Refusing pessimism

The recent experience of Iraq, certainly as it plays out in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, leads to a single conclusion — the US expects its dictates to be accepted without discussion. Any attempts to water down this message or make its substance contingent on the similarity of circumstances or systems of governments, or on the need to fight terror, does not stand up. There are no similarities between Iraq and Palestine. The Palestinians have not occupied and will not occupy Kuwait or any other neighbouring state. They have not produced and will not produce chemical weapons, nor are they running a state of their own to start with. The Palestinians cannot be threatened with occupation because they are under occupation. Not that it matters: chemical weapons et al were, after all, only the pretext to attack and occupy Iraq.

There is no room for comparison. What those who want the Palestinians to learn from the Iraqi experience are actually saying is do not defy the will of the United States.

This is the same conclusion France should reach as it seeks to salvage the remnants of Third World independence. France is not acting out of a sense of noblesse oblige. It strives to maintain some independence from US policy. It wants alliances and consultations and refuses to jump every time the US asks it to do so.

Perhaps environmental and human rights activists within the US should, by extension, begin listening without complaint to the dictates of the US right, now in control of the White House and the Pentagon.

There are no boundaries to the totalitarian logic that is turning US military, economic, and technological superiority into a belief that the world is an organic body with Washington at its head and heart; that orders should pass unhindered through the US nervous system to the various limbs of this world body. The latter have to respond or be amputated.

But there is another, perhaps more realistic way of thinking, which makes allowances for the contradictions still working their way through the political life of America and the world, albeit in a new form. The Palestinian issue is one case among many cases in which these contradictions interact with the conflicts ongoing within US society.

Even the argument presented by the formidable Condoleezza Rice — a woman not given to soft diplomacy — that Israel’s security is the key to world security, even this argument, which adopts a position of theological mysticism in dealing with Israel, can be taken as indicative of a simple fact: the Palestinian problem is a crucial, and global, issue.

It is possible to contend that the Palestinian problem received a moral boost during the recent war. This contention runs counter to the conclusions most Arabs have drawn, believing that their status has been fatally undermined by the war and that the Palestinian issue has suffered as a consequence. Indeed, so widespread is this assessment that it deserves close scrutiny.

First we must ask ourselves just who are the Arabs that have been weakened by the war. Certainly Syria has become more vulnerable to US pressure, but it is hardly a singular position. There are other states, allies of the US — Saudi Arabia for example, and even Egypt, though it is not yet aware of the fact — in the same boat.

The status of the Palestinian issue has been reinforced and not weakened by the war though this is something that Arab and Palestinian leaders (their position on the Palestinian problem influenced by the way in which they wish to mould post-war Arab opinion) don’t seem to understand.

The Palestinian problem has never before attained its current levels of international legitimacy and consensus. This point would be clear if you recall international opinion at the beginning of the current Intifada. At that time the Intifada was depicted as a protest against peace, an uprising triggered by the failure of the Camp David talks.

Anti-war activists in Europe, the United States and the world have used the Palestinian flag as a symbol of resistance to the war. They did so not only because raising the Iraqi flag would have confused anti-war sentiments with support of Iraqi policies, but also because the Palestinian flag has turned into a banner par excellence for the downtrodden in this era of US empire-building. There is no question about the justice of the Palestinian cause. No one contests the fact that the Palestinians are wronged in their relations with Israel and the US.

The Palestinian issue has become the model of protest against oppression and the key to unmasking Washington’s tendency to hide behind the implementation of UN resolutions in other parts of the world. Even the Europeans that took part in the aggression against Iraq have spoken apologetically about the Palestinians. Despite Bush’s crudeness of approach to the Palestinians, despite the glazed expression in his eyes — a leftover of his alcoholism perhaps, or the bliss of being a reborn Christian? — Bush presented the roadmap as a gesture to the Palestinians. The publication of the roadmap is the first act of its kind since Clinton failed to make a breakthrough. This is a significant development, although the roadmap was handed “officially” to the Palestinians without anyone having bothered to change the date from 20 January 2002, when the unofficial copy was initially submitted. The oversight may indicate the urgency with which the matter was handled.

To accept the roadmap at face value, or to attempt to force the Palestinians to agree unconditionally to it while the Israelis are making numerous conditions, would represent a gross misunderstanding of the Palestinian cause and its current moral appeal. Unconditional Palestinian acceptance will not improve the outcome, nor will Israeli conditions strain Israeli-US relations. The roadmap, as Colin Powell put it simply in Damascus, is “an instrument for dialogue between the Palestinians and the Israelis”. Every article on this roadmap calls for negotiations. The US is willing to open dialogue with Israel concerning its conditions, although it prefers Israel to “reach understanding” with the new official Palestinian leadership on these conditions without having itself to interfere.

The first part of the roadmap is a poor copy of the Mitchell Report and Tenet Plan, with added stress on Palestinian security obligations. The middle part is a throwback to the pre-Intifada situation; the so-called 28 April lines are the only lines mentioned specifically in the document. The final part of the document regurgitates formulas first tabled at Oslo, with a new timetable for reaching an agreement but without any formula guaranteeing that agreement will be reached. Seeking to reassure Sharon, the US administration notes that the transition from one phase to another will not take place until “each side” has fulfilled its obligations, a euphemism for the Palestinians meeting their security obligations to Israel. The way Sharon sees it these obligations involve more than a cease-fire or a halt to military operations. They encompass the “eradication of terror”, or Israel’s eradication thereof.

Despite what the optimists may think, the US has no intention of pressing for any specific solutions to the issues on which a lasting settlement will depend. There is nothing new about the roadmap, unless the Palestinians can themselves come up with a new attitude towards the issues it broaches.

But any new attitude that involves accepting positions earlier rejected will hardly improve the moral standing of the Palestinian issue. It is a double-bind for if no new attitude emerges, and the Palestinians insist on the fundamentals of their position such insistence will be stripped of meaning in the absence of any unified and rational strategy of resistance. Agreement on the methods of struggle is, therefore, imperative.

On the same day 18 Palestinians were martyred in the Gaza Strip — the Israeli massacre appeared to have escaped American attention — the distribution of portfolios in the Palestinian cabinet was being widely reported. No one bothered to mention the events in the Gaza neighbourhood of Al-Shuja’iah: it is as if there are two peoples and two realities, a reality of the Palestinian government and a reality of the occupation. Those immersed in the reality of the state believe they are entitled to monopolise violence and confiscate weapons. They act as if they have a state and as if they have to ignore the occupation. Those who contest the notion that the Palestinian government is the government of a sovereign state, and are acutely aware of the reality of the occupation, reject the government’s monopoly on violence and its confiscation of weapons. What we have here is a terrible equation, a harbinger of worse things to come, an intimation of rift.

We cannot transcend this equation without a clear understanding of the sources of Palestinian power which involves a refusal to blindly accept anything and everything America suggests and a reaction of rejection of Israeli attempts to divide the Palestinians. It requires, too, initiating inter-Palestinian dialogue over the goals and strategy of resistance. The strategy for resistance, at this stage, requires steadfastness. It requires the creation of living conditions under which the Palestinians may remain steadfast while avoiding escalation. The Palestinians must not bow to Israeli dictates. This is easier said that done, but the alternatives are frightening. We used to speak of the pessimism of the mind and the optimism of the soul. Now we face a situation in which helplessness has mired both in pessimism.

The writer is a Palestinian Israeli and member of the Knesset.