For more than a month, the Palestine Liberation Organization has sat with its 5,000 to 6,000 fighters in West Beirut, surrounded by Israeli forces, maneuvering desperately to save its political life. Yet it has received virtually no assistance from any Arab state.
(The PLO refused the offer of refuge in Sudan, because it would have been placed in an extremely remote part of the desolate Christian south.)
After the Syrians withdrew from combat, following several days of disastrous fighting in early June, no other state has offered to help the PLO—no cuts in oil sales to the West, no withdrawals of funds from the U.S., no breaking of diplomatic relations, no demonstrations in Arab capitals.
(The Syrians offered only to take the PLO's leadership cadres but not the men at arms.)
Indeed, the only public rally calling for an Israeli withdrawal took place in Tel Aviv! No Arab state has offered to take in the PLO fighters; Libya's Moammar Khadafy suggested that they commit mass suicide. The silence has been deafening.
It is also surprising. The Palestinian cause has received wide vocal backing for so many years that an outside observer could be excused for thinking the PLO enjoyed the support of all Arab peoples and governments. Why then is no one helping in the PLO's moment of crisis? A PLO spokesman, alluding to criticism within Israel of the siege of Beirut, called the Israeli people "our best ally." Why has it come to this?
Deserting the PLO fits a pattern, which goes back 50 years, of extravagant rhetoric but weak action. Though often explained by the Arab love of words, this pattern results from reasons more subtle and complex.
The rhetoric goes back to the 1930's when the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine became a real possibility; ever since, the Zionists have served as a lighting rod of Arab passions. In part, the Arabs really wanted to control Palestine; in part, this issue served as a vehicle to create a consensus among a fractious group of states that – and this is the key point – felt they ought to be politically united, if not physically joined as states. Though currently divided into more than 20 states, the Arabic-speaking peoples still feel they should unify. While all concrete efforts in this direction have failed, the conflict with Israel represents an easy way to create the sense of unity, if not the substance.
Arab disunity provides some of the reason for the Arab's weak actions, and the PLO's ambiguous place in intra-Arab politics accounts for the rest. The PLO emerged as a major factor in intra-Arab politics after the crushing defeat of the Syrians, Jordanians and Egyptians in June, 1967.
With this reversal, the states surrounding Israel gave up the idea of destroying Israel; since then they have limited themselves to getting back the lands they lost in 1967. One state, Egypt, made this explicit; the others have signaled it clearly enough.
The withdrawal of these states meant that the tasks of denying Israel's existence passed to the Palestinians, who had limited means at that time: They lacked sovereign rights, international recognition, money and arms. To establish a military and political machine capable of winning some or all of Israel's territory, the PLO leaders used innovative tactics including terrorism (also used against Arabs), the threat of destabilization, the creation of autonomous enclaves, and the shaping of public opinion.
Within a few years, the PLO ruled large parts of Lebanon, enjoyed international prestige, built up well-stocked infantry and artillery, and acquired an income of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. All this, however, came at a cost. Controlling Lebanese territory meant displacing the local authorities. Winning recognition as the Palestinians' sole representative meant pushing aside Jordan's claims to the West Bank; and achieving a political monopoly in the West Bank itself meant murdering Arab rivals there.
Tacit threats to Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states brought income, but it came as a kind of ransom money. Cooperation with the Soviets on the wide range of issues was the political price for receiving armaments from them.
Along the way, the PLO had violent disputes with most of its backers, starting with the bloody ouster from Jordan in 1970 and including Syria's attack on Palestinian camps in Lebanon in 1976 and then the war between PLO and Iraqi secret agents a few years later.
The combination of support on the rhetoric level and animosity in practice relegated the PLO to a curious double life in the Arab world—much acclaimed and widely backed, yet deeply resented. The PLO served a vital function as the symbol of the Arab cause but created no end of problems. Each state cultivated the PLO as a way to protect itself from charges of indifference to the Arab cause, though not one of them truly supported it.
At present, the Arab states stand as follows: The Syrian government cares much more about preserving its dominion over the part of Lebanon closest to its borders than about the fate of Yasser Arafat and his men. Iraq is preoccupied with its war with Iran, now more dangerous than ever. The Saudis and the other Persian Gulf rulers fear the radical PLO elements and want them unable to influence intra-Arab politics.
Jordan not only remembers the 1970 war with the PLO but is in direct competition with the organization for control over the West Bank, should the Israelis leave it; and hints coming from Israel that the PLO should set its sights on Jordan have not created a warmer relationship between the PLO and King Hussein. For Egypt, the elimination of the PLO offers a better chance for reaching an agreement with Israel on Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank, as the Camp David accords called for.
In the end, no country offers the PLO aid or even refuge. If asked publicly for asylum to save the lives of the men trapped in Beirut, no Arab state could deny PLO entry, but it would only do so on the basis of stringent terms which would emasculate the organization.
The weeks of confrontation in Beirut have largely obscured the larger implications of this war for the PLO and the Arab states. It probably will not matter much who wins in Beirut (that is, whether the PLO stays or goes), for regardless of that outcome, the fighting almost certainly marks the defeat of the PLO as the embodiment of the idea of destroying Israel.
The PLO's loss and abandonment by the Arab world is the likely finale in the effort to destroy Israel and perhaps the prelude to peace in the Middle East.
Daniel Pipes, a historian at the University of Chicago, is the author of "Slave Soldiers and Islam"