The Future of the Palestinian Movement

by Lenni Brenner

We live in a unique time. There were no public opinion polls during the American revolution. But there are in today’s Palestine.

In May, Reuters reported, re Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research interviews of 1,317 West Bank and Gaza adults:

Support for terror bombings inside Israel fell to 52% from 58% in December.

70% support for reconciliation with the Israeli people after a peace agreement.

Arafat’s popularity fell to 35%…. Only 39% approved of the way the Palestinian Authority has been conducting itself.

The next most popular Palestinian was Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader arrested by Israel … for terrorist acts, with 19%. Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin was favored by 10%.

The poll’s numbers must be put in context. Sharon wants Arafat dead. But the US and Saudis fear that any popular alternative leadership would be more ‘extreme,’ militarily and/or politically, re treaty terms.

European public opinion is increasingly pro-Palestinian. However, no one wants to waste relief money on Arafat’s crooks.

Most crucially, Palestinians, including his popular base, see his regime as corrupt. He must talk of elections "in the winter."

The 5/16 NY Times reported that

"Nader Said, a sociologist at Bir Zeit University, said that some potential beneficiaries of reform were ‘the people who are behind the corruption. So how can we trust them again to lead the society on a democratic basis?’"

He pointed to the greatest failing of the Palestinian movement in the potential election:

"What is missing is the more liberal, secular, democratic faction, which is not very organized."

The Times reports him warning "that the United States views Arab states only as corrupt clients or fundamentalist dictatorships. ‘They can’t see that there is a potentially vibrant democratic movement in the Arab world.’"

The 5/19 Times quotes him:

"(T)he Israeli occupation had instilled in Palestinians ‘their defiance of authority in general, and this sort of tendency for freedom – wanting personal freedom, and not to be controlled.’ At the same time, he said, ‘even under the worst of circumstances, Palestinians have admired Israeli democracy.’ Dr. Said said he used to walk on the Tel Aviv beach with Israelis, while younger Palestinians now encounter them at checkpoints. ‘Palestinians 40 and above are more liberal than Palestinians below 40.’"

There is a world range of Palestinian communities. The percentages might differ from the study in specific countries. Nevertheless, the broad results would reflect the same camps, even after adding other elements.

Ahmed Jabril’s PFLP-General Command is numerically minimal. Likewise Abu Nidal’s followers, with their history of infamous attacks against the PLO in its best days.

Islamic Jihad is militarist and small, unlike Hamas, which has a substantial structure, serving its religious base.

Hizbullah is admired by Palestinians for its role in driving Israel out of Lebanon. But there are more youthful Hizbullah wannabes then there are members.

Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades announced, in April, that it would not target Israeli civilians, "What was happening is that we were delivering the wrong message to the world." It would confine itself to suicide bombings of military targets and settlers. However, they are reported as taking credit for subsequent suicide bombers in Israel.

The Times calls them "a militant wing of Yasir Arafat’s Fatah." While, as secularists, they use women bombers, as militarists, they have no political strategy to replace to Hamas or Arafat.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine made a cameo media reappearance when Sharon assassinated its leader, and an infamous racist Israeli cabinet minister was slain in retaliation. However, while they were a significant force until Oslo, they are a shadow of their former strength, without learning a thing, politically or militarily. But their members and periphery among other Arabs were a substantial proportion of the Arab student movement in the US before Oslo, and their ex-members are now a significant proportion of the middle-aged intelligentsia in the Arab world.

The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine also represents an important sociological element among educated over-40s.

There are significant Arab leftover pro-Soviet elements in Israel, and some co-thinkers in the occupied territories, ‘2-staters’ to the bone. For them, a democratic secular bi-national state someday replacing Israel was and is "no better than calling for a return to the Garden of Eden," as their Israeli-Arab editor told me in 1983.

Within Israel, most Palestinian intellectuals work with Israeli anti-Zionists in defense of Arab citizen rights.

A number of Palestinians have been influenced by Trotskyists, in their variety, encountered in Israel, Europe, the US. But, aside from Israel, where many Palestinians know Lea Tsemel, Michael Warshavsky and others as full comrades, and Algeria, Trotskyism is popularly insignificant in the Arab world.

A crucial new player is Al-Awda in the US. A new Palestinian generation, born or raise in the US, intellectually molded by its idealistic political traditions – and wise to its sordid contemporary realities – plays a crucial role in this country. As youth, they lack enough experience and, as activists in a time of crisis, they haven’t read deeply into Palestinian or general history. But their strength is their prime thinking mode: political, not military.

