Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Appendix V Segment 17/33
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By mid-December 1988, the U.S. government was becoming an object of ridicule outside of the United States for its insistence that Arafat not only accept the positions long regarded as reasonable in the international community, but pronounce the exact words written for him by the State Department. Boxed into an untenable position, Washington turned to the usual technique of the powerful: the "Trollope ploy" (see chapter 4, note 40): When the adversary refuses to accept your position, pretend that he has done so, trusting the media to fall into step. In the world of necessary illusions, then, the adversary will indeed have accepted your position, and you may proceed as if that had happened, punishing him as required for any departure from the solemn commitments that you have invented for him. An added benefit is the psychological satisfaction derived from the claim that Third World nuisances have been humiliated, while in return we now grant them the great gift of admission to the master's chambers for some meaningless conversation. Furthermore, these pretenses have the practical advantage of reinforcing the doctrine that a stern and uncompromising stance is the only way to deal with the lesser breeds. Recall the reinterpretation of the diplomatic defeat of the United States in August 1987 as a proof that our resort to violence finally compelled the reluctant Sandinistas to accept U.S. terms. The actual facts are quite irrelevant if the information system can be trusted to obey and if its power to mold opinion is sufficient in the countries that matter (the Western allies). This is the device that Nixon and Kissinger used to destroy the Paris peace agreements in 1973, and that the Reagan administration adopted to undermine the Esquipulas Accord. In fact, it is virtually a reflex, and it typically works like a charm.

Adopting this procedure, the State Department announced that in a news conference in which he said nothing new of any moment, Arafat had finally accepted the U.S. position on all three issues, so that now, in our magnanimity, we would agree to talk to the PLO (and to inform them, politely, that Palestinians have no rights or claims). As more perceptive analysts recognized, this "sudden and dramatic reversal of US the Reagan administration out of a corner into which it had been painting itself" as the administration "snatched the slender straw of Arafat's press conference in Geneva as an elegant way out of an increasingly untenable position."101 The standard media interpretation was, however, quite different: the U.S. had not changed its position at all; rather, firmness had paid off and forced the ambiguous Mr. Arafat to accede to Washington's just demands, proving that the U.S. should continue to "hang tough," as the Washington Post editors put it.

The news columns of the New York Times reported that "State Department officials declined to speculate about what may have convinced Mr. Arafat to embrace the American formula after so many years of refusing to do so." Over and over, they reiterated that the PLO had met the U.S. terms "by renouncing terrorism, recognizing Israel's right to exist and accepting important United Nations resolutions on the Mideast." The Washington Post praised the Reagan administration for having "scored an unexpected diplomatic coup by drawing the Palestine Liberation Organization into formal acceptance of the state of Israel." There was much derision of "Palestinian semantics." The story was that Arafat had tried to evade the stern U.S. requirements, but finally succumbed, there being no further escape. Thus, after much squirming, Arafat had finally spoken the words that gave the PLO the privilege of an invitation to lunch with U.S. officials. This "stunning breakthrough" is a triumph of U.S. diplomacy, the Times editors announced, admonishing Secretary Shultz to "hold Arafat responsible" for any "violence within Israel and the occupied territories." The Boston Globe editors asserted that "Yasser Arafat has spoken the words he had to say in order to meet American conditions for open contacts with the PLO," including "his belated declaration of Israel's right to exist in peace and security." "Henceforth," the editors warned, "the PLO can be held to the pledges he made." Columnists added that the United States should persist in the "tough approach" that had "got Mr. Arafat this far along by repeating the same three conditions year in, year out"; this steadfastness should force Mr. Arafat the rest of the way, to accommodating the "legitimate interests" of Israel and Jordan by abandoning even marginal claims for self-determination (Daniel Pipes). Thomas Friedman spelled out "reality": Arafat had finally recognized "Israel's right to exist," and must now talk to the Israelis just as Sadat, "during his first negotiations with Israel after the 1973 war," finally understood that Egypt "would have to talk to Israel directly and in language that Israelis would find sincere" (recall that Egypt had offered a full peace treaty in 1971, recognized as such officially by Israel, but rejected because the Labor government felt that they could gain territorial concessions by holding out, as they frankly explained). As the U.S. proceeds to administer a "dose of reality" to the PLO, Friedman continued, it should advise the Palestinians to "agree to a two-month cease-fire in the uprising, in exchange for Israeli agreement to allow them to hold municipal elections." Note that it is the Palestinians who must "agree to a cease-fire" in the occupied territories, from which the reader is to understand that it is the Palestinians who have been "firing" on the Israeli army.102

