Sunday, February 4, 2007

From Palestinian to Arab Cause

The lassitude of Arab regimes has transformed the Palestinian cause from a rallying point for Arab dignity to a shameful concert of capitulation, writes Azmi Bishara

The butchery we see today in Gaza sadly underscores the wretchedness of the current Palestinian situation. Just before this, Arab officialdom presented another image of wretchedness with its celebration of the disengagement and paying tribute to Sharon's courage. The reverse face was the thousands of Palestinian youths charging the ruins of the Israeli settlements. It was the storming of the Bastille or Winter Palace, or so it seemed at first. Then, suddenly, the hordes fell silent. They stood stock still, dumbfounded and bewildered on top of all that rubble, undoubtedly asking themselves, "Now what do we do?" How poignant that scene was. One moment there was all the thrill and hubbub of the assault; the next was the deafeningly silent anti- climax. There was nothing to do. There were no palaces of Saddam or castles of Saint Petersburg.

There is no memorabilia to be had from the settlements, nothing worth remembering there at all. What the Israelis did leave behind were political booby-traps in the form of some synagogues. These were the structures -- resembling nothing approaching palaces or even religious monuments, constructed, as they were, in the same drab utilitarian settlement architecture -- that Sharon left standing. That was his way of toying with the Palestinians. If they left them alone they'd be keeping Israel's foot in the door; if they demolished them they'd be equating them to all the mosques that have been destroyed since 1948. The situation glaringly epitomises the present-day perspectives that equate the occupier with the occupied and the settlers' synagogues with the mosques of the indigenous inhabitants.

In response to the organised and spontaneous jubilation over the liberation of Gaza and to the hearty reception he received in the UN, which moved him so much that his voice shook, albeit for reasons that had little to do with those for which he was the object of all that acclaim, the Israeli prime minister announced that he would continue settlement construction. In order to understand the relationship between the plaudits that resounded in the UN as he delivered a speech permeated with fundamentalist Jewish rhetoric and the quivering voice with which he addressed that assembly, where until only a short time ago he was virtually anathema, it appears that we have to return to the fundamentals.

The salient trait of Sharon's speech was the pervasive mysticism that marched ever onwards from the Book of Genesis through Jerusalem towards eternity. And along the way, he appropriated the "Eternal" and "Everlasting" as mere rhetorical tools for churning out political coinages that have suddenly become legitimate currency on the UN podium. Now, apparently, that seat of pragmatic realism cheers the occult and anti- realism whenever pragmatism demands.

In his speech to the UN on 15 September, Sharon did not merely reminisce about his youth as a son of "pioneers" who came to Israel "to till the land... not to dispossess its residents," or pine over his early love for "manual labour; sowing and harvesting, the pastures, the flock and the cattle", which he had to sacrifice because "the path of life led him to be a fighter and commander." Nor did he just talk about the historic right of the Jews "to" the land (as opposed to "in" the land -- the distinction is fundamental and frequently stressed in the context of the civil rights of Arab citizens in Israel). Nor did he fail to take his audiences through the 5,000-year-old epic of Jewish history that made it possible for him to appear before that August assembly today, having just arrived "from Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Israel". He also, as was expected, took the occasion to turn his disengagement plan towards a very pragmatic end; which was to toss the ball into the Palestinian court.

Sharon will teach you that pragmatism and mysticism are closely intertwined in Israeli rationalism and modernism, which constructions have apparently gained ascendancy not only over the Arabs but also over Arab irrationality and fundamentalism. A culture clash? So one is to presume. But, in fact, cultures don't clash; people do. When mystical mumbo jumbo is wielded to serve a concrete human end, you get pragmatism. Mysticism and pragmatism are constantly exchanging roles as aims and means in the utilitarian mind, and in power politics. Success is not so much contingent upon rationality as it is upon power, science, institutionalisation and modernism and other such facets of the rationalist mindset being manifestations of power.

In contrast to the victorious Israeli mysticism, you have the defeated Arab mysticism, unrationalised, uninstituionalised, shrill and shrewish. It will go into contortions of rationalisation when it comes to justifying the absence of will power and the need to bow to defeat and soar to metaphysical heights when it comes to talk about creating modern democratic institutions and societies. The official Arab fundamentalism is pragmatism par excellence. It is entirely divorced from values, which in turn have become the political orphans abandoned to the Arab street. One wonders, as the Arabs officials sat and listened to Sharon, whether they secretly cursed those who prevented them from listening to him before, or those who were the cause of them having to sit and listen to him today. For an answer we must again return to long- forgotten basics.

Since its creation, Israel has aggravated Arab underdevelopment and political exclusion. Since 1948, the perpetuation of the Palestinian cause has exacerbated Arab fragmentation. For this reason, there can be no just solution to the Palestinian problem outside the framework of efforts to solve the Arab problem. Of course, the Palestinian cause could be resolved separately from the Arab cause, thereby avoiding all attendant complications and complexities, but it would not be a just solution. Justice is not a metaphysical phenomenon; it is a value. Of course, justice might be relative in the context of its practical application across history. But it acquires the characteristic of an absolute when the dominant political game abandons it as a value altogether, forcing justice into the opposition, from which position it attracts other forms of injustice. There is no such thing as an absolutely just solution to a just cause, but that does not make an unjust solution acceptable.

The current Arab condition is not conducive to a just solution to the Palestinian cause. Far from it, in its consummate pragmatism, it is seeking to persuade the Palestinians to accept the current balances of power, the perpetuation of which is contingent upon their submission to these circumstances and the types of blackmail it exerts. This is the political attitude that portrays the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza as part of the roadmap, adopted as an Arab demand, regardless of the fact that the author of that scheme has sanctioned an entirely Israeli interpretation of it through his letters of guarantee to Sharon. This was the political climate that made it possible for Sharon to strut through the corridors of the UN on the annual commemoration of the massacres of Sabra and Shatila, and to receive laurels for his "courage" in making such "painful concessions" in Gaza.

