I know of no way to measure suffering, no mechanism to quantify pain. All I know is that we Palestinians are not children of a lesser God.
Had I been a Jew or a Gypsy, I would consider the Holocaust to be the most atrocious event in history. Had I been a Native American, it would be the arrival of the European settlers and the subsequent near-total extermination of the indigenous population. Had I been an African American, it would be slavery in previous centuries and apartheid in the last. Had I been an Armenian, it would be the Turkish massacre.
I happen to be a Palestinian, and for Palestinians the most atrocious event in history is what we call the Nakba, the catastrophe. Humanity should consider all the above as morally unacceptable, all as politically inadmissible. Lest I be misunderstood, I am not comparing the Nakba to the Holocaust. Each catastrophe stands on its own, and I do not like to indulge in comparative martyrology or a hierarchy of tragedies. I only mention our respective traumas in order to illustrate that we each bring to the table our own particular history.
The fact that the accords reached last week in Mecca between Hamas and Fatah were met with a variety of reactions, ranging from warm to cautious to skeptical, makes it imperative to revisit and learn the lessons of the diplomatic history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Time and again the three “no’s” of the Khartoum summit in 1967 — no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations with Israel — are invoked as proof conclusive of Arab intransigence toward Israel. Such a claim, however, conveniently forgets that Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt and Jordan accepted United Nations Security Council resolution 242 just months after the Khartoum meeting.
Also forgotten is that Syria, after the October War in 1973 — the purpose of which, it should be remembered, was to reactivate a dormant diplomatic process and to capture the attention of American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — accepted U.N. resolution 338, which incorporated resolution 242. Ignored, too, is that the entire Arab world endorsed a peace plan put forth by the then-Saudi crown prince Fahd at a 1982 summit in Fez, Morocco, as well as unanimously backed the initiative put forth by then-Saudi crown prince Abdallah in Beirut in 2002.
For the Palestinian national movement, the October War in 1973 was a demarcation line in strategic thinking. It is then that we concluded that there was no military solution to the conflict. Until then we had advocated a unitary, democratic, bicultural, multiethnic and pluri-confessional state in Mandatory Palestine.
After 1973, a pragmatic coalition within the Palestine Liberation Organization emerged. Composed of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah, Nayef Hawatmeh’s Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and As Sa’iqa, the Palestinian branch of the Syrian Ba’ath Party, the coalition demanded not absolute justice but rather possible justice within the framework of a two-state solution. The fact that As Sa’iqa belonged to that school of thought, it is worth noting, is proof that Damascus can be a constructive player in the region if properly engaged and its concerns addressed. Syria is not necessarily the eternal spoiler that needs to use the Lebanese theater or the Palestinian scene in order to remind everyone of its presence.
Led by this pragmatic coalition, the PLO was ready for a historical compromise as far back as 1974. It was not the rejectionist player, as many have labeled it, but rather the rejected party until the Oslo peace talks in 1993. Throughout its presence in Lebanon, the PLO aimed to remain a military factor so as to be accepted as a diplomatic actor.
I have told my many Israeli interlocutors that I believe that the Israeli posture in peace negotiations was to expect a diplomatic outcome that would reflect Israeli power and intransigence, American alignment toward Israeli preferences, declining Russian influence, European abdication, Arab impotence and what they hoped to be Palestinian resignation.
It is this attitude that has resulted in having a durable peace process instead of a lasting and permanent peace. Peace and security will stem not from territorial aggrandizement but from regional acceptance — and make no mistake about it, we Palestinians are the key to regional acceptance of Israel. For years now, the Arab world from Morocco to Muscat has been ready to recognize the existence of Israel if it withdraws back from its expanded 1967 borders. The perpetuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict is due not to the Arab rejection of Israeli existence, but to the Israeli rejection of Arab acceptance.
The absence of a credible diplomatic avenue has allowed for the emergence and the strengthening of radical movements. The electoral defeat of Fatah in January 2006 was caused by a plurality of factors, not least of them the fact that Fatah became identified with negotiations and a peace process that was non-existent for the last six years and totally unconvincing during the years preceding. To the Palestinians, the last 15 years of “peacemaking” were years during which we witnessed the expansion of the occupation — with the number of settlers doubling — not a withdrawal from the occupation.
Now, however, there is a chance to move beyond this history. As a result of the agreement reached last week in Mecca, the Palestinian government will be more representative than at any period before. The new foreign minister, Ziad Abu Amr, both enjoys the confidence of Hamas and is a political friend of Mahmoud Abbas — who as PLO chairman is charged with negotiating on behalf of the Palestinian people and as P.A. president has prerogative over the conduct of foreign affairs.
Both Fatah and Hamas are in favor of a cease-fire, for which they can now ensure disciplined Palestinian adherence — especially if it is reciprocated by the Israeli side and extended to the West Bank, where alas we have recently witnessed an escalation in assassinations and arrests. And in Mecca, Hamas and Fatah agreed that the Palestinian government will honor all agreements signed by the PLO, will abide by all the resolutions of previous Arab summits and will base its activity on international law.
The term “honor,” rest assured, has as much a ring of nobility to it in Arabic — if not more — as it does in any other language.
A territory that was occupied in 1967 in less than six days can also be evacuated in six days — so that Israelis can rest on the seventh, and we can all finally engage in the fascinating journey of nation-building and economic recovery.
Afif Safieh is head of the Palestine Liberation Organization Mission to the United States.