The PLO, Hamas, and Likud: A Bad Recipe for Arab-Israeli Peace
Signing of the Oslo peace accords by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the PLO’s Yasser Arafat, facilitated by U.S. President Clinton in Washington D.C., 1993.
By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
The existing political mix of the Palestinian-Israeli omelet does not make for an appetizing meal. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Hamas, a Palestinian resistance movement, and Likud, the ruling political party of Israel, are not well aligned under the stars to do much of anything, except to stir the pot. Excuse the metaphor, but the relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians seems so bad that any sense of optimism is shrouded by a blanket of hopelessness. Pessimism is now warranted, especially given the absence of a usually more balanced approach from the United States in mediating a peace process among these warring parties.
The PLO—A Response to the Founding of the Israeli State
The Arab League created the PLO in Cairo in 1964. Its purpose was to unite Arab countries to support the concept of a free Palestinian entity. It became an umbrella organization representing all Palestinians under the Palestinian National Authority. While initially seen as non-violent, the PLO quickly became known as a combative force. Its origin is rooted in the 1948 formation of the Israeli state, during which over 750,000 Palestinians were forced or fled from their lands. That event set the stage for Palestinian-Israeli violence and oppression that continues unabated until now.
Palestinian Arabs leaving their homeland in 1948, upon the founding of Israel
The PLO is under the umbrella of the Palestine National Council. Its goal was bluntly stated as the replacement of Israel with a Palestinian state. Israel’s overwhelming victory against Arab forces in the 6-Day War of 1967, however, put to rest the idea that an Arab force would in the near future be able to drive the Israelis out of the Palestinian land. In the face of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Jerusalem, the PLO became more militant. Through its armed wing, called Fatah (“victory,” “conquest”), under the rule of Yasser Arafat, the PLO began making attacks on Israel as well as carrying out high visibility acts such as airplane hijackings.
In the late 1980s, the PLO spearheaded popular uprisings (or Intifada, literally, “tremor,” “shuddering”) against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The first such bloody uprising lasted from 1987-91. Widely televised, the Intifada drew the world’s attention to this ‘David and Goliath’ battle, which consisted of stone-throwing Palestinians at Israeli tanks. Eventually, this inequity of force resulted in the Oslo Accords, a series of peace accords signed by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the PLO’s Arafat. The first agreement was signed in Washington D.C. in 1993, the second in Taba, Egypt in 1995. One of the agreements stipulated the Israeli withdrawal from the major occupied territories.
Intifada uprising of Palestinians against Israel following its occupation of the West Bank
This peace did not last long, however, for it was followed in 2,000 by a second Intifada. To this day, the Israelis have not withdrawn from the West Bank and, in fact, have complicated the situation by establishing numerous Jewish settlements there and in neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. As of 2015, over 800,000 Jews or about 13% of Israel’s population have settled in Palestinian territories.
Today, the PLO is chaired by Mahmoud Abbas, who is more moderate than Arafat in his outlook. He has stated his opposition to violence. One of the main goals of the PLO is now to seek international recognition for a Palestinian state. However, such a two-state solution is presently rejected by both Israel’s Netanyahu and U.S. President Trump.
Enter Hamas—Complicating the Peace Situation
Hamas (“courage” or “zeal”), an acronym for Resistance Movement, is a Palestinian Sunni Islamist or fundamentalist organization founded in 1987. It is an outgrowth of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. In 2006, Hamas won a majority of the seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections. In 2007, Hamas defeated Fatah in a fight for Gaza, leaving Fatah to rule the West Bank with Hamas ruling Gaza. By 2014, the two factions came together to form a unified Palestinian government. While Hamas is perceived by many Palestinians as a power that is resisting Israeli occupation, many in the West see Hamas as a terrorist organization and since 1997, it has been on the U.S. State Department list of terrorists. The European Union slightly regards it similarly.
PLO President Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu–relations between them have since cooled
Hamas, since its inception, has fought several battles against Israel. Its stated goal is to establish an Islamic state reaching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean—in other words, all of the lands known by one side as ancient Israel, by the other as Palestine. Hamas says it will only agree to peace if Israel withdraws from the occupied West Bank and allows Palestinian refugees and their descendants the right of return to present-day Israel. Most Palestinians reject Hamas violence, preferring a two-state solution based on pre-war 1967 borders.
