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The Folly of Linkage

4:50 PM, Dec 16, 2010 • By MICHAEL WEISS
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King Hussein was thus faced with a stark choice: fight the PLO or lose his kingdom. He chose to fight. In September 1970, Jordan declared war on Palestinian terrorists, an event later known to Palestinians as “Black September.” Only Syria among all Arab governments—including Iraq, which had given succor to the PFLP—offered any aid to the PLO.  And even that aid was stinting and bet-hedging. While Damascus dispatched over a hundred tanks to combat the Jordanians, the Syrian Air Force crucially provided no air cover for those tanks, resulting in a crushing defeat by Jordan’s combined ground and air forces. The Syrian head of the Air Force who withheld this vital support—he was also the Syrian Minister of Defense—was Hafez al-Assad. Thanks to this shrewd and cynical calculation, Assad was able to push himself to the top of the pile of Syria’s squabbling elite, seizing power two months later in a coup. 

In the end, King Hussein manage to expel the PLO from Jordan. The PLO found safe haven in Lebanon where a critically wounded Fatah, perhaps taking a leaf from the Arab playbook of plausible deniability, founded its own front group in the form of the Black September Organization, later responsible for some of the most notorious terrorist attacks of the twentieth century. These included the assassination of the Jordanian prime minister in Cairo on the steps of the Sheraton Hotel in 1971; the hostage-taking and murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics; and the takeover of the Saudi embassy in Khartoum in 1973, which resulted in the deaths of three of the Saudi ambassador’s diplomatic guests.

If ever there were an event that perfectly encapsulated the hypocrisy of Arab regimes that publicly parade their allegiance to Palestine while privately ruing meddlesome Palestinians, it was the Rabat Conference in October 1974, following Israel’s near-defeat in the Yom Kippur War a year earlier. Although Israel had been humbled in the war, Arab regimes still needed an insurance policy for once again being forced into a cease-fire with the Jewish state. That insurance policy, once more, was the Palestinian cause. It was at Rabat that the PLO was formally recognized as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”—recognized by the very regimes that had either fought the PLO or been humiliated by it. In attendance were King Hussein, who had destroyed the PLO’s base of operations in Jordan; Hafez al-Assad, who had ensured its defeat with King Hussein by not sending air cover; Anwar Sadat, successor to Nasser as president of Egypt and already on a path toward abandoning the Palestinians by making an historic peace with Israel; representatives from Iraq, which had encouraged PLO spectaculars but which were busy with crushing their Kurdish minority; Saudi Arabia and Sudan, both of which were attacked by the PLO in Khartoum.  By November 1974, Arafat delivered his infamous “gun and olive branch” speech and, minus only a delegation of Israel and a seated delegation of the United States, was received with a standing ovation at the UN General Assembly in New York. 

The PLO’s Arab supporters soon found another reason to fight it. After the start of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, the PLO took the side of Sunni Muslim and leftist groups fighting against the Maronite Christians. Syria invaded Lebanon to support the Maronites. The Syrian intervention had Arab support and some Arab troops. The document, concocted in two separate summits in Riyadh and Cairo in 1976, that ratified Syria’s occupation of Lebanon was called: La Force Arabe de Dissuasion. The PLO was the party being dissuaded.

Not content with defeating the PLO in the Lebanese civil war, the Syrians also had a role for the organization that suited Syrian needs. Syria had been defeated by Israel in 1973 and could not afford another fight. At the same time, Syria still wanted to make Israel bleed. The answer was to confine the PLO’s activities to a “buffer zone” between the southern Lebanon and northern Israel. Such a location would mean that the PLO could continue to launch attacks against Israel and that Lebanon would absorb any Israeli retaliation. At the same time, the Syrians made sure to keep their own front with Israel, on the Golan Heights, quiet. 

The PLO’s defeat would come six-years later when Israel attacked to put an end to the organization’s para-state presence in south Lebanon. It is interesting, in light of the supposed predominance of Palestinian nationalism in the minds of Arab leaders, to recall what mainstream Lebanese opinion was toward that concept. I quote from the London Times’s Middle East correspondent in July 1982:

The Palestinian revolution was, it transpired, more important than Lebanese lives. The Palestinians could identify themselves with the leftists of Lebanon’s Muslim community but when this pact was put to the test, the battle for Palestine become somehow more holy – the integrity of the Palestinian cause more precious – than the survival of Lebanon.

The Palestinians – as they now admit – had used schools and hospitals and civilian houses as cover for their anti-aircraft guns once more. The state of Lebanon turned out to be worth less to the Palestinians than the unborn state of Palestine. 

The author of the above paragraphs was none other than Robert Fisk, today as passionate a left-wing proponent of linkage as any Beltway realist who attributes immolated churches in Iraq to ongoing Palestinian statelessness.

The parallels with today are clear. Nothing in the WikiLeaks tranche of stolen cables contradicts longstanding autocratic Arab policy towards the Palestinians. In a 2008 exchange between General David Petraeus and then-Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora, the renewed peace process is described as laudable but only as long as it does not “come at the expense of Lebanon.” By this, Siniora meant that the Palestinian Right of Return—whereby all 4.7 million Palestinian “refugees,” many of whom are descendants of exiled Palestinians, are to be reabsorbed into Israel—must not be canceled by a final status agreement. Why? Because this would force Lebanon, which is constitutionally bound by a fragile sectarian power-sharing arrangement, to confer citizenship on its own sizable population of 400,000 Palestinians. As most of these Palestinians are Sunni Muslims, that would change Lebanon’s demography and politics, shifting power away from the Maronite Christians and the Shia Muslims. Out of similar cold-hearted logic, the only Palestinians yet to receive Lebanese citizenship are all Christian. Just to make it clear where Muslim Palestinians stand in Lebanon, in August 2009 the Lebanese parliament voted to open more jobs to Palestinians so that they can now do more than just menial work. Palestinians are still excluded from major Lebanese professions such as the law and medicine. The Palestinians have been in Lebanon for over 60 years.

As for the Qatari Emir’s belief that the road to Tel Aviv runs through Damascus: what he did not disclose in his one-on-one with Sen. Kerry in April 2009 was his own material interest in saying he believes that. By most accounts, Qatar is set to invest some $12 billion in Syria in the next few years and bilateral relations between the two countries have never been better. Assad’s state-controlled newspapers boast of a newly opened Syrian school in Doha, the Qatari capital, while the Amir claims credit for brokering the March 14 alliance that fused Syria’s proxy Hezbollah to another tenuous coalition government in Lebanon in 2008, one led by Saed Hariri, son of the assassinated Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri, whose death, by most accounts, was orchestrated by Hezbollah with Syria’s backing.

In the end, if Palestinian statehood is achieved it will be largely in spite of, not because of, the self-serving efforts of unelected Arab leaders. The starkest testament to this fact was a statement not included in WikiLeaks but written up in the international press. It was delivered by Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas last July in his attempt to explain just how strongly he’d had to cajole a recalcitrant Arab League into approving new direct peace negotiations with Israel. Speaking at the Palestinian embassy in Amman, Abbas told a collection journalists:  “We are unable to confront Israel militarily, and this point was discussed at the Arab League Summit. There I turned to the Arab States and I said: ‘If you want war, and if all of you will fight Israel, we are in favor. But the Palestinians will not fight alone because they don’t have the ability to do it.’”  This caused a minor stir in Israel as proof of the supposedly moderate Abbas’s furtive militant tendency. But understood through the prism of inter-Arab politics, all he was doing was calling the Arab states’ bluff.

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