A Long Road for the PLO

Saddam's invasion was wrong, but it does force homeland issue

NO matter how the current crisis in the Gulf ultimately turns out, one outcome is already clear. The Palestinians and their cause have suffered a major setback. There is of course the sudden and rapid slide of the Palestinian problem to the lower rungs on the scale of priorities for the Arab and the world community. The deep schism in Arab ranks caused by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait - and the PLO's position on the crisis - has shattered whatever Arab consensus there may have been on the Palestine issue. The massive entry of US and other forces into the region, and the likely increase in US military assistance to Israel to counter Iraq's threats, can only be viewed as further complications to a stalled peace process.

For the Palestinians, these are serious consequences. They are also largely beyond Palestinian control. The damage is regrettable - but also seemed inevitable.

What wasn't inevitable is the damage done to the Palestinian cause by Palestinians themselves - especially the muddled position taken by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. To many Palestinians, this position, no matter the circumstances, is morally indefensible and politically self-defeating.

The PLO's failure to clearly condemn Iraq's occupation and annexation of Kuwait undercuts the moral force of the Palestinians' own unimpeachable case against Israel's occupation and annexation of their territories. By further hesitating on the issue of the restoration of Kuwait's sovereignty over its territories, the PLO may have compromised the credibility of its own just claims of sovereignty in Palestine.

The PLO's position is bound to erode Arab and world support for the intifadah, a singular promising light on an otherwise dark Palestinian horizon. More importantly, the PLO's stance has put at risk the future of the half million Palestinians living and working in the Gulf who have helped support the PLO. They face harsher discrimination if not expulsion.

To be sure, not everyone in the PLO or the Palestinian community at large has spoken with the same voice on key issues. Senior PLO officials and leading Palestinian individuals, including many in the occupied areas, have spoken against Iraq's actions. Many have called for the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait and for the restoration of Kuwaiti sovereignty. But the general perception of the Palestinian position is that of waffling on a cardinal issue of principle, compounded by outright partisanship with Saddam Hussein.

The PLO does not lack for enemies among the forces now in the Gulf. Those harboring no special love for Palestinians will seize on the occasion. They may declare the PLO has shot itself in the foot, or worse, and don't deserve support. Such a position may be convenient and even popular. It would also be a mistake. To see why, one needs to regard developments just prior to the crisis.

At great risk to himself and to his colleagues in the PLO, Arafat spend most of 1988 mustering a Palestinian consensus around a moderate - some Palestinians called it ``capitulative'' - peace program involving acceptance of UN Security Council Resolution 242, recognition of Israel's right to exist, and renunciation of terrorism. The PLO's reward was a stiff rebuff from Israel, benign neglect from the US, and indifference from US Arab allies. To add insult to injury, the US used its veto powers in the UN Security Council to shelter Israel from any UN sanctioned retribution for its oppressive policies in the occupied territories, and did nothing when Prime Minister Shamir made mince meat out of Secretary of State James Baker's peace proposals. The intifadah was entering its thirty-second month and Palestinian sacrifices were mounting steadily, International attention was deflected elsewhere while Arab support, especially from the wealthy states of the Gulf, was tepid.

Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, as egregious an act as it may be to all of us, appeared to the frustrated Palestinian and Arab masses to strike several blows against their enemies.

Having succeeded in stemming the tide of Islamic fundamentalism in his war with Iran, Saddam appeared to stand up to Israel and to challenge the West on the control and pricing of oil. He disposed of a wealthy and self-centered tribal regime in the Gulf. He took another step toward realizing the always mesmerizing dream of Arab unity. To top it off, Saddam cleverly packaged the whole sequence as a war by the poor against the rich and a struggle by Arab patriots against foreign armies.

Issues of pan-Arab nationalism are potent enough to arouse the pent up emotions of Arab masses. But to the Palestinians, the world community's agitated and instant response to developments also revealed a certain measure of hypocrisy. They ask: Where was the US and its allies during Israel's grotesquely destructive invasion and subsequent occupation of Lebanon? Where was US and Western morality during the 23 years of Israel's repressive occupation of Palestinian (and other Arab) territories? Where was the concern for human rights during the two-and-a-half years of Israel's violent campaign against a vulnerable civilian population in the West Bank and Gaza?

It may be said this isn't the time to bring up such ``sensitive and complex'' issues. But for better or worse, the linkage has been made - and not only by Saddam and the Palestinians, but also, ironically, by James Baker in his recent testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The US and the world would do well to ponder the consequences of seeking to resolve the present crisis in the Gulf while suppressing other potential sources of instability in the area, the most urgent of which is Palestine, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

It's even more important that US Arab allies in the region not use the mistaken, if explainable, stance of the Palestinian political leadership on the crisis to scapegoat Palestinian people living in the Gulf, most of whom have been there for four decades and who have played a positive role in the area's social and economic transformation. It is equally imperative that these same countries, for their own self-interest, as for that of the Palestinians, not abandon the valid and rightful search for a just and durable solution to the Palestine problem. Nor can they ignore other issues on the Arab nationalist agenda now made more visible.

What's needed now is not a military quick fix to a single problem, but a more thoughtful and far-sighted approach to all the issues raised by the crisis. Only if wisdom prevails and these issues are fairly resolved, can future generations look back at the present crisis as one that, while bringing the world to the brink of war, also ushered in a new, more stable regional political order for this much tormented area.

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