Without a vision, the people perish

Getting to the goal of a two-state solution

Washington Watch

Here’s a story I’ve never told before:

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I traveled to Tunisia in late 1993 to meet with PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat. At the time I was serving as co-chair of Builders for Peace, a project launched by then Vice President Al Gore to help create employment and promote economic growth in the Occupied Palestinian lands. I was sent to Tunis first to meet with Chairman Arafat, and then speak to the PLO Executive Committee to explain our mission and receive their support. I had met with Arafat many times before; we knew each other and often had frank exchanges.

I was told that my initial meeting with the chairman would be at 2:00 am and arrived at his office to find him engaged in an animated phone conversation. When he finally hung up, he turned to tell me that he had been speaking to “my people in Lebanon” through a connection in Cyprus. He boasted that he spoke with them daily and had now succeeded in rearming his fighters in Lebanon— something that I felt he knew would provoke disagreement as I had argued with him before about what I believed had been the provocative and counterproductive nature of their armed presence in Lebanon.

At the end of his comments he said, “You see, Jimmy,”— that’s what he called me— “these are the keys to leadership: communication and power in reserve.”

Just then, the famed Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish walked into the room and Arafat said to him, “Mahmoud, I’m telling Jimmy that the keys to leadership are communication and power in reserve. Isn’t that right?”

Mahmoud replied, “And also vision, sir.” At which point, Arafat waved his hand dismissively, saying “Not important.”

As noted, I’ve never written about this before, partly out of respect for the now deceased Yasir Arafat, and because, despite our disagreements and his obvious mistakes, I respect the enormous contributions he made to elevating the Palestinian national identity and movement.

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During his life, he was shamelessly vilified in political discourse and popular culture. In cartoons he was portrayed as “Ara-rat.” When he addressed the UN General Assembly, the Israeli spokesperson said, “Today, bloodshed and bestiality have come here.” And I remember Edward Said, after reading some comments Israeli and American political leaders had made about Arafat’s “ugliness,” ask rhetorically what the response would be if Arabs had made similar remarks about Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, or Yitzhak Shamir— none of whom could be described as pleasing to the eye. But standards of decency didn’t apply to comments about Arafat. He was always fair game.

One more story will suffice to explain my feelings about the man. During the lead up to the Madrid peace conference, the Bush Administration was trying to work out a way to get all of the parties to agree to attend. The Israelis not only rejected the participation of the PLO, but wouldn’t even accept a separate Palestinian presence at the conference. As a compromise, the Bush team proposed that a 12-person Palestinian delegation be formed of leaders from the occupied territories and that it be seated as part of, but apart from, the Jordanian delegation. Although the Palestinian delegation was comprised of extremely distinguished and principled Palestinian leaders, Arafat was both personally and politically hurt by his exclusion from the process.

Violence plays into Israel’s hands. Civil disobedience and general strikes by Palestinian laborers, boycotts, and mass peaceful demonstrations at check points and the borders would paralyze Israel. That’s the genius of peaceful resistance— it turns military might into a weakness and can turn worldwide public opinion into a powerful weapon for change.

Because I believed it was important that this compromise be accepted, I agreed when asked by a contact in the White House to speak with Arafat. After presenting my reasoning to him, I said in closing, “Look, I know this is hard, but think of yourself like the biblical Moses. You can take your people to the river’s edge, but you, yourself, won’t be able to cross. Let them go.” As I looked at him, his eyes had watered up and I could see his pain— after his years of struggle, he was being left out.

Back to my original story. I felt it necessary to share these recollections now because, in some important ways, this idea of “communication and power” without vision still serves as a metaphor for the Palestinian dilemma. Arafat was, in fact, an effective communicator, and he was responsible not only for projecting the Palestinian message to audiences worldwide, but also for bridging differences within the Palestinian movement. He became a heroic figure for Palestinians and for hundreds of millions in the “Third World.”

The problem was that when Arafat and his generation spoke of Palestinian moral and legal rights or even of a “democratic, secular Palestine,” they were speaking about ideas which, though compelling and justified, did not constitute strategic vision coupled with realistic and actionable tactics to implement that vision. And so, while Arafat may have inspired millions and amassed arms, the use of these weapons was all too often counterproductive to the goals he sought to achieve.

Applying the same test to today’s competing Palestinian leaderships, can anyone claim that the Palestinian Authority or Hamas or Islamic Jihad have a realistic strategic vision or that they propose steps that can lead to the implementation of that vision? In fact, the PA and Hamas have been reduced to dependencies, simply struggling to survive and maintain control over their fiefdoms. The PA president not only has no vision, but also doesn’t communicate or have power. Hamas, too, has played right into Israel’s hands. Their “strategy” has succeeded in providing Israel with the opportunity to separate Gaza from the rest of the Occupied Lands. Their so-called “deterrent power” is, at best, ineffectual and counterproductive in that it gives Israel the excuse to cruelly strangle and periodically deliver massive blows that take the lives of hundreds of innocents. And now with Hamas tamed, it has fallen to Islamic Jihad to foolishly think that random attacks and ineffective missiles can somehow bring about a change in the Palestinian situation.

As the brilliant and witty Israeli Palestinian leader Tawfiq Zayyed once replied to a group which had denounced him, claiming that he had denied the Palestinian right to “armed resistance,” “You may have that right, but when you use it as badly as you do, you forfeit that right.”

What’s needed now is what always been needed: a realistic assessment of the Palestinian situation vis-à-vis the oppressive and aggressively acquisitive State of Israel and, based on this reality, the development of a strategic vision and the tactical steps to implement it. For this, I would turn to the heroic example of the strugglers in Palestinian and Israeli civil society, both in the occupied lands and in Israel itself. They are creating the movement for change that can translate the one-state reality into a democratic future for all.

It won’t happen overnight or even in a few years, but if the so-called “leaderships” would discipline their forces and lend their support or, at the very least, get out of the way, the possibility of a mass non-violent struggle against the apartheid regime could bear fruit—as it did in varying degrees in South Africa, the US civil rights movement, and Northern Ireland.

Violence plays into Israel’s hands. Civil disobedience and general strikes by Palestinian laborers, boycotts, and mass peaceful demonstrations at check points and the borders would paralyze Israel. That’s the genius of peaceful resistance— it turns military might into a weakness and can turn worldwide public opinion into a powerful weapon for change.

Dr James J Zogby
Dr James J Zogby
The writer is President, Arab American Institute.


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