In considering the historic developments that led to the Palestinians’ participation in the Oslo Accords, it is first necessary to reject the mythmaking that is perpetuated not only by the Israeli occupation forces and the American media, but also by the Palestinian Authority, to the effect that there is a peace process there, that there is peace there [February, 2001], that they’re trying to reach a solution to the problem, that they’re trying to correct historic injustices, and that the outcome of the process is going to be an independent Palestinian state.
Since the signing of the declaration of principles in 1993, hundreds of people have been killed in Palestine, more than a thousand families have had their homes destroyed by Israeli forces, over a thousand people have had their rights to live in Jerusalem taken away; thousands have been arrested, tortured, and imprisoned; and 70% of the West Bank, and Gaza, have been put under direct Israeli control. Most of this land is being used to enlarge the area of exclusive Jewish settlements. On top of all of this, there is another myth of an economic “peace dividend” in the region. However, unemployment has reached unprecedented rates: sometimes as high as 50% in Gaza, 30-35% in the West Bank. Thus absolutely nothing has gone in a positive direction, in the West Bank and Gaza, since the signing of the Oslo Accords.
There is a consensus among Palestinians of different ideological backgrounds as to three basic goals: an independent Palestinian state; self-determination for the Palestinian people; and the right of return for all refugees who were expelled in 1948, after what we call a Nakba, the catastrophe, the destruction of Palestinian society. Achieving these goals was the original mandate of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Now there is a lot of talk about the precise kind of state we should have (secular, democratic, etc.), but it must above all be an independent state. However, the deal that the PLO ended up imposing upon the Palestinians, in what is termed the peace process, goes directly against all of these objectives. The Oslo accord amounts to a sellout to the Israeli occupation, to the Israeli authority, and to American hegemony in the region. So the question is, why did the PLO move from trying to establish an independent Palestinian state, struggling for the right of return for all refugees and stressing the right of self-determination, to essentially hijacking all these rights and signing a peace deal that doesn’t cater to the interests or the rights of the Palestinian people?
The initial platform of the PLO was to establish an independent, democratic, secular state in all of Palestine, in its pre-1948 borders. After the ’67 war, however, in which Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza fell under Israeli occupation, the PLO found itself moving progressively towards redefining its political objective as the establishment of a Palestinian state in just the West Bank and Gaza, which are 22% of historic Palestine. This is called the two-state solution: one state for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and one for the Jews, for a Jewish majority, which would be the state of Israel in what is now called Israel proper, comprising the remaining 78% of historic Palestine.
Now this movement from a secular, democratic Palestine to a two-state solution has involved drastic changes in the way the Palestinians viewed themselves, in the way the PLO promoted certain Palestinian rights and ignored others. The PLO moved to that solution out of a perceived defeat of the first platform, the perceived impossibility of establishing a secular state for all, for Arabs, for Jews, for Palestinians, for Israelis, for all communities living on that land. And that perceived defeat was essentially internal; the PLO did not negotiate before moving from one slogan, from one platform to the other. It did not get anything in return for dropping its demands for the right of return of Palestinian refugees. It just reduced the demands of the Palestinian people to being boxed inside what is called a two-state solution, which is another myth, together with the peace process.
Moving from the idea of establishing a state for all to establishing a smaller state in the West Bank and Gaza of course had consequences for Palestinians inside Israel proper, who did not leave their homes despite what happened in ’48. It also had consequences for the 3.5 million registered refugees, who now all of a sudden have to entertain the idea of getting compensation for their land rather than the right to return to it. It had further consequences for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who, for the first time, began believing that the project of establishing a Palestinian State in the West Bank and Gaza is viable, and that their interest and the interest of the Israeli occupation can be bridged at some point, whereby both sides would agree to guarantee simultaneously the continuity of Israel as it is, i.e. with a Jewish majority, and an economically and politically viable state in the West Bank and Gaza.
Anybody who has been following the news recently would know that this solution has proven unworkable, at least within the Oslo framework. We haven’t talked at all about Jerusalem, which is gradually being completely cut off from the West Bank. It’s easier for Palestinians from Gaza to go to the United States than to go to Jerusalem, much easier. And what is happening right now is, I think, a consequence of three layers of interrelated factors that contributed to the defeat of one platform and the acceptance or the imposition of another one on the PLO and the Palestinians.
