The  PLO Must Deal with the Terrorism Issue


Al-Fajr, April 1988


Let me start by saying a word about US law. It’s now the law of the United States that no official or representative of the United. States Government may recognize or negotiate with the PLO or representatives thereof until the PLO accepts Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, recognizes Israel’s right to exist and “renounces the use of terrorism.” The law goes beyond the pledge made to Israel by former Secretary of State Kissinger in 1975. The Kissinger pledge only dealt with Resolutions 242 and 338 and Israel’s right to exist. It was silent on the issue of terrorism.

            In June 1987, I was part of a small delegation of American Jews that met with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and other PLO leaders in Tunis. One of the things we talked about were some of these conditions for US recognition of the PLO. In these discussions, it was I who insisted on talking about the issue of terrorism. We had what I thought were very constructive discussions with Chairman Arafat. These are difficult things to talk about, and certainly difficult things to talk about in public. But I am going to do that today and hope that what I say makes some sense.

            First of all let me say that in those discussions with Chairman Arafat we were not representing typical Jewish or American organizations. For instance, the organization I represented, the Jewish Committee for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, is quite unusual in the American scene. For five or six years we had been actively engaged in the issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace and we have a fairly clear platform. We support a safe and secure Israel. We support a Palestinian right to self-determination, including the right to establish an independent state that would live alongside Israel. And we call upon both the United States and Israel to negotiate with any representative of the Palestinian people including the PLO. Furthermore, we have been quite actively engaged in these matters, and at the time of the meeting some of us were lobbying in the United States Congress to defeat the legislation to close the PLO office in the United States.

            So we came to our discussions with Chairman Arafat from a position, I think, of some credibility. And I believe this, perhaps, made it possible for us be taken seriously when we addressed the issue of terrorism.

            A few points about terrorism in the Middle East context are in order.


  • First of all, as former Israeli head of military intelligence Yehoshafat Harkabi has said, there has been a “terrorization of thought” about the Middle East. The issue of terrorism has assumed unreal proportions; it has dominated thought and prevented clear thinking from an Israeli point of view about Israel’s interests and well-being.
  • Terrorism has never been a major threat to the existence of Israel. The Israelis faced real threats when they were engaged in serious wars against serious armies. Terrorism has never rep­resented that kind of threat.
  • The Israeli leadership itself contains, as all of us know, individuals themselves with terrorist backgrounds. For instance, Prime Minister Shamir was a leader of the Stern Gang.
  • There have been more civilian deaths among Palestinians from Israeli actions, whether terrorist or otherwise, than anything one can say in reverse. In this conflict, the Palestinians, mostly innocent civilians, have been the primary victims.
  • The issue of terrorism has been manipulated and has been used to avoid talking about the main issue, which is the denial of legitimate Palestinian rights.
  • And finally the whole discussion is shot through and through with double standards and hypocrisy.


            All this being said, I think it remains the case that Arab-Americans, Palestinians and the PLO have to address the terrorism issue. And it has to be addressed more adequately than it has been thus far.

            There is a great deal of nonsense said about terrorism. For instance it is said that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” This is nonsense. There are many ways of carrying on a fight tor freedom. Not all liberation struggles employ terrorism.

            Let me start with a definition. It is very hard to come up with a perfect definition of anything. As a philosopher, I know this very well. In fact one of the things we can say with some confidence is that after 2500 years of philosophy, no philosopher has ever come up with the perfect definition of anything. There is no perfect definition of terrorism, but we don’t need one.

By and large for our purposes the following seems, to me at any rate, to work fairly well. I put it this way. A terrorist act is an act ‘‘which as a way of achieving a political or military goal, purposely harms or endangers civilians who are going about the everyday business or ordinary life.”

            Another way of defining something is by example. Here are some examples of terrorism:


  • Attacking civilians in airports
  • Hijacking buses
  • Taking civilian hostages
  • Air attacks targeted on civilian populations
  • Rolling barrel bombs down into crowded marketplaces.


These are all fairly self-evident examples of terrorism.

            Now, why is this issue central? My real belief is that, frankly, unless this issue is dealt with there is no basis for a lasting peace in the Middle East. It is possible that there will be a settlement, but ultimately I don’t think there can be a lasting settlement, a stable settlement or a lasting peace. In fact I think that the situation we are in right now is particularly dangerous because we are heading towards what is becoming essentially a war between two peoples, rather than a struggle against a particular government’s policy.

            Let me approach the terrorism question from a different angle. Consider one of the other conditions the United States has set down for negotiations with the PLO, that the PLO recognize Israel’s right to exist. (And let me say immediately that I believe that Israel’s right to exist is as firm as that of any other state.) Yet I must admit that this is actually a very strange condition to find in international relations.

