Here’s a story I’ve never told before: I travelled to Tunisia in late 1993 to meet Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. At the time I was serving as co-chair of Builders for Peace, a project launched by then US vice president Al Gore to help create employment and promote economic growth in the Occupied Palestinian lands. I was sent to Tunis first to meet Arafat, and then speak to the PLO executive committee to explain our mission and receive their support. I had met with Arafat several times before; we knew each other and often had frank exchanges.
I was told that my initial meeting with the chairman would be at 2am and arrived at his office to find him engaged in an animated phone conversation. When he finally hung up, he turned to tell me that he had been speaking to “my people in Lebanon” through a connection in Cyprus. He boasted that he spoke with them daily and had now succeeded in rearming his fighters in Lebanon – something that I felt he knew would provoke disagreement as I had argued with him before about what I believed had been the provocative and counterproductive nature of their armed presence in Lebanon.
At the end of his comments, he said: “You see, Jimmy,” – that’s what he called me – “these are the keys to leadership: communication and power in reserve.”
Just then, the famous Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish walked into the room and Arafat said to him: “Mahmoud, I’m telling Jimmy that the keys to leadership are communication and power in reserve. Isn’t that right?”
Mahmoud replied: “And also vision, sir.” At which point, Arafat waved his hand dismissively, saying: “Not important."
As noted, I’ve never written about this before, partly out of respect for the now deceased Arafat, and because, despite our disagreements and his obvious mistakes, I respect the enormous contributions he made to elevating the Palestinian national identity and movement.
I felt it necessary to share these recollections now because, in some important ways, this idea of “communication and power” without vision still serves as a metaphor for the Palestinian dilemma. Arafat was, in fact, an effective communicator, and he was responsible not only for projecting the Palestinian message to audiences worldwide, but also for bridging differences within the Palestinian movement. He became a heroic figure for Palestinians and for hundreds of millions of people in the developing world.
The problem was that when Arafat and his generation spoke of Palestinian moral and legal rights or even of a “democratic, secular Palestine", they were speaking about ideas which, though compelling and justified, did not constitute a strategic vision, nor were those ideas coupled with realistic and actionable tactics to implement that vision. And so, while Arafat may have inspired millions and amassed arms, the use of these tools were all too often counterproductive to the goals he sought to achieve.
Applying the same test to today’s competing Palestinian leaderships, can anyone claim that the Palestinian Authority or Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad have a realistic strategic vision or that they propose steps that can lead to the implementation of that vision? In fact, the PA and Hamas have been reduced to dependencies, simply struggling to survive and maintain control over their fiefdoms.
The PA president not only has no vision, but he also does not communicate or have power. Hamas, too, has played right into Israel’s hands. Their “strategy” has succeeded in providing Israel with the opportunity to separate Gaza from the rest of the Occupied Lands. Their so-called “deterrent power” is, at best, ineffectual and counterproductive in that it gives Israel the excuse to periodically deliver massive blows, resulting in hundreds of innocent lives lost. And now with Hamas tamed, it has fallen to Islamic Jihad to foolishly think that random attacks and ineffective missiles can somehow bring about a change in the Palestinian situation.
As the brilliant and witty Israeli Palestinian leader Tawfiq Zayyed once replied to a group that had denounced him, claiming that he had denied the Palestinian right to “armed resistance": “You may have that right, but when you use it as badly as you do, you forfeit that right.”
What is needed now is what always been needed: a realistic assessment of the Palestinian situation vis-a-vis Israel and, based on this reality, the development of a strategic vision and the tactical steps to implement it. For this, I would turn to the heroic example of the strugglers in Palestinian and Israeli civil society, both in the occupied lands and in Israel itself. They are creating the movement for change that can translate the one-state reality into a democratic future for all.
It won’t happen overnight or even in a few years, but if the so-called “leaderships” would discipline their forces and lend their support or, at the very least, get out of the way, the possibility of a mass non-violent struggle against the apartheid regime could bear fruit – as it did in varying degrees in South Africa, the US civil rights movement, and Northern Ireland.
Violence plays into Israel’s hands. Civil disobedience and general strikes by Palestinian labourers, boycotts and mass peaceful demonstrations at check points and the borders would effectively force Israel to come up with tangible solutions. That is the genius of peaceful resistance – it turns military might into a weakness and can turn worldwide public opinion into a powerful weapon for change.