The first layer is international. We are witnessing consequences of the end of the Cold War. The Palestinian-Israeli or Arab-Israeli rivalry was part of the superpower rivalry in the Middle East. It is well known that the Palestinians had problems with the Soviet Union, which was far from being an exemplary ally. But the fact that the PLO and the Palestinians looked mostly outward, to find support for their legitimacy, meant that the international arena was more important to them than was the West Bank/Gaza territory. The PLO paid a lot of attention to what was happening in the United Nations, and they viewed themselves as being successful as long as they enjoyed international backing. The PLO frequently pointed out that they were the only revolutionary movement in the world that had more recognition than the occupying power. So it was very important for the PLO to maintain this. After the end of the Cold War, the PLO did not understand what was happening. They were still caught up in the superpower rivalry, thinking that if you just say that UN Resolution 181 or 194 guarantees something, then that’s good enough. The problem is that power was shifting, and the end of the Cold War left the United States as the only superpower effectively in the Middle East. The United States thought that its own interest in maintaining the commercial flow of Middle Eastern oil would necessitate ending the conflict in the region. This objective is more plausible to the Americans or to the Israelis, because a solution can be imposed on the weaker partner. This was not initially understood by the Palestinians.
The second layer is regional. At the outset of the Gulf War, the PLO did not have a clear position on the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Just what the PLO said on this issue is a matter of dispute. Although they did not endorse the invasion and said they supported an Arab solution to the question, their perceived position was not clear. Arafat’s cordial meeting in Baghdad with Saddam Hussein had a detrimental effect on the Gulf States’ support of the PLO. This support was important because the PLO looked outward not only for legitimacy but also for finance. The Gulf States financed the PLO for a long time, and when that windfall of cash from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Gulf States stopped, the PLO had to search for another patron. This opened the PLO to the demands of the Americans, because the PLO needed the money and was willing to accept whatever platform was required in order to save itself from a crushing financial crisis.
There is another regional question which was very important to the PLO, namely, the role of Jordan. Israel, denying the reality of a Palestinian people, had always argued that Jordan would constitute an appropriate home for them. This option was ended once and for all, however, by the Intifada.
This leads us to the third and I think most important layer, which is the internal one. The new leadership of the Intifada-both the first Intifada (1987-93) and the current one-is more organic, more down-in-the-streets, and it challenges the authority of the PLO and now the Palestinian Authority. For these people, what happened in the ’93 Oslo Accord was that the PLO was buying a lease on its own life when it was losing relevance compared to the Intifada, which was more vigorous, more down-to-earth, more rooted in Palestine. The Intifada was generating enormous outside support while the PLO was becoming increasingly isolated in Jerusalem. This led to the PLO’s being viewed as the party that can sell out, the party that can accept an imposed solution.
The challenge of the new leadership of the Intifada was coupled with challenges from leadership outside the PLO altogether, coming from Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. These organizations were not strong at the beginning, but then because the Israelis and the Arab regimes were more worried about secular and leftist organizations than about the Islamic ones, they allowed Hamas to grow. And Hamas was being used for some time as a bargaining chip, for telling the PLO that if the PLO would not comply with what the Israelis are demanding, then there is an alternative leadership in place. Hamas did not become a serious challenge until well into the first Intifada. By the end of the 1980s Hamas was becoming increasingly relevant, although more so to the Israelis and the Americans and the international media than to the Palestinians. Hamas has never become a majority organization in Palestine. They never topped about 15% in support. But they were very effective.
And so the PLO leadership was faced with a double challenge: a new leadership on the one hand; an alternative, completely different leadership on the other. The Middle East was being swamped by the revivalist movement from Algeria to Iran, so the PLO understood that if they did not seize the opportunity and sign a peace deal they would soon be forgotten. This is how the PLO became more interested in finding innovative solutions to their own isolation than to the problems of the Palestinian people. By 2001 it was clear that there are two distinct sets of interests in the West Bank and Gaza: one of them is that of the Palestinian people and the other is that of the Palestinian Authority. Even as the Palestinians are at war with the Israeli occupation, the Palestinian authority is trying to find ways to circumvent the current Intifada to again extend the lease on its own life.