A Palestinian national project pretending to be a state and imitating Israeli rituals of statehood, but without a state. But where is liberation, wonders Azmi Bishara
Whether Oslo threw the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) project into crisis or whether a crisis in that project led to Oslo is the substance of one of those chicken-and-egg type discussions on complex social phenomena. It is clear, however, that this project did not emerge from Oslo intact or healthy. There came a period when Arafat’s kaffiya covered up much more than his head, and after his death the Palestinian Authority (PA) had nothing left to conceal the bitter facts.
Arafat was the driving force behind Oslo. He was convinced that the agreement would serve the state project he had espoused since the 1970s. That state project itself was founded upon a vast corruption of the spirit and values of liberation. However, Arafat would also give freedom fighters from within the PLO establishment money, arms and moral support and they, in turn, gave him their support. Some said there were two sides to his policy, others said it was multi-faceted and according to yet others there was no policy at all in Arafat’s ever-pragmatic world. We will probably never know for sure. But he did enjoy an equal share of at least two antithetical traditions.
On the last anniversary of the nakba (the “catastrophe” of the Arab defeat in 1948 following the establishment of the State of Israel), sirens blared in Ramallah at a time that had been publicised in advance. Arab satellite stations were on hand to cover the occasion (could it be otherwise?). People were expected to drop everything, wherever they were, for a minute’s silence.
If this behaviour is indicative of anything it is the tragedy of Palestinian politics borne of the nakba. I am not suggesting that nothing remains of the nakba but a memory or that day should not be commemorated. Nor is there anything inherently wrong in commemorating that day, as the Israelis commemorate the holocaust, in a manner that makes them appear as though they are ideologically one. However, it does take things a bit far to imitate exactly the same Israeli ritual: a siren that brings everyone to a stop in all public and private places. The victim has decided that the only way to commemorate his tragedy is by reproducing the ceremonies of the perpetrator.
The phenomenon puts me in mind of that famous Palestinian pastime of coming up with a magical solution to the “Palestinian problem”, as though it were a riddle that required a single original answer. Almost inevitably, the players that think themselves cleverest at this game come up with “solutions” drawing on the Zionist model: “We should set up a Palestinian Agency like the Jewish Agency,” or “we have to get control over the media.” One Palestinian leader told me once that he was contemplating calling for a conference in Basel. I can only describe this attraction of a colonized people for the colonising project as a colonisation of minds, so in thrall are their imaginations that they appear incapable of conceiving of resistance in any form.
The PLO project never attained its goal, yet it lost all the advantages of a liberation movement. The phenomena described above are the obvious manifestations of this dilemma. The nakba has been transformed into an official rite modelled on the observance of a state that has come into being, while the Palestinian tragedy is still alive. What we have now, in effect, is a Palestinian national project pretending to be a state and imitating the Israelis, even in their rituals of statehood, but without itself having attained statehood. Not only has it eliminated the liberation movement as a possible agenda, it has come to rely exclusively on US and Israeli diplomacy.
This, as we all know, seeks to produce not a solution to the problem but a dissolution of the problem, which some of our less reliable friends in Lebanon are gambling on when they raise the subject of Palestinian refugees (the first consequence of the nakba, we should recall if our commemoration is to have any meaning).
How can the refugee problem dissolve rather than be solved? Very simply: create a Palestinian state. Then the refugees can be turned into “expats”, merely by issuing them passports. As long as their identity papers carry the emblem of a state, it makes no difference whether that state was established as a long-term interim phase or as a permanent solution. The important thing is that those identity papers preclude the possibility of return. It is no coincidence that people are now talking about a “solution to the refugee problem” rather than “the right of return”.
As for the questions of Jerusalem, Israeli settlements and the other negotiating items that Oslo listed under the heading “final status issues” — one of the many terms that has entered the wretched Palestinian diplomatic lexicon — these too are just as easily watered down. Create a Palestinian state and they all become matters of “territorial dispute” between two states. Then, all that will be left is to stand for a moment’s silence when the siren goes off, in the manner in which the Israelis commemorate the victims of the holocaust and their “war of liberation” which the Palestinians call the nakba.
