Palestinians are done conceding

Only a Palestinian institutional rebirth can end this conflict.

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Yasser Arafat with Willy Brandt, Socialist International President, and Vice President Bruno Kreisky in Vienna, 13th of July 1979. (Source: Yasser Arafat Museum)

estern countries, especially European ones, have a track record of failing Palestine and Israel. Since the outset of this Middle East conflict, these powers have used the tremendous leverage they have on only one party — the Palestinians. At times, they punished Palestinians with military might. When that did not work, they added efforts to financially strangulate the Palestinian national liberation movement. When they realized the Palestinians were not going to vanish, they became innovative in their political and diplomatic discourse to divert Palestinians away from restoring what was forcefully taken from them upon the creation of the state of Israel. At no time in history have Western powers seriously held Israel accountable to get it to change its ways. Instead, they have paved the way for Israeli impunity, all the while funding them, arming them, and covering up for them in the international arena.

Throughout this conflict’s tortuous history, there are lessons worth learning. One is that when real leaders constructively engage, even the most difficult of issues can advance, but first, a riddle.

With all the recent unrelenting chatter in just about every news outlet of record around the world about Israel’s announced, albeit suspended for now, plans to annex yet another part of the West Bank, I bet you have no idea who wrote the following words and when.

“The gravity of [Israel’s] expansionist policy, can only be appreciated when the areas scheduled for annexation, in the West Bank and Gaza, are carefully studied. These coveted zones, represent more than 40% of the area of the Palestinian occupied territories, account for more than 90% of the total arable land and contain nearly all the water and other natural resources. Their annexation removes, in one stroke, the basic means of production in the West Bank and Gaza, which is primarily agricultural and will inevitably precipitate economic collapse and large scale emigration. The depopulation of the West Bank and Gaza will make them a tempting target for annexation in a later stage.”

Do you think you know the answer? Hold your thought.

Politics, diplomacy, and leadership are serious domains. Too often this threesome is viewed as disciplines anyone with minimal common sense and an outgoing personality could undertake. However, After Americans voted Trump into their land’s highest office and watched the fallout of his misgoverning, this notion that politics, diplomacy, and leadership are merely games anyone could play came tumbling down on its head. Finding dynamic role models in these domains in today’s world is difficult, but looking a few decades back, well-documented examples are plentiful. Case in point was the Austrian and Palestinian leaders, Bruno Kreisky and Yasser Arafat.

Yasser Arafat or by his nom de guerre Abu Ammar was a Palestinian political leader. He was chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from 1969 to 2004 and President of the Palestinian National Authority from 1994 to 2004.

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Yasser Arafat
(Source: Bruno Kreisky Forum)

As a Palestinian growing up in the U.S., I never was a fan of Arafat. From afar, his politics were too far on the Right, his shoulders were constantly rubbing with Arab leaders I despised, his organizational skills too heavy-handed and too rough on the edges, and his party, Fatah, too generic to stand for anything that required a person to exert concentrated intellectual effort. Despite this, when needed I supported Arafat in the U.S. and one of my first published letters to the editor argued that the U.S. was wrong in 1988 to prohibit him from reaching New York to address the UN, causing the entire meeting to be moved to Geneva.

Upon relocating to Palestine in the mid-90s, I had the opportunity to meet Arafat several times, always in a collective setting, and always viewing him through the prism of public posturing. Of course, at the end of every meeting, a photo with each person present was mandatory. It was as if he was building his legacy, one visitor at a time. After his assassination in 2004 and the establishment of the Yasser Arafat Museum, one got a postmortem glimpse of the person behind the keffiyeh.

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Bruno Kreisky

Bruno Kreisky was an Austrian social democratic politician who served as Foreign Minister from 1959 to 1966 and as Chancellor from 1970 to 1983. Aged 72 at the end of his chancellorship, he was the oldest Chancellor after World War II. His 13-year tenure was the longest of any Chancellor in republican Austria.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Kreisky, but I have many times sat, ate, and even dozed off, on his now-iconic couch in the living room of his house in Vienna. These visits to his home were, too, a postmortem glimpse of the person behind what was bold European leadership during his time, something sorely missed today.

