When he died, Yasser Arafat left the Palestinian people facing the threat that the prospect of a viable independent Palestinian state, side by side with Israel, is disappearing into the mists of history’s lost possibilities.
He had presided over a quasi-government notorious for the venality and corruption of its members. Because he ruled as an autocrat, he left the leadership of the Palestinians to be decided by what may turn into a very destructive factional free-for-all. Reportedly he left a personal fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Indeed, Arafat was no hero for socialists and consistent democrats. Yet he has nonetheless a lot to teach socialists, whose cause is at its lowest ebb for many decades.
It is not empty hype when Arafat is called “the father” of his people. He embodied the indomitable will of his people to survive. He did a great deal to ensure, against the odds, that they would survive.
The 1947 United Nations resolution under which the state of Israel was set up in May 1948 stipulated that after Britain gave up control of Palestine there should be not one state but two — a Palestinian state side by side with Israel.
That Palestinian state was destroyed before it could be born, a victim of the war the Arab states launched against the Jews when they declared the state of Israel. The armies of Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and a contingent from Saudi Arabia attacked with the intention openly proclaimed by the Egyptians of “driving the Jews into the sea”.
Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq were client states of Britain. Some of the Arab armies were led by British officers. Britain’s intention? To return to Palestine as the “peacekeeper” once the Arab armies had beaten the Israelis. Britain could then resume control of Palestine “to save the Jews”.
That the Arab armies would defeat the Israelis seemed a certainty. The Arab states had seemingly powerful, professional, well-equipped armies; the Israelis had a citizen army and had suffered an international embargo on arms imports.
Stalinist Czechoslovakia, on Russia’s behalf, broke the embargo because Stalin wanted to disrupt British power in the Middle East. It was the Jewish citizen army that won, beating the Arab armies of mercenaries and professional officers. Britain did not return to Palestine. And it was not Israel that was destroyed, but the unborn Palestinian state.
The territory of the Palestinian state was divided between Jordan (the West Bank), Egypt (Gaza), and Israel.
Three quarters of a million displaced Palestinians took up life in refugee camps, often denied the right to integrate or even to work in those same Arab states whose rulers loudly championed their cause against Israel. They became permanent refugees. Still today, more than half a century later, their descendants, who number about four million, are classified as refugees.
For twenty years, the dispersed Palestinians lived politically in the shadow of the Arab states, mere pawns, without political independence. The Palestinian leader, Ahmed Shukhairy, was a tool of Egypt. In the name of the Palestinians, Shukhairy continued to threaten to “drive the Jews into the sea”.
But how might this programme of destroying Israel and setting up an Arab state in the whole of pre-1948 Palestine, the programme of the Arab invaders in 1948, be realised? It depended entirely on the Arab states being eventually strong enough to do it.
They were not. But the “destroy Israel” programme played a very large, destructive, and malignant role in Middle East politics, and specifically in preventing a settlement of the “Palestinian problem” as the UN had decided, by way of setting up a Palestinian state. The refusal of the Arab states and of the submerged Palestinians to make peace with Israel, or to recognise its right to exist, played into the hands of the worst Israeli chauvinists.
In 1967 Egypt talked of an imminent war on Israel and went through the motions of preparing for war. It expelled UN peacekeeping forces from the Egyptian/ Israeli border and blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba. Israel responded with a sudden pre-emptive strike, destroyed the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian air forces on the ground, and then defeated the Arab armies in a “Six Day war”.
Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza. Pre-partition Palestine was reunited, under Israeli rule. Israel imposed colonial rule in the newly occupied territories — and an often savage colonial rule.
For the Palestinians, the defeat of the Arab states in 1967 put most of them under Israeli rule, and had two other important consequences.
It shattered their hope that the Arab states would soon conquer Israel for them. And, though Arab states continued to have influence and promote their own factions among the Palestinians, it freed them from their political tutelage to the Arab states.
The PLO, set up in 1964, ceased in 1968-9 to be a puppet of the Egyptians. The Palestinians began to become an independent political power. They used terrorism to make themselves felt — increasingly savage terrorism against Israeli, or simply Jewish, civilians. The most spectacular example was perhaps the killing of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
After 1948 Israeli politicians had got into the habit of denying that there was any such thing as a distinct Palestinian people. The Palestinians? Just Jordanians. Jordan is the Palestinian state.