            The United States could have required that the PLO announce a willingness to make a lasting peace with the State of Israel. Or it could have been required that the PLO explicitly abandon any aim of destroying the State of Israel. And if the conditions had been phrased in these ways, we in the United States could have argued over whether such declarations should be preconditions for negotiations or should be the outcome of negotiations. But at least we would know what we are talking about.

            But what exactly is the right to exist? Whose right is it? Is it the right of persons? Of a people? Or is it the right of states? Do states have rights to exist? This is a strange use or language. Is there any tradition in international law, moral thought, or political thought, that goes in-depth into the Issue of rights of states to exist? It is a strange phrase.

            Does it mean the right of a state to come into existence? Or is it the right of a state to continue to exist once it is in existence? Under what conditions does a state have that right? When does it gain that right? When does it lose that right? If the right to exist is a right to come into existence, then presumably it is a right held by non-existent potential states. How many potential states are there in the world that have that right? It’s a very strange phrase and a strange idea. Basically there is no body of accepted political or moral thought that adequately grounds the demand that a right to exist be recognized; unless, or course, one understands that demand as merely a round-about way at demanding that the PLO explicitly abandon a particular objective—the objective of destroying the State of Israel.

            The point is that a “right to exist” when applied to a state is an obscure notion. It’s an interesting notion, and something that philosophers can play with. But it is somewhat hard to under­stand why such an obscure term has found its way into international diplomacy and American law.

            Yet, there is another way of looking at it that tells us a great deal about what is going on, and will help us understand why the terrorism question is so important

            Six million Jews died because their right to exist was challenged as individuals. Genocide denied to the Jewish people as a whole the right to exist. These facts echo and remain a tearing wound in the consciousness of every Jew in the world. It is part of our historical memory and for many of us, our personal memory. And it will be part of the historical memory forever.

            It is this right of individual persons to exist and of a people to exist which is the deep psychological grounding of talk about any state’s having a right to exist.

            Now what is the relation of this to terrorism and the PLO? Is it propaganda? Is it merely transplanting the Holocaust experience into a Middle Eastern context? Is it untrue to say that the right of the Jewish people in Israel to exist, as a people or as individuals, has been challenged? Perhaps.

            But there is a tremendously important symbolic connection between terrorism and the Holocaust. And it must be dealt with.

            Terrorism asserts the primacy of the project, of the struggle, of the cause over the everyday existence rights of ordinary people. It denies that there are any valid limits to bow one wages a just fight, or pursues a just cause. It says that all means are permissible. The renunciation of terrorism is a recognition that certain kinds at means are not allowed, even in a just struggle. This is analogous to the notion of war crimes. Basically we are saying that even in war there are certain things that are not permissible.

            The terrorist purposely kills ordinary people, not for anything they have done, but because killing them is deemed useful. The terrorist refuses to recognize that ordinary people have a right to exist which he is not morally permitted to deliberately violate.

            For the remnants of a people who survived the Holocaust, terrorism is not a phony issue. For Jews inside Israel and outside, it reverberates with the most traumatic events in human history.

            Let me talk about the PLO position on terrorism. The PLO position is found most clearly in the Cairo Declaration on Terrorism that Chairman Arafat issued in 1985.

            When I met with Chairman Arafat I discussed this Declaration. I did this for several reasons. First, as I have argued, the issue is important. But secondly, I see this as an issue on which the PLO can act. It can take some unilateral steps that will advance the Palestinian cause and speak to Jewish fear at the same time.

            The terrorism issue is not a card. There is no terrorism card to be played. It is both a moral issue and an issue of common sense. Terrorism is not a help to the Palestinian cause. If anything has demonstrated this, it’s been the Revolution of the Stones. It has been the decision not to employ guns in the West Bank and Gaza. It has been the demonstration that the tactics of struggle which are most removed from the taint of terrorism, are the most successful.

            Now, if we look at the Cairo Declaration, we find that there are some terrific things in it that have been ignored. It contains some basic advances that many people, even people quite familiar with this issue, are not familiar with. First of all the Declaration contains a blanket condemnation or all acts of terrorism. It reads, “the PLO announces its criticism and condemnation of all acts of terrorism.” This is exactly correct. It is a renunciation of terrorism. Secondly, the Declaration signaled the seriousness with which the PLO intended to approach the matter. It reads, “Beginning today, the PLO will take all measures to deter violators.” This is tremendously important. It indicates that a real change was supposed to come starting in 1985 with respect to implementation of the policy. Chairman Arafat was saying that the Declaration was more than a verbal renunciation; measures would be taken to make sure that it was followed. This commitment was critical in order that the renunciation be credible.