For over a decade, I have had the honor of cooperating with The Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue and befriending its amazing secretary general, Gertraud Auer Borea d’Olmo, and her outstanding team. This forum is an independent, non-party affiliated think tank based in Vienna, Austria. In 1951, Bruno Kreisky and his family moved into the house at Armbrustergasse 15 where he lived until his death in 1990. After the establishment of the Bruno Kreisky Forum, it was decided to establish the building as a forum for international dialogue in the spirit of Bruno Kreisky and to preserve it as a “monument of the Second Republic.” The property was acquired, reconstructed, and opened in 1993.

Kreisky and Arafat engaged in one of today’s most pressing and seemingly intractable world conflicts, Palestine and Israel. Together, they broke new political ground which nearly politically broke them both.

I was intrigued recently when Gertraud shared with me nearly two dozen of scanned correspondence between Kreisky and Arafat. As a student of history, I took an interest. As a Palestinian living under the very same Israeli military occupation they were discussing, I took note while fully aware that the historic period surrounding these correspondences was complicated and multi-layered in both the Middle East and Europe. Added to that this exchange took place amid the Cold War.

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Bruno Kreisky’s iconic couch in the living room of his house, now The Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue, Vienna, Austria

The correspondence

Back to that riddle at the outset of this essay. Those words were written by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat from Beirut in a letter to Chancellor Bruno Kreisky on 18 January 1981. Arafat’s and the PLO’s foresight were commendable. Not only did Arafat accurately speculate another act of annexation as an Israeli plan, but he called out a percentage, 40%, which is not so far from the 30% that Trump’s Peace to Prosperity “vision” greenlighted for Israeli annexation in 2020. More importantly, Arafat was spot on when he speculated about the reason behind such a large annexation, the “inevitable” Palestinian “economic collapse” and “large scale emigration,” opening the way for Israel to annex the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The letter from which this quote was extracted is one of 18 exchanged between the two leaders that I reviewed, dated between August 1978 and November 1982. They came from the Kreisky Archives and are merely a snapshot of the period, but a telling one, nonetheless. I read them with the intent to inform our thinking today given the flurry of activity around the issue, especially after Trump came to office and Israel’s announced intention to annex more Palestinian lands.

In all, there were 23 files, 13 letters from Arafat to Kreisky, 5 letters from Kreisky to Arafat, one letter to Arafat from the leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, Willy Brandt, a press release from Vienna, a newspaper article from Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union at the time, and a copy of the Vienna Document which was a joint statement from Willy Brandt and Bruno Kreisky issued by the Socialist International. In one of the letters, Kreisky notes that he first met Arafat in 1974.

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Franz Vranitzky (L), Chancellor of Austria from 1986 to 1997, and Yasser Arafat
(Source: Bruno Kreisky Forum)

The conversation between Kreisky and Arafat is mind-boggling, especially when one realizes that while they were engaged in deep discussion, violence was taking place all around them, and all of this was happening pre-Internet. Most of the letters were hand-delivered by emissaries, some who paid with their lives for their involvement, as it is believed was the case of Arafat’s confidant Dr. Issam Sartawi who was assassinated on 10 April 1983 in the lobby of the Montechoro Hotel in Albufeira, Portugal where he was attending a Socialist International Congress on behalf of the PLO. The meeting was planned to take place in Australia but pro-Israeli Australian Labour prime minister, Bob Hawke, strongly objected to the PLO’s invitation so the congress was hurriedly relocated to Portugal. Cancel culture was an issue long before today.

In hindsight, it is as if both Kreisky and Arafat were fully aware of where the Palestinian-Israeli issue was heading, to the very dark spot of where we stand today, notwithstanding the COVID‑19 pandemic.

It was the joint statement from Willy Brandt and Bruno Kreisky that started the entire thread of correspondences. The statement started with, “We are happy to be instrumental in bringing about a meeting between President Anwar Sadat of the Egyptian Arab Republic and Shimon Peres, Chairman of the Israel Labour Party” and went on to state four points. This was dated 10 July 1978, two months before The Camp David Accords were signed by Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on 17 September 1978, following twelve days of secret negotiations at the Camp David retreat in the state of Maryland in the United States.

The PLO took issue with the substance of the statement and Arafat initiated a letter to highlight where Brandt and Kreisky were being misled. Arafat’s letter to Kreisky is dated 21 August 1978 and after an introduction of niceties, as was the case in all the letters between the two leaders, Arafat dissects the joint statement, point by point, and berates the Socialist International for “adopting the position of the Israeli Labour Party” thus “abandon[ing] its neutral status” and risking “losing its credibility” which will “compromi[se] … its ability to influence constructively the course of the Middle Eastern conflict.”

