Six distinct calls for Palestinian reform and elections are being uttered now: five of them are, for Palestinian purposes, both useless and irrelevant. Sharon wants reform as a way of further disabling Palestinian national life, that is, as an extension of his failed policy of constant intervention and destruction. He wants to be rid of Yasser Arafat, cut up the West Bank into fenced-in cantons, re-install an occupation authority — preferably with some Palestinians helping out — carry on with settlement activity, and maintain Israeli security the way he’s been doing it. He is too blinded by his own ideological hallucinations and obsessions to see that this will neither bring peace nor security, and will certainly not bring the "quiet" he keeps prattling on about. Palestinian elections in the Sharonian scheme are quite unimportant.
Second, the United States wants reform principally as a way of combating "terrorism," a panacea of a word that takes no account of history, context, society or anything else. George Bush has a visceral dislike for Arafat, and no understanding at all of the Palestinian situation. To say that he and his disheveled administration "want" anything is to dignify a series of spurts, fits, starts, retractions, denunciations, totally contradictory statements, sterile missions by various officials of his administration, and about-faces, with the status of an over-all desire, which of course doesn’t exist. Incoherent, except when it comes to the pressures and agendas of the Israeli lobby and the Christian Right whose spiritual head he now is, Bush’s policy consists in reality of calls for Arafat to end terrorism, and (when he wants to placate the Arabs) for someone somewhere somehow to produce a Palestinian state and a big conference, and finally, for Israel to go on getting full and unconditional US support including most probably ending Arafat’s career. Beyond that, US policy waits to be formulated, by someone, somewhere, somehow. One should always keep in mind though that the Middle East is a domestic, not a foreign, policy issue in America and subject to dynamics within the society that are difficult to predict.
All this perfectly suits the Israeli demand, which wants nothing more than to make Palestinian life collectively more miserable and more unlivable, whether by military incursions or by impossible political conditions that suit Sharon’s frenzied obsession with stamping out Palestinians forever. Of course there are other Israelis who want co- existence with a Palestinian state, as there are American Jews who want similar things, but neither group has any determining power now. Sharon and the Bush administration run the show.
Third, is the Arab leaders’ demand which as far as I can tell is a combination of several different elements, none of them directly helpful to the Palestinians themselves. First is fear of their own populations who have been witnessing Israel’s mass and essentially unopposed destruction of the Palestinian territories without any serious Arab interference or attempt at deterrence. The Beirut summit peace plan offers Israel precisely what Sharon has refused, which is land for peace, and it is a proposal without any teeth, much less one with a timetable. While it may be a good thing to have it on record as a counter-weight to Israel’s naked belligerence, we should have no illusions about its real intention which, like the calls for Palestinian reform, are really tokens offered to seething Arab populations who are thoroughly sick with the mediocre inaction of their rulers. Second, of course, is the sheer exasperation of most of the Arab regimes with the whole Palestinian problem. They seem to have no ideological problem with Israel as a Jewish state without any declared boundaries, which has been in illegal military occupation of Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank for 35 years, or with Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinian people. They are prepared to accommodate nicely those terrible injustices if only Arafat and his people would simply either behave or quietly go away. Third, of course, is the long-standing desire of Arab leaders to ingratiate themselves with the US and, among themselves, to vie for the title of most important US ally. Perhaps they are simply unaware of how contemptuous most Americans are of them, and how little understood or regarded is their cultural and political status in the US.
Fourth, in the chorus of reform are the Europeans. But they only scurry around sending emissaries to see Sharon and Arafat, they make ringing declarations in Brussels, they fund a few projects and more or less leave it at that, so great is the shadow of the US over them.
Fifth, is Yasser Arafat and his circle of associates who have suddenly discovered the virtues (theoretically at least) of democracy and reform. I know that I speak at a great distance from the field of struggle, and I also know all the arguments about the besieged Arafat as a potent symbol of Palestinian resistance against Israeli aggression, but I have come to a point where I think none of that has any meaning anymore. Arafat is simply interested in saving himself. He has had almost ten years of freedom to run a petty kingdom and has succeeded essentially in bringing opprobrium and scorn on himself and most of his team; the Authority became a byword for brutality, autocracy and unimaginable corruption. Why anyone for a moment believes that at this stage he is capable of anything different, or that his new streamlined cabinet (dominated by the same old faces of defeat and incompetence) is going to produce actual reform, defies reason. He is the leader of a long suffering people, whom in the past year he has exposed to unacceptable pain and hardship, all of it based on a combination of his absence of a strategic plan and his unforgivable reliance on the tender mercies of Israel and the US via Oslo. Leaders of independence and liberation movements have no business exposing their unarmed people to the savagery of war criminals like Sharon, against whom there was no real defence or advance preparation. Why then provoke a war whose victims would be mostly innocent people when you have neither the military capacity to fight one nor the diplomatic leverage to end it? Having done this now three times (Jordan, Lebanon, West Bank) Arafat should not be given a chance to bring on a fourth disaster.
He has announced that elections will take place in early 2003, but his real concentration is to reorganise the security services. I have long pointed out in these columns that Arafat’s security apparatus was always designed principally to serve him and Israel, since the Oslo accords were based on his having made a deal with Israel’s military occupation. Israel cared only about its security, for which it held Arafat responsible (a position, by the way, he willingly accepted as early as 1992). In the meantime Arafat used the 15 or 19 or whatever the right number of groups was to play each off against the other, a tactic he perfected in Fakahani, and which is patently stupid so far as the general good is concerned. He never really reined in Hamas and Islamic Jihad which suited Israel perfectly: it would have a ready- made excuse to use the so-called martyr’s (mindless) suicide bombings to further diminish and punish the whole people. If there is one thing along with Arafat’s ruinous regime that has done us more harm as a cause it is this calamitous policy of killing Israeli civilians, which further proves to the world that we are indeed terrorists and an immoral movement. For what gain no one has been able to say.
