Commentary Magazine

How to Make Peace with the Palestinians

Negotiations among Israel, Egypt, and the United States concerning the autonomy plan for the West Bank and Gaza have been deadlocked for some time. This situation is the main source of discord between Israel and Egypt. It impedes the process of normalization between them and is liable to stifle the fledgling peace relations. It also hampers the American effort to build a strategic alliance in the Middle East.

Although the negotiating teams have met thirty-two times since May 1979, they have not been able to reach agreement on any of the principal questions in dispute. That is not surprising when one considers that the representatives of the people for whom the autonomy plan is intended refuse to take part in the talks and, indeed, reject the whole idea.

For various reasons, the new Reagan administration has, it seems, decided to pause before resuming intensive diplomatic efforts with relation to the West Bank and Gaza. This pause will have been well worth the while if it is used for a thorough reanalysis of the situation and of the reasons for the deadlock.




An essential part of the “Framework for Peace in the Middle East Agreed at Camp David” (signed on September 17, 1978), otherwise known as the Camp David accords, is the chapter dealing with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. From the outset the Egyptians made it clear that they did not wish to have a separate peace with Israel and would not sign a treaty except within an agreed framework that would include a solution to the Palestinian problem and to the question of the West Bank and Gaza. The Egyptians were not interested in a detailed plan but rather in establishing certain principles that would serve as guidelines. These were, in the language of Egypt’s draft declaration, “withdrawal of Israel from the West Bank and Gaza in accordance with Resolution 242 and the achievement of a just settlement of the Palestinian problem in all its aspects on the basis of the right to self-determination through talks in which Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and representatives of the Palestinian people would participate.”

The Israeli government took a different approach: its proposed solution to these issues was a plan for self-rule or autonomy. This plan was first presented by Prime Minister Begin to President Carter during his visit to the U.S. in December 1977. (Only after returning home did Begin present it to the Knesset.)

When the Camp David accords were concluded, it turned out that the section dealing with the West Bank and Gaza was considerably longer than the one outlining the bilateral relations between Israel and Egypt. The intricate and tortuous text reflects an amalgam of the Egyptian approach and the Israeli one: general principles and autonomy plan.

The autonomy plan outlined in the Camp David accords is very different from the self-rule plan presented eight months earlier by Prime Minister Begin. It differs from its precursor in a number of ways: (a) it is unambiguously constructed not as a permanent solution but as a transitional plan for a period of five years; (b) the phrase “administrative autonomy” in the Begin plan has been replaced by “full autonomy”; (c) the plan is presented within a document that speaks of “the resolution of the Palestinian problem in all its aspects” and of “the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people”; (d) the document stipulates that the Palestinian representatives will participate in the negotiations on the final status of the West Bank and Gaza, and may participate in the talks on “the modalities of establishing the elected self-governing authority.”

It was thought that these departures from the Begin plan would induce Palestinians to participate in the talks and in implementation of the plan.

A few weeks before the negotiating parties met at Camp David, the Israeli press reported that high-ranking Israeli officials, notably Foreign Minister Dayan, had held a series of private talks with prominent Palestinians from the territories and that their impression on the basis of these talks was that the autonomy idea had not been rejected outright by their interlocutors. A major Israeli newspaper, Ha’Aretz, reported that “sources in the military government were encouraged by Dayan’s talks because it had become clear that there is indirect agreement among prominent personalities in the West Bank to accept the Israeli autonomy plan, with insignificant modifications” (September 3, 1978).

Thus, although the Israeli negotiators could not bring to Camp David a definite positive answer to the crucial question of Palestinian participation, they could convey impressions that were tinged with optimism, albeit cautious and reserved. Indeed, it must be assumed that none of the participants (including those in the Israeli delegation) would have negotiated and agreed upon a plan knowing that it was totally unacceptable to the people in the occupied territories whose active participation was essential in electing the “self-governing authority.”

The Camp David accords were signed, and Jordan aligned itself with the Arab countries rejecting the agreement. Still, the three signatories—Israel, Egypt, and the U.S.—expected that Palestinians from the occupied territories would join in the autonomy talks. President Carter, for example, told a group of reporters at the White House (September 27, 1978): “I know we can get some Palestinians to negotiate.” In an interview with the Voice of America, Harold Saunders of the State Department put it somewhat more diplomatically: “And we would hope also that the Palestinians in the area affected would also be willing to participate” (September 29, 1978). These expectations were focused specifically on the mayors in the West Bank and on the mayor of Gaza, Rashad al-Shawa.

The awaited Palestinians did not join. At the end of May 1979, the autonomy talks began without Palestinian participants. Yet the Camp David partners persisted in their expectations that the mayors would eventually join in.



On what did the Camp David partners base these expectations? The view was that the PLO would signal its supporters in the territories to join the autonomy talks. Some believed the mayors would put pressure on the PLO leadership in Beirut to allow them to negotiate in order to bring about the termination of Israeli military government and to heighten the chances of establishing an independent Palestinian state. The PLO leadership, for its part, would permit the mayors to negotiate and might even prod them to do so, for the outcome of such a move would be a considerable achievement: the Palestinians would gain full autonomy as a transitional stage toward the creation of an independent state, without the PLO’s having to negotiate directly with Israel. In other words, it offered an opportunity for a net gain without requiring the PLO to pay a political price for it.

Some Israeli officials envisaged a somewhat different scenario leading to the same result. According to this version, the pro-PLO mayors would themselves realize the advantages inherent in the autonomy plan and would join the negotiations even without a go-ahead from the Beirut-based PLO leadership. The West Bank and Gaza mayors would in this way assert their independence of that leadership.

In both versions the pivotal idea was Palestinian participation through the pro-PLO mayors in the territories. Those who propounded the scenario in either of its variants believed that by means of the mayors’ participation the negotiating process could skirt both the Israeli obstacle and the PLO obstacle: Israel’s refusal to talk to the PLO and the PLO’s refusal to negotiate with Israel. Foreign Minister Dayan declared that Israel would be ready to talk to the pro-PLO mayors “as long as they do not wear on their lapels a PLO tag.” As for the PLO—it was argued—it stood only to gain, since the autonomy talks would lay the foundation for a Palestinian state and the PLO could steer the negotiations from behind the scenes without having to soil itself by dealing with Israel.