That is exactly what happened, as we can now clearly see decades later. In a nutshell, Palestine’s Right (within Palestinian political context) engaged Europe’s Left to expose Israel’s Left as doing the bidding of Israel’s Right.

The European Left bought the position of the Israeli “Left,” hook, line, and sinker, only to end up relegated to the sidelines and expected to underwrite a U.S. monopoly on a two-decade peace process. The famed Israeli “Left” did the work of the Israeli Right so well that they are nowhere to be found in Israel today, insignificant in numbers and lacking a distinct political program. No better example of this is any other than the recent wide-based unity government between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the Likud Party and his rival Benny Gantz from the Blue and White Political Alliance. All meaningful Jewish Israeli parties not only joined forces in 2020, but they did so on a political platform of more annexation of Palestinian lands.

As for Israel’s Labour Party today, David Horovitz from the Times of Israel said it best when he wrote, “…it exists in name only. Like turkeys voting for Christmas, its confused and exhausted members … assented to [Amir] Peretz’s request to be devoured by Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition, for the sake of one last photo op at the cabinet table.” So much for the Socialist International partnership.

A few key themes the exchange of letters touched on are worth recalling to inform our current thinking.

Both leaders were forthright in their disagreements. As noted above, Arafat did not hesitate to call out Kreisky on his joint statement with Brandt. Later, in a letter dated 4 May 1979, Kreisky bluntly informs Arafat that he believes the PLO is misreading the political developments in Europe, Israel, and Egypt which has led the Palestinian leadership to take a “Massada-type attitude,” in other words, committing political mass suicide.

Kreisky writes, “You have, first of all, told the world what you refuse, but I feel that the time has come to tell the world what you constructively propose.” Sound familiar today? The U.S.-led global attack on Palestinians is uttering this same notion. But there is a difference, asking this to discredit Palestinians, such as is the case with Trump and Netanyahu today, is one thing, but when Kreisky asked, he was actually seeking an answer to engage with — real diplomacy. Arafat did not disappoint him.

In a reply letter dated 19 May 1979, Arafat wasted no time to state his people’s case and in no less boldness than that which Kreisky addressed him with. He details a “peace plan” that was being floated as part of the 1978 Camp David talks, the “inhabitant’s autonomy plan,” which was being “offered as the solution of the Palestinian problem ‘in all its aspects’.” Arafat was well-informed about internal Israeli politics and notes to Kreisky that “even [Moshe] Dayan and [Minister of Defense Ezer] Weizman describe [it] as unacceptable.” Arafat was irate, stating that the “plan sentences its intended victims to perpetual slavery” and ignores “two thirds of the Palestinian Nation” which are in the Diaspora. Sound familiar today?

Arafat continued in this three-page letter to dot the political i’s and cross the struggles’ t’s. He took on the U.S.’s role at the time, which mirrors its role today. He detailed how the PLO was omitted from the Camp David talks even though their issue was on the negotiating table and how the Congress was enacting a resolution “barring … Palestinians from entry in the USA.” He then concludes that after all of the “peaceful means” that the PLO have attempted have failed and it seems that the “occidental world is not desirous of recognizing our ‘will for peace’. Today, this same logic can be applied to any European country that refuses to recognize the State of Palestine.

Interestingly, in this letter, Arafat invoked the Helsinki Agreement[1] which indicates that he was anchored in international law and customary international law, even if non-binding, ever since the 70s. Nevertheless, Arafat summarized by writing that “Israel’s war of annihilation against us is conducted with American arms and blessing.” I guess not much has changed since this letter was written.

No doubt that each leader was walking on eggs in their own domains as they engaged one another. These initial letters were being exchanged as Kreisky was facing a national election campaign and Arafat was coming under serious internal pressure in the PLO for expecting anything positive for his engagement with Europe.

When the conversation became heated, Kreisky invited Arafat to face-to-face discussions in Vienna. Arafat accepted this invitation to his first visit to a Western democracy and in his letter of acceptance dated 10 June 1979 he made sure to remind Kreisky that the political moment was hyper-sensitive and that the American Congress had just passed a “law stopping all humanitarian aid to UN bodies helping Palestinian refugees.” Sound familiar, again? This was the landmark opening visit that further legitimized the PLO in the global arena. Both men were taking huge political risks and they both knew it.