More recently, in 2010, Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, agreed to accept a Palestinian state on the borders of 1967 with its capital in Jerusalem. As of November 2018, with Israeli horrific treatment of the Palestinians, there’s no resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli problem in sight. Hamas continues with its periodic rocket attacks from Gaza on Israel. Israel describes these attacks as Iranian-inspired, and not a result of their harsh occupation. Unfortunately, such attacks only result in the further entrenchment of the Israeli Likud leadership.
Likud—Further Complicating the Prospects for Peace
The Likud party (“The Consolidation”) was founded by Ariel Sharon and Menachem Begin in 1973. It is a secular (non-religious) right-wing political party that took over from the leftists in a major landslide in 1977. Benjamin Netanyahu won the vote for Prime Minister in 1996 but was beaten in 1999 by Ehud Barak. By 2009, Netanyahu was back in power, eventually with a majority that has been in control of government ever since.
Likud is a party that stresses national security underpinned by an overpowering military. It does not invite negotiating with its Arab neighbors, even those who do not wish Israel’s destruction but who, rather, want to accommodate Israel on basic issues. As early as 1979, Likud co-founder Begin had signed an agreement, facilitated by U.S. President Carter, with Egyptian President Sadat. Its result was the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. It included a full court press by American diplomats, starting with Henry Kissinger, who negotiated an end to the Egyptian-Israeli war of 1973, the so-called Yom Kippur (Israeli) or 10 October (Egyptian) war.
The Likud party has heavily supported the right of Jews to settle in the occupied West Bank. That is because ancient Israelite areas of Judea and Samaria lie in the present West Bank. And that is why over 800,000 Jews have been encouraged to set up home in the once-Jordanian, now Palestinian territory. Such settlement is based in part on Jewish Biblical interpretations of history, which has been incorporated into Likud ideology as fact. The upshot is a Likud policy that rejects any notion of a Palestinian state. It comes down to the debatable issue of Israel not giving up land that it believes is historically theirs.
A few years ago, Netanyahu stated that there would be no Palestinian state created during his tenure. Furthermore, he has declared that Jerusalem must remain the undivided capital of the city. Various UN resolutions have debated whether the city should be the exclusive capital of Israel or a unified city representing both Israel and a Palestinian state. Most have come down on the side of Jerusalem as a unified city for Arabs, Christians, and Jews, but the power politics of the U.S. and a few other countries in the UN have squelched the majority.
However, once the U.S. President decided to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2017, as a message of support to Israel, the UN called for its members to remove their official representatives from the city, relocating them to Tel Aviv. At present only two embassies remain in Jerusalem, the U.S., and Guatemala.
Gridlock for the Foreseeable Future
This essay is not intended to take sides in this intractable problem. The problem is defined by strong nationalistic and religious impulses. On one side, Israel feels it holds the historic-religious hand, as in, “we have owned this land forever.” On the other, the Palestinians aver that “we have been here for thousands of years, so it is our land, too.”
The fact of the matter, however, is that power politics prevails. In this case, it is not just indomitable Israeli military power. It is also the support of a present U.S. administration that has little or no interest in any accommodation between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and U.S. President Trump have agreed that a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine is not in the picture
The policy of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem without clarifying the Palestinian aspiration to have its capital in the same city is reprehensible. Perhaps this is too subtle a distinction given the present turmoil of politics in the U.S. Nevertheless, each of the three Abrahamic faiths, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, has sacred sites in this holiest of cities and, therefore, powerful reasons to be there.
U.S. fundamentalist evangelical Christians have followed the U.S. President in accepting the exclusivity of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, not so much because they are enamored of the Jewish faith. Rather, it is the Biblical prophecy that the second coming of Christ will happen in Jerusalem. Whether that is sufficient reason to warrant a Christian alliance with Israeli leaders to the exclusion of Muslims seems short-sighted.
(Sources: Palestine Liberation Organization, Permanent Observer Mission of the State of Palestine to the United Nations New York; What is the Palestinian Liberation Organization? How about Fatah and the Palestinian Authority?; Vox Media; Isabel Kershner, New York Times, Oct. 27, 2018)
John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.