Subsequent commentary proceeded along the same lines, virtually (or perhaps even completely) with no exception. President Bush, in his first news conference, explained that we agreed to "communicate" with the PLO (but not "deal with" them, as he hastened to emphasize, correcting a slip of the tongue), because of "their acceptance of three principles," those we had formulated for them; "As long as they stay hooked and stay committed to those three principles, we will have quite appropriate meetings with the P.L.O." What has changed is that the PLO has "dramatically I'd say -- agreed to the -- to the principles that are part of our policy," saying the magic words. Times correspondent Joel Brinkley, along with many others, went further, adding that "Yasir Arafat, the P.L.O. leader, is saying openly for the first time that he wants to solve the Palestinian problem through negotiation," a real breakthrough, an offer that the U.S. and the world have "tentatively accepted." Recall that Brinkley's comment is quite accurate in the world of necessary illusion that the Times has so carefully crafted over many years; Arafat's repeated proposals to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict through negotiation exist only in the irrelevant world of reality, from which readers of the Times have been scrupulously protected.103

Turning to the facts, which quickly disappeared from the scene as anticipated, in his magic words Arafat recognized "the right of all parties concerned in the Middle East conflict to exist in peace and security, and, as I have mentioned, including the state of Palestine, Israel and other neighbors, according to the Resolution 242 and 338"; thus he "accepted the state of Israel" in the terms he had offered thirteen years earlier, and repeatedly since, with the same "qualifications" as always and with no endorsement of Israel's abstract "right to exist." He "renounced" terrorism in all its forms (the State Department had insisted only on "rejection"), while he and other officials made it clear in accompanying statements that the PLO "would not abandon either attacks on military targets in Israel or the year-old uprising in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip."104

In short, Arafat repeated the former PLO positions. The only changes were that whereas in January 1976 (and often since) the PLO adopted the wording of U.N. 242, endorsing the right of all parties "to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries," Arafat now spoke of their right "to exist in peace and security"; the change is zero. As before, he insisted on the "qualification" that the Palestinians have the right of self-determination, clearly referring to "the State of Palestine" alongside of Israel. He refused to accept Israel's abstract "right to exist," on which the U.S. had insisted as the crucial point. Instead of "condemning" and "rejecting" terrorism as before (see chapter 4), he "renounced" terrorism, while retaining the internationally recognized right of struggle for self-determination against racist and colonialist regimes and foreign occupation.

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101 H.D.S. Greenway, BG, Dec. 15; see also Randolph Ryan, BG, Dec. 16, 1988, the only example I found where the elementary facts about the State Department conditions are recognized.

102 Alan Cowell, NYT, Dec. 19; Robert Pear, NYT, Dec. 15; editorial, WP Weekly, Dec. 19; "Palestinian Semantics: Arafat's Changing Words," NYT, Dec. 15; editorial, NYT, Dec. 16; editorial, BG, Dec. 16; Pipes, "How the U.S. Should Handle Arafat," Dec. 20; Friedman, "Reality Time," NYT, Dec. 19, 1988. On the facts concerning the 1971 negotiations, which Friedman has always suppressed or denied, see Fateful Triangle, chapter 3.

103 Bush News Conference, NYT, Jan. 28; Brinkley, Jan. 29, 1989.

104 "Palestinian Semantics," NYT, Dec. 15; Alan Cowell, NYT, Dec. 19, 1988.