In a recent article in the London Review of Books, Edward Said passionately condemned the Israel-PLO Accord as “an instrument of Palestinian capitulation, a Palestinian Versailles”. Said emotionally dismantled the Accord and found little of value. “A century of sacrifice, dispossession and heroic struggle”, he wrote, “had finally come to nought”. Said gloomily accentuated the negative while eliminating anything positive from the peace process. From his standpoint, the Palestinians had been humiliated, they had been forced to surrender, to acquiesce in a one-sided deal from a position of extreme weakness, to accept the best peace from the only Israeli government which could offer it to them. Said retold the Palestinian version of history and utilized it to underpin his rejectionism. It was the argument of a true believer who could not gloss over the glaring deficiencies—real and supposed—in the Accord. Above all, it delineated the distance between Said, the intellectual seeker after truth, and Arafat, the pragmatic wheeler-dealer.
Significantly, Edward Said reserved his harshest words for those who had already put out the bunting but should have known better.
I find it extraordinarily disheartening that so many Arab and Palestinian intellectuals, who a week earlier had been moaning and groaning about Arafat’s dictatorial ways, his single-minded control over the money, the circle of sycophants and courtiers that have surrounded him in Tunis of late, the absence of accountability and reflection, at least since the Gulf War, should suddenly make a 180-degree switch and start applauding his tactical genius, and his latest victory. The march towards self-determination can only be embarked on by a people with democratic aspirations and goals. Otherwise it is not worth the effort.
The vast majority of Jews who welcome the Accord would understand Said’s frustrations, but would not share them. The Palestinians have settled—finally—for what they can get, not for what they want. Not for what is fair, but what will bring peace. Not theory but practice. Like Ben-Gurion and Weizmann in 1937 and 1947, they have opted for a sliver of territory which they will call their homeland and upon which they will construct their society.
For many Jews, the signing reflected the possibility of a sane future and a break with a discredited past. Many still rub their eyes and ask if it really did come to pass. Despite Edward Said’s reference to “a Roman emperor shepherding two vassal kings”, Mr Clinton did persuade these apparently friendly lions to mount their pedestals and wave enthusiastically to the audience. This display of American vaudeville may have projected the unreality of a Hollywood soap, but it has also broken the ideological mould. It was more than a courageous political act, it was an exercise in psychological acrobatics. For those who have spent decades in the frontline of the megaphone war berating the PLO, there was only a stunned silence, an abject disorientation. Yet why have so many Jews in the past categorically, adamantly, almost religiously, refused to believe in peace? Was it so mythical? The answers are varied and not always laudable.
Since 1967, we have been asked to believe that Israel was a kind of political Disneyland, populated with courageous heroes and kindly warrior chieftains who were engaged in a painful, life-threatening struggle with subterranean demons. No doubt that mindset coalesced in the reality of the Shoah and the perilous struggle for existence of the young State of Israel, but after 1967, it had minimal validity. Yet history’s poor joke on the Jews was to exacerbate that psychological outlook through the moral dilemma of the existence and legitimate rights of an emerging Palestinian people. To have acknowledged the challenge of Palestinian nationalism would have meant change, re-examination, the portrait of Dorian Grey revisited. It was easier to exhibit denial, to remain secure within the memory of the past.
The potential for an accommodation with the Palestinians was, of course, delayed by numerous other factors. The Palestinians too were prisoners of history, immobilized by the failures of the past. For them, the tragedy of 1948 spawned demands for a Greater Palestine, an inability to “see” Jews as anything but a minority granted dhimmi status, and a blind propensity to eagerly espouse terrorism. Yet even by the early 1970s, it was clear that there were Palestinians—mainly from the mainstream Fatah—who understood that this psychopathic tendency was a political dead-end. By 1974, the Palestine National Council hinted at a two-state solution and the first illicit attempts at contact and dialogue by Israelis such as Liova Eliav and Uri Avneri were being forged. Some Palestinians who floated ideas of peace and reconciliation were murdered by followers of Abu Nidal, Georges Habash and Ahmed Jibril. Courageous Palestinians, such as Said Hammami and Issam Sartawi—who were well known to Jewish advocates of peace—were gunned down in cold blood by programmed teenagers who were often graduates of the misery of the refugees camps. The rejectionists found willing sponsors in radical Arab states such as Libya, Syria and Iraq whose military intelligence serviced Palestinian terrorism—with the most appalling consequences. In addition, these states often initiated terrorist incidents, utilizing compliant Palestinians and front organizations purely to serve the cynical needs of internal Arab politics—issues which were not connected with the Israel-Palestine conflict.
