In April last year, I wrote a Wire ("Palestinians Who Praise Israel") that turned up a surprising fact: Palestinians – including such leaders as Yasir Arafat and Salah Khalaf – quite often publically praise Israel. They acknowledge that in terms of rule of law, personal safety, and religious freedom, it is better than the Arab states or the Palestinians' own society.
But that's not the whole story. Palestinians also have some very interesting perceptions of the Arab states' role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. At base, Palestinians believe Arab leaders don't want them to prevail in their conflict with Israel. The resulting sense of isolation leads to suspicion, bitterness, and intransigence. These feelings have often impeded Palestinians from taking advantage of opportunities they enjoy.
Let's start with Palestinian fears. These center on a belief that whenever the cause against Israel is about to succeed, Arab rulers intercede to block it. In the pithy words of Salah Khalaf (often known as Abu Iyad), the Palestine Liberation Organization's late number two, "All revolutions conceived in Palestine are aborted in the Arab capitals." Emile Habibi, the prize-winning Israeli novelist, has an ironic name for this pattern: al-faraj al-Arabi, or "the Arab salvation."
The Palestinian media tell the same story. A radio station noted that "whenever the Palestinians make progress toward achieving the objectives of the intifada-sacrifice, freedom, the independent state, and the liberation of Jerusalem from the filth of occupation – some Arabs of the robed regimes [i.e., Arabs of the Persian Gulf] commit multiple crimes against the Palestinian people and their unified leadership, the PLO." The station concludes, pungently: "They are bowing to the Zionist dictum that a good Arab is a dead Arab."
Nor do Gulf Arabs alone get criticized. Listen in the coffee houses of Nablus and Gaza and you'll hear all the Arab leaders – King Fahd, Emir Sabah, King Hussein, Husni Mubarak, Hafez al-Assad, Saddam Hussein – denounced for sins both real and imagined.
From this, Palestinians sometimes conclude that Arabs are more of a bane to them than Israelis. Yasir Arafat already held this view in 1969, when he stated, "Honestly, the problems we face in our relations with some of our Arab brothers are much worse than those we face vis-à-vis Israel." Echoing his words, the Palestinian intellectual Fouad Moughrabi recently observed that Arab governments have proven "to be much more dangerous to Palestinian nationalism than the State of Israel."
But why should the Arab rulers undermine the Palestinian cause? Interpretations differ. Some Palestinians think that a PLO state would – by its outstanding virtues – unsettle their own cozy and corrupt regimes. Others, like Habibi, hold that the states wish only to use the Palestinian cause as a lever in intra-Arab politics, as a means "for waging their inter-Arab wars."
There's some truth to the Palestinian suspicion. Arab states did attack Israel in 1948, 1967, and 1973 to gain territory, not to make way for a Palestinian state. The states did prevent Palestinians from settling down to keep the anti-Zionist cause alive. And (according to the estimate of a PLO intelligence chief) they did kill three-quarters of the Palestinians who lost their lives in the Arab-Israel conflict.
But it's nonsense to suggest an Arab conspiracy to harm Palestinian political aspirations. Arab kings, presidents, and emirs have done nothing more malign than to pursue their own self-interests. While talking grandly to of Palestinian rights, they – unsurprisingly – act in accord with reasons of state. This explains why, in Fouad Ajami's words, "the Arabs walked away from the Palestinian cause while swearing eternal fidelity to the Palestinians."
The perception of Arab perfidy leaves some Palestinians, especially younger ones, with intensely bitter feelings and dreams of smashing the states. A West Bank villager asserted in 1990 that "the Arab world must be destroyed and we must begin anew; there isn't much chance to reform things from within what exists." A travel agent nearly repeated these sentiments: "there isn't a single honest party or group in the whole Arab world… The Arabs are liars, in and out of politics." Does that mean there's no hope? "Yes, there is," came his reply, "if we destroy everything and start from scratch."
Survey research suggests that this anti-Arab rage actually exceeds anything Palestinians feel against the West or Israel. Hilal Khashan, a professor at the American University of Beirut, found in the spring of 1991 that 92 percent of the Palestinians living in the 'Ayn al-Hilwa Camp of Lebanon identified with Palestinian separatism, and just 5 percent with Pan-Arab nationalism. When he asked about terrorism, he found that 54 percent of them approved its use against the West, 88 percent supported it against Israel, and an astonishing 96 percent against the Arab regimes.
Reflecting on the prevailing nihilism, Said K. Aburish, a Palestinian writer, concludes from a series of interviews he held with West Bank residents that they see
Corruption, ignorance, abuse of power and wealth, social and political disintegration and conspiracies by the ruling class and Western supporters against the people. There was no admission that anything good has happened to the Arabs lately, no acceptance that some of the oil money has filtered through to the people. Their concern was with what oil wealth has done to the Arab character. All existing governments, political movements and organizations got short shrift; not a single one was worthy of respect.
The intensity of this Palestinian mistrust toward Arab rulers has two practical implications. First, it goes far to explain the extremism of Palestinian politics. Seeing betrayal in all directions, fearful of future abandonments, Palestinians respond by sticking to their principles whatever the cost, be these nationalist, fundamentalist Muslim, or communist. In response to being sold out, they hold tight to pure ideology. This at least partially explains the widespread Palestinian anger at the PLO's September 13 agreement with Israel.
Second, Palestinian wrath against the Arab states has potentially violent implications. Some groups (notably, George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) advocate revolution in the Arab world before taking on Israel; and many other Palestinians believe the road to Jerusalem lies through Amman, Jordan. This points to a problem: regardless how the current negotiations with Israel turn out, Palestinians are likely increasingly to direct violence against the Arab states. You read it here first.