SEATTLE – Palestine became a “nonmember state” at the United Nations on Nov. 29. The draft of the U.N. resolution beckoning what many perceive as a historic moment passed by a huge majority of General Assembly members: 138-9, with 41 abstentions.
It was accompanied by a passionate speech delivered by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But decades earlier, a more impressive and animated Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, sought international solidarity as well. The occasion then was also termed “historic.”
Empowered by Arab support at the Rabat Arab League summit in October 1974, which bestowed on the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) the ever-opaque title “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” Arafat was invited to speak at the U.N. General Assembly.
Arafat’s language signaled a departure from what was perceived by Western powers as radical political and territorial ambitions. In his speech on Nov. 13 that year, Arafat spoke of the growing PLO’s legitimacy that compelled his actions:
“The PLO has earned its legitimacy because of the sacrifice inherent in its pioneering role and also because of its dedicated leadership of the struggle. It has also been granted this legitimacy by the Palestinian masses. The PLO has also gained its legitimacy by representing every faction, union or group as well as every Palestinian talent, either in the National Council or in people’s institutions.”
The same can hardly be said of Abbas’ Palestinian Authority (PA), which exists as a result of an ambiguous “peace process” nearly 20 years ago. It has all but completely destroyed the PLO’s once functioning institutions, redefined the Palestinian national project of liberation around a more “pragmatic,” or self-serving, discourse that is largely tailored around self-preservation, absence of financial accountability and a system of political tribalism.
Abbas is no Yasser Arafat. Moreover, the Arafat of 1974 was slightly different from an earlier Arafat who led the revolutionary Fatah party. In 1974, Arafat made a statehood proposal that itself represented a departure from Fatah’s own previous commitment to a “democratic state on all Palestine.” Arafat’s revised demands contained the willingness to settle for “establishing an independent national state on all liberated Palestinian territory.”
While the difference between both visions may be attributed to a reinterpretation of the Palestinian liberation strategy, history showed that it was much more. Since that date, and despite much saber-rattling by the United States and Israel against Arafat’s “terrorism” and such, the PLO under Arafat’s Fatah leadership underwent a decade-long scrutiny process, where the U.S. placed austere demands in exchange for an American “engagement” of the Palestinian leadership. This itself was the precondition that yielded Oslo and its abysmal consequences.
Arafat was careful to always sugarcoat any of his concessions with a parallel decision that was promoted to Palestinians as a national triumph of some sort. Back then, there was no Hamas to stage a major challenge to the PLO’s policies, and leftist groups within the PLO structure were either politically marginalized by Fatah or had no substantial presences among the Palestinian masses. The field was virtually empty of any real opposition. Even some of Arafat’s opponents found him sincere, despite their protests against his style and distressing concessions.
The rise of the PLO’s acceptability in international arenas was demonstrated in its admission as a U.N. “nonstate entity” with an observer status on Nov. 22, 1974.
The Israeli war and subsequent invasion of Lebanon in 1982 had the declared goal of destroying the PLO and was aimed at stifling the growing legitimacy of the PLO regionally and internationally. Without an actual power base — in this case, Lebanon — Israeli leaders calculated that the PLO would either collapse or capitulate.
Weakened, but not obliterated, the PLO, after the Lebanon war was a different entity from the one that existed before 1982. Armed resistance was no longer on the table, at least not in any practical terms. Such change suited some Arab countries just fine. A few years later, Arafat and Fatah were assessing the new reality from headquarters in Tunisia.
Amid the changing political landscape in Palestine, a popular uprising (Intifada) erupted in 1987 and, quite spontaneously, a local leadership formed throughout the occupied territories. New names of Palestinian intellectuals were emerging. They were community leaders and freedom fighters who mostly organized around a discourse created from local universities, Israeli prisons and Palestinian streets.
It was then that the legend of the Intifada was born with characters such as children with slingshots, mothers battling soldiers, and a massive reservoir of a new type of Palestinian fighter along with fresh language and discourse. Equally important, new movements were appearing from outside the traditional PLO confines. One such movement is Hamas, which has grown in numbers and political relevance in ways once thought impossible.
That reality proved alarming to the U.S., Israel and, of course, the traditional PLO leadership. There were enough vested interests to reach a “compromise.” This naturally meant more concessions by the Palestinian leadership in exchange for some symbolic recompense by the Americans. The latter happily floated Israel’s trial balloons so that the Israeli leadership didn’t appear weak or compromising.
Two major events defined that stage of politics in 1988: On Nov. 15, the PLO’s National Council (PNC) proclaimed a Palestinian state in exile from Algiers, and merely two weeks later, U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia Robert H. Pelletreau Jr. was designated as the sole U.S. liaison whose mission was to establish PLO contacts.
Despite the U.S.’ declared objection to Arafat’s move, the U.S. was pleased to see that the symbolic declaration was accompanied by major political concessions. The PNC stipulated the establishment of an independent state on Palestinian “national soil” and called for the institution of “arrangements for security and peace of all states in the region” through a negotiated settlements at an international peace conference on the basis of U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338 and Palestinian national rights.
Though Arafat was repeatedly confronted by even more American demands — which continued until his alleged murder by poison in Ramallah in 2004 — the deceleration was the real preamble of the Oslo accords several years later.
Since then, Palestinians have gained little aside from symbolic victories starting in 1988 when the U.N. General Assembly “acknowledged” the Algiers proclamation. It then voted to replace “Palestine Liberation Organization” references with “Palestine.” It has been one symbolic victory after another, exemplified in an officially acknowledged Palestinian flag, postage stamps, a national anthem and the like.
On the ground the reality was starkly different: Fledgling illegal Jewish settlements became fortified cities and a relatively small settler population grew to over half a million; Jerusalem is now besieged by settlements and cut off from the rest of the occupied territories; the Palestinian Authority, established in 1994 to guide Palestinians toward independence, became the permanent status of a Palestinian leadership that existed as far as Israel would permit; polarization caused by PA corruption and the PA’s security coordination with Israel led to civil strife that divided the Palestinian project between factional and self-serving agendas.
The overwhelming support, especially by Palestine’s traditional supporters (most of humanity with few exceptions), indicates that U.S. hegemony, arm-twisting and Israeli-U.S. propaganda were of little use after all. That, of course, should not be misidentified as a real change in the behavior of the Palestinian Authority, which still lacks legal, political and especially moral legitimacy among Palestinians who seek a tangible drive toward freedom.
If Abbas thinks that obtaining a new wording for Palestine’s status at the U.N. will provide needed political theater to justify another 20 years of utter failures, then time will surely prove him wrong.
If the new status, however, is used as a platform for a radically different strategy that revitalizes a haggard political discourse with the sole aim of unifying the ranks of all Palestinians around a new proud national project, then there is something worth discussing.
It isn’t the new status that matters, but rather how it is interpreted and employed. While history is not exactly promising, the future will have the last word.