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Reshaping history
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 27 - 05 - 2010

Even at random, samples of what the Weekly has had to offer over 1000 weeks show the depth and breadth of our Egyptian perspective
Reshaping history
The death of Yasser Arafat provides some objective lessons on the importance of owning history and the principles that guide its proper shaping, writes Noam Chomsky
The fundamental principle is that "we are good" -- "we" being the state we serve -- and what "we" do is dedicated to the highest principles, though there may be errors in practice. In a typical illustration, according to the retrospective version at the left-liberal extreme, the properly reshaped Vietnam War began with "blundering efforts to do good" but by 1969 had become a "disaster" (Anthony Lewis) -- by 1969, after the business world had turned against the war as too costly and 70 per cent of the public regarded it as "fundamentally wrong and immoral", not "a mistake"; by 1969, seven years after Kennedy's attack on South Vietnam began, two years after the most respected Vietnam specialist and military historian Bernard Fall warned that "Vietnam as a cultural and historic entity... is threatened with extinction...[as]... the countryside literally dies under the blows of the largest military machine ever unleashed on an area of this size"; by 1969, the time of some of the most vicious state terrorist operations of one of the major crimes of the late 20th century, of which Swift Boats in the deep South, already devastated by saturation bombing, chemical warfare and mass murder operations, were the least of the atrocities underway. But the reshaped history prevails. Serious expert panels ponder the reasons for "America's Vietnam Obsession" during the 2004 elections, when the Vietnam War was never even mentioned -- the actual one, that is, not the image reconstructed for history.
The fundamental principle has corollaries. The first is that clients are basically good, though less so than "we". To the extent that they conform to US demands, they are "healthy pragmatists". Another is that enemies are very bad; how bad depends on how intensively "we" are attacking them or planning to do so. Their status can shift very quickly, in conformity with these guidelines. Thus the current administration and their immediate mentors were quite appreciative of Saddam Hussein and helpful to him while he was just gassing Kurds, torturing dissidents and smashing a Shia rebellion that might have overthrown him in 1991, because of his contribution to "stability" -- a code word for "our" domination -- and his usefulness for US exporters, as frankly declared. But the same crimes became the proof of his ultimate evil when the appropriate time came for "us," proudly bearing the banner of Good, to invade Iraq and install what will be called a "democracy" if it obeys orders and contributes to "stability".
The principles are simple, and easy to remember for those seeking a career in respectable circles. The remarkable consistency of their application has been extensively documented. That is expected in totalitarian states and military dictatorships, but is a far more instructive phenomenon in free societies, where one cannot seriously plead fear in extenuation.
The death of Arafat provides another in the immense list of case studies. I'll keep to The New York Times (NYT), the most important newspaper in the world, and The Boston Globe, perhaps more than others the local newspaper of the liberal educated elite.
The front-page NYT think-piece (12 November) begins by depicting Arafat as "both the symbol of the Palestinian's hope for a viable, independent state and the prime obstacle to its realization". It goes on to explain that he never was able to reach the heights of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt; Sadat " [won] back the Sinai through a peace treaty with Israel" because he was able to "reach out to Israelis and address their fears and hopes" (quoting Shlomo Avineri, Israeli philosopher and former government official, in the follow-up, 13 November).
One can think of more serious obstacles to the realisation of a Palestinian state, but they are excluded by the guiding principles, as is the truth about Sadat -- which Avineri at least surely knows. Let's remind ourselves of a few.
Since the issue of Palestinian national rights in a Palestinian state reached the agenda of diplomacy in the mid-1970s, "the prime obstacle to its realization", unambiguously, has been the US government, with the NYT staking a claim to be second on the list. That has been clear ever since January 1976, when Syria introduced a resolution to the UN Security Council calling for a two-state settlement. The resolution incorporated the crucial wording of UN 242 -- the basic document, all agree. It accorded to Israel the rights of any state in the international system, alongside of a Palestinian state in the territories Israel had conquered in 1967. The resolution was vetoed by the US. It was supported by the leading Arab states. Arafat's PLO condemned "the tyranny of the veto". There were some abstentions on technicalities.
By then, a two-state settlement in these terms had become a very broad international consensus, blocked only by the US (and rejected by Israel). So matters continued, not only in the Security Council but also in the General Assembly, which passed similar resolutions regularly by votes like 150-2 (with the US sometimes picking up another client state). The US also blocked similar initiatives from Europe and the Arab states.
