A Memo on Palestine & the U.S., On Palestinians & Americans

Phyllis Bennis
Institute for Policy Studies
August 2001

(Note: This paper was originally drafted in April 2001 to reflect initial discussions underway among activists and intellectuals attempting to develop a new strategic perspective on how best to respond to the second Palestinian intifada and the U.S. response to it. It was amended in August 2001 for discussion within the then-emerging U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.)

The Palestinian national movement is in the midst of a profound crisis, and those of us who support that movement in the U.S. are responding, or trying to respond to that crisis without a vision, without a strategy, without leadership, without tactical priorities, without a plan. The crisis is not only evident in the appalling escalation of Israeli military assault and the concomitant escalation in Palestinian deaths. It is reflected, perhaps even more importantly, in the profound political crisis brewing within the national movement itself, where vision has been lost, old leaders are largely disdained, and there is no longer any clarity or unity on the goals in whose name so many are being killed.

We speak of renewing an older vision, a single state in Israel-Palestine in which a civil rights-like struggle for equality will one day create a nation for all its citizens. Some of us speak almost nostalgically, using the old language to describe a rekindled vision—that of a democratic secular state. And we speak of return in language largely shorn of nuance, ignoring its contemporary resonance, marginalizing its potential viability. We speak in slogans, a dangerous shortcut made easier, perhaps inevitable, by Israel's recalcitrance and its refusal to even acknowledge its responsibility for the 1947-48 refugee crisis, let alone to recognize its obligations under international law to redress al Nakba. So we say, or we hear, 'we have 194 and we have 4 million refugees and we're all going home.' Period. Full stop. To speak with subtlety, to argue that while the right is absolute that implementation of the right is, like that of all rights, remarkably negotiable, is somehow thought to betray the nation.

The call for return and crafting the vision of a one-state solution have become simultaneously the centerpiece and the boundaries of our movement, its core and its limits.

We speak to hundreds of young Palestinian, Palestinian-American and other Arab and Arab-American students at university-based conferences weekend after weekend, month after month. Thousands, maybe tens of thousands, in the last few months alone. These students and young activists in the U.S. are from the third generation since al Nakba, the counterparts of the young people growing up in Jabaliya and Dheisha, in Shatila, Baqa'a, Khan Danoun and the rest, young people born in the camps to parents themselves born as refugees or made refugees as small children. Here in the U.S., this third wave, this new generation of activists, is filled with a new or reprised passion, intensity, principle—but also a level of privilege. These are young people who, faced with the erosion of their traditional leadership, the collapse of their traditional vision, the abandonment of their traditional strategies, have taken on themselves the task of recrafting a vision, and mobilizing around a powerful principle that resonates in an entirely new way in this country and in the Palestinian diaspora internationally: around the right of return.

Their work, and that of the Arab-American organizations scaffolding it has been impressive. They have brought into the streets, for the first time and then again, thousands of demonstrators condemning the failures of Oslo, demanding return.

But their vision, their ideas—let alone their passion and principles—have not yet reached or touched many Americans; their demonstrations and protests have not yet engaged those in power in this country. The third wave activists refer often to the parallels with apartheid South Africa. It is a potent analogy, framed by a deeply moral core of righteousness that has enormous resonance among many Americans—most particularly among communities of color, faith-based constituencies, and the activists and veterans of the legion of U.S. movements for equal rights and against injustice. Like that of the U.S. civil rights movement, the South Africa example provides a useful analogy. When we speak of South Africa the analogy is on two levels: first in defining the political terrain of inequality, seeing bantustans as the model for discrimination and cantonization in Israel and the occupied territories; and second in envisioning an international movement for Palestine that parallels the powerful anti-apartheid mobilization of the 1970s and 1980s.

But we must be careful. The South Africa analogy has limits. There are crucial differences, regarding international law (in which Palestine's case is even stronger) and international, especially U.S., public opinion (in which Palestine's case does not even approach the clarity with which South Africa was popularly understood). Both those differences, and others, must be taken into account when we examine the parallels and contrasts between South African apartheid and Israel's discrimination and occupation. But this is not the place for a full examination of those distinctions.

What is perhaps more immediately relevant here are the crucial distinctions we must recognize between the anti-apartheid movements in the U.S., and the work in this country to support Palestinian national rights. However much we may aspire to build a movement equivalent in breadth and influence to the anti-apartheid movement of the last twenty-five years, there are significant differences we must take into account. That movement's sharp focus on university and governmental divestment, on arms embargoes, and at a certain moment even economic sanctions against the apartheid regime, was not the creation of passionate student organizers in the U.S. or even experienced South African activists living here. The South African liberation movement had a recognized leadership, known and widely respected not only at home but internationally. And our movements here reflected the ANC's carefully crafted strategy for liberation—a strategy itself cohered around what was then a more than 60-year-old vision of a non-racial South Africa.

