Roots of Resistance: The first intifada and the non-emergence of a Palestinian state

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Palestinian women and children demonstrate on January 3, 1988 in Al-Ram in the West Bank.
(Photo: Esaias Baitel/AFP/Getty Images)

This post is part of the series “Roots of Resistance: 25 year retrospective on the first intifada.” Read the entire series here.

In December 1988, a year after the outbreak of the first intifada, I joined some 100,000 people in a demonstration at what was then Kings of Israel (now Rabin) Square in Tel Aviv. As a respite from the routine of political speeches, a Palestinian young woman began to sing. Her voice moved me intensely and pulled me through the crowd until I stood directly in front of her crying with joy. Amal Murkus, a Palestinian citizen of Israel from Kafr Yasif in the Galilee, released her debut CD ten years later. She now has four. Austrian TV dubbed her “one of the most beautiful voices of the 20th century.”

The crowd in front of Amal and other less talented figures on the platform demanded that Israel’s government respond positively to the declaration of Palestinian independence proclaimed on November 15 by the Palestine National Council. Knesset elections were held a week after that declaration, and some hoped the new government would acknowledge it.

As the leading body of the PLO, the PNC spoke for the great majority of the Palestinian national movement. It effectively recognized the state of Israel, accepted the two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and renounced armed struggle. These positions were certified as kosher by a delegation of American Jews who met with Yasser Arafat in Oslo three weeks later.

Almost all of my long-time political comrades and closest friends in Israel were at the Tel Aviv demonstration. For the first time, it seemed like we, together with the Palestinian people, could win. The PLO leadership, impelled by a popular uprising it did not launch or lead, had proposed a program that could attract significant Israeli support.

During the previous month, traveling around the West Bank to gather materials for Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising Against Israeli Occupation (co-edited with Zachary Lockman), I heard many villagers and intellectuals endorse this program. It was less popular among the refugees of 1948. Nonetheless, it seemed realistic to believe that the end of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories conquered in 1967 and establishment of a Palestinian state were on the horizon.

A year after the outbreak of the intifada, a substantial sector of Israeli Jewish society had concluded that the occupation was unjust, unsustainable, and not worth the price. A plethora of new organizations opposing the occupation emerged. They forthrightly advocated negotiations with the PLO and establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; many of them worked closely with Palestinians in the occupied territories.

In contrast, Peace Now, until then Israel’s leading peace organization, and most other liberal Zionists refused to collaborate with Palestinians and avoided mentioning the PLO or a Palestinian state. Its leaders believed this was the ticket to “being taken seriously.” Formed in 1978 to mobilize support for an Israeli peace agreement with Egypt, Peace Now went into remission after the treaty was signed in 1979. It was shocked into rebirth by the 1982 Lebanon War, but only after Israel’s army was at the gates of Beirut. Peace Now and its fellow travellers opposed the occupation of Lebanon and the Palestinian territories while proudly waving Israeli flags, proclaiming loyalty to Zionism, opposing refusal to serve in the occupation army, and advertising the military credentials of their leaders.

Months before the December 1988 demonstration, Peace Now endorsed negotiations with the PLO. Its leaders began appearing on platforms with Palestinians for the first time. But Israel’s political and military elite was having none of it. As is often the case, electoral politics was structurally insulated from the popular movement for the two-state solution.

Yitzhak Rabin, Minister of Defense in the National Unity government formed around the Likud and the Alignment (the Labor Party and its “left” sidekick, Mapam), advocated repressing the intifada with “force, might, and beatings.” The Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir, the hardest of hard line hawks, lead two National Unity governments from 1986 to 1990 and continued as Prime Minister for two more years. He was impervious to the message of the intifada.

Shamir acceded to U.S. pressure and Israel attended the 1991 Madrid conference with representatives of all the relevant Arab states. “Non-PLO Palestinians” were formally part of the Jordanian delegation, a fiction designed to mollify Israel. But there were no negotiations at Madrid.

Israeli and (officially non-PLO) Palestinian representatives held twelve rounds of talks in Washington, DC – a diplomatic pretense dubbed the “peace process.” The lack of results should have confirmed the incapacity of the United States to mediate the conflict. Shamir subsequently acknowledged that he had no intention of reaching a Palestinian-Israeli agreement and aimed to drag out negotiations for a decade, by which time there would be 500,000 settlers in the occupied territories and therefore, he assumed, no possibility of a Palestinian state.

The first intifada effectively ended with the first Gulf War in 1991. By that point, left-wingers in the Alignment began had begun to advocate negotiations with the PLO and a Palestinian state. On the eve of the 1992 Knesset elections, they formed Meretz, which won twelve seats (it now has three) and entered the government as the junior partner of Labor. Parties supporting a Palestinian state held seventeen Knesset seats and won 15 percent of the popular vote – the most ever. Labor, led by Yitzhak Rabin, embraced the “Jordanian option” – returning the parts of the West Bank not already colonized by Israel to Jordan. Shimon Peres was the principle promoter of this fantasy.

Israeli peace activists and a good number of Palestinians thought that the 1993 Oslo agreement between Israel and the PLO meant that a Palestinian state would be created. In fact, the accords do not mention a Palestinian state. Labor continued to oppose for nearly three more years. The party’s 1996 electoral platform endorsed a Palestinian state. But first Peres, who took the reins after Rabin’s assassination, launched one of Israel’s periodic assaults on Lebanon. He apparently thought this was necessary to establish his “security” credentials before the elections. In addition to its cruel cynicism, the gambit failed. Bibi Netanyahu and the Likud won the election.

Labor, the main component of what Israelis inappropriately call “the left,” opposed a Palestinian state when it had the power to bring it about. Instead, it launched the vast settlement expansion of the 1992-2000 period. The deep explanation for this is that liberal Zionists rarely acknowledge Palestinian rights or the colonial character of the Zionist project. They speak primarily of Israeli concessions. The concept that the two peoples claiming the land of Israel/Palestine can only live there in peace and security in a single, bi-national, democratic state based on mutual recognition and equality of status ceased to be an acceptable Zionist opinion after 1948. Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, and Hashomer Hatzair (The Young Guard), who previously advocated it, ultimately accepted the results of the war. This will likely never be revived as a Zionist position, but the principles remain valid.

About Joel Beinin

Joel Beinin is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History at Stanford University.  His most recent books are Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa 2nd edition (Stanford University Press, 2013), co-edited with Frédéric Vairel and The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt (Solidarity Center, 2010).

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