Meanwhile the NYT refused -- the word is accurate -- to publish the fact that through the 1980s, Arafat was calling for negotiations which Israel rejected. The Israeli mainstream press would run headlines about Arafat's call for direct negotiations with Israel, rejected by Shimon Peres on the basis of his doctrine that Arafat's PLO "cannot be a partner to negotiations". And shortly after, NYT Pulitzer-prize winning Jerusalem correspondent Thomas Friedman, who could certainly read the Hebrew press, would write articles lamenting the distress of Israeli peace forces because of "the absence of any negotiating partner", while Peres deplores the lack of a "peace movement among the Arab people [such as] we have among the Jewish people", and explains again that there can be no PLO participation in negotiations "as long as it is remaining a shooting organisation and refuses to negotiate". All of this shortly after yet another Arafat offer to negotiate that the NYT refused to report, and almost three years after the Israeli government's rejection of Arafat's offer for negotiations leading to mutual recognition. Peres, meanwhile, is described as a "healthy pragmatist", by virtue of the guidelines.
Matters did change somewhat in the 1990s, when the Clinton administration declared all UN resolutions "obsolete and anachronistic{", and crafted its own form of rejectionism. The US remains alone in blocking a diplomatic settlement. A recent important example was the presentation of the Geneva Accords in December 2002, supported by the usual very broad international consensus, with the usual exception: "The United States conspicuously was not among the governments sending a message of support," the NYT reported in a dismissive article (2 December 2002).
This is only a small fragment of a diplomatic record that is so consistent, and so dramatically clear, that it is impossible to miss -- unless one keeps rigidly to the history shaped by those who own it.
Let's turn to the second example: Sadat's reaching out to Israelis and thereby gaining the Sinai in 1979, a lesson to the bad Arafat. Turning to unacceptable history, in February 1971 Sadat offered a full peace treaty to Israel, in accord with then- official US policy -- specifically, Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai -- with scarcely even a gesture to Palestinian rights. Jordan followed with similar offers. Israel recognised that it could have full peace, but Golda Meir's Labour government chose to reject the offers in favour of expansion, then into the northeast Sinai, where Israel was driving thousands of Bedouins into the desert and destroying their villages, mosques, cemeteries, homes, in order to establish the all-Jewish city of Yamit.
The crucial question, as always, was how the US would react. Kissinger prevailed in an internal debate, and the US adopted his policy of "stalemate": no negotiations, only force. The US continued to reject -- more accurately, ignore -- Sadat's efforts to pursue a diplomatic course, backing Israel's rejectionism and expansion. That stance led to the 1973 War, which was a very close call for Israel and possibly the world; the US called a nuclear alert. By then even Kissinger understood that Egypt could not be dismissed as a basket case, and he began his "shuttle diplomacy", leading to the Camp David meetings at which the US and Israel accepted Sadat's 1971 offer -- but now with far harsher terms, from the US-Israeli point of view. By then the international consensus had come to recognise Palestinian national rights, and, accordingly, Sadat called for a Palestinian state, anathema to the US-Israel.
In the official history reshaped by its owners, and repeated by media think-pieces, these events are a "diplomatic triumph" for the US and a proof that if Arabs were only able to join us in preferring peace and diplomacy that could achieve their aims. In actual history, the triumph was a catastrophe, and the events demonstrated that the US was willing only to accede to violence. The US rejection of diplomacy led to a terrible and very dangerous war and many years of suffering, with bitter effects to this day.
In his memoirs, General Shlomo Gazit, military commander of the occupied territories from 1967-1974, observes that by refusing to consider proposals advanced by the military and intelligence for some form of self-rule in the territories or even limited political activity, and by insisting on "substantial border changes", the Labour government supported by Washington bears significant responsibility for the later rise of the fanatic Gush Emunim settler movement and the Palestinian resistance that developed many years later in the first Intifada, after years of brutality and state terror, and steady takeover of valuable Palestinian lands and resources.
The lengthy obituary of Arafat by Times Middle East specialist Judith Miller (11 November) proceeds in the same vein as the front-page think-piece. According to her version, "Until 1988, [Arafat] repeatedly rejected recognition of Israel, insisting on armed struggle and terror campaigns. He opted for diplomacy only after his embrace of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq during the Persian Gulf war in 1991."
Miller does give an accurate rendition of official history. In actual history Arafat repeatedly offered negotiations leading to mutual recognition, while Israel -- in particular the dovish "pragmatists" -- flatly refused, backed by Washington. In 1989, the Israeli coalition government (Shamir-Peres) affirmed the political consensus in its peace plan. The first principle was that there can be no "additional Palestinian state" between Jordan and Israel -- Jordan already being a "Palestinian state" The second was that the fate of the territories will be settled "in accordance with the basic guidelines of the [Israeli] government". The Israeli plan was accepted without qualification by the US, and became "the Baker Plan" (December 1989). Exactly contrary to Miller's account and the official story, it was only after the Gulf War that Washington was willing to consider negotiations, recognising that it was now in a position to impose its own solution unilaterally.