Closer examination of this scenario should have revealed the contradiction built into it. The mayors insisted publicly both that they were faithful followers of the PLO and that the PLO alone had the right to represent the Palestinians politically; the PLO lauded the mayors as integral to the movement. How then could the mayors participate in the talks without implicating the movement of which they were an integral part or, alternatively, without demonstrating that they were in fact independent of the PLO, thus undermining the PLO’s most valuable asset—its status as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians”? This is a question that the proponents of the idea of Palestinian participation through the pro-PLO mayors preferred totally to ignore.

The American and Israeli experts who envisaged the mayors’ participation do not seem to have understood adequately the attitudes of the PLO and the nature of its influence in the territories. Nor, it appears, did they evaluate correctly the mayors’ ability and willingness to assert their independence. The pro-PLO mayors adamantly refused to join the process. As for the PLO command, it not only refused to signal them to participate, but it strictly forbade them to have anything to do with the process.

Both Israel and the U.S. nevertheless tried to convince the West Bank leaders to enter the negotiation process. In private talks with Palestinian notables, Israeli and American officials emphasized the opportunity presented by the Camp David agreement as a step toward full self-determination and independence. An Israeli journalist, Dani Rubinstein, known for his pro-Palestinian views and his friendship with the mayors, publicly called on his friends in the West Bank and Gaza to accept the accords. In an open letter in the Hebrew daily Davar (October 4, 1978) and in the Arabic-language pro-PLO paper published in Jerusalem, al-Fajr (October 13, 1978), Rubinstein cited many statements by Israeli politicians criticizing the Camp David autonomy plan as “a sure prescription for the creation of a Palestinian state” and as “a plan that is bound to push Israel back to the ’67 lines.” He concluded with a plea: “You should pay attention to the statements made recently by President Carter and his aides, and not let slip the opportunity which has come your way.” This last hint was clear; it was well known that the views of the Carter administration on the Palestinian problem differed widely from those of Israel and went a long way toward satisfying Palestinian demands.

Rubinstein’s plea fell on deaf ears. Nor were the efforts of two U.S. diplomats, Alfred Atherton and Harold Saunders, of any greater avail. Most of the local Arab leaders invited by the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem in September-October 1978 to meet these two American envoys rejected the invitation. What must have disappointed the diplomats most was the rebuff by the West Bank mayors, who for some years had been “cultivated” by U.S. representatives and materially supported by organizations like the American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA) and the American Friends Service Committee. Even so, hopes for including the mayors were not abandoned, and efforts to court them have continued, if with no success.

What has been behind the refusal of Palestinian politicians in the territories to join the talks? One favored explanation both in the Western press and in Israel is that what has stood in the way is the Israeli policy of establishing new settlements in the occupied territories. This explanation overlooks a simple fact. On no occasion, public or private, have the mayors told Israeli representatives or foreign diplomats that they would join the negotiations if only Israel would stop building settlements.

Another explanation is that the plan put forward by Israel does not go far enough toward real autonomy. But Egypt has published its own model for Palestinian autonomy, which is so far-reaching that it differs from full political independence in name only—yet the PLO supporters in the territories are unwilling to negotiate even on the basis of that model. They surely realize that were they to announce their acceptance of it as a basis for talks, they would win considerable political support both in the U.S. and in Israel, not to mention in the media. That they have not done so means that this explanation of their refusal is also untenable.

The mayors and other political spokesmen in the West Bank and Gaza offer, in effect, another explanation. They insist that the PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians, that it alone has the right to negotiate, and that there can be no solution without it. And the PLO rejects Camp David.

This brings us to two key questions. Why does the PLO totally reject Camp David, and how has the PLO come to control the political public in the territories? By answering these questions we may discover where the experts, both Israeli and American, have erred in their evaluation of the situation and of prospects for the future.




For a number of years it has been argued by many political observers in Europe, in the U.S., and even in Israel itself that although the leadership of Fatah—which is the main group within the PLO, headed by Yasir Arafat who is also PLO chairman—will not publicly recognize Israel, it accepts the idea of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza alongside Israel. According to these Western observers, the Arafat group (which they like to call “the PLO moderates”) now maintains a position which differs considerably from the one formulated in the Palestinian Covenant and calling for the elimination of Israel. These observers base their judgment on impressions gained in private talks with PLO leaders or envoys. Yet when they cite statements reportedly made by their PLO interlocutors, the latter invariably deny ever having made them or claim that they have been misquoted, misunderstood, or mistranslated. The moderate PLO turns out to be very elusive.

Rather than trying to form an opinion about Arafat’s position on the basis of private talks, we would do better to consider the political behavior of the PLO and the public statements of the Arafat group.

From the PLO’s point of view, the most important reason for rejecting Camp David is that acceptance of the accords implies recognition of Israel. In the thirty years that passed between the establishment of Israel and Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem in November 1977, the fact that the Arabs did not make peace with Israel and refused even to negotiate directly with it was explained by many experts as inevitable in the light of the Islamic heritage and the Arab “mentality,” as if these were as immutable as the laws of nature. Eventually this explanatory theory, which sheds some light on the cultural but not on the political background of Arab attitudes to Israel, came to be taken as a justification of the Arab refusal to make peace with Israel. On the basis of this theory it was argued that direct negotiations and a peace treaty between the Arabs and Israel could not realistically be expected to come to pass. Moreover, it was said, Israel should not demand from the Arabs what they could not give—namely, direct negotiations and contractual peace—but should be satisfied with some kind of settlement, not necessarily a peace treaty, through some process, not necessarily direct negotiations.

Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in November 1977 demolished this concept in one stroke. He proved that an Arab head of state could recognize Israel and not be overthrown within twenty-four hours, that an Arab leader could enter into direct negotiations and even sign a peace treaty with Israel. To be sure, to recognize Israel and conduct negotiations and finally sign a peace treaty—these are very difficult things from the Arab point of view. But they are the price the Arab side is required to pay in order to obtain what it wants. For an Arab leader it is admittedly a hard political decision-hard but, as proved by Sadat, not impossible.



The price of recognition is not one that the PLO is willing to pay. The PLO would like to obtain territorial concessions from Israel without dealing directly with it and without paying any political price in return. It is for this reason that the PLO prefers an arrangement under which the West Bank and Gaza would first be made over into a UN trusteeship and thereafter be transferred to it. And it is also for this reason that the PLO rejects even the Egyptian position on the West Bank and Gaza, which is that Israel should withdraw to the pre-June 1967 borders and that the Palestinians should be allowed full self-determination.

In an interview with the PLO paper Falasteen al-Thawra (November 4, 1980), Arafat said: “The day I saw Sadat land at Lod airport to grant the enemy what no Zionist ever dreamed of—that was the worst day of my life.” Farouk Kaddoumi, head of the PLO’s political department, told the Palestine Solidarity Congress in Basle in May 1979: “Sadat’s visit ruined the peace efforts because it meant recognition of Israel.” And the mayor of Ramallah, Karim Khalaf, said at a rally in Nablus: “Sadat is the second Balfour.” Refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist is essential to the PLO position, including that of the Arafat so-called “moderate” group. The recognition of Israel reflected in Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem and underlying the Camp David accords is to the PLO the cardinal sin.

Khalid al-Hasan, a member of the PLO executive, went to Europe in the summer of 1980 to further the political dialogue with the EEC countries by presenting a flexible and moderate PLO stand. On his return to Beirut he clarified just what the limits of PLO flexibility and moderation are. He said: “If the Europeans claim that they are our friends and talk to us about altering the Palestinian Covenant and recognizing Israel, then there’s no difference between them and the Americans. . . . We made it clear to them that all they have to do is help us establish the Palestinian state. After that will come the work of uniting Palestine, as we have already explained. This is our dream, and we have the right to work toward its realization” (al-Safir, Beirut, May 20, 1980, emphasis added).1

Abu Iyad (Salah Khalaf), one of the leaders of Fatah and the PLO, reiterated these positions in a recent interview (published in the Jerusalem Post November 27, 1980) in which he stated that the PLO will not lay down its weapons until it achieves its goal—a “secular democratic state” in the whole of Palestine to replace the Jewish state that now exists in part of it. May Sayegh, secretary-general of the PLO women’s council, told the same interviewer: “Our goal is the total liberation of Palestine; any Palestinian who wants less is a traitor.” And at a public meeting at the University of Beirut, Arafat declared (PLO Radio, December 7, 1980): “The victorious march will continue until the flag of Palestine is raised above Jerusalem and above the whole area of Palestine from the river [Jordan] to the sea [the Mediterranean], and from Ras al-Naqqura [on the Lebanese border] to Eilat.” A few days later he reiterated: “When one speaks about settling the Palestinians I want to say: Acco before Gaza and Beersheva before Hebron. I want both Likud and Labor to understand this. We recognize only one thing, which is that the Palestinian flag should be raised above Jaffa. That is the only thing which we recognize” (PLO Radio, December 14, 1980).

This insistence on the part of various PLO spokesmen reflects one of the principles canonized in the Palestinian Covenant, the second section of which declares that “Palestine within its borders as defined under the British Mandate is one indivisible territorial unit.”

Related to the notion of the indivisibility of Palestine is the claim that the Arab citizens of Israel are an integral part of the Palestinian people. This, according to PLO spokesmen, is another reason for rejecting Camp David, for the accords do not take cognizance of the unity of the Palestinian people and “overlook the problem of the Palestinians living in the Palestinian territories occupied in 1948”—that is, the Israeli Arabs.2 The declared PLO goal of “unifying Palestine” means that a PLO state in the West Bank and Gaza must be a revanchist state, one that would strive to arouse an irredentist movement among the Arabs in Israel.

Still another reason for the PLO to reject Camp David is that the accords fail to recognize what in PLO language is known as the “right of return”: that is, the right of all Arab refugees from the 1948 war to return to their original areas of domicile. To the PLO this is an absolute and non-negotiable right; no PLO spokesman is willing to forgo it. Some Western commentators claim that although the PLO mainstream does maintain “the right of return” in principle, it would not insist on implementing it in practice, and that if given the choice of monetary compensation, most Palestinian refugees would opt for that. One cannot but wonder on what basis so confident a prediction is advanced. Abu Mazin (Mahmoud Rida Abbas), a member of the Fatah central committee and of the “moderate” wing, said in an interview in al-Ra’y (September 28, 1979): “No Palestinian will be found who does not want to return to his homeland. If the Palestinians are given the choice between compensation and return, no one would agree to take the compensation and give up the return.”

The “strategy of stages,” which the PLO formally adopted at the twelfth Palestinian National Convention in June 1974, has enabled spokesmen of Fatah occasionally to give the impression of moderation and indeed to present relatively moderate positions. According to this strategy, the first stage in the overall PLO program is the establishment of a Palestinian state in any part of Palestine that may be evacuated by Israel, on the condition that this will not be in exchange for recognizing Israel or relinquishing “the right of return.” When PLO spokesmen address Western audiences they can—if they wish—concentrate on this first stage without mentioning (but also, without renouncing) the subsequent stages. Farouk Kaddoumi has spelled out all the stages very clearly: “There are two initial phases to our return. The first is to the 1967 lines, the second—to the 1948 lines . . . the third stage is the democratic state of Palestine. So we fight for these three stages.”3

The insistence of PLO spokesmen on the “unification of Palestine” and “the right of return” is not just an expression of fidelity to dogma. It reflects an important social and political fact. The immediate power base of the PLO is in the Palestinian camps in Lebanon, most of whose people fled to Lebanon in 1948 from Galilee and Haifa. For these people the West Bank and Gaza mean very little; the achievement of a Palestinian state in these areas, which were in Arab hands until 1967, would not be the realization of their dream.

