Even by the terribly low standards of his other speeches, George W Bush’s 24 June speech to the world about the Middle East was a startling example of how an execrable combination of muddled thought, words with no actual meaning in the real world of living, breathing human beings, preachy and racist injunctions against the Palestinians, an incredible blindness, a delusional blindness, to the realities of an ongoing Israeli invasion and conquest against all the laws of war and peace, all wrapped in the smug accents of a moralistic, stiff-necked and ignorant judge who has arrogated to himself divine privileges, now sits astride US foreign policy. And this, it is important to remember, from a man who virtually stole an election he did not win, and whose record as governor of Texas includes the worst pollution, scandalous corruption, the highest rates of imprisonment and capital punishment in the world. So this dubiously endowed man of few gifts except the blind pursuit of money and power has the capability to condemn Palestinians not just to the tender mercies of war criminal Sharon but to the dire consequences of his own empty condemnations. Flanked by three of the most venal politicians in the world (Powell, Rumsfeld, and Rice), he pronounced his speech with the halting accents of a mediocre elocution student and thereby allowed Sharon to kill or injure many more Palestinians in a US endorsed illegal military occupation.
It wasn’t only that Bush’s speech lacked any historical awareness of what he was proposing, but that its capacity for extended harm was so great. It was as if Sharon had written the speech, amalgamating the disproportionate American obsession with terrorism to Sharon’s determination to eliminate Palestinian national life under the rubric of terrorism and Jewish supremacy on “the land of Israel”. For the rest, Bush’s perfunctory concessions to a “provisional” Palestinian state (whatever that may be, perhaps analogous to a provisional pregnancy?) and his casual remarks about alleviating the difficulties of Palestinian life brought nothing to this new pronouncement of his that warranted the widespread — I would go so far as to say comically — positive reaction elicited from the Arab leadership, Yasser Arafat leading the pack as far as enthusiasm is concerned.
Over 50 years of Arab and Palestinian dealings with the US have ended in the rubbish bin, so that Bush and his advisers could convince themselves and much of the electorate that they had a god-given mission to exterminate terrorism, which means essentially all the enemies of Israel. A quick survey of those 50 years shows dramatically that neither a defiant Arab attitude nor a submissive one have made any changes in US perceptions of its interest in the Middle East, which remain the quick and cheap supply of oil and the protection of Israel as the two main aspects of its regional dominance.
From Abdel-Nasser to Bashar, Abdullah and Mubarak, Arab policy, however, has undergone a 180 degree turn, with more or less the same results. First there was a defiant Arab alignment in the post- independence years inspired by the anti-imperialist, anti-Cold War philosophy of Bandung and Nasserism. That ended catastrophically in 1967.
Thereafter, led by Egypt under Sadat, the shift took place that brought cooperation between the US and the Arabs under the totally delusional rubric that the US controls 99 per cent of the cards. What remained of inter-Arab cooperation slowly withered away from its high point in the 1973 War and the oil embargo, to an Arab cold war pitting various states against each other. Sometimes, as with Kuwait and Lebanon, small weak states became the battleground, but to all intents and purposes the official mind-set of the Arab state system came to think exclusively in terms of the United States as the pivotal focus for Arab policy. With the first Gulf War (there is soon to be a second) and the end of the Cold War, America remained the only superpower, which instead of prompting a radical re-appraisal of Arab policy drove the various states into a deeper individual, or rather bilateral, embrace of the US whose reaction in effect was to take them for granted. Arab summits became less occasions for putting forth credible positions than for derisory contempt. It was soon realised by US policy-makers that Arab leaders barely represented their own countries, much less the whole Arab world; and, in addition, one didn’t have to be a genius to remark that various bilateral agreements between Arab leaders and the US were more important to their regimes’ security than to the United States. This is not even to mention the petty jealousies and animosities that virtually emasculated the Arab people as a power to be reckoned with in the modern world. No wonder then that today’s Palestinian suffering the horrors of Israeli occupation is just as likely to blame “the Arabs” as he is the Israelis.
By the early 1980s all parts of the Arab world were ready to make peace with Israel as a way of ensuring US good faith towards them — take, for example, the Fez Plan of 1982 which stipulated peace with Israel in return for withdrawal from all the occupied territory. The March 2002 Arab summit replayed the same scene for the second time, this time as farce it should be added, and with equally negligible effect. And it is precisely from that time two decades ago that US policy on Palestine completely changed its bases, for the worse. As former CIA senior analyst Kathleen Christison points out in an excellent study published in the US bi-weekly Counterpunch (May 16-31, 2002), the old land-for peace formula was given up by the Reagan administration, then more enthusiastically by Clinton’s, ironically just at the time that Arab policy generally and Palestinian policy in particular had concentrated their energies on placating the US on as many fronts as possible. By November 1988, the PLO had officially abandoned “liberation” and at the Algiers meeting of the PNC (which I attended as a member) voted for partition and co-existence for two states; in December of that year Yasser Arafat publicly renounced terrorism and a PLO-US dialogue was begun in Tunis.
