On the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, Columbia University Professor Joseph Massad explains how the reframing of the concepts of peace and war were at the core of the Zionist strategy in colonising Palestine.
This article is the final of a two-part series.You can read part one here.
In the wake of the 1973 War, the US had started an earlier version of the so-called “peace process”, one that fully adopted Vladimir Jabotinsky’s model. The US was represented by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Kissinger’s plan, which would lead in a few years to Egypt’s capitulation at Camp David, was to eventually include the PLO in “peace” talks, whereby the organisation would only be invited after Egypt, Jordan, and Syria had recognised and accepted the irreversibility of the Jewish settler-colony. Kissinger declared: “We need first to get them [PLO] under control and bring them only at the end of the process.”
Recognising that talking to the PLO of the 1970s, which, even then, was willing to concede many of the rights of the Palestinian people, but was still not ready to fully resign itself to the irreversibility of Jewish colonisation, Kissinger added, “We cannot deliver the minimum demands of the PLO [at present] so why talk to them?” Kissinger explained that “recognition will come at the very end after the Arab governments have been satisfied.” While the US could not deliver the minimum to the PLO in the 1970s, Israel would be able to do so in the 1990s.
It was in this context that 20 years ago the PLO accepted to fully surrender to Israel and accept its colonisation of Palestine in what came to be known as the Oslo Accords. The abandonment of the anti-colonial struggle would be first formalised with the unofficial dissolution of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, especially the “Liberation” part of its name, and its re-emergence as the Palestinian National Authority (PA), an authority that no longer sought to liberate anything, much less offer any resistance to colonialism. Instead, the PA would offer its services to Israel by collaborating with its forces in suppressing any Palestinian resistance to Jewish colonisation while seeking guarantees from Israel for a modicum of privileges that could sustain it in power.
The PA, however, proved to be even more of a collaborator with Israel than Jabotinsky had thought possible. Jabotinsky had postulated that after resigning themselves to their defeat, those Palestinian leaders who demanded maximal liberation would be removed and “the leadership will pass to the moderate groups, who will approach us with a proposal that we should both agree to mutual concessions. Then we may expect them to discuss honestly practical questions, such as a guarantee against Arab displacement, or equal rights for Arab citizens, or Arab national integrity.”
Israel’s formula for the peace agreement, namely “land for peace” to which the PLO acceded prejudices the entire process by presupposing that Israel has “land” which it would be willing to give to the “Arabs”, and that the “Arabs”, seen as responsible for the state of war with Israel, can grant Israel the peace for which it has longed for decades.
The PA, as everyone now knows, has never made such demands whatsoever. It has abandoned Palestinian citizens of Israel altogether – they were not even mentioned in Oslo – and has indeed done its share in displacing Palestinians in the West Bank for the benefit of construction projects sponsored by its own Palestinian businessmen (such as the Rawabi project) while acceding to the on-going Israeli displacement of Palestinians from their land, on-going as we speak in the Jordan Valley.
As for Arab “national integrity”, the PA does not pretend to have any, much less demand that Israel “guarantee” it. Jabotinsky’s were pessimistic expectations regarding Palestinian surrender, namely that “we cannot offer any adequate compensation to the Palestinian Arabs in return for Palestine. And therefore, there is no likelihood of any voluntary agreement being reached. So that all those who regard such an agreement as a condition sine qua non for Zionism may as well say ‘no’ and withdraw from Zionism.”
Contrary to Jabotinsky’s pessimism, however, and as part of the Oslo Accords, a sufficient amount of financial compensation was offered and indeed accepted by the PA in return for Palestine. The amount has so far reached $23bn but more is on the way.
As I argued at the time of the Oslo signing, Israel’s formula for the peace agreement, namely “land for peace” to which the PLO acceded prejudices the entire process by presupposing that Israel has “land” which it would be willing to give to the “Arabs”, and that the “Arabs”, seen as responsible for the state of war with Israel, can grant Israel the peace for which it has longed for decades.
This formula is, in fact, a reflection of the racial views characterising European-Jewish Israelis and Palestinian and other Arabs. Whereas the Israelis are being asked, and are ostensibly presented as willing, to negotiate about property, the recognised Western bourgeois right par excellence, Palestinians and other Arabs are being asked to give up violence – or more precisely “their” violent means – which is an illegitimate, unrecognised right attributable only to uncivilised barbarians.
At the time, I explained that the Oslo Accords amounted to the following:
Israel will continue to control the land, the waters, the borders, the economy, Jewish settlements, in short, everything it has sought to control, without Palestinian resistance and its necessary suppression, which would cause the possible death of Jewish boys in the process. The PLO has pledged that no such resistance will be allowed. Now, Palestinian boys … would kill Palestinian boys and girls whom Israeli Jewish boys would have had to kill, endangering themselves in the process. Meanwhile, the Israelis will be reminding the world that their previous murderous campaigns against the Palestinians must have been justified, as it is now the Palestinians themselves who recognise the necessity of controlling a savage and recalcitrant population.
In line with Jabotinsky and Ben-Gurion, Israel’s foreign minister at the time (and its current president), Shimon Peres, acknowledged that when Israel finally recognised the PLO as the representative of the Palestinians, it did so because the PLO no longer sought to reverse Jewish colonialism. He declared correctly: “We haven’t changed – it [the PLO] changed.”
