By Azmi Bishara, Al-Ahram Weekly – 13-19 May 2010
Salam Fayyad’s plans for Palestine and the Palestinians are nought but a contrived folk festival where the occupied bow to their oppressors.
Congratulating Israel on its “independence”, or creation, if you will, is equivalent to congratulating it on the success of its armed robbery of Palestine and systematic expulsion of the Palestinian people. So we might say when the congratulations are extended by the US president, France or the Ivory Coast. But when an Arab head of state congratulates the Israeli head of state “on the day of its founding” silence is the only policy. Not a contemplative silence, I hasten to add, but rather an impotent silence, because in this instance one is at a total loss for words. Our language, they say, is a country common to us all, but evidently it is a land in which (Al-Mutanabbi flies to the rescue again) “Arab youth is a stranger in face, hand and tongue.”
Not that this is the first time such congratulations have been offered and it probably will not be the last, as much as one might hope. Nor should the phenomenon surprise us. In fact, what would be surprising is to be surprised. Still, things have really gone overboard this year. The majority of the inhabitants of Gaza are among the refugees who were driven out of their homes in 1948, which means that congratulations have been extended to their evictor turned jailor of the world’s largest prison. There is something very close and stifling about the phenomenon this time, making the suffocating Gaza tunnels through which people crawl for a gasp of life seem more spacious than the tunnels of Arab politics.
One of these dark political tunnels led to an interview granted by the appointed president of the appointed Palestinian government in Haaretz on 2 April 2010. In it he uttered statements of the sort: “I don’t have a problem with people who believe that Israel is the land of the Bible… But there’s a lot of uninhabited hills and spaces in it. Why don’t you build there and give us a chance to get on with our lives?” He also said, “The chief dispute in the region is not between us, but between moderates and extremists,” and “We are building to receive the refugees in the Palestinian state.” This is the language of the Israelis. Some phrases even echo the lexicon of the settlers who claim that they are building “on uninhabited hills”. One is reminded of those Arab officials who boast that they understand the language of the Americans, after which we realise that this means that they will do whatever Washington asks without question (which, of course, is a prerequisite for certain types of “understanding”).
With consummate ease, the former World Bank official and current employee of the “international community” has reduced the concept of statehood to “inhabited areas” that need to be equipped with the wherewithal to survive. How seamlessly this jives with the Israeli notion of a Palestinian state in the densely populated patches of the Palestinian territories. All he had to do next was to add the whispered aside that this was necessary in order to forestall the growth of terrorist elements and to give it to be understood that the Palestinian right of return only meant that Palestinian refugees would have the right to return to that patchwork Palestinian state.
An elaborate Western-financed optical illusion is in the works. It is intended to pass off life in overcrowded Palestinian enclaves as ordinary, to make the artificial look normal, to impose calm while the Palestinian Authority (PA) builds government buildings with elegant façades, to organise a giant game of make-believe under occupation.
The idea of Palestinian Bantustans started as a theory. Then some people came along and took the theory seriously. As part of the process of advocating it they attempted to demonstrate that the theory sounds worse than when applied in practice. Those who have experienced it elsewhere found that it offers a relatively comfortable way of life, they say, adding that it looks better and better when you compare it, chronologically, to the chaos of the popular armed struggle of the recent past and, spatially, to the fate of those under the blockade in Gaza who reject it. Naturally, they make no reference to the Palestinian national cause.
The man who uttered those ideas that were so remote from the Palestinian national discourse was appointed head of the PA in the aftermath of a coup against an elected government. In those elections, he won one per cent of the popular vote. Not long before that he was the minister of finance imposed by Washington on Yasser Arafat when Arafat was under siege in Ramallah. The Israeli press has dubbed him the “Palestinian Ben- Gurion”. Can you imagine? Recently he was ranked tenth on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most important persons in the world. Whatever for? One of the perks of imperialism is its power to peg us in its categories (such as moderate or extremist), to rank us according to its grades and hierarchies, and to bestow upon us awards and honours.
