Ghassan Charbel
Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

The Palestinians and the Weapon of Time

The following took place in Damascus, when I was interviewing Dr. George Habash to write down some of his memories. The man had a strong will despite his health problems and the developments that went against his wishes. I told the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine that the world was changing, but not in the interest of the Palestinians.

The Soviet Union evaporated, so did the “comrades” who were providing aid or shelter. I pointed to the situation in the region after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Then I asked him if there was anything left to bet on. Habash thought for a while and then replied: “I bet on my feeling that injustice cannot continue forever, and I bet on our people before that.”

I asked him if he thought time worked for the benefit of the Palestinians, and he replied that time worked for the benefit of those who knew how to deal with it and employ it. I was surprised with his words, especially as he was not known for being a “realistic” person.

I was thinking of the current turbulent Palestinian summer. Then, scenes of an old heated season, which still impacts our present, returned to my mind. In August 1982, the Israeli army besieged Beirut and showered it with various killing weapons. Since the beginning of that month, the chief defender of the city, Yasser Arafat, had the idea of leaving it, as there was no other option.

It was natural that the Secretary General of the Lebanese Communist Party, George Hawi, went to the Soviet embassy in Beirut. The Lebanese capital was besieged with the leadership of the Palestinian resistance and thousands of fighters inside it, in addition to the fighters of the Lebanese National Movement and the Syrian army units that were deployed in Beirut.

Ambassador Alexander Soldatov did not deceive the visiting “comrade” and promised him moral, diplomatic and media support; but he did not hint at any step on the ground that could deter the Israeli killing machine and impose a ceasefire. It was difficult for Hawi to express his disappointment to the leaders in Beirut. That is why he accompanied Arafat to meet the ambassador and personally hear the latter’s words. The options narrowed down and there was choice but to leave Beirut. At the end of August 1982, Arafat visited the Lebanese leaders in the blockaded city, then boarded the ship after a solemn farewell.

That summer, Israel achieved a major goal and posed a greater danger, which is to remove the Palestine Liberation Organization from its last position on the Arab-Israeli contact lines, after it had been expelled it from Jordan and prevented it from operating in Syria.

In distant Tunisia, Arafat had to bet on the last card, the Palestinian people living under occupation. The people did not hesitate to rise up, dropping all attempts to erase their identity and force them to surrender. But Arafat would soon face two earthquakes. The first was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and its aftermath, and the thorny situation triggered by the ambiguities of the Palestinian leadership’s position. The second was the great fall of the Soviet Union, which suddenly moved to the shelves of museums and history.

From the rubble of the Iraqi forces that invaded Kuwait and the ruins of the Soviet empire, the American giant emerged, strengthening Israel’s position in its conflict with the Palestinians. Arafat dreaded the decline of the organization’s relations in the Arab world and the disturbing international changes. He was also scared when he saw that the most prominent pillars of his leadership had become martyrs. He was afraid of time and thought that he had to make some concessions in exchange for the right to reside and wait on some of the Palestinian land in the shadow of a Palestinian flag.

Moreover, the new world does not provide better than what the Americans guarantee. For this reason, the Oslo Agreement was signed in the rose garden in the White House under the auspices of the US partner. The Oslo Agreement was the target of a strong attack. It got seriously injured with the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and when it turned out that Israel did not accept a just or semi-fair settlement, but used peace slogans to perpetuate its control and facilitate its project. The agreement was also undermined when Hamas and the Jihad movements, with the support of Iran, started to commit suicide operations that would cast a shadow later on the intifada (uprising), giving Sharon an excuse to besiege Arafat on the land of Palestine.

Once again, time worked against the Palestinians in the post-9/11 world and the US invasion of Iraq, when the anti-terror rhetoric prevailed over everything else. Following the US invasion and the expansion of Iranian influence in the region, priorities began to change. The blowing winds of the “Arab Spring”, with its “Brotherhood” flavor, exacerbated the fears of the countries of the region over their security, especially after it became clear that Turkey and Iran were plotting to divide some Arab shares.

The Palestinian issue was no longer the primary matter. Countries were preoccupied either with confronting ISIS or fortifying themselves against Iranian and Turkish interference. Moreover, the events of the current century saw a decline in the weight of the Arab role in the region and a waning of the Palestinian file both regionally and internationally.

This is a painful truth that cannot be denied. It is enough to look at the warm relationship between Netanyahu and Putin to realize the extent of the Palestinian loss. At the same time, the deep Palestinian division between Gaza and the West Bank weakened the Palestinian voice and the Arab peace project approved by the 2002 Beirut summit.

In light of the Arab, regional and international developments, states began to review their calculations and interests for their full involvement in the new world and its network of commercial and political relations. Some of them believed that normalizing relations with Israel was a sovereign decision as long as the concerned state does neither represent the Palestinians, nor does it try to speak on their behalf. In this context, one can look at the agreement between the UAE and Israel, according to which the latter pledged to freeze its plan to annex parts of the West Bank – a plan that would have smashed any thought of a two-state solution.

It is clear that time has an obvious effect on the aspirations of the Palestinians. The best thing that the Palestinian side can do now is overcome the deadly division and call for the Arab Peace Initiative as a basis for negotiations. Israel used the weapon of time against the Palestinians to invade the land and impose facts on the ground. It has also employed international and regional transformations to weaken the world’s demand for a just peace.

But this does not negate the fact that an actual peace cannot be established without the two-state solution.

It is no secret that the UAE felt that the policy of boycott did not achieve neither the interest of the Palestinians nor that of the Arabs, and that is why it chose another approach based on communication and recognition to address the outstanding problems in a different climate. The Palestinians can now benefit from the Emirati window to clarify their position first to the Americans, and then to the Israelis. The Palestinians know that linking their cause to settling scores with the United States or to regional hegemonic projects will only result in wasting more time and land.