Having therefore made a deal with the occupation through Oslo, Arafat was never really in a position to lead a movement to end it. And ironically, he is trying to make another deal now, both to save himself and prove to the US, Israel and the other Arabs that he deserves another chance. I myself don’t care a whit for what Bush, or the Arab leaders, or Sharon says: I am interested in what we as a people think of our leader, and there I believe we must be absolutely clear in rejecting his entire programme of reform, elections, reorganising the government and security services. His record of failure is too dismal and his capacities as a leader too enfeebled and incompetent for him to try yet again to save himself for another try.
Sixth, finally, is the Palestinian people who are now justifiably clamouring both for reform and elections. As far as I am concerned, this clamour is the only legitimate one of the six I have outlined here. It’s important to point out that Arafat’s present administration as well as the Legislative Council have overstayed their original term, which should have ended with a new round of elections in 1999. Moreover, the whole basis of the 1996 elections were the Oslo accords, which in effect simply licensed Arafat and his people to run bits of the West Bank and Gaza for the Israelis, without true sovereignty or security, since Israel retained control of the borders, security, land (on which it doubled and even tripled the settlements), water and air. In other words, the old basis for elections and reform, which had been Oslo, is now null and void. Any attempt to go forward on that kind of platform is simply a wasteful ploy and will produce neither reform nor real elections. Hence the current confusion which causes every Palestinian everywhere to feel chagrin and bitter frustration.
What then is to be done if the old basis of Palestinian legitimacy no longer really exists? Certainly there can be no return to Oslo, anymore than there can be to Jordanian or Israeli law. As a student of periods of important historical change, I should like to point out that when a major rupture with the past occurred (as during the period after the fall of the monarchy because of the French Revolution, or with the demise of apartheid in South Africa before the elections of 1994 took place), a new basis of legitimacy has to be created by the only and ultimate source of authority, namely, the people itself. The major interests in Palestinian society, those that have kept life going, from the trade unions, to health workers, teachers, farmers, lawyers, doctors, in addition to all the many NGOs must now become the basis on which Palestinian reform — despite Israel’s incursions and the occupation — is to be constructed. It seems to me useless to wait for Arafat, or Europe, or the US, or the Arabs to do this: it must absolutely be done by Palestinians themselves by way of a Constituent Assembly that contains in it all the major elements of Palestinian society. Only such a group, constructed by the people themselves and not by the remnants of the Oslo dispensation, certainly not by the shabby fragments of Arafat’s discredited Authority, can hope to succeed in re- organising society from the ruinous, indeed catastrophically incoherent condition in which it is to be found. The basic job for such an Assembly is to construct an emergency system of order that has two purposes. One, to keep Palestinian life going in an orderly way with full participation for all concerned. Two, to choose an emergency executive committee whose mandate is to end the occupation, not negotiate with it. It is quite obvious that militarily we are no match for Israel. Kalishnikoffs are not effective weapons when the balance of power is so lopsided. What is needed is a creative method of struggle that mobilises all the human resources at our disposal to highlight, isolate and gradually make untenable the main aspects of Israeli occupation e.g., settlements, settlement roads, roadblocks and house demolitions. The present group around Arafat is hopelessly incapable of thinking of, much less implementing, such a strategy: it is too bankrupt, too bound up in corrupt selfish practices, too burdened with the failures of the past.
For such a Palestinian strategy to work there has to be an Israeli component made up of individuals and groups with whom a common basis of struggle against occupation can and indeed must be established. This is the great lesson of the South African struggle: that it proposed the vision of a multi- racial society from which neither individuals nor groups and leaders were ever deflected. The only vision coming out of Israel today is violence, forcible separation and the continued subordination of Palestinians to an idea of Jewish supremacy. Not every Israeli believes in these things of course, but it must be up to us to project the idea of co-existence in two states that have natural relations with each other on the basis of sovereignty and equality. Mainstream Zionism has still not been able to produce such a vision, so it must come from the Palestinian people and their new leaders whose new legitimacy has to be constructed now, at a moment when everything is crashing down and everyone is anxious to re-make Palestine in his own image and according to his own ideas.
We have never faced a worse, or at the same time, a more seminal moment. The Arab order is in total disarray; the US administration is effectively controlled by the Christian Right and the Israeli lobby (within 24 hours, everything that George Bush seems to have agreed with President Mubarak was reversed by Sharon’s visit); and our society has been nearly wrecked by poor leadership and the insanity of thinking that suicide bombing will lead directly to an Islamic Palestinian state. There is always hope for the future, but one has to able to look for it and find it in the right place. It is quite clear that in the absence of any serious Palestinian or Arab information policy in the United States (especially in the Congress) we cannot for a moment delude ourselves that Powell and Bush are about to set a real agenda for Palestinian rehabilitation. That’s why I keep saying that the effort must come from us, by us, for us. I’m at least trying to suggest a different avenue of approach. Who else but the Palestinian people can construct the legitimacy they need to rule themselves and fight the occupation with weapons that don’t kill innocents and lose us more support than ever before? A just cause can easily be subverted by evil or inadequate or corrupt means. The sooner this is realised the better the chance we have to lead ourselves out of the present impasse.
Edward Said writes a weekly column for the Cairo-based al-Ahram.