Kreisky was a statesman, par excellence. Even after seeing the clear differences between him and Arafat, he continued in future letters to make it clear that their “exchanges are bringing us closer together and that they will contribute greatly to the search of a permanent and just peace in the Middle East.” Arafat was no less of a statesman and, in reply, confirmed that he “completely agree[s] … our correspondence is drawing us closer together and cementing a friendship which I hope will prove an important factor in contributing to the just peace we both strive for.” Sustained engagement, even in disagreement, clearly served both leaders’ interests.

On 8 July 1979, Kreisky, Brandt, and Arafat issued a press statement on the results of their talks in Vienna and later held a press conference on July 13. The centerpiece of these activities was Kreisky’s and Brandt’s taking “note of Chairman Arafat’s reference to the resolutions of the Palestinian National Council which called for the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian State, and the Baghdad summit resolutions which called for a just and permanent peace in the Middle East upon withdrawal of Israeli forces from the occupied territories and the implementation of the Palestinian national rights including the right of self determination, the right of return and the right to establish a sovereign Palestinian state …”

At times, things got tense between Kreisky and Arafat, such as after Arafat’s emissary to Kreisky, Dr. Issam Sartawi, came under attack after jointly being awarded, along with the senior Israeli negotiator, Aryeh “Lova” Eliav, the Bruno Kreisky Prize for Human Rights in 1979 for seeking an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Sartawi had participated with other moderate PLO members in the “Paris meetings” with the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace of Israeli Major General Matti Peled, under the sponsorship of former French Premier Pierre Mendès France. In one of the letters in this exchange, Arafat reassures Kreisky that it was not the award that was the issue and reminds him that “our PNC [Palestinian National Council] resolution … authorizes the PLO to contact democratic and progressive Jews everywhere.” That was written on 23 January 1980.

On 29 October 1979, after only a short four years of direct engagement, the PLO received a political win from Kreisky. At the 34th session of the UN General Assembly, Kreisky called for all world countries, including West European countries, to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization. The issue of confirming the PLO as the “sole legitimate” Palestinian political agency was a key issue of the time, similar to how recognition of the State of Palestine is today, so this was huge. In a one-page letter from Kreisky on 11 March 1980, Arafat received notification from Kreisky that the Austrian Federal Government received the PLO’s appointee to Austria and advised Arafat that his credentials would be processed as the Austrian state rules apply to all foreign representatives. In the letters exchanged on this issue, it is noteworthy that in every letter Arafat reaffirmed that the PLO was the “sole legitimate” representative of the Palestinian people, whereas Kreisky always sufficed with the PLO being the “Representative of the Palestinian People.” Arafat took what he could at the time.

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Thirty-Fourth Session of the General Assembly. The Assembly observing a minute of silent prayer or meditation shortly after the meeting was called to order. 18 September 1979 United Nations, New York (Photo credit: UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata)

In future letters, Arafat did not press Kreisky on another key element of Kreisky’s 1979 address to the UN where he called for an unbalanced recognition from both conflicting parties. Kreisky said, “To put it in clear and precise terms: the Palestinian side would have to acknowledge as a reality the existence of the State of Israel and Israel would have to recognize as legitimate the national rights of the Palestinians.”

It took another decade, but the PLO did more than merely “acknowledge as a reality the existence of the State of Israel.” In 1988, the PLO’s PNC meeting in Algeria, implicitly acknowledged the reality of the existence of the State of Israel as part of the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, and three years afterward, explicitly and politically recognized the State of Israel, which led to the launch of the Middle East Peace Process which led to the infamous Oslo Accords. To this day, Israel has neither “acknowledged” nor “recogniz[ed] as legitimate the national rights of the Palestinians,” let alone recognize the State of Palestine as the majority of the countries of the world have already done.

If this historic Palestinian concession continues to be ignored and unreciprocated, soon a new generation of Palestinian leaders will revoke the movement’s political recognition of the state of Israel, and decades of political effort will vanish in thin air. European states know this very well and must do more than issue statements of condemnation if they want to safeguard any prior progress.

In Arafat’s 29 July 1980 letter to Kreisky, he takes up issues related to his political party, Fatah, under PLO letterhead. This inability for him to distinguish his national PLO role and narrow party role was always an issue with his governance. Regretfully, it remains an issue with the PLO’s leadership today; it seems they are unable to rise above their party roles and fully assume their national leadership responsibilities.

All said and done, following Arafat’s letters one walks away realizing that, first, there was an institution behind him and one that was living in a far from stable environment, and second, as much as Arafat was bent on hyper-centralization, he made sure to consult widely and have a mini-army of advisors in his arsenal.

