Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Appendix V Segment 16/33
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Turning to the events of December 1988, after the November Algiers declaration the United States refused to permit Arafat to address the U.N. General Assembly in New York, in clear violation of law. The Assembly session was moved to Geneva, where Arafat essentially repeated the positions already articulated. Washington's response was that Arafat had not met its conditions, which were, once again, clearly stated:

  1. "Acceptance of Resolutions 242 and 338"
  2. "Recognition of Israel's right to exist"
  3. "Rejection of terrorism in all its forms"

These U.S. positions must be adopted by the PLO "clearly, squarely, without ambiguity," the State Department continued. The media endorsed this stand. The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story entitled "The Ambiguous Yasir Arafat," and others deplored his evasiveness as well. The concept of "ambiguity" was explained by John Chancellor of NBC: "The trouble with Yasser Arafat is that his native language seems to be ambiguity. He never quite says what you want him to say."97 How unreasonable.

Recall what is at stake in the three conditions. Resolutions 242 and 338 call for the right of all states in the region to "live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries." This condition had been endorsed by the PLO in January 1976 in those very words, and repeatedly since. But the PLO had always added a "qualification." It also insisted upon those U.N. resolutions that recognize the right of the Palestinians to national self-determination in a state alongside of Israel. The first of the State Department requirements is that the PLO abandon this "qualification," thus abandoning the right to self-determination.

The second point is a bit different. No state in the international system is accorded an abstract "right to exist," though states are accorded the right to exist in peace and security. The difference is fundamental. Thus, the United States explicitly denies the "right to exist" of the Soviet Union in its present form (as demonstrated, for example, in Captive Nations Week, or in high-level planning documents such as NSC 68). But it agrees that the U.S.S.R. has the right to be free from foreign attack or terror, that is, to live in peace and security. For the Palestinians to agree to Israel's abstract "right to exist" would be for them to accept not only the fact but the legitimacy of their dispossession from their land and homes. That is why Israel and the United States insist on this precise wording. "It is essential that these words be spoken," a State Department Middle East expert asserts. It is not the "existence" of Israel but the "right" of existence that is at issue, National Security Adviser Colin Powell insists: "It's the right of Israel to exist that is the essential acknowledgement that we need."98 Israel naturally agrees. The U.S. media and intellectual community do so as well, for only such total humiliation and renunciation of even abstract rights on the part of the Palestinians will justify the attitudes that intellectual circles had displayed towards them for many decades.

The third point we have already discussed. It is not sufficient for the PLO to take the position on terrorism held by virtually the entire world; it must join the United States, Israel, and South Africa off the spectrum of world opinion, clearly and unambiguously renouncing the right of people to struggle for self-determination against racist and colonialist regimes or foreign occupation. Again, the media agree with near unanimity, while continuing to suppress the fact that this is precisely what is at issue.

The alleged reasons for the U.S.-Israeli stand are "security"; only if Arafat says the magic words will Israel be secure, according to government-media doctrine. The absurdity is transparent. Suppose that Arafat were to waltz into the Knesset wearing a yarmulke and singing Hatikva, proceeding to pledge undying loyalty to the State of Israel while condemning Palestinians as undeserving sinners, temporary visitors in the Land of Israel who will be eternally grateful if the rightful owners of the entire land grant them the gift of a mini-state in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel's security would not be enhanced one iota. Security is based on facts, not words. In fact, the idea that the Palestinians threaten Israel's security can hardly be taken seriously; if the longstanding PLO proposals for a two-state diplomatic settlement were accepted, it would be the Palestinian state that would face security problems, contained within the traditional tacit alliance between Jordan and Israel, the regional superpower. Israel doubtless faces severe security problems, in part of its own making because of its rejection of the possibilities for diplomatic settlement since 1971. But the Palestinians pose a security threat only in that Israel's capacity to defend itself against really dangerous enemies will doubtless erode as its military forces are trained not to fight wars but to break the bones of children. The threat is understood by Israeli military specialists, and is one reason why the Intifada is leading them to reconsider the wisdom of holding the territories. One well-known military historian, Martin van Creveld, observes that "What used to be one of the world's finest fighting forces is rapidly degenerating into a fourth-class police organization. To realize the way such a force will fight when confronted by a real army, one need look no further than the Argentinians in the Falkland Islands."99

The issue of Arafat's refusal to pronounce the words written for him by the State Department -- what the media term his "ambiguity" -- is not at all "frivolous," as the editors of the Washington Post rightly assert while misstating the reasons.100 If the PLO were to accept the State Department position clearly and unambiguously, it would fall into a diplomatic trap. It would then have renounced its right to national self-determination (the "qualification" to 242), accepted the legitimacy of everything that had happened to the Palestinians in the past, and renounced any right to struggle for self-determination -- for example, the right to endorse popular committees in a "liberated village," or the right to approve if the inhabitants of the village throw stones at army units invading to prevent such attempts at self-government and to arrest, torture, beat, or kill the perpetrators of such crimes. PLO agreement to these terms would be a substantive achievement for U.S.-Israeli rejectionism. It would mean that if the Palestinians made any move towards self-determination, or even spoke words to that effect, they could be accused of reneging on their solemn commitments, proving that they are mere barbarians as the United States and Israel had always known, and abandoning any rights whatsoever. They could then be "driven into the sea" or the desert, in accordance with the prescriptions of the doves, as we have seen. Whatever Israel and the United States now choose to do to them would be legitimate, after this demonstration of their worthlessness. The weapon would always be available, held in reserve, if the PLO were to accept the demands of the U.S. government and the media.

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97 State Department conditions, NYT, Dec. 14; Marie Colvin, NYT Magazine, Dec. 18; Chancellor, NBC evening news, Dec. 13, 1988, reported to me by Marilyn Young. For a succinct legal analysis of the U.S. obligations to the U.N., see Alfred P. Rubin, CSM, Dec. 15, 1988.

98 Richard Strauss, BG, Dec. 14; Charlotte Saikowski, CSM, Dec. 15, 1988.

99 On the early stages of the Israel-Jordan alliance, see Avi Shlaim, Collusion across the Jordan (Columbia, 1988). Van Creveld, Jerusalem Post,, Feb. 1, 1989.

100 Editorial, WP Weekly, Dec. 19, 1988, lauding Shultz for having "hung tough on the principled conditions of 1975" and for denying Arafat a visa, a "useful signal." The editors state that "the 1975 conditions were drafted at a time when Israel had a government prepared to exchange territory for peace if there were a negotiating partner." The facts, however, are that Israel's Labor government explicitly refused to deal with any Palestinians on any political issue, and the U.S. and Israel rejected the land-for-peace offer at the U.N. Security Council. See Fateful Triangle, and for more detail on the Israeli government attitude at the time, Towards a New Cold War, 267f. Israel's reaction to the U.N. session was a gratuitous bombing of Lebanon, with over fifty killed. The U.S. reaction was to veto the resolution. The media reaction has been to deny the facts, as in this editorial.