The US convened the Madrid conference (with Russian participation as a fig leaf). That did indeed lead to negotiations, with an authentic Palestinian delegation, led by Haidar Abdul- Shafi, an honest nationalist who is probably the most respected leader in the occupied territories. But the negotiations deadlocked because Abdul-Shafi rejected Israel's insistence, backed by Washington, on continuing to take over valuable parts of the territories with settlement and infrastructure programs -- all illegal, as recognised even by the US Justice, the one dissenter, in the recent World Court decision condemning the Israeli wall dividing the West Bank. The "Tunis Palestinians", led by Arafat, undercut the Palestinian negotiators and made a separate deal, the "Oslo Accords", celebrated with much fanfare on the White House lawn in September 2003.
It was evident at once that it was a sell-out. The sole document -- the Declaration of Principles -- declared that the final outcome was to be based solely on UN 242 in 1967, excluding the core issue of diplomacy since the mid-1970s: Palestinian national rights and a two- state settlement. UN 242 defines the final outcome because it says nothing about Palestinian rights; excluded are the UN resolutions that recognise the rights of Palestinians alongside those of Israel, in accord with the international consensus that has been blocked by the US since it took shape in the mid-1970s. The wording of the agreements made it clear that they were a mandate for continued Israeli settlement programs, as the Israeli leadership (Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres) took no pains to conceal. For that reason, Abdul-Shafi refused even to attend the ceremonies. Arafat's role was to be Israel's policeman in the territories, as Rabin made very clear. As long as he fulfilled this task, he was a "pragmatist", approved by the US and Israel with no concern for corruption, violence, and repression. It was only after he could no longer keep the population under control while Israel took over more of their lands and resources that he became an arch-villain, blocking the path to peace: the usual transition.
So matters proceeded through the 1990s. The goals of the Israeli doves were explained in 1998 in an academic study by Shlomo ben-Ami, soon to become Barak's chief negotiator at Camp David: the "Oslo peace proces" was to lead to a "permanent neocolonial dependency" in the occupied territories, with some form of local autonomy. Meanwhile Israeli settlement and integration of the territories proceeded steadily with full US support. It reached its highest peak in the final year of Clinton's term (and Barak's), thus undermining the hopes of a diplomatic settlement
Returning to Miller, she keeps to the official version that in "November 1988, after considerable American prodding, the PLO accepted the United Nations resolution that called for recognition of Israel and a renunciation of terrorism". The actual history is that by November 1988, Washington was becoming an object of international ridicule for its refusal to "see" that Arafat was calling for a diplomatic settlement. In this context, the Reagan administration reluctantly agreed to admit the glaringly obvious truth, and had to turn to other means to undercut diplomacy. The US entered into low- level negotiations with the PLO, but as Prime Minister Rabin assured Peace Now leaders in 1989, these were meaningless, intended only to give Israel more time for "harsh military and economic pressure" so that "In the end, they will be broken," and will accept Israel's terms.
Miller carries the story on in the same vein, leading to the standard denouement: at Camp David, Arafat "walked away" from the magnanimous Clinton-Barak offer of peace, and even afterwards refused to join Barak in accepting Clinton's December 2000 "parameters", thus proving conclusively that he insists on violence, a depressing truth with which the peace-loving states, the US and Israel, must somehow come to terms.
Turning to actual history, the Camp David proposals divided the West Bank into virtually separated cantons, and could not possibly be accepted by any Palestinian leader. That is evident from a look at the maps that were easily available, but not in the NYT, or apparently anywhere in the US mainstream, perhaps for that reason. After the collapse of these negotiations, Clinton recognised that Arafat's reservations made sense, as demonstrated by the famous "parameters", which, though vague, went much further towards a possible settlement -- thus undermining the official story, but that's only logic, therefore as unacceptable as history. Clinton gave his own version of the reaction to his "parameters" in a talk to the Israeli Policy Forum on 7 January 2001: "Both Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat have now accepted these parameters as the basis for further efforts. Both have expressed some reservations."
One can learn this from such obscure sources as the prestigious Harvard-MIT journal International Security (Fall 2003), along with the conclusion that "the Palestinian narrative of the 2000-01 peace talks is significantly more accurate than the Israeli narrative" -- the US-NYT "narrative".


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