There is yet another conflict between the Camp David accords and the PLO. The accords explicitly repudiate “threats or acts of force.” But the Fatah platform ratified in Damascus (May 1980) states in the preamble: “Our method for realizing our aims is armed popular revolution; armed struggle is strategy, not tactics.” The resolutions of this Damascus convention emphasize the importance of terrorist activity; they speak of “armed popular revolution as the only indispensable way to liberate Palestine,” and of “the escalation of the armed struggle.”

The PLO makes it clear that it will not lay down its weapons after a state is established in the West Bank and Gaza. According to PLO spokesman Mahmoud Labadi (in al-Jumhour, October 3, 1980): “We must not forget that every political achievement opens new horizons for the military alternative.” In more picturesque language, Ab-d’l-Muhsin Abu Meizer, another PLO spokesman, has said: “The armed struggle and the political struggle are organically connected like sowing and reaping; what the guns sow, you reap politically” (al-Qabas, Kuwait, December 16, 1980).

In other words, the creation of a Palestinian state would not be the end either of political aspirations or of “armed struggle” (the standard PLO term for terrorist activity).



The PLO rejection of the Camp David accords is thus not a response to this or that interpretation of the autonomy plan or to the policy of the Begin government. It is absolute, an expression in concrete political behavior of the refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign state. To be sure, the words “liquidation of Israel” do not usually appear these days in PLO declarations and resolutions, which speak instead of the “liquidation of the Zionist entity.” But there is no mistaking the meaning of that phrase; it is none other than the end of Israel. This point is made very clearly in the platform of Fatah, cited above, which declares that Fatah’s aim is the “complete liberation of Palestine and the liquidation of the Zionist entity economically, politically, militarily, culturally, and ideologically. . . .”

The PLO also insists that the Soviet Union participate in solving the Palestinian question. This is the position not only of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (led by George Habash) and the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (Nayef Hawatme’s group), which are known for their Marxist ideology, but also of Arafat’s group, the Fatah. The resolutions of the Fatah convention in Damascus declare: “Fatah is a part of the international liberation movement in common struggle against imperialism, Zionism, racism, and their agents, and we establish our relations with all parties in the international arena in a way which is compatible with our principles and the Palestinian Covenant.” More specifically, they speak of “strengthening the strategic alliance with the socialistic countries, with the Soviet Union at their head . . . strengthening the relations with the liberation movements in the world who stand with us in one line against American imperialism, Zionism, racism, fascism, and reaction and strengthening the struggle of the international liberation movements.”

As for the U.S., the resolutions state: “The U.S. is in the forefront of the enemies of our people and our nation . . . it establishes military alliances in order militarily to subjugate the region [the Middle East] to its influence in order to continue to rob the treasures of our nation. Therefore there is no alternative but to strengthen the international front against American policy and to wage war against this policy, to foil it and to strike at American interests in the region.”




So much for the PLO rejection of the Camp David accords. It remains to trace how the PLO has come to control the West Bank and Gaza politically at a time when these areas are controlled militarily and administratively by Israel. The PLO’s political dominance in these territories is not a “natural” development, but rather is at least in part a result of certain acts of omission and commission by both Israeli and American officials.

In 1948, following the war waged by the Arabs of Palestine and the Arab states to foil the establishment of Israel, the territories known as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip came under Arab rule. Egypt, in control of the Gaza Strip, kept it as a separate entity under a military government. By contrast, the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan, which held the West Bank and East Jerusalem, annexed these areas and made them an integral part of the Jordanian state.

It should be noted that although the Jordanian army effectively controlled the West Bank, King Abdallah (the grandfather of today’s King Hussein) carried out formal annexation only after he had been publicly invited to unify the two parts of Palestine by a representative body of Palestinians. On December 1, 1948, an assembly of some two thousand mayors, local notables, village heads, and Bedouin chiefs was convened in Jericho; it declared its belief in the unity of Palestine on both banks of the River Jordan and proclaimed His Majesty Abdallah “King of all Palestine.” In April 1950, the annexation was formally ratified by the two houses of the Jordanian congress. Although this act of “unification” was recognized de jure only by Great Britain and Pakistan, it was recognized de facto by the international community in general and by the Arab nations that had earlier protested against it.

Under Jordanian rule, the West Bank was divided into three districts: Nablus, Jerusalem, and Hebron. Like the five districts of the East Bank, these were all tied to the central government in Amman, and in that way were integrated into the Jordanian administrative structure. The West Bank was not an administrative unit apart; East Jerusalem was not a capital.

The next nineteen years were characterized by a dual process: on the one hand, the “Palestinization” of the population, economy, and civil service of Jordan; on the other hand, the integration of the West Bank political elite into the Jordanian establishment. To be sure, this process was rooted in various factors—geographic, political, historical, and ideological—which had been in operation for a long time before Jordan’s emergence as an independent monarchy. From the time Transjordan (the forerunner of today’s Jordan) was created in 1922, its civil service was mostly recruited from among western Palestinians. By way of example we may recall some outstanding names: Tawfiq abu’l-Huda (born in Acre), Samir and Abd al-Mun’im al-Rifa’i (born in Safed), Ibrahim Hashim and Ahmed Tuqan (both born in Nablus)—all of whom held high-ranking positions (including cabinet posts) before as well as after 1948. After 1948, however, the number of West Bankers in the administration increased considerably, partly because of the need for educated personnel and partly through a deliberate policy of integration.

The ideology and national self-image of the Palestinian elite facilitated the process of unification. The Palestinian movement was part of the Arab national movement, and it took its particular role to be that of keeping the territories defined under the British Mandate as Palestine free from non-Arab rule, and establishing Arab sovereignty in them. The Palestinian identity—just like the Syrian, Iraqi, or Libyan—includes both an attachment to the one common Arab heritage (history, language, culture) and patriotic feelings particular to the native territory whose boundaries were set by the European colonial powers.