Since Oslo, overall Jewish colonisation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem has doubled, but if we exclude East Jerusalem, which was annexed to Israel formally in 1980, Jewish colonisation of the West Bank since Oslo has, in fact, tripled. This tripling of colonisation has taken place “peacefully”, under the umbrella of Oslo. All Palestinian attempts to suppress it, whether during the second intifada, or through the electoral success of Hamas, and daily acts of resistance against the Israeli military, was suppressed by Israel and the PA. In the case of Hamas, its suppression would be greatly intensified with the collaboration of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, and more recently with the coup-regime of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Through the strategy of “peace is war”, Israel has also sought to change the vocabulary used to describe its colonial project by insisting that the Palestinians must submit to its own nomenclature, which the US and European media use to cover over Zionist colonialism.
What’s in a word
In the history of colonial wars and anti-colonial resistance, especially in the context of settler-colonies, the struggles of natives against European colonists have always been named “liberation” struggles. Examples include the Algerian liberation struggle against French colonialism and colonists, the Zimbabwean people’s liberation struggle against British colonialism and colonists, and the anti-apartheid struggle for liberation in South Africa against the racial privileges of white colonists.
In none of these cases was the struggle for liberation from colonialism referred to primarily or secondarily as a “conflict”. Indeed there has never been such a technical term as the Algerian-French “conflict”, or a White-Black Rhodesian or South African “conflict” either, not even for the colonists themselves. In these cases, both the settler-colonists and those resisting them were not shy in naming their struggle as a struggle for colonial and racial supremacist privilege or for liberation from racism and settler-colonialism respectively. This nomenclature would also apply to Zionist settler-colonialism in Palestine and to Palestinian resistance.
The project of European Jewish colonisation of Palestine, which started in the 1880s and has not abated since, remains the most spectacular fact of the Palestinian encounter with Zionism, but it is simultaneously the most strenuously guarded open secret. This is the case so much so that to refer to Israel as the “Jewish settler-colony” in Israel or in pro-Israel Europe and the US (which is how Palestinians and Arabs have always described it) is an unbreakable taboo and elicits wide condemnation in those rare cases when it is broken. Indeed, not only has the European Jewish colonisation of Palestine been renamed by Zionism and its European and American allies as the so-called Palestinian-Israeli “conflict”, but Zionism has insisted that the Palestinians and the Arabs must also adopt this nomenclature as a precondition to any kind of “dialogue”, much less acceptance of them as partners for “dialogue” let alone “peace” negotiations.
The on-going secret negotiations between Israel and the PA at present aim to devise a plan wherein the PA and Israel find the right formula to bring this acquiescence about, so that Jewish colonisation of the entire land of the Palestinians will be finally supported and celebrated by the Palestinians themselves and the century-old Zionist war against the Palestinian people will finally be won under the banner of “peace”.
Giving up ‘Liberation’
As Zionism understands that it lives in a world where colonialism and certainly settler-colonialism, are no longer openly fashionable, this renaming is central to its camouflage propaganda operation. The Palestinians understood Israeli strategy all along and continued unhindered to insist on their liberatory names. That the Palestinian organisation that represented Palestinian resistance until 1993 called itself the Palestine Liberation Organisation, that its constituent guerrilla groups called themselves the Movement for the Liberation of Palestine (known by its acronym Fatah), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, understood their encounter with Zionism as one with settler-colonialism and its racist structures which they insisted on resisting and overthrowing.
That post-1993, the PLO metamorphosed into the Palestinian National Authority, not only christened the new goal of the Palestinian leadership as one of establishing a “national authority” rather than to liberate Palestine and the Palestinians from settler-colonialism, the word colonialism itself no longer figured in that vocabulary either. The new understanding of European Jewish colonialism as a Palestinian-Israeli “conflict” that should be “resolved” through a “peaceful settlement” via negotiations became operative throughout the “peace” offensive, which Israel waged against the Palestinian people in 1991.
Twenty years of “peace” negotiations brought about more colonialism, more theft of Palestinians lands, more Palestinians deaths, more Palestinian poverty, more restrictions on the movement of Palestinians, more unemployment, in short more oppression on every front. Yet, the PA continues to declare without equivocation that it recognises the right of Jews to colonise Palestine and to set up a Jewish settler-colony on the lands the Zionists conquered in 1948 as well as the rights of those same Jews as colonial settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem which they conquered in 1967.
What it asks for, however, is that the Israelis not increase the existing number of Jewish colonists in the West Bank (but not in East Jerusalem) and that a Bantustan-like state be set up for the PA to rule over Palestinians without sovereignty. The Israelis are appalled by these conditions and continue to push the PA to declare openly and without equivocation that whatever arrangement Israel will bestow on PA leaders in the guise of a Bantustan “state”, Israel’s conditions remain that the Palestinians must accept not only the right of existing Jewish colonists to continue to colonise all parts of Palestine, but also their future rights to colonise more of the land, short of which, the Israelis insist there will be no “peace” deal.
Of course, Israel insists that it would continue in the meantime to wage “peace” to convince the PA leadership of the importance of their full acquiescence in its comprehensive colonial project. The on-going secret negotiations between Israel and the PA at present aim to devise a plan wherein the PA and Israel find the right formula to bring this acquiescence about, so that Jewish colonisation of the entire land of the Palestinians will be finally supported and celebrated by the Palestinians themselves and the century-old Zionist war against the Palestinian people will finally be won under the banner of “peace”. The only problem is that the Palestinian people, unlike the PA leadership, refuse to acquiesce in Zionism’s colonial project, as they have not given up hope but remain hopeful that the colonisation of their land is reversible and that their resistance will ultimately bring it to an end, irrespective of the deals concluded by their collaborator leadership and of Israel’s waging peace as war.
Joseph Massad is Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University.