Mirror Image: How the PLO Mimics Zionism

Whatever its goal--be it to destroy Israel or only reduce its size--the Palestine Liberation Organization is Israel's most intimate and permanent enemy. This makes it especially paradoxical to realize just how deeply the PLO has been shaped by Zionism, the Jewish national movement.

To start with, the very delineation of a territory called "Palestine" in 1918 was a Zionist achievement; had Jews not pressed the British government to create such a unit, Arabic-speakers of the area would have continued to see themselves living in a Greater Syria or in an Arab or Muslim nation; there simply would have been no Arab feeling for Filastin. The PLO exists, in other words, only because Israel exists.

Second, had the PLO's enemy not been Israel, it would not have enjoyed the extraordinary international prominence that it actually does. Imagine that Yasir Arafat headed an organization fighting for the liberation of East Timor from Indonesia; would you ever have heard of him? Israel's renown provided celebrity, money, and political support for its enemy too.

Third, Palestinian nationalists--my subject here--have time and again modeled their institutions, ideas, and practices on the Zionist movement. This ironic tribute means that the peculiar nature of the PLO can be understood only with reference to its Zionist inspiration. More: imitation offers important insights into the PLO's future course.

Carbon Copies...

Like the World Zionist Organization (founded in 1897), the Palestine Liberation Organization (founded in 1964) is an umbrella organization under which factions simultaneously cooperate and compete. Like the WZO, the PLO comprises affiliated institutions such as labor unions, health organizations, and vocational training schools.

Palestinian agencies copy their Zionist precursors so closely that Sadik J. Al-Azm, a Syrian analyst, calls them "carbon copies." The Arab lobby in the United States (the National Association of Arab-Americans), for example, has tried to replicate the form and function of its Jewish precursor (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee). Other Palestinian groups even mimic the names of Jewish organizations: the Arabs' Anti-Defamation Committee (which gets its name from the Anti-Defamation League), the Holy Land Fund (the Jewish National Fund), and the United Palestinian Appeal (the United Jewish Appeal).

Al-Azm makes an interesting case for seeing Yasir Arafat as a latter-day version of one of the great figures of early Zionism. Arafat, he writes

"...with his paternalistic attitude towards the whole Palestinian Resistance Movement, his constant traveling between international and Arab capitals, his unceasing dealings with a curious assortment of heads of state, Prime Ministers et al., his constantly open channels with each and every party with some interest in the Palestinian problem, plus his renowned political flexibility, diplomatic expertise and pragmatic tactics, is a kind of Palestinian Chaim Weizmann."

(Weizmann, the Zionists' long-time representative in London, served as the itinerant spokesman of his movement, its chief interlocutor with the outside world, and the main arbiter of its factions.)

When the PLO declared the establishment of a Palestinian state in November 1988, its words brought Israel's 1948 Proclamation of Independence to mind. The PLO statement echoed the Israeli prototype in its subject matter, organization, and even in specific phrasing. For example, both appealed to their ethnic brethren and proclaimed equal rights for all in the new state. The words of Israel's Proclamation echo throughout the PLO document of forty years later. David Ben-Gurion called on "the Jewish people all over the world to rally to our side" and Arafat called on "Arab compatriots to consolidate and enhance the emergence and reality of our state." Both called for immigration, with Ben-Gurion announcing that "The State of Israel will be open to the immigration of Jews from all countries of their dispersion," and Arafat declaring the same: "The State of Palestine is the state of Palestinians wherever they may be."

...And Mirror Images.

Palestinians have adopted a vision of their own history that in many ways recapitulates the Jewish experience. Calling themselves the "Jews of the Middle East," they often point to their diaspora as a parallel and a successor to the Jewish one. Like the Jews, they note, Palestinians are more educated and mobile than the majority populations among which they live, yet they suffer prejudice, dispossession, and expulsion. In particular, just as medieval Jews got thrown out of one country after another, the Palestinians had to leave three countries (Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait) in only twenty years.

The PLO takes this analogy yet further: Just as Jews suffered a holocaust at Nazi hands, it says, Palestinians suffered a holocaust at Israeli hands. However outrageous, this has captured the imagination of many Arabs, for in one stroke it both elevates the moral stature of Palestinians and reduces that of the Israelis. Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi analyst, observes that "the hallowed status of Palestinian dispossession in 1948...has become for Arab politics what the Holocaust is for Israeli politics: mirror images of one another."

The Palestinians closely emulate other Zionist concepts. The "Law of Return," the notion that every Jew has an inalienable right to live in Israel, underpins the whole venture of colonizing Palestine and creating a Jewish national home there. Similarly, Palestinian nationalists proclaim the "Right of Return," which asserts that every Palestinian refugee, or his descendants, has the prerogative to repossess lands left in 1948-49.


LevantMiddle East