The limits of power

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Is there a limit to military power? Is there a limit to what a successful media campaign can accomplish? Can any party win a struggle without these two important components? Israelis have been flexing their military muscle and their media power, but so far they haven’t managed to crush the Palestinian will. Is there a hidden Palestinian strategy?

Some Israeli politicians are trying to convince generals, and generals who have become prime ministers, of the limits of military power in a conflict like ours. Instead, they are concentrating on the media war. Public relations firms have been hired for millions of dollars and the Israeli, pro-Israeli and worldwide Jewish media machines have been put to work. From an Israeli point of view, the results are impressive even though the PR people have a difficult case. I mean, to blame Palestinian resistance on Arafat and incitement from a rarely watched Palestine TV station rather than the natural human desire of a people to be rid of a foreign colonial military occupation is not easy.

Many Palestinians have blamed the Palestinian leadership for not doing enough to counter this media campaign. And except for some hard-working activists in the Palestinian diaspora, the Palestinian position has been working on autopilot, with only the force of injustice as the driving argument for the Palestinian side.

Some point to the absence of a Palestinian media position, the presence of an inept representative in Washington and absence of any effort to reach the Israeli public. But despite the lack of Palestinian success on the media front, many can’t help but think that the Palestinian leadership has some plan, a new tactic to score points and get the Palestinian quest for independence on solid footing.

The more I think about it the more I am convinced that there is no special, short-term Palestinian plan. The strategic goal of an independent state within the `67 borders, including Jerusalem, and a fair solution to the refugee issue continues to be clearly the Palestinian goal. How to reach that goal remains a mystery. There is some indication that if the Israelis are unwilling to accept this goal in the short-term, they will in the long-term. In reality, this has always been the Palestinian strategy; the only problem used to be the inability to stop and reverse the illegal Jewish settlement activity on Palestinian lands. For many this was the single biggest problem in Oslo, namely that the 1993 agreement didn’t include a settlement freeze. Now that settlement activity is de facto frozen and the world has become unanimous about it. The Palestinian leadership has all the time in the world to reach the above stated goals; the sooner that Israelis agree to that the better for all sides.

For the Palestinian leadership, the biggest asset is the existence of a unified people, on their own land, who refuse subjugation. The only thing that can prevent this long-term Palestinian plan from being attained is mass expulsion. This is highly unlikely due to the collective Palestinian experience, the presence of major diplomats, media representatives and the UN in the Palestinian territories. This is why the Palestinians insist on third-party observers, be they from the CIA, the EU or the UN. Such international presence will be yet one more obstacle in the way of an attempt by Israeli settlers or soldiers to expel the Palestinians.

Writing in Haaretz a month ago, Uzi Benziman quoted Israeli experts and fellow military friends as saying that Sharon is a master tactician but a weak strategist. I suppose what I am saying is that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has calculated that he couldn’t outmanoeuvre Barak and Clinton, he wouldn’t be able to take on a biased Western media or charm Israelis to the point of accepting the Palestinian demands while they have this overwhelming military and political power. The only area that Palestinians could do well in is the long term. This long-term Palestinian plan was forced on them when Barak insisted on an all or nothing plan. It is no wonder Arafat resisted going to Camp David and insisted on a promise from Clinton, which Clinton later broke, not to blame either side if the talks failed.

Of course, I think Arafat could have done many things differently without losing sight of the long-term goals. There would not have been any harm if the Palestinians played the negotiations, the media and the Israeli peace camp in a more effective way. But the key to understanding the Palestinian strategy is to understand the fact that on the basic goal of true independence and a fair solution to the refugees neither Arafat nor his successor will budge.

Daoud Kuttab is a journalist who covered both intifadas and Director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Jerusalem.

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