Unity or Annihilation – The Real Choice For The Palestinians (Again)

It was subsequently to take Arafat ten long years to persuade first his Fatah leadership colleagues and then the PNC to back his policy of politics and unthinkable compromise with Israel. (The compromise was unthinkable at the outset because it required the Palestinians to legitimise Israel’s existence and make peace with it in return for only 22% of the land they are claiming with right, legal and moral, on their side).

Arafat’s task of convincing his Fatah leadership colleagues that they had to compromise and be prepared to settle for a mini state of their own on the West Bank and Gazawas assisted by the 1973 war. It created the scenario for Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, who launched his “war for peace” in collusion with U.S. Secretary of State Kissinger, to be sucked and suckered by American diplomacy into making a separate peace with Israel. When it became clear that Kissinger had Sadat under control and that Eygpt would make peace with Israel, Arafat’s leadership colleagues had no difficulty in concluding that the PLO would be abandoned by even the Arab states if it did not come up with a political programme the Arab regimes could support without putting their relationship with America in complete jeopardy.

But the task of getting the PNC to endorse his policy of politics and compromise with Israel required Arafat to perform a miracle of leadership. He performed it over five years, from 1974 to 1979.

There were two overtures to the main performance.

The first, in October 1974, was the decision of an Arab summit meeting in Rabatto recognise the PLO as the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. (In advance of that summit, Kissinger, who wanted the PLO to be marginalised and destroyed, tried and failed to persuade key Arab leaders to use their influence to prevent any recognition of it).

The second, a month later, was Arafat’s dramatic appearance at the UN in New York. His “gun and olive branch” speech to the world body was a coded but clear signal that he was ready for peace with Israel on the basis of a two-state solution. This was, in fact, the message Arafat had been sending to Israel’s leaders for months through secret emissaries.. (Kissinger tried to prevent Arafat’s appearance at the UN, but in this particular game of chess he was checkmated by Saudi Arabia’s King Feisal, the only Arab leader who was not afraid, in his own way, to tell Kissinger to go to hell).

If Arafat had been asked by Israel then, November 1974, to deliver the compromise he was signalling, he could not have done so. The PNC still had to be persuaded and probably an easy majority of its available 300 members from all over the world were strongly opposed to the compromise. (PNC members in the occupied territories were not available because Israel refused to allow them to travel).

One by one, and when circumstances allowed, Arafat summoned each and every available member of the PNC to Beirutfor a private conversation behind closed doors. Some told him to his face that he was a traitor to the cause and would be assassinated if he proceeded with his policy of unthinkable compromise. When he failed in a first conversation to persuade rejectionists to give him a commitment to vote for compromise when the time came, he asked them to go back home, to think over what he had said, and return when he called them again for another conversation.

It’s worth noting that for nearly two of those five years of the Great Conversation between Arafat and individual PNC members from all over the world, the PLO was caught up in the first round of the civil war in the Lebanon in which, unknown to reporters, Arafat was playing the role of mediator and fighting for his own survival. For much of the rest of the period Arafat was organising the PLO’s defences as the Israelis escalated their attacks on Lebanon. And still he found the time to receive and lobby each and every available member of the PNC. (The message of Israel’s attacks was addressed to the Lebanese, Muslim communities in particular. It, the message, was: “If you were not giving shelter to Palestian terrorists, we would not be attacking Lebanon. In your own best interests, you should turn against the Palestinians and kick them out.”)

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