During the opening ceremony for the Second Annual Conference for Arab Research Centers, General Director Azmi Bishara called for the reformulation of the Palestinian national project with negotiations reaching an impasse and armed struggle having become politically isolated from politics and engaged in a struggle for survival, shifting from a strategy of liberation to one of self-defense. Bishara opined that this crisis runs even deeper because the ongoing inter-Palestinian conflict is merely a struggle over power, noting that “this conflict is leading political actors to lose sight of both the unified and unitary Palestinian reality, and the Israeli policies that are a coherent whole. The problem is that a struggle over power comes before the establishment of the state.” Bishara also remarked that corrupt, despotic regimes have transformed the Palestinian cause into an instrumentalist tool, and in so doing have damaged the cause.

The Need for Scholarly Analysis of the Palestinian Cause

During Dr. Bishara’s lecture, entitled “The Palestinian National Movement: Impasse and Future Horizons,” he said that it is our duty to be guided by a rational, objective analysis of what is taking place around us in the service of a just cause. If the Zionist academic establishment has the right to use theoretical and applied social sciences, history, and other disciplines for the purposes of domination, justifying their policies and formulating future predictions, then what of the people that have been the victim of these Zionist practices? For these reasons, we decided to focus this year’s conference on the Palestinian cause and the future of its national movement.

Bishara clarified that the ACRPS had three main justifications for the choice of this year’s topic: to contribute to the formulation of a research agenda on Palestine that goes beyond what has been offered so far; to send a message from Arab and Palestinian academics expressing displeasure at the marginalization of the Palestinian cause; and to assert the need for a discussion on the Palestinian national project and its future in the midst of shifting international and regional circumstances. Moreover, it is impossible to ignore the widespread belief that the Palestinian national project is at an impasse, making it imperative for us to think about its future.

He argued that the Palestinian cause has been harmed by the crisis of its national project as it was transformed into an instrumentalist tool in the hands of corrupt despotic regimes; this fact has directly and substantively harmed the cause both ethically and morally. The same regimes that refrained from directing their resources and energy toward the struggle against Israel have employed the Palestinian cause in their authoritarian lexicon, tainting the Palestinian liberation discourse just as the terms “revolution” and “revolutionary council” became tainted, before the people “rehabilitated” these terms over the last three years.

Armed Struggle and Political Action

Dr. Bishara exclaimed that the Palestinian national project has always stood on two pillars. First, he spoke of initially combating oppression and aggression with peaceful resistance, gradually moving into armed struggle. The second pillar is that of political action, starting before 1948 with the communication between the Higher Arab Committee, Arab states, and the international community, and has continued with the pursuit of a Palestinian state, and the struggle to achieve it, since the 1970s. However, due to the inter-Arab conflicts, both axes relied on different Arab bases of support and policies, which led, in many instances, to their separation. Moreover, both axes also became embroiled in global policies and conflicts.

Bishara also said that accepting the principle of the Palestinian state, on a global level, necessitated the abandonment of armed struggle, though armed struggle was not forsaken solely for that reason. Rather, the choice to abandon armed struggle was also aided by structural changes within the Arab world and in its bases of support, as well as its Arab and international extensions. He continued by stating that the armed struggle—now called “resistance”—became an option that lies outside the political process, and that does not realistically carry a political project, even if it sometimes launched political and diplomatic initiatives in order to confront the attempts to demonize it in the West. It was not coincidental that this option was constantly adopted by forces from outside the PLO, which turned in its totality into the project of the Palestinian National Authority. We later discovered that the Palestinian factions that chose to continue on the path of armed resistance outside the so-called “political process” found themselves pulled into political action through elections that have implicated them in the same impasse of power.

On the other hand, Dr. Bishara believes that the conditions imposed on the Palestinians to solely use political action in the state project has rendered the project hostage to a political process of negotiations, accompanied by a staggering expansion of Israeli settlement designed to displace Palestinians. On the ground, this results in the sequestering of the Palestinian entity in the so-called “A” and “B” zones, resulting in an entity that lacks sovereignty and Israel does not mind calling a “state”; even so, Israel wants a price in return.

Bishara continued: “some of us had predicted this scenario, in detail, from the moment the Oslo Accords were signed, while others among us did not and spoke of a different scenario in which the settlement process was halted, leading to the creation of a national state where the Gaza Strip, alone, would become a new Singapore, assuming that all these analyses were based on pure intentions in the service of the Palestinian national project. On the other hand, analyzing the facts that are currently on the ground is sufficient to convince nearly everyone of the catastrophic scenario that is in play. Ironically, however, once the outcome was clear for all to see, a new difference emerged; one that is unfortunately not based on the interpretation of reality, for everyone can clearly see this predicament: the ongoing inter-Palestinian conflict is merely a struggle over power. This conflict is leading political actors to lose sight of the unified and unitary Palestinian reality and of the Israeli policies that are also a coherent whole. The problem is that it is a struggle over power that comes before the establishment of the state.”

On the other hand, Bishara argued that what is currently being lauded as “resistance” is not the same resistance of decades past. Resistance used to be a strategy of liberation, regardless of whether it was realistic, and was later transformed into an option for “resisting occupation”. Currently, however, organized armed resistance is a strategy for the defense of the self and of the region that is controlled by the resistance movement—though this does not lessen its value.

 Dr. Bishara concluded that the political option is experiencing a crisis, while armed struggle is in a state of separation from politics and engaged in a struggle for its survival, ultimately having shifted from a liberation strategy to that of self-defense. Thus, it is necessary to reconsider the future of the Palestinian national project based on the following variables: the impasse of the negotiations, the crisis of armed struggle, and the fact that the Arab world will for the time being be occupied with revolution and counter-revolution until matters settle, hopefully, with the establishment of Arab democracies. He further stated that the starting point for the re-formulation of a Palestinian national movement is the reality on the ground; call it what you wish, “settler occupation,” “state of apartheid,” and so forth. The question is not over what it is called, but over what prevents us from holistically approaching this Palestinian national reality, and the reality of the Zionist aggression, instead of viewing them as separate issues. The question is also over the existence of a political heading that deals with the totality of the Palestinian reality and that explains this reality, as a whole, with a language that can be understood globally.

Dr. Bishara spoke of Nelson Mandela’s experience in his struggle against apartheid in South Africa, declaring: “We are unable to replicate the experience of the African National Congress because there is a separation between the notion of a Palestinian state and Arab-Jewish collaborative action, unlike the collaboration between white and black democrats in South Africa in search for a single state. This is also due to the Jewish question on the global stage, and to the ongoing negotiations that are taking place over how to separate the two peoples, rather than how to make them coexist. In the same vein, we cannot copy the experience of the national liberation movements of the 1960s, for this is a stage that has passed, with its rhetoric and its international alliances. However, this does not prevent us from learning from the South African experience and the international discourse of the African National Congress, as well as the points of strength of the national liberation movements. Before all that, we must learn from our own history in order to cast a discourse that can effectively pressure Israel and garner the broadest possible support within Arab public opinion and on the global stage.”