Back to today

As stated at the outset, there are lessons in this conflict’s history worth learning. In addition to the progress that is possible when real leaders constructively engage, the reverse is true too. When all the burden of making progress falls on one side’s shoulders, expect any concessions offered over time to be revoked, one by one.

Of course, the ingredients of a struggle’s success cannot be merely the level of justice inherent in the struggle itself. If that were the case, Native Americans would be governing North America, Australia and New Zealand would not be the states we know today, and Israel would not exist as a modern nation-state, at least not in Palestine. There is much more to it. The key ingredients are politics, or the capacity to engage them, competence in the art of diplomacy, and lots of leadership. But even then, politics is not spurting out populist slogans no matter how morally correct they are; diplomacy is not engaging only like-minded leaders, and leadership is not a certificate to hang on your office wall.

All of these require institutional capacities that are grounded in a clear mandate and regularly legitimized by the relevant stakeholders, first among them the people the struggle is freeing. It is individually and collectively knowing enough to understand that you serve the public to leave the world a better place than that in which you entered it or, in the case of a national struggle, leaving the struggle one step closer to a successful closure. If that means taking the difficult issues by the bull’s horns and building the required partnerships to wrestle them to the ground, then that is what you do, even if it means only partial advancement. This is what the PLO achieved in the 70s and 80s; they were able to reconstitute Palestinians as the Nation they are, but for today’s Palestinian leadership, decades later, to continue to live off past laurels — no matter how important — is a recipe for failure.

To act with purpose and with a fighting chance to succeed, functioning and representative institutions are imperative. This is where Palestinians have dropped the ball and it is only they who can pick it back up. Today, the lack of functioning political institutions is the Palestinian’s Achilles’ heel and the reason I recently addressed President Abbas directly with two open letters, one in July 2019 which calls for rejuvenating the Palestinian political agency and a second in May 2020 calling for bold political steps in light of the most recent U.S.-Israeli plans to liquidate the Palestinian struggle.

As the Kreisky-Arafat exchange showed, the PLO proved it can engage constructively in global diplomacy and still hold its core political ground. Back then, the PLO had modest but reasonable means, personnel, research, and the needed political sophistication. Today, we are at a loss to know what is available because the lack of a functioning political agency has effectively left the decision making in the hands of one person whose strategies for liberating Palestine have already failed twice.

At the leadership level, we ideally would like to do our work in the context of values, thus the importance of electing candidates that present the best of who we are, but we do not live in an ideal world. In politics and diplomacy, we are many times forced to deal with less desirable others. In some extreme cases, like with Trump and the Palestinians today, boycotting a leader, even the world superpower’s leader, is called for, but that is surely the anomaly. The lesson here is that leadership does not have the luxury of choosing their peers, so we should not place so much weight on empirical relationships and do more to change societies from within so enlightened leaders are brought forward. In the meantime, leaders do what they can with what they institutionally have available to them; that is their mandate. Lacking real institutions, the best of leaders will fall flat on their face — taking their struggle with them — no matter how noble their intentions.

Luckily, despite tremendous odds, Palestinians have always refused to stop thinking forward even when their national institutions are nowhere to be seen, so getting the Palestinian institutions back on their feet can happen in record time. This was recently reaffirmed in a Palestinian effort by the Palestine Strategy Group which culminated in a new report titled, Palestine 2030. Similar reports are frequently issued in all Palestinian localities.

Regretfully, we only see the full view of the inner workings of politics, diplomacy, and leadership postmortem. This must change. Persons in every country, state, organization, union, and collective have a right and a duty to be informed and take part in decision making in real-time.

PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky exemplified leadership in politics and diplomacy with the tools they had available to them and within the state of the organizations they represented. From them, we learn. But from them do we act or merely consume?

Sam Bahour (@SamBahour) is a Palestinian-American business consultant and a frequent commentator on Palestinian affairs from Ramallah/Al-Bireh in Occupied Palestine. He is co-editor of “Homeland: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians” (1994) and blogs at ePalestine.ps.

[1] The Helsinki Agreement was an accord signed by all the countries of Europe (except Albania, which became a signatory in September 1991) and by the United States and Canada. The agreement recognized the inviolability of the post-World War II frontiers in Europe and pledged the 35 signatory nations to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms and to cooperate in economic, scientific, humanitarian, and other areas.

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