The aforementioned Haaretz interview led me to take a look at interviews granted by Palestinian officials to the Israeli press in recent years. It was a painful and stressful endeavour, and after two days of mind- numbing reading I threw in the towel, albeit with the certainty that there is a book out there on models of the inculcation of the colonised personality and that all that is needed are researchers and writers with the stomach for a study of this sort. I am not a candidate, but from my brief survey I found that in virtually all the interviews the officials used Israeli terms and concepts to describe the Palestinian people and their situation, and offered gratuitous concessions to Israeli public opinion. It was as though they were all driven by a desire to ingratiate themselves or, at best, to court their audience’s admiration by means of a mischievous drollery. Nearly all the officials issued denials of some of the statements they made the day after their interview — in Arabic and without demanding a retraction or a correction on the part of the Hebrew language newspaper in which their interview had appeared. Politicians with inferiority complexes who grow intoxicated on impressing the occupiers one day wake up the next suddenly gripped with fear of how the occupied people will react.
From the occupation power’s point of view, the Palestinian poser, puffed up by Israeli praise and pats on the back, is captive of the concessions he handed them for nothing in return but the “moderate” label. Then, when he starts to backtrack under the glare of the Palestinian public, the Israelis scoff at his weakness, call him a liar and point to him as proof of these supposedly intrinsic Arab traits. Meanwhile, his postures, inclusive of airing Palestinian dirty laundry before the Israeli public, criticising the Palestinians’ internal chaos and corruption, and mocking Hamas and others, have brought no change in the Israeli position or anything positive at all. Free concessions only encourage the adversary to press forward, free of charge, and up his demands. Of course he will protest that he has made a significant achievement. He will say that he has given “the forces of peace in Israel” a means to persuade Israelis to accept the idea of a Palestinian state. What is left unsaid is that this means to present a Palestinian state as a solution to the Israeli demographic problem and to point to those officials who oblige the Israeli press with conciliatory interviews as evidence of the existence of moderate and flexible Palestinians who will make good peace partners and who can always be cajoled into making more concessions.
Hardly had I finished that survey of interviews, whose language alone merits a separate study, than the PA president embarked on an “offensive” to win the approval of the Israeli public. Now that the Obama administration has made it clear exactly how far its desire to pressure Israel will go, and given that “life means negotiations”, negotiations must be the only way forward. But instead of just negotiating with the Israeli government, the PA president has escalated his “offensive” by launching negotiations with every individual Israeli. He unveiled this bold and aggressive strategy in a meeting of the Fatah Revolutionary Council.
The PA president will soon be surprised by a horde of negotiators. Some six million Israelis, together with political parties and associations, will rush forward to urge him to offer proof that he really wants peace and to do more to guarantee their safety. Still, he was evidently impatient for all this to begin. The day following the announcement of this “initiative” he decided to hasten the Israelis, and perhaps us as well, by holding a television interview on Israel’s Channel 2 in order to inter the last remnants of his government’s Palestinian national discourse. “There is no crisis of confidence with Netanyahu,” he proclaimed. On the right of return, he said, “We’re speaking of a just and agreed upon solution. You can’t get more flexible than that,” and, “We’ll agree on the solution and bring it before the Palestinian people.” Otherwise put, the Palestinian president handed the occupation power the right to accept or refuse the principle of the right of return and what he will put before the Palestinian people is none other than the Israeli formula for an acceptable solution. He must be praying that Netanyahu responds favourably to this strategy, because he does not want Palestinians “to even think about demonstrating”. Probably, too, his zeal for appealing to Israeli and American Jewish public opinion will eventually lead him to addressing AIPAC. Surely then Israeli public opinion and Israel’s instruments in the US will realise that the PA leadership under the occupation has relinquished all instruments of persuasion apart from conciliatory words and that it has surrendered to its status as hostage of the occupation authority.