The ANC's strategy included within it plans for domestic mobilization, political education, international economic and diplomatic engagement, military activities, and a host of other strategic tasks assigned to particular constituencies. Here in the U.S. the ANC-led strategy targeted institutional corporate investment for divestment, demanded tighter enforcement of the arms embargo and later economic sanctions, and conducted expos≥-oriented education campaigns. And because the ANC told us that those efforts were what was needed at a particular time, Americans joined those campaigns in huge numbers—it was a broad and truly democratic kind of democratic centralism written on an international stage. We did what the ANC called for not only because we were told to, but because we understood that work's importance in relation to the ANC's long-term vision. Our movement here came up with its own ideas for approaches and methods and types of campaigns for work in the U.S., but anti-apartheid activists here never believed it was our role to craft our own alternative vision or imagine a new strategy for ending apartheid or liberating South Africa.

For Palestine, none of that reality holds up. The PLO is not the ANC. The divided Palestinian leadership has lost much of its credibility among Palestinians and their supporters, forfeited its credential as Oslo collapsed in failure, marginalized those (even within its own ranks) who criticize the U.S. or who focus strategically rather than simply rhetorically on international law and the United Nations, obscured its own vision of ultimate or even short-term goals. It has set no clear strategic direction for the national movement even inside Palestine or in the region, let alone advanced a clear set of priorities for U.S., European or other international supporters.

Further, the PLO's strategic embrace of the U.S. not only as a sponsor of the Oslo "process" but as the Palestinians' own champion of choice within that process, has left U.S.-based (and other international) supporters of Palestinian national rights facing a severe contradiction. How is it possible for critics of U.S. foreign policy, working inside the U.S., to support a national movement's fight for human rights and national liberation against a powerful ally of the U.S., when the official leadership of that very movement has placed all of its strategic eggs in Washington's basket? What are we to make of the call for "immediate American intervention" by a top PA official, as the appropriate response to the 11 April 2001 IDF tank and ground troop assault on Khan Younis, and later to the first F-16 bombing attacks on Palestinian towns?

What seems clear is that the overall trajectory of the national movement is going to remain scattered for some time. The recrafting of a vision that can be shared by the vast majority of Palestinians in all three sectors of the population, the creation of a strategic game plan to win that vision and make it a reality, and the identification of the specific tactics and tasks required of each constituency, all remain in the future. For now, we need to respond in a more immediate way, taking into account our location and responsibilities inside the U.S., to the growing political and human crisis raging in Palestine. That means figuring out how to educate Americans - including Arab-Americans of course, but reaching much broader than that—about the very fundamentals of the occupation and the Israel-Palestine conflict. Our long-term goal must be no less than the transformation of U.S. public opinion, the first step towards challenging U.S. policy—but first we have to confront some harsh realities. We need to recognize our failures from earlier stages of our movement, in which even tactical policy goals, mostly left unfinished, did not come close to building the kind of educated and engaged public discourse that could set the stage for future mobilization for real policy change.

Over the last two years, and especially since the post-Camp David crisis and the new intifada began, the conferences of the student movement, the teach-ins led by ADC and others at universities across the country, the massive demonstrations of the Al-Awda coalition, have been extraordinary accomplishments. But there is now a desperate need to go beyond that mobilization of supporters, as powerful as it seems, to confront the crisis of American ignorance with a new strategy for human rights-based education about Palestine, Israel and occupation here in the U.S.

Such a campaign faces extraordinary challenges.

We confront an American people largely ignorant about the existence, let alone the nature and illegality, of military occupation in Palestine; an American people largely unaware of the violations of human rights inherent in occupation and the degree to which those violations are consciously exacerbated by Israel's version of occupation; an American people largely ignorant about the direct involvement—financial, diplomatic and military—of the U.S. in the current crisis; an American people largely ignorant of the real histories of Palestine, of Israel, of U.S. involvement in the region. And we face an American people in serious denial of their ignorance. Unlike the emergence of crises in Rwanda or Sierra Leone (sudden developments, in Western eyes), when most people in the U.S. acknowledged they knew little of the origins, history, or root causes of those conflicts, the majority of Americans passionately believe they are experts, that they know everything they need to know about Israel, the Palestinians, "the violence." We cannot approach an educational campaign aimed at Americans as if we were starting with a blank slate of ignorance. Our challenge is much greater: before we can begin to educate, we must expose, discredit, and eliminate the existing profusion of emotion-laden, ideologically-driven false information that most Americans ardently believe to be the truth about Palestine and Palestinians.

We must deal with a Palestinian leadership that, still only mildly critical of the U.S. role since the end of Oslo, appears to continue believing the U.S. can nevertheless be relied on, and that the reluctant Bush administration should be urged to resume the center-stage position of its predecessor. The New York Times (25 March 2001) claimed that top Palestinian officials believe "their position would be stronger under President Bush. An administration top-heavy with Texas oilmen, they thought, would surely heed pro-Palestinian sentiment in the Persian Gulf." True or not, what is clear is that Palestinian officialdom is providing no leadership in educating Americans about the realities of U.S. Middle East policy, and further, have shown no indication that they believe the need to educate Americans in order to change American policy is or should be a priority in the struggle for Palestinian national rights.

