Changing Places

Avi Shlaim writes about the Middle East Peace Conference

Since its origins at the end of the 19th century, the Jewish-Arab battle for the possession of Palestine has been accompanied by a battle of persuasion to win the hearts and minds of the world. Although in essence the struggle was between two people for one land, the Zionists won a good deal of international sympathy by portraying Palestine as ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’.

Zionism has perhaps been the most successful public relations exercise of the 20th century: Palestinian nationalism one of the least successful. At the Middle East Peace Conference held in Madrid in late October, the Palestinians, for the first time in the entire history of the conflict, began to gain the upper hand in the propaganda battle. It was a historic reversal which cannot fail to affect the course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the last decade of this century and beyond.

The early Zionists clearly grasped the power of words in the struggle for independence. Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State, published in 1896, evoked a powerful response among Jews. On 3 September 1897, he wrote in his diary: ‘ln Basle I founded the Jewish State.’ He was referring to the First Zionist Congress, which he had convened in Basle. The ‘Basle Programme’ stated that the ‘aim of Zionism is to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law’. Both the title of Herzl’s book and his diary entry suggest that from the start the aim of Zionism was an independent Jewish state in Palestine. This long-term goal was deliberately blurred, however, because it would have provoked Arab hostility and been a liability in the struggle to mobilise international support for the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine.

A second important aspect of political Zionism highlighted by Herzl’s diary entry is the belief that commitment to an idea and resolutions passed in international gatherings have a crucial role to play in paving the way to state-hood. It is precisely because of the military impotence of their movement that the early Zionists set so much store by winning the propaganda battle and mustering the traditional Jewish talents of advocacy and persuasion in every part of the world. They always concentrated their efforts on the leading great power of the day: first it was the Ottoman Turks, then the British and then the Americans.

In order to appeal to public opinion as well as to the governments of the Great Powers, the Zionists cultivated an image of reasonableness and moderation. Their tactics were always flexible even if their long-term aim was not. They tended to say yes rather than no to proposals by third parties even when they had serious reservations about them. Their strategy was a gradualist one. They understood that it was better to take what was on offer at any given time – there was always a chance of going back for more – than to reject it and end up with nothing.

Thus they accepted in principle nearly all Britain’s compromise proposals for settling the Palestine problem and enhanced their reputation for reasonableness in the process. In 1937, when the Peel Commission first proposed the partition of Palestine and the formation of a tiny Jewish state, the veteran Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann argued that ‘the Jews would be fools not to accept it even if it is the size of a tablecloth.’

At the same time, the Zionist leaders, especially David Ben-Gurion, were adept at presenting the Palestinian position as unreasonable. It is not that they weren’t interested in a compromise solution. But since the claims of the two sides could not be reconciled, it was preferable to have the Palestinians bearing the responsibility for the deadlock.

In this respect they were fortunate in having as their opponent Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. For the Mufti epitomised the all-or-nothing approach, the total rejection of any Jewish claim to Palestine, the absolute insistence on rights without any regard for the consequences. The Mufti also created a very poor impression abroad by his systematic rejection of British compromise proposals and by his collaboration with Nazi Germany during the Second World War. In short, the story of the Palestinian struggle for statehood under the British mandate is the story of how the Mufti muffed it.

When the United Nations voted for partition in November 1947, showing that the logic of partition had become inescapable, the Zionists accepted the plan with alacrity although a Jewish state within the borders proposed by the UN would scarcely have been viable. However, accepting the UN resolution put them within the framework of international legality and provided a charter of legitimacy for the Jewish state. They counted on the Mufti to put himself in the wrong with the international community by rejecting the UN partition plan, and reject it he did. It was this sophisticated Zionist approach to playing the game of nations which helped them to win a state of their own in 1948 just as the diplomatic inflexibility of the Palestinians helped to bring about the greatest disaster in their history.

Israel and the Palestinians didn’t change places overnight – it was a gradual process which only reached its climax in Madrid. One important landmark in this process was the rise to power in 1977 of the Likud, who rejected the principle of partition, rejected territorial compromise with Jordan and staked a claim to the West Bank as an inalienable part of the land of Israel. Another was the peace offensive launched by the PLO in 1988. In November of that year the Palestinian National Council met in Algiers and accepted the principle of partition and a two-state solution based on all relevant UN resolutions going back to November 1947. The claim to the whole of Palestine was finally laid to rest and a declaration of independence was issued for a mini-state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

The passing of these resolutions was accompanied by a conscious attempt to project a more moderate image. A special effort was made to gain respectability by dissociating the PLO from international terrorism. Yasser Arafat made a number of statements on the subject which failed to satisfy the United States, so in the end the State Department virtually dictated the text of a declaration which Arafat got up to deliver in Geneva. Although it sounded as if Arafat renounced tourism, what he actually said was ‘we absolutely renounce terrorism.’ Once this statement had been made, a dialogue between the PLO and the US Government became possible.

