Statehood and intent

Armed Struggle and the Search for State

June 4, 1999

Yezid Sayegh charts the course of modern Palestinian history with this exceptionally detailed account of internal Palestinian decision making in the face of a generally hostile and unforgiving external environment. The text runs to almost 700 pages, and there are a further 200 pages of notes, so this is not a book for those uninitiated into the complexities of Middle Eastern politics.

But for those directly engaged in the Palestinian quest for statehood, or those who have studied this struggle, it is comprehensive, drawing on an impressive range of primary sources, and unlikely to be surpassed.

Writing about the Palestinian National Movement, with the inevitable focus on the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and its various factions, presents any author with certain difficult decisions about how to structure their analysis. As both a revolutionary national liberation movement and a quasi-state actor, the PLO does not fit into any neat socio-economic or political category. In addition, the highly factional nature of Palestinian politics, which is in turn exacerbated by its complex relations with the Arab states and the wider international community, adds to the potentially confusing picture.

The danger is that the detail of the complicated intra-Palestinian, inter-Arab and international manoeuvring of the PLO can overwhelm the more substantive and reflective assessment of the nature, and success or failure, of Palestinian decision-making. Armed Struggle does not completely avoid this danger. There are times, particularly in the account of the PLO's actions in Lebanon, where the historical analysis is so detailed that the broader themes and argument of the book are submerged in the minutiae of recording various military and political developments.

But this does not detract from the two major themes of the book - the role of armed struggle and the exercise of state-building - which offers important and significant insights. Sayegh provides an acute analysis of how the much-acclaimed armed struggle of the Palestinian guerrilla factions never came close, nor even was realistically expected, to liberate territory in historic Palestine. Instead, the real function of the armed struggle was to provide the rhetoric and the practical example of Palestinian independence to the other Arab states and to provide legitimacy to the claim by the Palestinian guerrilla groups, dominated by Fatah within the structure of the PLO, to be the sole representative of the Palestinian people.

Once the PLO was recognised as this representative body by the Arab states at the Rabat Summit in 1974, the focus on armed struggle, though remaining of important rhetorical value, was increasingly superseded by the PLO's determination to give physical expression to the notionally independent Palestinian entity. Sayegh argues that this can be considered an exercise in state-building. This does, at first, appear a counter-intuitive notion as the PLO never, until at least the 1993 accord, had any direct control over any part of its proclaimed homeland. But the evidence of such state-building ambitions is clearly found in the PLO's attempts to construct states-within-states in the countries in which it was exiled, most notably in Lebanon with the so-called Fakhani Republic.

On a more general level, the considerable financial resources donated to the PLO's coffers by the oil-rich Arab states in the late 1970s and 1980s provided the PLO leadership with the means to construct a neo-patrimonial framework of socio-economic and political control.

Sayegh correctly argues that the resulting political structures are analogous to the so-called rentier states of the Middle East, such as in the Gulf states, where the political elite asserts its power through co-option and patronage rather than deriving such power through consent and the extraction of economic resources from society.

The picture presented by Sayegh of the resulting neo-patrimonial Palestinian political class is not attractive. As in most other Arab states, this class has remained remarkably unchanged over the past 25 years. Moreover, the dynamic has been for this elite to become more exclusive and narrowly based, with the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, increasingly asserting near-dictatorial control over the Palestinian movement. Although Sayegh does recognise Arafat's ability to strike pragmatic compromises that have ensured the survival of the Palestinian cause, his general assessment of Arafat's leadership is predominantly negative.

Not only does Sayegh make Arafat primarily responsible for major strategic errors, such as the PLO's support for Iraq during the Gulf war, but also for engaging in a systematic campaign of breaking down any possible source of opposition to his absolute political primacy. The result is a wider Palestinian political elite that lacks political courage and a civil society within the West Bank and Gaza Strip that has become divided and demoralised through corruption, violence and manipulation. In the final analysis, Armed Struggle provides a rather pessimistic prognosis for the ever-suffering Palestinian people trying to realise their dream of an independent and democratic national state.

Roland Dannreuther is lecturer in international relations, University of Edinburgh.

Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949-1993

Author - Yezid Sayegh
ISBN - 0 19 829265 1
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £70.00
Pages - 953

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