The case of Anwar Nuseiba, one of the foremost Palestinian political figures, is very instructive in this respect. Nuseiba was the secretary of the Palestinian government established by the Mufti Hajj Amin el-Husseini in Gaza in 1948, but in 1949 he crossed over to the Jordanian establishment, in which he attained high positions, among them governor of the Jerusalem district, minister of defense, and ambassador to London. Explaining his view of the matter of Palestinian versus Jordanian identity, Nuseiba stated in 1977:

To me Jordanian citizenship was Arab citizenship. To me, Jordan was part of Palestine. I accepted that citizenship because it included my own home and my own home town, Jerusalem, and Palestine, western Palestine, not all of Palestine. So I am not ashamed of that. I have not relinquished my Palestinianness and I am not ashamed of being a Jordanian citizen. You said Palestine was a creation of the British. This is true, but so was the division of the Arab countries, if you want, a creation of the British, the French, and the Russians at that time. What we had hoped to achieve was a union of the Arab countries, a union in which there would be no boundaries between Jordan and Palestine and Syria and Lebanon and Iraq, if you wish. That was aborted. It does not mean that my feeling for that concept has disappeared, and therefore it was not difficult for me—living in Jerusalem, belonging to Jerusalem, proud of my Palestinianness—to work and have the honor to work as a citizen of Jordan.4

This illuminates the order of loyalties: primarily to the idea of Arabism and Arab rule, secondarily to the political framework within which the idea is realized.



In addition to all this, in sharp contrast to the practice in other Arab countries, where refugees from Palestine were not allowed to become citizens of the host countries, within the unified kingdom of Jordan all the Palestinians, whether indigenous residents or refugees from areas occupied by Israel in the 1948 war, were given Jordanian citizenship.

Consequently, the population of Jordan is now largely of western Palestinian origin. According to reliable estimates, more than two-thirds of all Jordanian citizens, including the population of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, are Palestinians—that is, western Palestinians. Even if we omit the population of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, western Palestinians constitute about 60 percent of the total number of Jordanian nationals. Some 80 percent of the population of the capital city of Amman are western Palestinians.

Jordan, like the other Arab countries, was committed to the Arab ideology of refusing to recognize Israel’s right to exist, but it did not see, and does not see, Israel’s destruction as the primary goal or the raison d’être of the Jordanian state. On the contrary, Jordan’s long borders with Israel made it necessary for Jordanian decision-makers to deal in a pragmatic way with the situation—obnoxious but nonetheless real—of a Jewish state at their side. They consequently had no choice but to devise all sorts of arrangements for a modus vivendi with Israel. They would not deny (any more than other Arab politicians and ideologues) the primacy and validity of the great millenarian vision of Arab unity and domination, but they also would not make this the guiding principle of their actual policies. Militant anti-Israeli radicalism was something Jordan could not afford, for such radicalism could embroil it in open war which it might not be able to survive, or else it could create in the country a dynamic of rising militant expectations which, unrealized, could lead to upheaval undermining the state’s structure.

Hence Jordanian policy vis-à-vis Israel gave priority to considerations other than the millenarian. In their practical acceptance of Israel’s existence the Jordanian policy-makers were in fact resorting to a well-established concept in Islamic political and legal tradition—the concept of “compelling necessity” (darura). If we translate this Islamic concept into modern political terminology we may say that in it, perceived constraints counterbalance millenarian aspirations. It should be noted that in traditional Islamic legal and political thought, considerations of necessity are not at all regarded as shameful or illegitimate.

Modern Arab politics is characterized by a constant tension between two forces. On the one side there is the vision of Arab glory and unity, a vision rooted in the inherited Arab and Islamic self-image and transformed from traditional religious concepts into the language of 20th-century political ideologies and, in particular, the language of Third World radicalism. This radiant vision inspires millenarian tendencies in which religious fervor is transformed into political zeal, fanaticism is virtue, and compromise is tantamount to treason. On the other side there is the whole gamut of practical considerations and mundane motivations.

The millenarian and the pragmatic create two overlapping fields of gravitation within which Arab politics is conducted. Actual political behavior in the Arab world always moves between these two poles, and is influenced by both. Whereas radical extremist Arab politicians are drawn to the millenarian pole, moderate Arab politicians advocate and pursue policies that confront the necessities of society and stress the need to deal with actual circumstances. These two different attitudes are also reflected in different types of public rhetoric—as between, say, a Sadat and a Kaddafi. (Arab leaders always try to make sure that the rhetoric used in their countries or spheres of influence does not clash with the policy they want to follow.)

Radicalism was inimical to the very nature of Jordan as a pro-Western monarchy. The Jordanian authorities were therefore bent on curbing radical political tendencies.




To assure its political control over the West Bank between 1948 and 1967, the Jordanian government applied a system of patronage (which, in fact, is standard in Arab politics). Economic benefits, prestigious appointments, and access to the king and his lieutenants were granted in return for loyalty.

In such a system the most valuable prize for a public personality is access to those who hold central power. To deny this privilege is to undercut a leader’s position within his constituency and to deprive him of his influence. If a notable or local politician cannot act as an intermediary between the central authority and his constituents (family, town, or tribe)—a service absolutely crucial in that social and political structure—they will inevitably turn to somebody else.

The West Bank and the Palestinians were in this manner integrated into the political system of the Jordanian state—a situation which changed when Israel occupied the West Bank in June 1967. Under the Israeli military government the West Bank became one administrative unit instead of three separate districts as it had been under Jordan.

Thereafter the Jordanian government, deprived of direct control, could no longer effectively apply the system of patronage. Furthermore, Israeli policies in the West Bank were the very opposite of the Jordanian mode of governing. Benefits and services were given by the Israeli authorities on the basis of non-political, objective administrative rules. Whether a person was a declared supporter of the PLO or a moderate Arab seeking to live in peace with Israel did not matter when it came to the services afforded him by the Israeli government.