Arafat and his associates changed that. They made the Palestinians into a force able to insist on their own distinct identity.
There had been no Palestinian people distinct and separate from other Arabs. Under the Turks, up to World War One, Palestine and its inhabitants were only a backward, neglected province, “southern Syria”.
The identity of the Palestinian nation which now exists has been stamped and shaped by a distinct history and experience in the 20th century, especially in the last half of it.
Under Arafat’s leadership, the Palestinians have left nobody in any doubt that they are a distinct people — and that they will be taken account of.
After the 1967 war Israel offered to make a settlement — land for peace. There might have been two states, no Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, no four decades of Israeli colonial rule in the territories.
Tragically, in the immediate aftermath of the Six Day war, neither the Palestinians nor the Arab states were willing even to consider a two states solution — or any settlement that would leave Israel in existence.
They did learn how to make new, more subtle, propaganda. The Palestinians dropped the programme of driving the Jews into the sea, and said they wanted a unitary but democratic and secular state in which Jews would have the rights of a religious community (not a nation).
This sounded more reasonable and more attractive than Shukhairy’s “drive the Jews into the sea”. But essentially it came down to the old policy recycled and disguised for propaganda purposes. It too presupposed the destruction of Israel and of the self-determination of the Jewish nation there. It presupposed that Israel would agree to dissolve as a state and put its citizens under the control of an Arab state.
That this would happen voluntarily was simply inconceivable. And so? So, since the Israelis would not do it voluntarily, what would have to be done in order to allow the “reasonable” solution the PLO proposed? The Israelis would have to be forced, that is, conquered. In practice, “democratic secular state” translated into a justification for terrorism and a new war on Israel.
In 1973, war failed again. A sudden attack on Israel by Egypt had some initial successes, but was decisively repulsed.
The Arab states’ vigorous use as a political weapon of their control over oil supplies following the 1973 war had a big impact on the West, but their main political victory was in shifting sections of the bourgeois media to a more critical or hostile attitude to Israel.
It was only in 1988 that Arafat and the PLO formally dropped the “democratic secular state” proposal, and proposed instead the only conceivable, and the only just, policy: two states. A sovereign Palestinian state side by side with Israel.
The Oslo Accords of 1993 followed, and under Arafat the preliminary forms of a Palestinian state came into existence. It was not a working bourgeois democracy, but it was a start. Or so it seemed.
It broke down in 2000-1. Precisely how and why it broke down, and the degree of Arafat’s responsibility, are matters of controversy which I will not pursue here.
Arafat was in the end a political failure. Like Moses, who led the ancient Israelites through forty years wandering in the desert but was not himself destined to enter the Promised Land, Arafat has died unable to bring the long journey of the Palestinians to a settlement that would give them the state which they lost in 1948.
Born in Egypt, and an engineer by trade, Arafat was a brave, indomitable, and unrelenting man, shaped in a long unequal struggle. However grim the situation of the Palestinians is at his departure, even now it is not as grim as it looked when Arafat began his fight over forty years ago.
The lesson Arafat can teach socialists? Dedication to a just cause. Perseverance — stubborn refusal to accept defeat, no matter how discouraging or unpromising the situation looks, or how irreversible earlier defeats may seem to be.
The twentieth century dealt terrible blows to authentic revolutionary socialism, as it did to the cause of the Palestinians after 1948. Socialism was defeated and repeatedly crushed by fascism and — most importantly — by the malign Stalinist counterfeit of socialism. It was made, in the Stalinist “version” of it, into a great foul lie that proclaimed liberty but made social and political slavery wherever it could.
After the demise of European Stalinism, that long and terrible history could not but leave socialism crushed and weak. But Marxist socialism drew its strength, and will draw it again, from two extant sources: from the tendency of capitalism towards more and more socialisation of the economy, and from the class struggle of the workers.
Ultimately authentic socialism will rise up from its present state out of that social matrix.
It would be foolish to look for exact and complete analogies between the history of the Palestinians and the modern history of socialism. Even so, the revival of the Palestinian cause after the crushing defeat of 1948, and Yasser Arafat’s role in that revival, do offer a great lesson for today’s socialists. Perseverance. Indomitability. Moral self-confidence and self-belief. Unrelenting activity for our cause.
And that cause is the greatest cause in the world, the cause that subsumes all other just, humane, and rational causes — the liberation of humankind.