By the time the PLO was prepared to accept partition, Israel had changed her mind. Israel’s response to the momentous changes that were taking place within the Palestinian camp was a series of no’s: no to withdrawal from the occupied territories, no to recognition of the PLO, no to negotiation with the PLO, no to a Palestinian state. Their only positive contribution was Yitzhak Shamir’s plan of May 1989 for elections on the West Bank and Gaza leading to limited autonomy. But Shamir only put this idea forward in response to pressure from Washington and he gave it up at the first indication that the Palestinians might accept it.

The Gulf War produced a major setback in the PLO’s quest for legitimacy. Frustrated by Israel’s rejection of all its peace overtures and the suspension of its dialogue with the US, the PLO recklessly bet on Saddam Hussein and lost. Saddam tried to link Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait to Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. America resisted this linkage, but promised to seek a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict once the war was over. The convening of the Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid represented the fulfilment of this promise. The mother of all battles threatened by the Iraqi tyrant in the Gulf was followed by the mother of all peace conferences in Madrid.

What distinguished Madrid from previous Arab-Israel conferences was that for the first time the Palestinians were on a footing of equality with Israel: they had at last arrived at the Middle East conference table. That in itself was a major gain in international recognition. Israel’s veto on members of the PLO and residents of East Jerusalem resulted in a Palestinian delegation which was part of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation with an advisory council that had Faisal al-Husseini as co-ordinator and Hanan Ashrawi as spokes-person. Ironically, by excluding the PLO, Israel helped the Arabs of the occupied territories to bring fresh faces forward. This was the most effective team the Palestinians had ever fielded at an international gathering and it played the game of nations with outstanding skill and flexibility.

The opening speeches by the heads of the Israeli and Palestinian delegations faithfully reflected the current positions of the two sides. Mr Shamir, like the French Bourbons, seemed to have learnt nothing and to have forgotten nothing. His speech was anachronistic, saturated with the stale rhetoric of the past. In his account of the Arab-Israeli conflict Israel was simply the victim of Arab aggression: there was no acknowledgment that an evolution had taken place in the Arab or Palestinian attitude to Israel. All Arabs, according to Shamir, want to see Israel destroyed: they only differ in their view of how to achieve this. The speech was long on partisan history, long on anti-Arab clichés, long on Israel’s desire for peace, and short on substance. By insisting that the root cause of the conflict is not territory but the Arab refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the State of Israel, Mr Shamir came dangerously close to rejecting the whole basis of the conference – UN Resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of land for peace.

The contrast between Mr Shamir’s speech and that of Haidar Abdul Shafi, the head of the Palestinian delegation, could have hardly been more striking in tone, spirit or substance. This one speech contained more evidence of new thinking than all the other speeches, Arab and Israeli, put together. Its impact was heightened by the quiet, dignified quality of the delivery. Dr Abdul Shafi reminded the audience that it was time for the Palestinians to narrate their own story. His speech touched on the past, but was not backward-looking. ‘We seek neither an admission of guilt after the fact, nor vengeance for past iniquities, but rather an act of will that would make a just peace a reality.’

In the name of the Palestinian people, Dr Abdul Shafi went on:

we wish to directly address the Israeli people with whom we have had a prolonged exchange of pain: let us share hope instead. We are willing to live side by side on the land and the promise of the future. Sharing, however, requires two partners willing to share as equals. Mutuality and reciprocity must replace domination and hostility for genuine reconciliation and co-existence under international legality. Your security and ours are mutually dependent, as intertwined as the tears and nightmares of our children.

Dr Abdul Shafi accused Israel of brutal oppression in the occupied territories but he sought to portray the Israelis as fellow victims:

We have seen some of you at your best and at your worst, for the occupier can hide no secrets from the occupied, and we are witness to the toll that occupation has exacted from you and yours. We have seen your anguish over the transformation of your sons and daughters into instruments of blind and violent occupation – and we are sure that at no time did you envisage such a role for the children whom you thought would forge your future. We have seen you look back in deepest sorrow at the tragedy of your past and look on in horror at the disfigurement of the victim turned oppressor. Not for this have you nurtured your hopes, dreams and your offspring.

This emphasis on the human cost of occupation was followed by a handsome tribute to those Israelis who had expressed solidarity with the Palestinians.

Dr Abdul Shafi’s basic message was that Israeli occupation must be ended, that Palestinians have a right to self-determination, and that they intend to pursue it unrelentingly until they achieve statehood. The Intifada, he suggested, had already begun to build the institutions and infrastructure of the Palestinian state. On the other hand, he accepted the need for a transitional stage, provided interim arrangements were not made permanent, and envisaged a confederation between an ultimately independent Palestine and Jordan. As the head of the Palestinian delegation was delivering his speech, Israel’s stone-faced Prime Minister passed a note to a colleague. One of the five thousand journalists covering the conference wondered whether it said: ‘We made a big mistake. We should have insisted that the PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.’

