Israeli History through Palestinian Eyes

Rashid Khalidi (2020) The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine

A Review by Howard Adelman –

Part XII Oslo Bracketed by the First and Second Intifadas

While Kalidi treats Oslo as the ultimate failure, compounded by the ill thought out military uprisings of the Second Intifada that simply copied 1936-1937, I, as do most historians, view Oslo as a last great opportunity for the creation of a Palestinian polity on Palestinian land, even if on a piece significantly reduced from the 1947 partition plan and even from the aftermath of the 1967 war.

How did the parties get to Oslo? Israel’s ruined image in world public opinion as a result of the Lebanon War and its occupation of the country also shook up Israeli society. Israelis did not see themselves as occupiers of foreign countries. The West Bank was part of Mandatory Palestine and disputable territory; Lebanon was another independent state.

Further, and ironically, the consequences of the Lebanon War shifted the centre of gravity of opposition by the Palestinians from the diaspora to the occupied territories. “[T]he end result [of the Lebanon War] was to spur the resistance and relocate it inside Palestine.” Five years after the Israelis first invaded Lebanon, the First Intifada broke out in December 1987 in Gaza when an Israeli army truck struck a civilian vehicle and killed four of its occupants. The war continued to 1993. At the same time, Hizbollah was organized and took over southern Lebanon and made it into a fortress of opposition to both Israel and the United States, as well as a satrap of Iran.

During the uprising known as the First Intifada, the US organized a peace conference in Madrid in October 1991. The inversion of the Israeli image that began in Lebanon was solidified as TV viewers watched Palestinian teenagers attack Israelis with stones. Because of the heavy hand of repression, the Israeli occupation had turned into an enforced military occupation, and one determined to suppress any expression of Palestinian nationalism. Khalidi considered it a huge success “driven by a broad strategic vision and a unified leadership.” Because the insurrection largely entailed non-violent demonstrations and stone throwing rather than the use of weapons, it was also a public relations success. I was delighted when, in the following chapter, he gave credit to Faysal Husayni who headed Orient House in East Jerusalem, for his leadership in promoting non-violent resistance. Husayni, it turns out, was a cousin. I mistakenly believed that there had existed an old antipathy between the Khalidi and the Husayni clans.

However, a key source of division was between the diaspora leadership in Tunis and the locals. The PLO, which came to dominate the intifada, “issued directives and ran things from a distance, often ignoring the views and preferences of those who had initiated the revolt and led it successfully.” In the meantime, under Syrian instigation, the PLO’s remaining militias in the north and east of Lebanon successfully mutinied. At the same time, its diplomats in New York failed to take advantage of the media to get their message out to Americans. They also failed to understand how American politics worked and how American leaders who worked with the petro-Arab states could also favour Israel.

Finally, in 1988, the PLO formally accepted the idea of a two-state solution and a peaceful end of the conflict. This was the major breakthrough. It followed an earlier invited critique of the PLO overall strategy in Lebanon by Eqbal Ahmad, the Frantz Fanon scholar who, while supporting armed struggle against colonial regimes, found that course of action ineffective and counterproductive when it came to the Israelis. “[G]iven the course of Jewish history, especially in the twentieth century, the use of force only strengthened a preexisting and pervasive sense of victimhood among Israelis, while it unified Israeli society, reinforced the most militant tendencies in Zionism, and bolstered the support of external actors.” The critique took time to sink in. But sink in it eventually did, at least in the West Bank.

It is one thing to adopt a new strategy and goal, and another to know how to implement that strategy and achieve an objective. The bilateral talks in Madrid were going nowhere. But the multilateral talks on refugees that the Canadians gaveled were used to pave the way, first for the Palestinians being recognized as an independent delegation from that of Jordan. After rancorous complaints from the Palestinians, this was accomplished simply by a Canadian diplomat putting a name plate in front of the Palestinians that said, “Palestinian delegation.”

