1990 was a bad year for both Israelis and Palestinians. It was the year when the dialogue had to stop. The pragmatists on both sides who had advocated partition and compromise proved unable to restrain their vociferous maximalists, who spoke the language of violence and retaliation. Deep emotions and tribal passions pushed aside the voices of reconciliation.
While Prime Minister Shamir stood still, Arafat gradually moved away from the position which he had espoused two years earlier, during the Geneva press conference. By the end of 1989, his open acceptance of a two-state solution, his apparently unambiguous recognition of Israel and his guarantee of a cessation of cross-border raids seemed to have brought the Palestinians little. But more importantly, the inability of the National Unity Government in Israel to move forward on even the bare essentials of the Baker Plan increased the pressure from the rejectionist wing of the PLO. And it was not only George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh who reiterated their criticism of Arafat’s moderation, but also the activists of the intifada, who had nothing tangible to show for all their efforts.
The longer Mr Shamir vacillated in dealing with the Palestinian leadership, the more likely it became that one spark would be all that was required for the entire powder keg to go up. The arsonist in this case proved to be the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein. He stepped into the vacuum created by Arafat’s inability to produce any diplomatic achievements, took the matches and set fire to Palestinian frustrations. The “shabab” youths of the intifada danced and sang for Saddam. Their sisters named their children after him. They blessed and sanctified his chemical weapons and cried out for vengeance. It took older, cooler heads to point out that such weapons did not discriminate between Arab and Jew. They, too, would die at the hands of Saddam Hussein.
It mattered not that he had killed many of his own people and led them into a disastrous war. Instead, he appeared to them as a pan-Arab Bismarck who would maintain a balance of terror against “the Zionist Entity” with new weapons of untold destructive power. Attempts to convince Israeli public opinion were perceived as a lost cause; only brute strength would pressurize Israel into making concessions. A poll in an East Jerusalem weekly, Al-Nadwa, shortly after the invasion of Kuwait, estimated that 84 per cent of West Bank Palestinians considered Saddam a hero. Unlike the PLO, a majority, 58 per cent, actually supported the invasion of Kuwait.
Arafat, however, had already started to pursue a more hard-line approach, hoping it would appease the growing army of Palestinian critics. At the beginning of the year, on Iraqi Army Day, Arafat declared to a be-robed Saddam, astride on white charger, “We shall enter Jerusalem with you.” At the same time, he continued the policy of Geneva 1988 by encouraging dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. Thus, while Saddam Hussein was threatening to attack Israel with chemical weapons at the end of March, Arafat was simultaneously extending an invitation to Peres to meet him “at the earliest possible moment” to discuss an Israel—Palestine peace agreement. As late as the end of June, Arafat wrote to one of the members of the American Jewish delegation whom he had met in Stockholm in December 1988, reiterating the tenets of his policy of dialogue and compromise. By pursuing a twin-track policy, Arafat believed that he could please all factions within the PLO.
Moreover, Arafat’s ties to the Iraqi regime were not only a question of political expediency. Saddam’s embrace of the Palestinians came in the form of aid in return for relocating to Baghdad. Although he encountered considerable resistance from within his own organization, Arafat accepted Saddam’s offer and a considerable part of the PLO moved from Tunis to the Iraqi capital in the first half of 1990.
Arafat’s delicate balancing act was brought to an abrupt end by Iraq’s unexpected invasion of its tiny oil-rich neighbour. On the one hand, he had agreed to an effective alliance with Iraq in his retreat from his Geneva policy—an alignment which limited his political manoeuvrability. On the other hand, he attempted to continue in his role as the independent mediator, a middleman in the vortex of Arab politics. The invasion showed up the contradiction of this position. Arafat’s political strategy of never committing himself totally to the hegemony of one particular Arab ruler and the double-edged interpretation of his policies drastically backfired in this case. The reaction of the Palestinians in the Territories was ironically the final straw for Arafat—their emotional support for Saddam politically boxed him in.
Arafat made a grave error in underestimating Iraq’s pan-Arab ambitions. When hostilities with Iran came to an end in 1988, Saddam gradually began to revert to the pan-Arab posture that had endeared him to Palestinian rejectionists in the 1970s. He was thus much closer to the anti-imperialist aspirations of George Habash than to the Palestino-centric Arafat. Saddam’s ideological rejuvenation coincided with the realization of Arafat’s failure. Saddam was thus keen to harness the Palestinian revolution under his own wing—with the help of the Palestinian rejectionists.