             Then the Declaration goes on to assert that the Palestinian people have a right to resist occupation. And this is valid and I have no problem with it. But then, a very problematic turn is made. In speaking about the right to resist occupation, the Declaration asserts a right to resist “by all available means.” With the insertion of this phrase “all available means” the Declaration becomes contradictory. Either all acts of terrorism are condemned as the first part of the document says, or, all available means are permissible in struggling against the occupation. You cannot have it both ways. If all available means are permissible then terrorism is permissible as a means or resistance. If all acts of terrorism are condemned, then there is a limitation on permissible means even when resisting occupation.

            Then the Declaration takes an even more unfortunate turn. It says “events underline the certainty that terrorist operations committed outside Palestine hurt the cause of the Palestinian people.” By making this point about terrorism outside Palestine, and by failing to make a similar point about terrorism inside Palestine, the Declaration left itself open to the charge that it was saying that terrorism outside is condemned and forbidden but terrorism inside is permissible. And this, indeed, is how the Declaration has been interpreted inside of Israel and inside of the United States. It is why the Declaration basically failed as an adequate renunciation of terrorism.

            Now, I made these points to Chairman Arafat. And I must say he seemed to understand very clearly exactly what I was saying. He understood the need to be more explicit and forthcoming on this issue. And he indicated that some further steps would be taken to clarify PLO opposition to all acts of terrorism. And he said more generally, something that was tremendously important and heartening, that he recognized that basically, Israeli public opinion was the key to making progress in this struggle.

            When I left Tunis, I was hopeful that some kind of response, a new statement of policy, would be forthcoming. It wasn’t. But that of course wasn’t the most important thing. The most important thing is that the Palestinian struggle continued to mature on the tactical level. This was especially true with the uprising. The focus on stones. The decision not to use guns. The peace ship. The fact that in response to the killing or three PLO officials in Cyprus, no retaliation was taken in Europe. It seemed as if efforts to provoke Palestinians into terrorism had failed.

            But then there was the terrorist attack on the Negev bus. And since the attack to this day, (March 11, 1988) the PLO office in New York “will neither confirm nor deny the press claim that the PLO carried out that attack.

            Now to me that’s incredible. Almost as incredible as the attack itself. But on the other hand, it’s very hopeful. It means that there is still a certain kind or potential. If this conference acts, and if some of the people here with influence act, I think it’s possible to affect the official PLO position with respect to that attack, and to limit the harm that has been done.

            Now, I am not going to go on much longer. I want to just say a few more things. I think we are living in very precarious times. There is a great deal of euphoria in the West Bank and Gaza. It’s a teenage euphoria. I see it as something not tempered by political and historical maturity. A great deal of progress has been made but there are a lot of raise illusions about what it means. I think the gains that have been made could be lost overnight. And it will happen if there is an escalation of the violence.  

            Ariel Sharon gets up daily in the Knesset and boasts that he knows how to end the violence and he doesn’t understand what the army’s problem is. An escalation of the violence will play into his hands.

            There are a couple of lessons from Jewish history that are worth noting.


  • One, that there is no bottom to the horrors that one people can inflict on another. Don’t restrict your imagination: never believe that you have already experienced all the evil that is possible.
  • And secondly, remember that the world will not save you. Don’t rely on world public opinion, don’t rely on public pressure, and if you are Palestinian, don’t rely on the Arab When you face hell you are going to face it alone.


            Two facts must be squarely faced:


  • The first is that objectively the terrorist is the enemy of the Palestinian Whatever his subjective intentions are, he undermines and harms the cause. And I think at this point he is one or its most serious enemies. There has to be some recognition of this objective reality and a response to it by responsible people who care about where this cause is going.
  • And secondly, it must be faced that a leadership that cannot enforce a policy against terrorism or at least totally divorce itself from acts of terrorism, will not lead the Palestinian people to self-determination. It simply will not happen.


            It’s late in the day to address this issue. But I believe Arab-Americans and Palestinians must speak out. You must not whisper and refuse to speak out publicly. The situation is analogous to that faced by Jewish critics of the Israeli government. Politics is public: it has to be done publicly. What is whispered does not exist.

            Imagine what the impact would have been in Israel, and what it would have been around the world, if after the attack on the Negev bus, for 24 hours, no stones were thrown and instead the Palestinian youth had marched silently under the banner, “Terrorism Is Not Our Way.”

            I call on you and I call on the Anti-Discrimination Committee, as soon as possible, before this convention is out, to condemn terrorism. Set it in context, condemn the Israelis for what they are doing, but condemn terrorism and condemn the attack on the Negev bus.