Palestinians Give Birth to a Paper State

G.H. Jansen, author of "Militant Islam," has covered the Middle East for many years

In a sense, the extraordinary 18th session of the Palestine National Council here was over before it began. And in the end, it could all amount to nothing.

Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, dubbed the meeting "the intifada PNC," and so it was. Without the intifada-- "uprising," as the Palestinian rebellion in Israel's occupied territories is called--it would never have been held, and from more than 2,000 miles away, the intifada and its impact dominated the gathering, provided the agenda and determined the mood--one of unity and realism.

The still-shadowy leadership of the intifada, now in its 12th month, insisted that the PLO, whose leadership it accepts, should produce some political gain to match the endurance and sufferings of the uprising. The form suggested was declaration of an independent Palestinian state, and of a Palestinian government, either provisional or in exile. The ideal of the independent state, with Jerusalem as its capital, was accepted many weeks ago by the PLO leadership; that is why this meeting could be said to have ended before it began.

The PLO really had no choice, for it could do no less than give the intifada the sort of support requested. So the proclamation of independence, a long, dull document, emerged at 1:40 a.m. on the 15th morning, amid scenes of intense emotion--cheers and howls, flags and bands, hugs and handshakes. This declaration will, of course, make no difference in the actual military situation on the ground in the Israeli-occupied territories. But it will provide a great boost to the morale of the resistants, for now they have a state of their own--one that as of Friday had been recognized by 29 nations, with 10 others expressing support.

The PLO Executive Council, which now functions as the PLO's Cabinet, will be redesignated as a temporary government. The projected state will be a secular, multiparty democracy, the only such Muslim nation in the Middle East.

The PNC could take the historic action of creating a state because it is fully representative of the Palestinian people--although it is something of a hydroponic entity since all the delegates were exiles and refugees. Invitations were sent to 448 people in the worldwide Palestinian diaspora. The main absentees were 186 members from the occupied territories, whom Israel prevented from attending; they are viewed here as the real prisoners of Zion. But to compensate for their absence, almost every one of the popular committees that run the intifada were represented by proxies.

The 36 individuals whom Israel has deported this year were also present, carrying lighted candles at the final ceremony. Syria tried to prevent the attendance of 57 delegates from PLO groups based in Damascus and under its control, yet 26 of them defied the Syrian ban and attended.

The object of the PLO leadership outside the homeland was not merely to encourage the internal intifada, but to use this session to move toward a final peace settlement. In the words of Arafat's opening speech, not just "the gun and the stone" but also "the olive branch." And reluctantly but realistically, the PLO--particularly Arafat's Fatah majority group and the PNC itself--realized there could be movement toward peace only if they went as far as they could toward satisfying the demands of Israel and the United States.

Three requirements had been laid down: The PLO must accept U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338 and thus recognize Israel; it had to renounce "terrorism," and it should modify its charter, which calls for the elimination of "the Zionist entity." The 18th meeting of the PNC claims to have met all three.

First, after intense and prolonged discussion--Arafat calculates 600 hours of talks in the last three months--a PNC statement declares that as the basis of an international peace conference, it accepts Resolutions 242 and 338, guaranteeing the Palestinians' national and political right to self-determination, according to the U.N. Charter and its resolutions on Palestine. This reads like a cumbersome circumlocution, but because the delegates knew that--effectively if implicitly--it also meant acceptance of 242 and of Israel's existence, this clause was debated and contended by militants to the bitter end. It was the only resolution forced to the vote, passing 253-46, with 10 abstentions.

Arafat and his majority Fatah group, and many persons inside the intifada , would have preferred a simple acceptance of 242. Arafat made the acceptance categoric in his press conference after the end of the council meeting. But because the protestations of the minority militants were so vehemently expressed, clouds were added. Hence, as so often before, Arafat, insufficiently dominating, was too good a democrat and sacrificed clarity to consensus. But howsoever the PLO has accepted 242 and Israel's existence, this does not mean that it has accepted Israel's "right to exist"--a much different proposition that the PLO will never concede.

So, without naming Israel, the PLO has accepted "the right of all states in the region to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries." In short, peaceful existence between the newly proclaimed state and Israel.

The intifada wanted the state borders to be those laid down in U.N. Resolution 181 of 1947, which partitioned Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state. The PNC realized that it was too late to go back 41 years, so while it mentioned "the resolutions since 1947" there is no specific reference to Resolution 181.

Second, the political statement says that while the PNC reaffirms its commitment to the right to resistance, it rejects "terrorism" in all its forms: intifada , yes, but car bombs, no.

Third, the proclamation of the state and all other decisions taken here effectively supersede the Palestinians' old National Charter, which was not formally renounced but has clearly been bypassed.

With the PNC taking these three steps toward peace, is there any expectation here that the United States and Israel will reciprocate? Expectations involving Israel are nil, especially after the formation of a government under the right-wing Likud Party and its leader, Yitzhak Shamir. That is why PLO militants argued hard and long against making any concessions at all--it would merely be giving something and getting nothing in return. But Fatah counter argued that at least people would now see clearly which side wanted peace and which side obstructed it.

There are nevertheless some hopes, however faint, that President-Elect George Bush will heed Arafat's plea for a change in U.S. policy toward this region and recognize that the PNC has shown moderation, flexibility and realism. If there is no response, then everything decided here will have been for naught, and the PLO and the intifada will have no option but to rely solely on "the gun and the stone."

There is another interested party, visible to the naked eye, in the form of a Soviet warship anchored half a mile offshore from the conference center. Along with other Soviet vessels anchored in Algiers' port, they provided the PLO and the PNC with protection against any Israeli repetition of attacks made on Tunis. These ships symbolize Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's growing insistance that the Soviet Union play a role in the Middle East.

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