Since December 1988, Iraqi-sponsored Palestinian organizations had made many attacks on Israel in an attempt to violate the conditions for the’ US—PLO dialogue. Significantly, it was the abortive attack on Nitzanim beach in May by the Iraqi-sponsored Palestine Liberation Front that spelled the end for the dialogue. Yet all previous cross-border attacks on Israel since Arafat’s Geneva statement had actually been carried out by the Talat Yakoub faction of the PLF. This faction was pro-Syrian, and therefore estranged from Iraq. Although the PLF leader, Abul Abbas, had disagreed with Arafat’s policy of dialogue, he had done little to hinder it. Now he suddenly became active. Moreover, the attack on Nitzanim was also dramatically different from the assaults by other Palestinian rejectionists who had simply concentrated on the Lebanese border. The aim of the Palestinian terrorists was allegedly to attack the Sheraton Hotel and the American Embassy. In the eyes of the American public, Abul Abbas was remembered both for his group’s murder of Leon Klinghoffer on the Achille Lauro and for the fact that he had evaded justice for that crime. It was as if Abul Abbas had been activated to cause the maximum embarrassment for Palestinian advocates of dialogue with the Americans.
Arafat’s “no-comment” stance on the raid proved to be the fatal blow to his Geneva policy, since President Bush then decided to break off the dialogue. Arafat was highly reluctant to criticize Abul Abbas, not simply because he was sponsored by the Iraqis, but also because such a move would emphasize his own diplomatic failures in the eyes of other Palestinians.
All these events effectively marginalized the pragmatic policies of such pro-PLO leaders in the Territories as Faisal Husseini. The decisions of the PLO leadership abroad and the reactions of their own people in the Territories essentially cut the political ground from beneath their feet.
The drift away from a possible political resolution of the conflict was not all one-sided. In Israel, the Likud-directed Foreign Ministry resolved to blur the aims and intentions of the wide range of Palestinian groups in the public perception, thereby obscuring the difference between those who were attempting to follow a political path and those who were still ready to conduct the “armed struggle” through acts of international terrorism and cross-border raids. For example, when Pan Am 103 blew up over Lockerbie in December 1988, Bibi Netanyahu told the Israeli press that the PLO was behind the bombing. Moshe Arens, the Foreign Minister, made similar utterances and implied that the incident was a consequence of the US—PLO dialogue. Yet comments like these, a few days after the dialogue had commenced, contradicted Israeli experts, such as those from the Jaffee Centre, who logically concluded that this was probably the work of anti-PLO elements who did not want the discussions with the Americans to proceed.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry even compiled a list of Palestinian terrorist offences, which was also publicized by supportive Diaspora organizations. The Israeli list showed that there had been fifteen cross-border incidents between December 1988 and January 1990. The US State Department also published statistics which were at variance with the Israeli list. This was because both sides established different sets of criteria for the examination of PLO involvement. The Americans effectively monitored the cross-border activities of the mainstream Fatah, while the Israelis also monitored the rejectionists, who had declared at the outset that they would continue their .activities. The Americans “discovered” that Fatah had generally complied with the conditions laid down, while the Israeli Foreign Ministry “discovered” that the PLO had violated them.
Now, as the year draws to a dose, the convergence of moderates on both sides has been frozen. Whether events in 1991 will permit them to regain an ascendant position is an imponderable question. Yet the Americans have reminded Mr Shamir that he has not renounced his own initiative to hold elections in the Territories. And Mr Peres continually points out that Israel has promised to meet a Palestinian delegation. Arafat’s myopic policy has undoubtedly strengthened the far right in Israel and caused considerable economic hardship for his own people in the Territories. He may yet forfeit his position as a result of his political folly.
Yet whatever happens in the Gulf, one thing is certain: the problem of the Palestinians will remain. The question “Do we talk to the Palestinians or not?” is still on the agenda. Few credit Mr Shamir’s attempt to find an alternative to the PLO with even the remotest chance of success. Twenty-three years of searching have led nowhere. The only true alternative today is the Muslim fundamentalist movement, which sincerely believes that the Jews are children of a lesser God. For them, there is no woolly talk about a two-state solution: the Jews will simply not be permitted to dwell in a country of their own. Hamas, the major fundamentalist organization in the Territories, initially condemned Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and is currently smiled upon by the Gulf states who wish to divert their funds away from the PLO.
The advocates of retribution hold the upper hand today, but their time will surely pass. The path to peace between the two peoples that dwell in Eretz Yisrael does not totally lie in ethnic solidarity but in the realization that mutual recognition of each other’s rights is the precursor to face-to-face negotiations. As it is said in the Talmud: “Who is the bravest hero? He who turns his enemy into a friend.”
Jewish Quarterly Winter 1990