In his concluding remarks on the last day of the conference Dr Abdul Shafi offered the Israeli people an alternative path to peace and security. ‘Abandon mutual fear and mistrust,’ he said, ‘approach us as equals within a two-state solution, and let us work for the development and prosperity of our region based on mutual benefit and well-being. We have already wasted enough time, energy and resources locked in the violent embrace of mutual destruction and defensiveness. We urge you to take this opportunity and rise to meet the challenge of peace.’

Not since the beginning of the conflict at the end of the last century had a Palestinian spokesman put his case so eloquently or so moderately. Internal divisions and the constraints of inter-Arab politics had always prevented the PLO from making such a clear-cut peace overture to Israel. No PLO official had been able to declare so unambiguously that a Palestinian state would be ready for a confederation with Jordan. The speech was more conciliatory and constructive than the most moderate statements made by the PLO. In the words of one PLO official, it was ‘unreasonably reasonable’. Future historians will look back on 31 October 1991 as a landmark in the quest for reconciliation between the national claims of the Palestinians and the Israelis.

The origins of the speech delivered by Dr Abdul Shafi were highly revealing of the strategy adopted by the Palestinian leaders, including the PLO, for the Madrid Peace Conference. Suggestions that the speech be read in Arabic were turned down on the grounds that it was intended not for the folks back home but for the world at large, its first aim being to counter the harmful stereotypes that have become attached to the Palestinians in world opinion, and to humanise the Palestinian cause. The second aim was to convince the Israeli public that the Palestinians were genuinely committed to peaceful co-existence.

Thirteen drafts were prepared before consensus was reached on the final text. Hanan Ashrawi, a professor of English literature at Bir Zeit University on the West Bank, was the principal author. She confessed that the speech was written on the assumption that one day it will be taught in primary schools in the State of Palestine. At the end one Palestinian delegate was moved to declare: ‘In Madrid we founded the Palestinian State.’ In the international media the speech received every accolade. Even some of the Israeli officials in Madrid professed themselves moved. The calm and reassuring manner of the elderly physician from Gaza reinforced the humanity of his message.

On this occasion, Abba Eban’s old jibe against the Palestinians, that they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity for peace, could be turned against the Israelis. Even the composition of the two delegations was indicative of the transformation that had taken place on the road to peace. Half the Palestinian delegates to Madrid were doctors and university professors. The Israeli delegation, on the other hand, was led, as the Syrian Foreign Minister tactfully reminded us, by a former terrorist, a man who in 1948 had been wanted by the British for the assassination of Count Bernadotte. ‘This man,’ the Syrian said, brandishing a picture of the 32-year-old Shamir, ‘killed peace mediators.’

Mr Shamir’s performance in Madrid raised serious questions as to whether he and his generation in the Likud Party will ever be able to put the past behind them and work towards a genuine accommodation with the Palestinians. Listening to his speech, one Israeli journalist wondered whether his officials had not by mistake fished out of their files one of Golda Meir’s speeches from the early Seventies. Mr Shamir’s basic thesis was that the Arabs still refuse to accept Israel as a permanent entity in the Middle East. But the peace with Egypt and the presence in the conference chamber of representatives from all the front-line states, as well as the authorised representatives of the Palestinians, told a completely different story.

The truth is that the Arabs recognised Israel when they signed the armistice agreements with her under UN auspices in Rhodes in 1949 and that there have been countless meetings, some secret, some open, between them and Israel ever since. But Israel has continued to claim that the Arabs do not recognise her and to insist on direct negotiations. At the end of the first day of talks, Mr Shamir was asked how it felt finally to sit down face to face with all Israel’s Arab adversaries. He answered: ‘It was a regular day.’ Mr Shamir’s presence was as much of a liability to the Israeli public relations effort in Madrid as the absence of the PLO was a boon to the Palestinians. In charge of Israeli public relations was Binyamin Netanyahu, the Deputy Foreign Minister, who has the advantage of speaking in the soundbites beloved by American television interviewers. As Michael Sheridan wrote in the Independ ent on 2 November.

the Israelis possessed the best organised, most efficient, least flustered, public relations team at the conference, with Mr Netanyahu, its intellectual bruiser, rushing before the CNN cameras every other minute. But for all its military élan, the Israeli PR machine has without question lost the battle for hearts and minds to the Palestinians this week. Its principal problem was that a million glib soundbites from Mr Netanyahu could not efface the image of Yitzhak Shamir, scowling in repose and truculent in action, a visual epitome of the policy he represents.