It must be stressed that this climate and the charades it produces are manifestations of an Arab condition that has grown increasingly desperate the longer it has remained unremedied. I am not suggesting that the remedy is necessarily Arab unity in the form of a pan-Arab nation with the right to self-determination, not that there is anything that should theoretically stand in the way of the creation of such an entity. Nor am I suggesting that our search for solutions to the Arab cause should derive its raison d'être from the need to secure a just solution to the Palestinian cause, or even the urge to spare ourselves further sight of Arab officials hanging on to every word Sharon utters. That is equivalent to saying that Palestinian women should be granted equality with men because they fought alongside men against the occupation or because that would strengthen society in its fight against Israel. Women should be granted equality to men because equality is a humanitarian value the realisation of which is essential to the realisation of another humanitarian value which is social justice. In like manner, although there can be no just solution to the Palestinian cause in the absence of a solution to the Arab plight, our attitude should be that the Arab plight must be solved for the sake of realising justice, freedom and democracy in Arab societies.

The current attempts to normalise relations with Israel, and the spectacle of Arab leaders hailing Sharon as a new De Gaul, are not so much signs of the Arab betrayal of the Palestinian people as they are manifestations of the Arab condition. After all, there is no marriage contract between Arab governments and the Palestinian people. Official solidarity with the Palestinian people has been no less a myth than solidarity between Arab governments. Arab regimes have varied greatly in their treatment to the Palestinian cause. Their approach has ranged between cynical demagogical exploitation in order to silence the voice of social and democratic reform at home to the sincere belief that the Palestinian cause is the Arabs' central cause, a belief that has virtually been elevated to the ranks of an ideology. However, in their fluctuations between the cynical and the sincere, the opportunistic and the ideological, the pragmatic and the romantic, regimes have always been acutely sensitive to the depth of popular solidarity with the Palestinian cause. The solidarity of the Arab people with the Palestinians was both objectively substantial and subjectively compensatory. The Arab people sympathised with the Palestinians because they also strongly identified with them. At the same time, popular support for the Palestinian cause became the legitimate currency through which Arab peoples could express their grievances against the status quo. The legitimacy of the rhetoric of the Palestinian cause, which enabled governments to export domestic contradictions and the people to translate their sufferings into the Palestinian liturgy, served much the same function as official religious rhetoric and the mosque do in other contexts.

The Palestinian cause is no longer able to perform this function. Firstly, because in becoming so dependent upon American good will as its only strategy for survival it has become so much a part of the general shabbiness of the Arab condition as to have lost all its former venerability. The Palestinian cause is no longer beyond the types of criticisms that are being levelled at Arab leaderships and that it could formerly absorb and contain. Secondly, the Arab plight has grown so out of control that the contradictions that could once be hidden behind the Palestinian cause have outstripped the latter in the violence of their expression and, consequently, in the attention they are drawing regionally and internationally. The Arab plight had always been central to the Palestinian plight. But whereas at one point this reality was not apparent except to the lens of critical analysis, it has now been exposed in all its true ugliness. Israel has always claimed that the crux of the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the Palestinian cause but the nature of Arab regimes, and evidently the US had come to embrace this stance. This perspective needs to be righted. In fact, the nature of Arab regimes is the crux of the conflict in every Arab country. The crux of the conflict with Israel is indeed the Palestinian cause, which is part of the greater Arab cause; and so it must continue to be regarded, for to separate the two is to pave the way for a settlement that bows to Israeli dictates and those of the balances of power.

If there is to be democratisation and modernisation in the Arab world, those that undertake these tasks must realise that there is indeed an Arab cause. This realisation forms one of the essential differences between the agenda of Arab democrats and the agenda of colonialist forces and their local supporters. The solution to the Arab cause is not necessarily Arab unity, especially if such unity is not democratic or made up of truly democratic entities. However, any solution does require the acknowledgement of an Arab polity that supersedes sectarian, kinship- based and sub-regional polities. Whether the result is a form of federation or other supranational consensual order, even one that includes non- Arab parties, the recognition of an Arab polity is essential.

The current Arab condition has been made explicit by an official American declaration, delivered at the hands of a flagrant military invasion, the text of which is that the Arab peoples must shed any notion of an all embracing pan- Arab political culture and perhaps, too, any form of political league binding the Arab nations and people and replace these by officially institutionalised political sectarianism.

The Arab condition is also epitomised by the domination of the rentier state. Such states are characterised by a heavy dependence upon remittances from abroad or the sale of goods, such as oil, manual labour or political services and by the minimal investment of these revenues towards the development of their societies. Rentierism is a form of social bond that the Arabs recognise and are being encouraged to adopt as a political bond. Oil is a formidable obstacle to democratic development as it serves as the basis for promoting political feudalism and entrenchment of the authoritarian state within the colonialist boundaries in which they were established.

A third characteristic of the Arab condition is the virtual total dependence of Arab regimes on the US, just as they had been dependent upon Britain and France in the 1940s. Indeed, the name of the US ambassador to any Arab country is better known in these countries than the names of some of their ministers.

Finally, the Arab condition has been exposed through the shift from the regimes' attempts to outbid the Palestinians in their revolutionary rhetoric to their espousal of normalisation with Israel on the grounds that "we will not be more Palestinian than the Palestinians themselves." Normalisation is not so much a Palestinian problem as it is a reflection of the Arab problem, just as are all the characteristics I cited above, in addition to the lack of democracy and the lack of justice in other contexts.