James Baker had acquiesced to Shamir’s condition that “there would no independent Palestinian representation at a conference” nor would Palestinians be represented by the PLO. In a lengthy weekend in Ottawa with the Palestinians excluded from the meeting because they were PLO members (recall that Andrew Young was forced to resign as UN ambassador when he met secretly with the PLO and this was discovered), and Canadian diplomats phoning Cairo to ask for intervention and mediation, the Palestinians received a de facto if not de jure victory for the PLO being named as the representative of the Palestinian people. The PLO, via the PLO members, eventually participated when they agreed to rip up their PLO membership cards. During the meeting they announced that, after the meeting, they would rejoin the PLO. These were the shenanigans and the indirect route that the peace talks traveled.

However, Khalidi was in Washington, not Ottawa. His attention was on the US and the bilateral talks rather than on the multilateral refugee sideshow in Ottawa. Given the uniqueness of the Zionist project, how was the PLO to end the occupation, achieve a peaceful reconciliation based on justice when there was virtually no way that the Israelis were going to turn tail and go elsewhere? The PLO had to abandon armed struggle. But if it did, where was its leverage to push the negotiations forward? As Khalidi writes: “Whether they realized it or not, by accepting Resolution 242 as the basis for any negotiations, Arafat and his colleagues had set themselves an impossible task.” The admission ticket to the talks doomed a successful outcome for the Palestinians, especially since the United States would never in the foreseeable future be able to play the role of honest broker given its commitments to the Zionist side. Further, the USSR, the PLO’s patron, had imploded, and Egypt was no longer in the picture to champion the Palestinian cause.

The looming disaster of the Oslo negotiations was then enormously compounded when the PLO, couched in a non-credible voice of an offer to mediate, made the fatal mistake of backing the thuggish “ignorant, mercurial, and brutal” ruler of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, in the 1990-1991 Gulf War over Kuwait. The PLO became a pariah for the Gulf states that resulted in the expulsion of the large and very successful Palestinian community in Kuwait (300,000 strong) and, inevitably and eventually, the Abraham Accords with the UAE, the Bahrain normalization and the Saudi de facto reconciliation with Israel in 2020.

Oslo, for Khalidi, was not a recipe for a two-state solution, but a permit for Israel to extend and expand the occupation. “The humiliation of a procedure whereby Israel decreed with whom it would negotiate and in what configuration had not deterred the PLO. More humiliation was to come.” Only self-rule or autonomy not independence and self-determination were on the table. Refugees, Jerusalem, access to water were all sidelined to multilateral talks with the recommendations eventually and supposedly returned to the bilateral talks, an eventuality that never took place.

Instead, Israelis had a free hand, contrary to its initial assurances of avoiding unilateral measures that preempted solutions that should come through negotiations. Settlements multiplied and expanded. Jerusalem was made inaccessible to Gazans and West Bankers. A massive infrastructure of barriers, separate roads and checkpoints were constructed. Rashid Khalidi devoted two years of his time to being an advisor to the Palestinian negotiators in the Madrid and Washington talks. He had a ringside seat, one he regretted because he had not known the degree to which the Americans were committed to the Israeli position.

To Khalidi, the Middle East experts who replaced James Baker (whom he admired) when Bill Clinton replaced George Bush as president of the United States, were Israeli spokespersons. The leads in the negotiations – Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, Daniel Kurtzer and Aaron David Miller – were all shills of the Israeli lobby as far as Khalidi was concerned. Ironically, however, it was the Khalidi-led proposal for a Palestinian Interim Self-Governing Authority (PISGA) that would become the basis for Oslo. Though that is not how Khalidi described it.

There would be a Palestinian governmental entity (now called the Palestine Authority or PA) that would be elected by the people, only the Israelis ensured that the “people” did not include Jerusalemites. Administrative responsibilities would be transferred to the PA as the Israelis withdrew. Except, the Israelis introduced the three zones, Area A, B and C, with different degrees of autonomy given in the 18% of Area A (both security and administrative control) versus the 22% in Area B (only administrative control) and continued and unfettered control by Israel in Area C, which included 60% of the West Bank and all but one of the Israeli settlements.  Areas A+B held 87% of the Palestinian population. The drift was clear to all with the prescience to see it.