Mr Netanyahu was up against Hanan Ashrawi, whose eloquence was matched by her evident sincerity and a refreshing habit of answering reporters’ questions directly and unambiguously. Not only was she the star of the show: overnight she became the most prominent woman in the Arab political world. Every bit as articulate and assertive as the Israelis, she was considerably more sophisticated in handling the media.

The other Palestinian spokesmen also seemed much more credible figures than the chairman of the PLO. The PLO’s authority was never challenged and the delegates from the occupied territories did not set themselves up as an alternative leadership. On the contrary, there was very close co-ordination between the Palestinian delegation and the PLO before, during and after the conference. But in Madrid the Palestinians of the occupied territories showed that they have another group of able and authentic leaders who are better qualified to present their case than the discredited leadership in Tunis.

If the Palestinians proved to Mr Shamir that he can no longer rely on them to let him off the hook, he had better luck with Farouk al-Shara, the Syrian Foreign Minister, who played the old record of rejectionism and vituperation. Without doubt the most militant Arab representative in Madrid, he was also the most isolated. Mr Shamir denounced Syria as one of the most repressive and tyrannical regimes in the world. Mr Shara denounced Israel as a terrorist state led by a former terrorist and at a press conference refused to answer questions from Israeli journalists. Against this background the readiness of the Palestinians to engage in a constructive dialogue with the Israelis was all the more striking.

The key to Palestinian success in Madrid, however, was the political alliance with the United States, formally one of the sponsors but actually the driving force behind the conference. The whole occasion was carefully stage-managed by the Americans, with James Baker acting as the chief puppeteer. It was because Mr Baker warned them that this would be their only chance that the Palestinians agreed to take part, despite the unreasonable conditions imposed by Israel. He also promised them that once the show was on the road, the pressure would be on Israel to start making concessions.

Of all the delegations to Madrid, the Palestinian was the only one which agreed to nearly all the American requests on both procedure and substance. It was the American officials who had advised the Palestinians to appeal to the American public and their advice was followed almost to the point of neglecting public opinion in other countries. In order to minimise the risk of an Israeli walk-out, the Americans went over different scenarios with the Palestinians before the conference began – and they were well pleased with the performance the novices subsequently put on. In his closing speech Mr Baker paid tribute to Palestinians like Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi ‘whose personal courage in the face of enormous pressures has created the possibility of a better life for the Palestinians.’

In fact, the Palestinians were a lot closet than the Israelis to the American position in Madrid. They explicitly accepted that the negotiations should be based on UN Resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of land for peace, whereas Israel did not. They got on board the bus which Mr Baker told them would come only once, while Mr Shamir continued to quibble over the fare, the rights of other passengers, the speed, the route and the final destination.

The official American position towards the Arab-Israeli conflict has remained unchanged since 1967. America supports the exchange of land for peace, refuses to acknowledge the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem and regards the building of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories as illegal and an obstacle to peace. What has changed is the evident determination of the Bush Administration to do more than simply repeat these positions. It was the Gulf War, when Israel was anything but a strategic asset to America, which prompted Washington’s reappraisal of its special relationship with Israel. The moderation shown by the Palestinians in Madrid will make it easier for the Bush Administration to tilt further in their direction and away from Israel. All the signs are that when Bush comes to shove, the Palestinians will be on the side of the most powerful man on earth. American behaviour since Madrid has been encouraging to the Palestinians and troubling to the Israelis. America unilaterally decided the date, venue and format of the bilateral talks and for good measure added suggestions on matters of substance designed to narrow the gap between the parties to the dispute. The bilateral talks held in Washington in mid-December were rather less successful than the Americans had hoped. Matters of substance were discussed in the Israeli-Syrian and the Israeli-Lebanese talks but little progress was made. Israel and the Palestinians, on the other hand, never got beyond talks about talks. The Israelis insisted on negotiating with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to underline their opposition to a separate Palestinian entity. The Palestinians, for their part, insisted on meeting the Israelis in separate rooms and as separate delegations to underline their claim to statehood. Five days of talks in the corridor of the State Department failed to break the procedural deadlock. The principal lesson of this failure is that the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations can only go forward with high-level American engagement. The balance of power is overwhelmingly in Israel’s favour. American support is the Palestinians’ only hope of redressing the imblance sufficiently to achieve their minimal objective of self-government.

Despite the failure of the second leg of the talks, Madrid will remain a landmark in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians demonstrated that they understand the value of good public relations, the importance of not staking out maximalist positions, the advantage of saying ‘yes, but’ over saying ‘no’. Above all, they recognise the value for a weak national liberation movement of having a powerful sponsor when playing the rough and cruel game of international politics. In Madrid the Palestinians were not only moderate but were seen to be moderate. If they keep to this quintessentially Zionist strategy, they should go a long way. Who knows, they may even end up with a state of their own – just like the Zionists.