The new Arab order that emerged after the Gulf War institutionalised the one-way traffic between the US and the Arabs: the Arabs gave, and the US gave more and more to Israel. The Madrid Conference of 1991 was based on the premise — for the Palestinians — that the US would recognise them and persuade Israel to do the same. I recall vividly that during the summer of 1991, along with a group of senior PLO figures and independents, we were asked by Arafat to formulate a series of assurances that we required from the US in order to enter the about-to- be-convened Madrid conference which led (although none of us knew it) to the Oslo process of 1993. In effect Arafat vetoed all our suggestions for US guarantees. He only wanted assurances that he would remain the main negotiator for the Palestinians; nothing else seemed to matter to him, even though a good West Bank-Gaza delegation headed by Haidar Abdel-Shafi was proceeding with its work in Washington facing a tough Israeli team that had been instructed by Shamir to concede nothing and to extend the talk for 10 years if necessary. Arafat’s idea was to undercut every one of his own people by offering more concessions, which essentially meant that he made no prior demands on either Israel or the US, just so he could remain in power.
That, and the prevailing post-1967 environment, solidified the Palestinian-US dynamic into the by- now permanent distortions of the Oslo and post-Oslo period. To the best of my knowledge, the US never called on the Palestinian Authority (nor any other Arab regime) to establish democratic procedures. Quite the contrary, Clinton and Gore both publicly approved the Palestinian State Security courts while on visits to Gaza and Jericho respectively and little emphasis, if any, was placed on ending corruption, monopolies and the like. I myself had been writing about the problems of Arafat’s rule since the middle 90s, with either indifference or open scorn as reactions to what I had to say (most of which proved to be correct). I was accused of a utopian lack of pragmatism and realism. It was clear that for the Israelis and the Americans, as well as the other Arabs, there was a concert of interests that made the Authority what it was, and which kept it in place as either an Israeli police force or, later, the focus of everything that Israelis loved to hate. No serious resistance to occupation was developed under Arafat, and he continued to allow bands of militants, other PLO factions, and security forces to run rampant across the civil landscape. A great deal of illicit money was made, as the general population lost over 50 per cent of its pre-Oslo livelihood.
The Intifada changed everything, as did Barak’s tenure which prepared the way for Sharon’s re-entry on to the scene. And still Arab policy was to placate the US. A small sign of this is the change in Arab discourse in the United States. Abdullah of Jordan stopped criticising Israel completely on American TV, referring always to the need for “the two sides” to stop “the violence”. Similar language was heard from various other Arab spokesmen from major countries, indicating that Palestine had become a nuisance to be contained rather than an injustice to be righted.
The most significant thing of all is that Israeli propaganda, American contempt for the Arabs, and Arab (as well as Palestinian) incapacity to formulate and represent the interests of their own people has led to a vast dehumanisation of the Palestinians, whose enormous suffering on a daily, indeed hourly and minute by minute basis has no status at all. It is as if Palestinians have no existence except when someone performs a terrorist act, and then the entire world media apparatus leaps up and smothers their actual existence as breathing and sentient people with a real history and a real society by holding over them an enormous blanket saying terrorist. I know of no such systematic dehumanisation in modern history that even approaches this, despite the occasional dissenting voice here and there.
What concerns me finally is Arab and Palestinian cooperation (collaboration is the better word) in the dehumanisation. Our tiny number of representatives in the media at best speaks competently and dispassionately about the merits of the Bush speech or the Mitchell plan but in no way do any of them that I have seen represent the sufferings of their people, or their history, or actuality. I have spoken often about the need for a mass campaign against the occupation in the US, but have finally come to the conclusion that for Palestinians under this dreadful, Kafkaesque Israeli occupation, the chances of doing that are small. Where I think we have a hope is in trying (as I suggested in my last article on Palestinian elections) to establish a constituent assembly at the grass roots level. We have so long been in the position of being passive objects of Israeli and Arab policy that we do not adequately appreciate how important, and indeed how urgent, it is for Palestinians now to take an independent foundational step of their own, to try to establish a new self-making process that creates legitimacy and the possibility of a better polity for ourselves than now exists. All the cabinet shuffles and projected elections that have been announced so far are ridiculous games played with the fragments and ruins of Oslo. For Arafat and his assembly to start planning democracy is like trying to put together the pieces of a shattered glass.
Fortunately, however, the new Palestinian National Initiative announced two weeks ago by its authors Ibrahim Dakkak, Mustafa Barghouti, and Haidar Abdel- Shafi answers exactly to this need, which springs from the failure both of the PLO and groups like Hamas to provide a way forward that doesn’t depend (ludicrously in my opinion) on American and Israeli goodwill. The Initiative provides for a vision of peace with justice, co-existence and, extremely important, secular social democracy for our people that is unique in Palestinian history. Only a group of independent people well grounded in civil society, untainted by collaboration or corruption, can possibly furnish the outlines of the new legitimacy we need. We need a real constitution, not a basic law toyed with by Arafat; we need truly representative democracy that only Palestinians can provide for themselves through a founding assembly. This is the only positive step that can reverse the process of dehumanisation that has infected so many sectors of the Arab world. Otherwise we shall sink in our suffering and continue to endure the awful tribulations of Israeli collective punishment, which can only be stopped by a collective political independence of which we are still very capable. Colin Powell’s good will and fabled “moderation” will never do it for us. Never.