The requirement to freeze settlements and to restrict the Israeli military to deployment points along the border of the West Bank and Gaza were never seriously considered by the Israelis except as limited tactical moves. As Khalidi writes, the Israelis were committed to reserving “all powers over security, land, water, airspace, population registers, movement, settlements” for Israel. The breakthrough came through a separate negotiating backchannel – I was personally involved in one of the multiple Track II diplomatic channels with Sari Nuseibeh, but it never came to anything. Khalidi knew nothing of the “successful” direct channel between Rabin and Arafat that entailed the PLO taking over responsibility for security in part of the occupied territory and the PLA admitted to the West Bank for this purpose.

The culmination was the Declaration of Principles (what was subsequently referred to as Oslo I) signed on the White House lawn in September 1993. Israel recognized the PLO as representative of the Palestinian people and the PLO recognized the State of Israel. Khalidi considers this a resounding mistake, for the Palestinians recognized Israel as a state – without defining its borders  – at the same time as the PLO failed to achieve self-determination and liberation and only a limited degree of self-government in a limited part of the occupied territories. Further, in preparation for what would be called Oslo II, “The Palestinian envoys at Oslo were simply out of their league, lacking resources and training, none of them having been in occupied Palestine for decades, and having failed to study and absorb the results of ten rounds of negotiations with the Israelis.”

PISGA had proposed robust jurisdiction over people and land by an autonomous, elected Palestinian Authority that would evolve into self-government. Each of Oslo I and II “was a highly restricted form of self-rule in a fragment of the Occupied Territories, and without control of land, water, borders, or much else.” The PLO gained the veil of self-government but without its substance. For Khalidi, the diplomatic summit of Oslo was on a par with the physical and military calamity of the Nakba. “The PA has no sovereignty, no jurisdiction, and no authority except that allowed by Israel which even controls a major part of its revenues in the form of customs duties and some taxes.” Its security is not directed on behalf of but against its own subjects, the Palestinians under its jurisdiction.

Violence erupted in September of 2000 in the beginning of the Second Intifada in response to the increasing strictures on freedom of movement, the continued growth of the settlements, the decline in East Jerusalem as an economic centre for the Palestinians, the severing of the Palestinian territories into pieces and the recognition that self-determination and sovereignty were not around the corner. Added to these was the intense rivalry between Hamas and the PLO. Khalidi gives short shift to the role that Palestinian continued terrorism – the employment of suicide bombers within Israel – played in Israeli responses which were defensive as well as offensive. Different interpreters give different weights played by the politics, the internal rivalry, and the resort to suicide bombing, but it is important to recognize the role each played.

If the First Intifada had been an important tactical victory, the Second Intifada was an even greater tactical mistake. Oslo had failed. Suicide bombings had failed. And the Palestinians were the greatest losers in numbers, in status and in the realm of world public opinion. Further, within Palestine, “suicide bombings served to unite and strengthen the adversary, while weakening and dividing the Palestinian side.”  The 2008-9, 2012 and 2014 invasions of Gaza, interrupted by a powerful blockade, followed.

In the process of this analysis, Khalidi misapplied the principle of proportionality of just war doctrine. The issue is not the proportion of casualties on one side versus another, but whether the use of the military was proportionate to a just war aim – in this case, the cessation of rocket attacks from Gaza. That the missile salvos by Gazans caused relatively little damage and few casualties because of the Israeli early warning system, its network of shelters and its Iron Dome defensive shield is not pertinent in assessing proportionality in the ethical sense. If Germany suffered a million casualties in the ending of WWII and the Western allies only tens of thousands, this did not make the Allied war effort disproportionate. The question is whether the Israeli overwhelming use of force achieved, and was necessary to achieve, the cessation of rocket attacks.

The Israeli use of certain munitions is the real issue of disproportionality. Was the use of high-powered and indiscriminate weapons necessary to achieve subduing the Palestinian forces in Gaza? Was the collateral damage to the civilian population reasonable given the military circumstances?

I will conclude my discussion of Khalidi’s book focusing on his conclusion only after dealing with some contemporary Israeli issues, especially as they affect Israeli-American relations.

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