Then we can have two memories living side by side, two narratives each with their own relative truths and other such fabrications that transform the subjectivity of defeat into a form of cultural plurality and the conflict between a national liberation movement and a colonial enterprise into two co- existing equally valid, if conflicting, versions of an inequitable reality. How can we convince the person who has subjectified the defeat to go home without imposing on us the rituals of accepting it?
If many new words have entered the official Palestinian lexicon, others have vanished, such as the term “enemy”, as in “Israeli enemy” let alone “Zionist enemy.” And how could they not have after a treaty had been signed between “the two sides”? The treaty did not bring a just peace, of course, but it did make the “two sides” “partners”, with the understanding that it was up to the Palestinian “side” to prove to the world and to Israel that it deserved being called “partner”. The “partnership for peace” covers the economy, joint projects, civil society (civil indeed!), moderates, extremists and so much more.
The PA did not issue the call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel; independent Palestinian activists did it on their own initiative. But what is the PA’s position on the boycott? The president of Al-Quds University came out strongly against the decision of Britain’s Association of University Teachers (AUT) to boycott Israeli universities. This condemnation was not insignificant, voiced as it was by the head of a Palestinian university located in East Jerusalem, and thus even more offensive not just to Palestinian national sympathies but also to humanitarian sympathies. Nevertheless, as much as university organisations or syndicates may be tempted to cry out against this individual or that, this does not absolve them from asking how the PA stands on the boycott. Does it support it? Of course not.
Not that we know precisely what the PA is calling for. It calls for an end to the armed struggle, not that it is trying to organise a form of collective civil struggle against the Israeli occupation as an alternative. Certainly, it has not called for international punitive measures against Israel, not even at the level of global public opinion. It would rather that all those united against the US and Israel would do that for it, thereby sparing it the embarrassment of being caught having placed all its cards in the hands of Washington and Tel Aviv.
The best that I can make out is that if the PA is calling for anything it is for patience. Wait and see, it urges, until the American elections are over, until Sharon’s visit to Washington is over, until we know the results of his next visit to Washington and of the meetings with Avi, Yossi and Dani — those field officers who are addressed familiarly by their first names — until this conference or that summit has had a chance to show its worth.
Do leaders spend their time waiting? Hardly. But we should not minimise the importance of waiting; it keeps some people busier than you might imagine. Some people puff away at their cigarettes absentmindedly at a bus stop. Others make waiting an art that they ply towards their projects of self-advancement. The Palestinian national project has been thoroughly privatised before its fulfilment. This has opened the doors to all sorts of possibilities: rising up the rungs of existing positions or creating new ones, producing elections and electoral laws that permit for the re-election of those who have the patience to wait, economic projects by the dozens and hundreds of projects for Palestinians at home and abroad.
Instead of privatising the sector of material production, the Arab world has privatised the realm of individual conscience. At the same time, the state has become a realm of enterprises privately owned and run by its political, economic and military elites and their families.
Governments the world over are privatising. In the Arab world, the state has been privatised into a family business. In Palestine, the national project is being broken down into private enterprises before the creation of a state, and the mutilated concept of a state that Bush and Sharon have in mind is certain to entrench this type of privatisation specifically.
Once established, the pending issue between the nascent state and Israel will be a border dispute — it would never merit the term “conflict” — over which the two can haggle for generations. If that is to be the case, what favour will you have performed? Everything will be up to future generations, without this mediation, without the bloodshed, without raising people’s hopes and without this gory parade and those who benefit from it. Common interests between private entrepreneurs in Palestine and Israel may outweigh the dispute over boundaries.
Money is pouring into Palestine these days. It is drowning whole segments of the political elite, the middle classes and other sectors of the populace who are being bribed or otherwise bound to the preservation of calm and keeping our differences with Israel pending. The avenues to a life of ease are being opened, but these avenues will be dependent in a large measure upon sustaining the production of the Palestinian cause as a question of identity and upon keeping the means of production of this version of the cause and its cultural derivatives in the hands of a beneficiary elite.