Fate made Edward Said an exile in the country of his citizenship. Yet America, for all its contradictions, made a democratic secularist of him, in the best sense of those words. He and other US-based Arab intellectuals play a profound role, legitimating the Palestinian cause among America’s educated.

He reported, in the 2/4 Nation, that

"(A) new secular nationalist current is slowly emerging. It’s too soon to call this a party or a bloc, but it is now a visible group with true independence and popular status…. In mid-December, we issued a collective statement … calling for Palestinian unity and resistance and the unconditional end of Israeli military occupation, while keeping deliberately silent about returning to Oslo. We believe that negotiating an improvement in the occupation is tantamount to prolonging it. Peace can come only after the occupation ends. The declaration’s boldest sections focus on the need to improve the internal Palestinian situation, above all to strengthen democracy, rectify the decision-making process (which is totally controlled by Arafat and his men), assert the need to restore the law’s sovereignty and an independent judiciary, prevent the further misuse of public funds and consolidate the functions of public institutions so as to give every citizen confidence in those that are expressly designed for public service. The final and most decisive demand is a call for new parliamentary elections."

Now Said has written a manifesto, PALESTINIAN ELECTIONS NOW. He asks:

"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-organizing society from the ruinous, indeed catastrophically incoherent condition in which it is to be found."

Said’s call is a profound development. It is hard to see the situation on the ground from my eagle’s nest in Manhattan. Therefore I don’t know if the democratic forces have the present strength to convene such an assembly, counterpoised to Arafat’s election, that would be seen by Palestinians as representative. But I enthusiastically endorse the spirit of his proposal. The democratic secularist camp most organize itself, and come before the people as totally opposed to Zionism, Arafat and suicide bombers of any ideology.

"War is nothing but the continuation of politics by other means." So declared Karl von Clausewitz. His profundity is studied in every government military academy in the world. Extend the axiom to read revolution is nothing but the continuation of politics by other means, and the strengths and weaknesses of all major anti-Zionist elements fall into place.

An immense change in the thinking of significant numbers of players, Arab and Israeli, is the sine qua non for a safe political landing for the ordinary folks of both nations. The stark question is: Are there enough people of both ethnicities to kick off a secular democratic revolution? Because the alternative – even the slightest discrimination in any thing secular – is X number of Arab dead, Y number of Israeli dead, X number of Arab refugees, Y number of Israeli refugees.

Palestinian democratic secularists can’t be pacifists. But for them, violence is only an arrow in their political quiver. While their cosmic wish list ends in one bi-national Palestine/Israel for all of ‘Mandate’ Palestine, they must presently work with most West Bank-Gaza Palestinians, under the gun, who would settle for two states.

They are not united as to economic vision. Few call themselves Marxists, or devote much thought to economics, past painful awareness of poverty in Palestine and Lebanon. But none are hostile to the left.

Beyond them, many of the Arab Stalinoids above have contradictory attitudes towards Israelis and Jews. A Trotskyist Jew, I worked with the PFLP in the 80s without the slightest problem. They were Maoists, then pro-Soviet. But they were democratic secularist at least in that they worked with numerous Jews and Israelis. However, at heart, they were nationalists. They never accepted Lenin’s criteria for membership in Communist Parties in all countries: They must be open to all who accept its principles, be they, in this case, Palestinian or Israeli, and publish in Hebrew and Arabic.

Culturally, you can be the direct descendant of a cat, dog, rat or snake, as the saying goes. But, if you are human politically, you must be treated equally and welcomed into a Marxist movement.

De facto nationalists, they competed in the nationalist ‘armed struggle’ Olympics, which, for them and the PLO, became increasingly fanatic. But that was then. Now ex-members, wiser after failure, are a prime recruitment audience for a consistent binationalist approach along the two Said’s lines.

Before 9/11, terror bombs were demoralizing young educated atheist Zionist Israelis, who began to look at want ads abroad. But after 9/11 and the US "crusade" against terrorism, Zionism got a new lease on political life. The Israeli economy is in terrible trouble. Many Israelis will leave. But the crazies won’t, and with America not stopping them, they can slaughter and devastate the Palestinian economy.

Algerian bombs drove out the French colons because De Gaulle decided to cut France’s loses. When he left they fled. However, the colons didn’t have 200 atom bombs. Israel does.