West Bank personalities known for their moderate political positions discovered that their sensible views did not earn them preferential treatment from the Israeli authorities. In many cases, they were stunned to see persons notorious for their strong anti-Israel public positions faring better in their dealings with Israeli officials than they themselves did.

The reasons for this paradoxical phenomenon can be traced to certain conventional ideas which were as common in Israel as in America. According to these ideas, a spokesman (of the other camp) who held extreme positions must be genuine and honest, while a moderate and pragmatic spokesman must be either insincere, or unrepresentative, or both. This converged with another conventional notion, that radical leaders represented “the wave of the future” and therefore should be accommodated.

This whole complex of attitudes—which had about it something of a self-fulfilling nature-was reflected in the behavior of Israelis and Americans toward the pro-PLO figures in the West Bank. As a result, the public position of those figures was bolstered and that of the moderates undercut. In a society where easy access to the authorities is a major political asset, the accommodating attitude of the Israeli authorities to the pro-PLO mayors and public figures with similar views strengthened their position in their constituency. The same went for the American practice of regular visits with pro-PLO figures and financial support for their projects. When a pro-PLO mayor was invited by an official American agency to visit the U.S. (as was the mayor of Halhul in 1977), it signified to the people in the territories that the U.S. in fact accepted the extremists who adhered to the PLO’s absolutist dogma. Indeed, it signified that the U.S. accepted them on their terms, without a precondition that they moderate their declared public allegiance to the extremist line.

The Israeli authorities proclaimed that they did not care what the Arabs in the territories said or what political views they espoused and that nobody would be punished for expressing his views. This was Israeli policy, and also Israeli practice—and it was a practice for which Israelis took great moral credit, having brought the blessing of freedom of expression to the West Bank. Many Israelis were furthermore satisfied to see that the flow of political comments and statements coming forth from the West Bank included some anti-Jordan views in addition to anti-Israel vituperation.

In this connection it is worth pointing out that the attitude of the Israeli government (much like that of the Israeli public) to Jordan from 1967 on was a complicated one. Although the Israeli government recognized Jordan’s status as the interlocutor for any settlement concerning the West Bank, there have always been some members of the Israeli cabinet (and the Israeli political public) who have wished to see the Jordanian claim weakened. This has been true of all Israeli governments since 1967. The anti-Jordan views that some Palestinians began to publish in the new atmosphere of freedom of expression seemed useful to these Israelis, some of whom went so far as to imagine that the West Bank could emerge as a separate political entity, independent of Jordan. The fact that many of the anti-Jordan voices were also anti-Israel and pro-PLO did not appear to bother them at the time, nor did they seem aware that these utterances were mostly inspired by opposition to Jordan as a pro-Western country suspected of secretly inclining to make peace with Israel.

Yet the process of “de-Jordanization” had natural limits beyond which it could not go. There was the immutable geographic fact that all the land routes connecting the West Bank with the rest of the Arab world ran through Jordan, a situation that placed a very powerful sanction in the hands of the Jordanian government with regard to West Bankers. There was the demographic factor: many West Bankers had relatives in Jordan (often relatives highly placed in the Jordanian establishment). There was also the multifaceted economic factor: most of the products of the West Bank were sold in Jordan or transported through it to other Arab markets; many West Bankers had investments in the East Bank; and thousands of West Bank civil servants and teachers received pensions or second salaries from Jordan. Nor should it be forgotten that as Jordanian nationals, the West Bankers depended on Jordanian passports. These factors, which continue to obtain today, set limits to the process of de-Jordanization.



Politically, however, the most significant factor checking the de-Jordanization process was that until October 1974, when the Arab countries meeting at Rabat declared the PLO to be the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, Jordan was the recognized claimant to the West Bank. Thus, when municipal elections were held in the West Bank in 1972, pro-Jordanian candidates ran for office and won. The one exception was in Ramallah, where a new man was elected mayor. This was Karim Khalaf, a radical anti-Jordanian nationalist strongly influenced by the Communists in his town.

Karim Khalaf was one of quite a number of anti-Jordanian Palestinians who, under the Israeli military government, were allowed and even encouraged to appear on the public scene as civil servants and journalists. Under Jordanian rule, of course, that would have been unthinkable. Karim Khalaf was employed by the Israeli military government as a magistrate and attorney. Arabs in Ramallah assert that he won the 1972 elections because he was known to have good relations with the Israeli military authorities and easy access to them. The people of Ramallah say that when he was elected, it was the Israelis who interceded on his behalf with the Jordanians to have his Jordanian passport renewed and his mayoral appointment recognized by the Jordanian authorities across the river—a sine qua non of his ability to function.5

In view of the power of sanction still held by the Jordanians, such anti-Jordan persons who became publicly active under Israeli rule soon learned to restrain the free expression of their sentiments. For the most part the radicalism that could be publicly expressed with impunity on the West Bank under Israeli rule was anti-Israel radicalism.

Under Israeli control political-party activity was prohibited in the territories. This, however, does not mean that there was no political activity. Whereas the moderate elements obeyed the law, the radical elements, taking full advantage of the freedom of expression assured by Israel, used all sorts of non-political organizations (such as trade unions and women’s welfare groups) as bases for anti-Israel indoctrination.

Israeli policy attached great significance to the economic aspect of life in the West Bank and Gaza. The Israelis in charge assumed that economic growth and prosperity would in themselves have a moderating effect, as a populace busy at economic enterprise and materially satisfied would steer clear of illegal activity. In line with this assumption, Israeli authorities acted to increase agricultural productivity, encourage investment in industry, and generally raise the standard of living.

Indeed, the economic accomplishments in the territories were remarkable: the GNP increased from 1967 to 1978 at an average annual rate of about 13 percent in real terms, per-capita income rose at an annual average of 11 percent in real terms. But the somewhat naive assumption that rising prosperity and economic development would counterbalance radicalizing influences and form a barrier between the populace and the terrorist organizations was not borne out.



