Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the post-1988 shift can perhaps best be described as a Faustian bargain: They agreed to accept and recognize Israel on the 1967 lines and to work with their former enemies, the U.S. and later Israel, in order to negotiate a Palestinian state on 22 percent of their historic homeland an agreement that would also entail an inevitable compromise on the refugee issue.

There were plenty of mistakes, lots of ill will, and enough blame to go around for all sides - Israeli, Palestinian and American. The bottom line after 20 years is that the Faustian bargain did not deliver. For all the criticisms leveled against him, both real and imagined, it may turn out that the Arafat moment was also the two-state moment, and that his leadership was necessary to hold that construct together.

Contemporary Palestinian politics is still in the early throes of the post-Arafat period. It is still adjusting to the transition away from historic and deeply centralized leadership, and from the monopolistic, single-party rule of Fatah. That transition is coinciding with the definitive crumbling and collapse of the edifice of both the Oslo Agreements and the Palestinian Authority.

The Oslo structure is like a makeshift shelter, designed to weather storms for five years. After some 15 years, it is thus not surprising that it cannot hold up anymore. The PA's mandate holds sway neither in Gaza, nor in most of the West Bank. It is a cruel reality that anyone who owns a model train set is better able to implement a transportation vision than the PA's transportation minister. Demands that the PA enforce a monopoly of force in the West Bank are at best farcical, and at worst intentionally humiliating. A real monopoly on the use of force does exist in the West Bank and that force is the Israel Defense Forces.

Saving Statehood

Yossi Alpher, who served as an advisor to former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and is the co-editor of bitterlemons.org, has warned of turning the PA security forces into a modern incarnation of Antoine Lahad's South Lebanon Army. In the words of Ahmad Khalidi: "The PA's security forces may be the only military force in the world that is being specifically armed and trained to protect its enemies."

The PLO itself is now largely moribund. It does not represent contemporary Palestinian political realities, has not undergone serious reform, and serves mainly as a fig leaf for negotiations with Israel. Fatah's fortunes are no more encouraging. The available alternatives do not bode well, neither for the Palestinians, nor for an Israel that has in effect turned Palestinian statehood into a Zionist project for the salvation of a Jewish-democratic state.

Hamas may succeed in implementing a cease-fire and achieving an easing on the closure imposed on Gazans. It may even manage to restore some Palestinian pride and a sense of deterrence. But in the absence of greater flexibility, Hamas' platform is unlikely to prompt a far-reaching de-occupation.

Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's version of summud, or steadfastness, is an attractive one. It is predicated on self-reliance and designed to demonstrate a Palestinian capacity for maximum self-governance and self-improvement, even under impossible circumstances. This month's Palestine Investment Conference in Bethlehem was its latest manifestation. Yet the punishing realities on the ground have consistently proven stronger than even the most stoic efforts of the Texan-educated prime minister and are likely to continue to do so. The patronage of either Jordan or Egypt over West Bankers and Gazans, respectively, contains limited appeal to prospective patronized and patrons alike.

A more dramatic shift should also not be discarded. During the course of the last generation, the job of nurturing the Palestinian national narrative and political program increasingly shifted from the external leadership (outside of the territories) to the internal leadership in the West Bank and Gaza. That geographic shift may extend into Israel itself, and the next Palestinian leadership and narrative could well emerge from within Israel's Palestinian community, the so-called 1948 Arabs.

The kernel for such a development lies with the very politically conscious and engaged Palestinian-Israeli NGO community, many of whom advocate a binational or consociational democracy solution, a view that is becoming increasingly popular in the territories. Against this backdrop the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations relaunched at Annapolis seem almost inconsequential.

In the absence of the Palestinians' reclaiming ownership of the statehood project, the two-state solution is meaningless: It seems hardly realizable, let alone sustainable. A two-state solution requires a Palestinian national platform and Palestinian national structures that enjoy sufficiently broad popular representation and legitimacy. What such a solution does not require is for state institutions to be constructed under conditions of occupation. That was the Oslo model - to engage in limited self-governance and state-institution building without liberation and without de-occupation.

Removing the external veto on Palestinian national reconciliation is a sine qua non of successfully rebuilding a Palestinian political program that embraces statehood alongside Israel. It will be difficult for Israel to swallow this and a "de-occupation first" approach at the same time, but it may be the only way for Palestinians to assume ownership of the two-state project.

Fred Halliday ends his essay on post-colonial sequestration by noting that even if the historic moment is missed, independence can still sometimes be secured, as was true, for example, for Eritrea or East Timor. According to Halliday, that occurs "only if there is a major political shift in the hegemonic state that has committed the sequestration." We can blame the Palestinians all we like, and frequently with good cause, but if the two-state solution is indeed an Israeli interest and the least bad alternative for all concerned, then that major political shift has to occur in Israel for we are quite clearly the "hegemonic state" in this equation.

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Comments (1)

jalal nali:

i'am saharawi from layoune,SIR let me inform you that the majority of saharawis are moroccan and lives in moroccan desert not (western sahara) they conider them selvs moroccan, so please talk about an issue you know!
the majority of saharawis 120.000 lives in morocco and our legal representative is 'www.corcas.com' polisario as declared in spain last week by insurgents the polisario represent just 20% of saharawis, so we don't want a pro-algerian 'terror baking' to dictat us what t do, the sahara belongs to morocco sins hundreds of years.that set

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 30, 2008 11:37 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Is Israel’s Prime Minister Going Out on a High Note?.

The next post in this blog is Bush's Dwarf Diplomacy and the Seven Gazans.

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