In this era of “oil for wealth” the Arab world is welcoming the “return of consciousness” regarding the Palestinians. After having encouraged the Palestinians to go this route, the Arab world cannot now be more Palestinian than the Palestinians. Therefore, the Palestinians can only become the spearhead of “normalisation” in which context the leaders of the Palestinian establishment of this phase will have the task of marketing suspect Israeli and Arab figures to the Arab public.
A large part of the Arab world not only accepts Israel, but also acknowledges Israel as this region’s major power and the key to America’s heart. What greater incentive can there be for scrambling to fit into Sharon’s agenda and to get him to make things easier for them? How odd it is, too, that some “Israeli Arabs” (I use the term deliberately) have suddenly risen in estimation because of their Israeli connections. The moral dissolution has turned everything topsy-turvy. It threatens to erode the morale of those who do not want to surrender, while others now take the refusal to surrender as a personal insult.
Under such conditions, the Palestinian national consciousness can only find solace in forces operating outside the traditional national framework. Although these forces have no political programme, it has become sufficient that the heads of their leaders are wanted by the occupation. At the same time, as Israel steps up settlement construction, the Judaisation of Jerusalem and the infrastructure of annexation in general, and as Sharon declares that he will not even begin to negotiate with the Palestinians over a permanent settlement, the attention of the Palestinians is being diverted to internal squabbles over positions, interests and prerogatives. This is all part of the insidious drive to draw the resistance movement into internal conflict and sap its energy.
If the Islamist resistance movements do not have a programme, at least they act as though they have a cause other than personal advancement. They have gained the support of a large segment of the Palestinian people precisely because they have shown themselves ready to die for their ideas. Although theirs is a resistance movement without a political vision, it at least stands for something. But it too is being lured into the quagmire of domestic infighting.
The handling of the Palestinian cause has entered a new phase. To Israel and the US, creating a Palestinian state on any old patch of land is the key to solving all the ills that befell the Palestinian people since the nakba. Many Arab governments have fallen in with this approach and, moreover, have adopted the formula of “a viable Palestinian state” as the condition (although pretext would seem more appropriate) for normalising relations with Israel.
Various Arab regimes and groups maintain a cunning silence or even shout encouragement to the Palestinians at times of confrontation with the occupation, while they secretly pray for the confrontation to fail and the Palestinians to lapse into depression. They are biding their time until the time is ripe for normalisation. Contrary to their claims, these regimes or groups are not democratic or interested in reform. In fact, normalisation is the bartering chip with which they hope to avoid reform. Truly democratic forces call for justice for the Palestinian people, just as they appeal for justice and democracy for their own people.
The politically depraved, the morally dissolute, the humanitarianly bankrupt forces that are capitalising on America’s aggressiveness while trying to evade America’s pressures to reform have inaugurated the phase of “oil for wealth”. These forces, which flourish with the decline of mass movements, the weakening of the spirit of resistance and the apathy wrought by despair, are desperately urging people to accept anything that the Americans want. For only then will they have the peace and quiet that will free them to use their connections with the state, or their kinship connections or other channels of influence to get rich and to spread more corruption in order to get richer yet. This they hope to accomplish against a backdrop of militarily enforced calm with a handful of reforms thrown in for window dressing and, in return, a huge influx of they type of foreign aid that makes some people fat, even if it leaves others starving.
Note: The former Iraqi regime brought its people to their most deplorable state ever in the “oil for food” phase. Borrowing that term, I have used the expression “oil for wealth” to depict the transition from the phase in which rentier regimes corrupted and politicised religion in order to justify their legitimacy to a phase in which these regimes collude to corrupt culture as a whole as they capitalise on America’s belligerency to settle scores with their adversaries while simultaneously trying to avoid the potential domestic repercussions of this belligerency by making some paid-in- advance showcase concessions to America’s demands for democracy.