By April 1976, when Israel again held municipal elections in the West Bank, the political situation had changed from 1972. Since the Rabat conference in October 1974, when the Arab countries had resolved that the PLO was the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians, Jordan was no longer considered the claimant to the West Bank. The elections were preceded by an intensive campaign conducted by the PLO radio stations in Syria and Lebanon, calling on the population to vote en masse for the candidates who supported the PLO. During the months prior to the elections, from November 1975 until March 1976, there were serious disorders in the major towns of the West Bank instigated by PLO followers to prove to the people that the PLO had control of the streets. Under these circumstances, the pro-Jordanian mayors of Nablus and Hebron, both of them pragmatic and experienced politicians, refused to run. The results of the so-called de-Jordanization, which was in reality anti-Israel radicalization, were now showing.

The Israeli authorities were dismayed by the outcome of the elections—the PLO supporters won in all the major towns. Nevertheless, the Israelis nurtured the hope that once in office the new mayors would be more interested in their municipal duties than in nationalist politics, and would gradually move away from the PLO. This did not happen. Instead the mayors turned their offices into protected platforms for PLO propaganda and, more significantly, converted the municipalities with their budgets and sanctions into political power bases for the PLO. The capacity of the mayors to influence the population was considerably enhanced by the large sums of money which the PLO began to funnel to them (particularly after the 13th PLO council in Cairo in March 1977). After the signing of the Camp David accords, the Baghdad conference allocated $150 million for consolidating the PLO hold on the West Bank and Gaza.

The Israelis, under the spell of their notion that economic development would be a moderating factor, were at a loss to define a clear policy against the flow of PLO money into the West Bank. Some Israelis responded by saying: What do we care if they build factories with PLO money, so long as they don’t build weapons factories? This response missed the fact that the money was granted at a political price—support for the PLO in general, and, more specifically, after the Camp David accords, rejection of the peace process. Another Israeli response to the problem was to distinguish between PLO money and money from Arab states. But this was an illusory distinction, since all the grants by Arab countries to the West Bank and Gaza (whether handed over by PLO envoys or by representatives of the donor state) were politically controlled by the PLO. They were distributed to persons or organizations in the territories on a quid pro quo basis. It was all PLO patronage money.



Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in November 1977 stirred the public in the territories. Thousands of Arabs from the West Bank cheered Sadat in the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem: “Long live the hero of peacel” A number of prominent West Bank moderate leaders publicly welcomed Sadat. It seemed at the time that the moderates might veer away from the PLO line. But the PLO moved quickly to suppress any deviation. Threats were made on the lives and property of people suspected of wavering from the PLO line; within a few months after Sadat’s visit, three persons were assassinated. Among them was the Ramallah businessman and politician, Abd al-Nur Janho, who had defied the PLO and publicly supported the Sadat initiative. In an interview with John B. Oakes of the New York Times (December 21, 1977), Janho had challenged the PLO’s right to represent the Palestinians and expressed his belief that the Sadat peace move gave the West Bank Arabs a chance to solve their problems without war. Janho was shot dead on February 8, 1978.

The Camp David accords heightened the political significance of the people living in the territories, and now the complacent assumption that their declared political positions were of no consequence turned out to be wholly untenable. To be sure, the Arabs in the territories could not and would not make peace on their own, but it became clear that the implementation of any agreement would require the consent and cooperation of at least some of their leaders.

The PLO recognized that to foil the Camp David accords it had to have a monolithic front in the territories. PLO supporters in the West Bank organized a series of rallies in the colleges of Bir Zeit (near Ramallah), Bethlehem, and Nablus (on October 4, October 16, and November 7, 1978, respectively) at which one speaker after another denounced the peace agreement; called for the liberation with arms of the whole of Palestine, including Galilee, Haifa, and Jaffa; castigated the U.S.; heaped personal abuse on Sadat; and threatened anyone who dared deviate from the line. Leading the vituperative campaign against the peace agreement were the very same mayors who according to the American and Israeli scenario should have been the Palestinians willing to participate in the peace process.

The PLO rallies, which were widely publicized on television and in the Arabic press, were not merely opportunities for self-expression, but public ceremonies in which the acclaimed political formulas were canonized as dogma. Once the total rejection of the Camp David accords was thus canonized, deviation from it became tantamount to apostasy—and the punishment for apostasy was death. Sheikh Hashem Khuzendar, the religious leader of Gaza, who unabashedly continued to support the Sadat initiative, was assassinated on June 1, 1979.

A few weeks after this assassination, Farouk Kaddoumi commented to the Lebanese paper Monday Morning (June 24, 1979): “The PLO and the Palestinian people in the occupied territories and outside them know very well how to use such methods to prevent certain personalities from deviating from the revolutionary path. Our people in the interior [i.e., the territories] recognize their responsibilities and are capable of taking the necessary disciplinary measures against those who try to leave the right path.”



PLO pressure in the territories was thus twofold—the offer of patronage money on the one hand, and on the other hand physical terror and intimidation. It was hard to resist. Nevertheless, an undercurrent of moderate tendencies survived. Well aware of it, the PLO made sure that these tendencies were not allowed to surface. In the summer of 1980, Abu Mazin announced: “The PLO should act with all its strength to prevent voices supporting the autonomy from arising among the people of Gaza.” A few weeks later a series of assassinations occurred in the Gaza Strip: during the months of November and December 1980, twelve persons were shot to death. This was a result of a specific decision by Fatah. Abu Iyad said (al-Watan, Kuwait, January 18-19, 1981):

After Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem and the Camp David accords, we took some decisions to execute spies on a limited scale. We were concerned lest people of weak character might participate in the conspiracy of the autonomy. I can proudly declare that by the end of 1980 these agents were not able to come out of their holes, that is, after September 1980 some of them reared their heads a bit and then a resolution was issued to carry out a few executions. There is a decision to liquidate all elements cooperating with the enemy.

