I’m struck by how old and tired Mahmoud Abbas and his companions at the UN look. These guys have been with us for decades. They are certainly an experienced lot but it is not likely that we will get much innovative (or quick) thinking from any of these individuals. They are encumbered by their long history of engagement in Palestinian political life, diplomacy, and to a great extent failure.
There is, however, innovation in Palestinian political discouse. Much of it is being developed by young Arab academics and intellectuals in the United States who are probably far more talented than anyone in Abbas' entourage. I want to speak here about the article by Saree Makdisi in the LA Times and I’m writing this also as a partial response to Ali Abunimah’s article in Foreign Affairs.
Saree Makdisi's article reiterates and to some extent reformulates Joseph Massad’s concerns that the Palestinian UN bid has the capacity to undermine the rights of Palestinians. Saree’s emphasis is on the PLO, which has since 1974 been recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Should the UN recognize a Palestinian state most of the Palestinians presently represented by the PLO can potentially lose this representation. Essentially, the cause and rights of the unrepresented Palestinian refugees will likely return to the awful first two decades of our Nakba. Ali Abunimah’s article calls for refocusing Palestinian efforts towards the attainment of Palestinian rights and away from statehood. There are coherent common threads in both articles.
My focus here is on the nature of the diplomatic gains that the Palestinians achieved in the 1970s, the thinking of the Palestinians at the time and its relevance to today.
The recognition that accrued to the Palestinians in the 1970’s was wrangled from the international community at a time when the PLO was enjoying Arab recognition, the PLO was crafting sovereignty in the refugee camps out the chaos of Lebanon, and the PLO was developing a non-negligible capacity for vigorous self defense. We were able to wrestled these rights out of the miserly hands of the international community partly because of our emerging military presence in south Lebanon, partly because we were able to capture the imagination of the Arab world, from falah to fida’i, and perhaps because parts of the PLO had engaged to some extent in the leftist revolutions of the time (including in Europe).
The diplomatic prelude to all of this was the 1969 Cairo agreement between the PLO, chaired by Yasser Arafat, and Lebanon which afforded Palestinians a measure of self determination in their refugee camps and a right to enhance their capacity for self defense in south Lebanon. We achieved visible international recognition of many of our rights in 1974 when the late Yasser Arafat spoke before the UN General Assembly in his capacity as Chairman of the PLO. The PLO in the mid 1970s was no longer the ineffectual organization of Ahmad Shukeiri and Yahya Hammuda, it was now internationally recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. The Palestinian cause was no longer simply an Arab cause, our struggle became a national liberation movement. An independent Palestinian liberation movement. That, was what international recognition afforded us.
Throughout that time there was explicit insistence within the PLO on the nature of the Palestinian cause and the direction of international diplomacy. Aside from a desire for the independence of the Palestinian struggle from Arab powers, in particular Syria (in the second half of the 70's); there was also an insistence that the Palestinian cause was not simply a refugee problem. In our minds it was not simply a humanitarian issue. Nor was it an issue that is exclusively about individual rights. The aims in our international diplomacy were instead independence, sovereignty, and recognition. In addition, in the refugee camps we developed a capacity for vigorous self defense, which to my mind was a main reason for our diplomatic successes. We wanted recognition from the international community and emphasized that the Palestinian refugees had a right to national self determination, and not simply individual rights.
In 1988 when the PNC approved a Palestinian Declaration of Independence a number of Palestinians were concerned that the Declaration would undermine the gains we had acquired in 1974. Similar arguments to Makdisi’s were put forward. These were that the Declaration will undermine the standing of the PLO and related international recognition of our rights and our cause. Of course, in the late 1980's our international standing, and recognition of our national rights, were almost entirely undermined by the very fact that PLO had lost its base in Lebanon and the Palestinians had lost all capacity for any form of self defense, even on the diplomatic and Arab fronts. The prudent priority, which was to an extent articulated by Yasser Arafat, was to reestablish a base for the Palestinian national movement and reformulate some degree of sovereignty somewhere with a significant Palestinian population. Our internationally recognized rights survived the Declaration of Independence because we were able to reestablish a base for national liberation in the West Bank and Gaza.
Even a third intifada now cannot protect the gains that we made in the 1970's without a Palestinian diplomatic effort to emphasize our insistence on self determination, independence, sovereignty, and national rights. After all, that was the nature of the diplomatic gains and recognition associated with Yasser Arafat's speech at the UN.
The only way to protect and realize our rights is to insist that the Palestinian cause remains a national liberation struggle and not simply a humanitarian crisis or a struggle for individual rights. I see no better way to do this at present than our move for the recognition of a Palestinian state by the UN. The individual rights of refugees to return to their homes in Haifa and Jaffa will be enhanced and not diminished by the recognition and establishment of an independent sovereign state of Palestine in Palestine.