Of course the end of this chapter is a foregone conclusion. When the next chapter opens its protagonist will be the man who abandoned the national discourse, forswore national rights and came from outside the national movement. The former World Bank official, who boasts of being pragmatic, is offering day-to-day life solutions instead of a national cause. He calls this practical and basks in the admiration of the ever so pragmatic West because he doesn’t fritter away his time in politics — this he leaves to the West, the Quartet and Israel, while he concentrates on building economic structures. Sadly, the economic aspect of these types of structures is a mirage. These so-called economic structures are political instruments, and after they perform their function the agencies that finance them will let them fall into neglect.
The Palestinian economy in the West Bank is a camouflage for security arrangements and measures. It is a rentier economy that lives on aid in exchange for security and political services, an economy built entirely on foreign subsidies in exchange for certain political positions and driven by the desire to promote those who accept Israeli conditions and prioritise the protection of Israel’s security. The man who promotes this economy is involved in politics up to his ears, but it is the politics of the West and the Quartet. His economy is built on serving these politics, and from the aid money it yields he pays out wages and builds the façades of economic institutions. If Fatah frowns at this, he will respond with his consummate pragmatism by awarding Fatah officials a majority of seats in his cabinet. This type of seemingly apolitical politics calls to mind those who appealed to the Palestinian people via the Israeli media to abandon the resistance, which angers the Israelis and destroys homes, and to fight “extremists” and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Their slogan for this campaign was “We want to live”.
“Love for life” comes in two brands: one for aggressor states, such as Israel, and one for their victims, such as Palestine. In the former there is no contradiction between the love for life and politics and political participation; nationalism, religiosity and secularism; literature and the arts; nihilism and dissolution; the army, parliament and electoral processes; industry, agriculture and the sciences, and even war if necessary. This applies to Israel as it does to the US. For occupied peoples, on the other hand, “love for life” has to be practised at a far remove from politics, arms and resistance, and from national enterprises and autonomous production. This brand of living life takes its symbols from the kitchen — “kebab,” “humous” and “tabbouleh” — and it is about exhibitions of mirth and merrymaking, and competing to bestow gifts and prizes on the elites. The occupation loves the noisy and crowded coffeehouses and restaurants in Ramallah and it displays films on these vibrant locales as proof of life behind the barriers.
When life is reduced to this brand of “we want to live” you have to fabricate it, as it does not have the wherewithal to regenerate itself. There can be no life under occupation without a fight against occupation. In the absence of independence and national sovereignty, sorrow and joy and life itself can only exist within the context of a project for national independence. When this is abandoned or unravels, all you get is a contrived folk festival passed off as authenticity and the love for life.
The public relations business, which is a science in the US, strives to insulate itself against truth, to buffer itself against conscience, and to remain indifferent to whether it is marketing fact or fiction. It is an applied branch of instrumentalism and the market and the commodification of human relations are its field and mode of application. Its function is to find a way to market anything, to create a sellable package for even the most aesthetically or morally abhorrent things. But even the most inventive PR imagination would be hard put to package admiring the largest ever dish of Ramallah musakhan or of Nablus-style kunafa, or squatting down on one’s haunches to eat olives and cheese along with the people as a form of national struggle. You don’t need to tell the people what kind of foods they eat, just as you don’t need to tell them the sky is blue or that they “want to live”. You do not need to market the obvious. There is no need for PR, copywriters or even political leaders to tell the people what is already a part of their daily consciousness.
The job of political leaders is to help people answer such questions as “How can we live?” “How should we live?” “Will the occupation power let us live once we lay down our arms?” “Who will fund all these economic institutions after the donor countries lose interest in them?” “Who will finance 200,000 jobs that support more than a million people who are living on the hope that the so-called international community will support an unjust settlement?” “What will become of us without the rest of our people?” “What about our obligations towards the refugees and Jerusalem?” “What kind of life is left for a people that gives up their sovereignty for crumbs?” Their job is not to sell apathy packaged as “We want to live”. It is a cheap product anyway and like all cheap products it has a short lifespan.