In this way the PLO achieved what has been described in the media as “the unanimous support of the people.” This is not to say that patronage money and intimidation were the only motives behind people’s allegiance to the PLO. Various temperaments and ideological orientations existed within the political public in the territories; there were pragmatists as well as adherents of absolutist dogma. What is important—and disturbing—is that the pragmatists and the moderates learned that it paid to obey the PLO, and how dangerous it was to disobey.

The socio-political situation that developed in the territories under Israel’s military government was one in which the balance between the radical millenarian and the practical became skewed. For the people in the territories both the radical vision and considerations of expediency came to be stacked on one and the same side.




This situation was not inevitable, and is not irreversible. In the light of the analysis given above of the reasons for the present deadlock, we may draw conclusions that can help in forming a new, more constructive policy capable of sustaining the efforts begun at Camp David.

To begin with, it must be recognized that the declared political positions of people in the territories are of great significance. What counts politically is actual behavior and public positions, not what may be maintained privately or said in confidence. The PLO is fully aware of this and has acted accordingly to assure that no dissenting voices are heard. Conversely, in order to effect progress toward a peaceful settlement, one must create conditions within which moderates in the territories will be able to express their views openly.

In this connection it is important to realize that the extreme radical personalities and groups among the Palestinians in the territories are not necessarily the “authentic” representatives. Choosing partners for negotiations according to the implicit assumption that more extreme means more authentic is a sure formula for damaging the chances of a peaceful settlement. One cannot hope to have an agreement with followers of the radical millenarian vision, the protagonists of absolute dogma who negate any form of compromise. One can reach an agreement with those who are willing to work within the necessities and constraints of reality and accept the political consequences. Such people (whether individuals or public organizations), who are ready for a compromise solution, require moral and political support against the extremists.

The facts of geography and demography suggest that a political separation between the West Bank and the East Bank is artificial and potentially explosive. A permanent and stable settlement of the Palestinian problem must include a solution for the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, who number about 300,000. It would be impossible to settle them in the West Bank. However, the East Bank, with an area eighteen times larger, can accommodate a substantial portion of them. Hence any agreement on the permanent solution of the Palestinian problem must ultimately be struck between Israel and that political entity whose center is Amman. At present one cannot move directly toward this kind of solution, because neither Jordan nor the political public in the territories is ready for it. Without at least some legitimation from within the territories, Jordan cannot go against the inter-Arab consensus.



How is such legitimation to be achieved? By freeing the population of the territories from the grip of the PLO. This must be done by Israel, with the support and cooperation of the U.S. During the next year, while the U.S. is—one hopes—rebuilding its credibility in the Middle East, Israel will have to engage in a persistent political campaign against PLO domination in the territories. The way for the U.S. to help is not to demand further concessions from Israel in order to satisfy the PLO.

The PLO’s demands are absolute and unlimited, and the organization is not prepared to pay any political price to Israel in a bilateral relationship. Nor will Israel, which obtained a peace treaty with Egypt in return for concessions in Sinai, agree to give up at a lesser price territories and defense positions that are of greater value to it. This road leads only to impasse, destabilization, and Soviet penetration.

It has been suggested, in the light of the deadlock, that Israel should unilaterally implement the autonomy plan. The advocates of this idea argue that once Israel relinquishes its administrative functions in the West Bank, the mayors will have to assume responsibility for these functions, while Israel will continue to maintain its military presence and civilian settlements in the area. In this way, it is said, Israel will be able to bypass the Palestinian refusal to participate in the peace process.

But this is no solution to the problem, and not even a start in the right direction. It only obfuscates the issue. What hampers the peace process is not that the mayors refuse to assume additional administrative responsibilities, but that they refuse to accept the idea of a peace process altogether. If Israel relinquished all its administrative authority in the territories, the power vacuum would be filled by the supporters of the PLO. This would be a final blow to the remnants of moderation in the West Bank and Gaza.6

Continued political domination of the territories by the PLO will guarantee that organization’s continued legitimacy within the Arab world, not to mention its power to veto any Arab move in the direction of Camp David.

Indeed, rejection of the U.S.-sponsored “Framework for Peace in the Middle East” is precisely what is preventing the formation of a potential pro-U.S. alliance in the Middle East. The political gap between Egypt on one side and Saudi Arabia and Jordan on the other cannot be bridged unless the latter two accept or at least cease to oppose the “Framework for Peace.” Such a change in the approach of Saudi Arabia and Jordan to the solution of the Palestinian problem can take place only if it is legitimized from within the territories. Thus the chances of the pro-U.S. strategic alliance in the Middle East depend also on the emergence of a moderate camp in the West Bank and Gaza—something which cannot be expected to happen if the PLO continues to dominate the territories politically.

Unless the U.S. and Israel make a real effort to create conditions in which moderate Palestinians can speak out, both the chances of peace between Israel and the Arabs and the chances of a pro-Western strategic alliance in the Middle East will remain seriously impaired.


1 “Uniting Palestine” is a euphemism signifying the end of Israel and the inclusion of its territory in the Arab Palestinian state.

2 See Fayez A. Sayegh Camp David and Palestine, Association of Arab-American University Graduates (New York), October 1978, pp. 2-3.

3 Interview with Newsweek, quoted here from the International Herald Tribune, March 8, 1977.

4 Quoted from a transcript of a Truman Institute symposium (Jerusalem, June 1977). The full text appears in Hebrew translation in Ten Years of Israeli Rule in Judea and Samaria, Raphael Israeli, ed. (Jerusalem, Magnes Press, 1980).

5 See Ha'Aretz, January 2, 1981.

6 There is yet another objection to this plan, namely, that as Israel unilaterally reduces its control over the area the result will be an escalation of terrorist activity against Israel. Advocates of the idea of a unilateral implementation of the autonomy plan do not discard this fearsome probability, but say that in that case Israeli forces can again move into the areas from which they have withdrawn. That is, back to square one, at an as yet undetermined cost in human life.

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