In Israel, the blame for delay can, of course, be laid at the feet of successive Likud governments. Yet it was not the ascendency of Revisionism alone that contributed to the ongoing problem. The electoral demise of the Labour Party in 1977 was not simply due to fatigue, weariness and corruption after nearly three decades of government. Its political implosion in the 1970s was in part due to Ben-Gurion’s unwillingness to retire gracefully in the 1960s. The appearance and disappearance of fragments such as Rafi and the State List helped to undermine public confidence in the Labour movement and permitted the construction of the Likud union of parties around Begin’s Herut.
The impotence of the old guard of the Labour Party both to comprehend the new political constellation after 1967 and to prepare the path for the succeeding generation was partially responsible for the twenty-year-long Rabin-Peres rivalry. The intensity of that internecine conflict allowed ideological positions to be replaced by political manoeuvres for lesser purposes. In the 1970s, Rabin was perceived as a dove and Peres as a hawk. In the 1980s, those positions were reversed.
The Labour Party began the slow process of extrication from the morass when the late Moshe Dayan resigned as Foreign Minister after Camp David. He realized that Begin would not implement the autonomy plan, but had instead reintroduced the concept of Israeli sovereignty over the Territories. In his last weeks, he too was moving from a principled hawkishness towards a position of negotiation and dialogue with the Palestinians.
If the 1970s had caused fragmentation, then the 1990s forced coalescence on Labour politicians. Ezer Weizmann had traversed the political spectrum. The Zionist parties of the Left formed Meretz. Rabin replaced Peres and was projected as the assertive, hawkish and honest face of Labour in the elections of 1992. The friction between Peres and Rabin came to be seen by both protagonists in its true perspective. One seasoned observer wrote:
I asked Peres whether he and Rabin had worked out any ground rules to avoid the feuding that occurred in the 1970s. Peres could have dismissed the question with a shrug of the hand. He felt compelled to reply. “The ground rules are that we both accept the rule of the majority of the party. We try not to forget that we’re serving the nation, not an ego. We have to work together. There were struggles, but there was a lot of cooperation too.” I could sense the tension in Peres as he struggled with his answer (Rabin of Israel by Robert Slater, p. 415).
Although the policies of the much-maligned Peres and Yossi Beilin initiated the breakthrough with the PLO, it was Rabin who allowed discussions to continue. This volte-face was no sudden event. It is clear that Rabin’s stand on “no negotiations with the PLO” softened during the first year of the Intifada. His intention to break bones and match violence with violence at the outset of the Intifada was no answer to the legitimate demands of Palestinian nationalism. Rabin came to realize that there had to be another way. The political pronouncements of the PLO in 1988 seemingly to recognize Israel and cease cross-border attacks gradually moved Rabin from his long-held convictions, Rabin’s conversion was a true measure of the success of the Intifada.
While he moved to the left, Rabin’s public persona was still that of the unbudgeable strongman. The greater Rabin’s unpopularity abroad and amongst liberal circles in the Diaspora, the stronger his position amongst an increasingly frustrated public at home. It then became easy to don the mantle of an Israeli De Gaulle.
And what of the Diaspora? Closet liberals have now come out. Today they speak the language of Peace Now without looking over their shoulders—all premature anti-nationalists now. In contrast, those who are irrevocably opposed to the Accord with the PLO mask their arguments with “reservations” and justify the present series of events through a rewriting of history. Diversionary tactics such as a prohibition on meeting Arafat are used to avoid confronting a painful reality. For others on the Right, the condemnation of the policies of an Israeli government is now acceptable.
That famous handshake brings into sharp focus the still unresolved role of Diaspora leadership in relation to Israeli government policies. Although a handful of rabbis have opposed the Accord on essentially religious grounds, no communal leader has dared to oppose it. Only yesterday they were willing to regurgitate contrary policies from an Israeli government of a different ideological hue and to swear that this was indeed the whole truth and nothing but. This appears to be a rendition of what the prophet Isaiah called mitzvat anashim melumadah—commandments carried out by rote. While everyone is permitted to change his or her mind, the lack of an intelligent approach by communal leadership is both intellectually demeaning and politically counter-productive. All communal organizations would certainly wish to see themselves as pursuing an intelligent and independent policy rather than as an appendage of a particular Israeli government. Clearly there is a need for fresh guidelines.
The road to peace is not a straight line. Aggrieved Palestinians will look to Professor Said and others to establish a democratic opposition. The danger will arise from those who do not accept the framework of elected government for their opposition. While the Israeli Right is in disarray, Rabin -knows that the power of the fundamentalists will increase in the absence of a better life for ordinary Palestinians. There are many problems to overcome—countless “what ifs” that could be asked—even so, this fragile beginning represents the hopes of millions. We should unreservedly applaud these developments and consider it a duty to do whatever we can personally to support and further the peace initiative.
Jewish Quarterly Winter 1993