We face an American media in which, even beyond the intersections of corporate ownership and resulting influence of power, journalists themselves come to Middle East coverage reflecting the same ignorance, biases, racism and fears that affect most Americans. At its best, in the U.S. press we hear of "disproportionate violence;" on the BBC we hear that the conditions on the ground now "look less like the intifada and more like a low-intensity war." What we don't hear from either is the crucial word "occupation."

We face a new U.S. administration committed to a determined (if likely futile) effort to stay out of the centerstage spotlight of Israel-Palestine diplomacy. Accountable at the most direct and personal levels to the needs and interests of the oil industry, the Bush foreign policy team has indeed made its priority the strengthening of relations with the petro-rulers of the Gulf and of Washington's strategic dependents in the region, Egypt and Jordan. But that coddling of emirs has not included taking seriously what the Times called "pro-Palestinian sentiment in the Persian Gulf." The simple reason is that those coddled emirs themselves care little about the Palestinian crisis, and their interest in the "pro-Palestinian sentiment" in their countries is largely limited to concerns about maintaining regime and regional stability.

There is a serious internal struggle underway within the administration. The Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz approach is rooted in the view that the U.S. is the sole superpower, and that concerns about Israel's disproportionate force against Palestinians (or about dying Iraqi children) are concerns for soft-hearted and soft-headed liberals, and the Washington-dependent Middle East rulers had better just get used to it. Their strategy is to arm the Iraqi opposition, tighten economic sanctions, escalate bombing of the 'no-fly zones,' keep the advanced weapons flowing to all of Washington's allies in the region—and relegate Israel-Palestine negotiations to the back burner. The Powell team believes that U.S. hegemony is best maintained through collaboration with and cooptation of the Arab regimes, so rebuilding the eroded anti-Iraq coalition is the top priority. That means talking about "smarter" and "retooled" sanctions, expressing rhetorical concern about Iraqi children, urging both sides to de-escalate "the violence" in the Palestinian territories, and trying to help U.S.-dependent regimes struggling to navigate between the competing pressures of U.S. demands vis-a-vis Iraq, versus the demands of the Arab street to do something about Palestine and Iraqi children. Both sides agree on keeping Washington's involvement in Israel-Palestine secondary to that in Iraq and the Gulf.

But for all the chaos of this internal Washington battle, the fundamentals remain constant. Oil, stability and the defense of Israel remain the pillars of U.S. policy in the region, however much the relative priorities among the three may shift. Whichever wing of the administration emerges victorious, and however strong the concerns about maintaining Arab state support, the U.S. is not going to become an even-handed player between Israel and Palestine any time soon. The one possible, though extremely unlikely, shift, could be a new willingness on Washington's part to accept, however grudgingly, a new diplomatic initiative from some combination of Europe and the UN. But that notion too, is an issue of diplomacy and analysis far removed from the crucial needs of education of Americans and the mobilization for real policy changes in the future.

So what do we do?

1) We need to create some kind of Emergency Committee to develop a plan for massive public education. The focus needs to include:

a) That "the violence" is really about occupation and its consequences.
b) That human rights—civil, political, national, economic, social and cultural—are all being violated, and that those violations are both inherent in occupation and particularly harshly imposed by Israel.
c) That the U.S. has been and remains a big part of the problem—not part of the solution.
d) That the solution lies in a human rights, international law and United Nations-based framework.

2) We need to plan a strategy for a serious widespread education campaign (teach-ins, outreach programs to institutions where people already are, etc.). Such a strategy must be uncompromising in recognizing the enormous challenges we face, and ruthless in taking into account our serious weaknesses in meeting that challenge. One result may well be identifying potentially most open target constituencies (African-American or other communities of color, church and/or faith-based constituencies, etc.) for campaigns, while recognizing that we can't reach everyone and not reducing our impact by trying to spread ourselves too broadly to reach the most difficult groups (mainstream Jewish groups, etc.) We also need to figure out the resources (pamphlets, newspaper ads, media access efforts, web stuff, whatever) we will need for such a campaign.

3) We need to identify two or three policy areas we think could be the basis for an initial mobilization campaign by people in the U.S. aimed at U.S. government policies. Those might include U.S. military aid (or specific aspects thereof, such as the Apache sales); calling for international protection while challenging the U.S. veto pattern in the Council; perhaps others. We should understand such a campaign as having very modest goals - less to actually transform policy at this point, than to serve as a galvanizing/activating focus for those reached through the educational campaign.

4) We need to figure out a way to talk publicly about some of the traditionally "internal" issues, while remaining relevant in trying to reach and persuade hostile/skeptical/ignorant Americans. That includes how (and whether) to talk about long-range visions, including the single state idea; how to interact with short-term goals, including support or not (as an interim necessity) for a truncated, disempowered and likely short-lived Palestinian statelet; how to talk about the PLO and the PA.

We in the U.S. are not going to redraw the contours of a Palestinian strategy for liberation from here. But we can—we must—take seriously our responsibilities to challenge, to resist, to demand a role in retooling the U.S. policies that have brought such devastation. We have a very long way to go. But we have little choice but to try.