Suicide bombers drove Zionism out of Lebanon. Most Israelis realized that more soldiers died because Israel was there, than would die in attacks from Lebanon. But the present bombings reinforce the right wing. They accept, with ex-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, that they "may have thousands, or even scores of thousands of years of terrorism before us."

That’s longer than written civilization has existed. Fanatic Zionists live, expecting to die, killing Palestinian fanatics.

Americans below the government level are increasingly critical of Sharon. But, thanks to the suicide bombers, few move towards the Palestinians. Americans now tend to see a holy war between 2 sects of screwball ham-haters. This doesn’t make Israel more popular, but it is hard to envision significant elements coming over to the Palestinians re ending US aid to Israel, if suicide bombs continue.

The Palestinian movement is at a crossroad. Arafat is a disaster, and so are suicide movements. It is up to the Palestinian intelligentsia to present an alternative to Arafat and Hamas & Co. And that can only be done on the basis of a thought out long range political program, for a democratic secular bi-nat ional Palestine/Israel, and a political strategy, extending from Arab general strikes and running in Israeli elections, thru running in elections and/or Said’s Constituent Assembly in the Palestine Authority.

Nor is it possible to ignore miserable conditions in much of the Palestinian diaspora. Arafat isn’t the only Arab plague afflicting Palestinians. Many regimes treat Palestinian communities as pariahs legally, while accommodating to US oil imperialism. Lebanon immediately comes to mind as denying legal equality.

Political strategy must determine democratic secularist policy towards each and every militarist move by any and all players, Arab or Israeli. That requires secularists, of both nationalities and all religions or none, to go beyond lecturing Hamas for its military and political sins, to mobilizing the masses, where ever possible including Hamas’ ranks, for disciplined peaceful mass marches against the occupation, that can call to the world for aid in the struggle against oppression.

Von Clausewitz insisted that the defense had a natural advantage in war. This applies fully in Palestine/Israel. Even in Napoleon’s age, von Clausewitz emphasized the importance of world opinion. It is for defenders because it is basically civilian.

When Zionist troops oppress Palestinians, the world takes increasing note. But that same civilian public sympathizes with Israel when Palestinian bombers blow up teenagers in a pizza parlor.

Keep uppermost in mind that Israel is armed by Washington. If you fight Zionism in Palestine, and don’t have a political-military strategy designed to win Americans over to demanding an immediate halt to all military aid to Israel, you guarantee Zionism an unending supply of weapons to defeat you.

Palestinian democratic secularists, world-wide, and their democratic secular Israeli counterparts, must set up an emergency internet conference to discuss Edward Said’s latest call. Candid discussion will help publicize their ideas within the broader Palestinian community, and the new movement can determine whether to run in Arafat’s election or indeed set up a provisional counter government, or both.

Arafat is now in no position to stop a determined effort to run a democratic secular slate. To do so would lose him his credibility with Europe.

For Israel, from now on, with the eyes of the world on it, to ban a Palestinian/Israeli list, calling for a secular bi-national state, would be a world PR disaster.

Israel’s last – and best – card is to present itself abroad, particularly in America, as the victim of Kamikazis. If it refuses to allow a list to call for bi-nationalism and America’s "wall of separation between church and state," Zionism’s hold over the public will collapse here, with enormous repercussions in Israel and the Arab world.

Last year, I challenged Steven Cohen, a Zionist scholar, from the floor, at a forum. I quoted the 12/14/81 NY Times:

"The military relationship between South Africa and Israel, never fully acknowledged by either country, has assumed a new significance with the recent 10 day visit by Israel’s Defense minister, Ariel Sharon, to South African forces in Namibia along the border with Angola…. Mr. Sharon… reported that South Africa needed more modern weapons if it is to fight successfully against Soviet-Supplied troops."

Cohen’s response was that "talking about Israel and South Africa is always a show-stopper. But we’re not facing the African National Congress."

This was his meeting, he had the last word from the podium. In that context, his answer was perfect. But the answer to his perfect answer is to create a Palestinian/Israeli version of the ANC. B follows A. If you denounce Israeli apartheid, where is your ANC?

Study it, copy its successes, learn from its failings. Palestinian intellectuals have hitherto been increasingly successful in media-protesting against Zionism. But that is still in the realm of words. Words, a viable program, are more crucial now then ever. However it is time to walk the talk, to organize and mobilize Palestinians and progressive Israelis for equality and victory.

Expect no miracles. Even with such an organization, with a correct strategy, there is a long struggle before victory. But without such an organization, there is a long struggle ahead, without victory.

Lenni Brenner lives in New York City. He can be reached at:

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