The year was 1977. On a cloudy November afternoon in Ramallah (Israeli-Occupied West Bank) we sat intent upon the image on the TV screen. President Sadat was delivering his speech to the Israeli parliament. Most Palestinians, like the weather, were in a state of doubt.
It was not long, however, until the clouds lifted: Sadat's visit would not bring respite from the 10-year-old military occupation. The government's accelerated settlement activity followed Camp David, as Helena Cobban notes.
Cobban is a correspondent who reported on Palestinian and Lebanese affairs for the Sunday Times (London), and for the English-language daily Beirut Star. She lived in Beirut throughout most of the '70s and has written perceptively on Palestinian issues before. Her current book is a comprehensive account documenting the rise of the PLO, from its hesitant beginnings in the mid-'60s under the tutelage of the Arab League to its development as an independent Palestinian institution through 1983. Aside from her own eyewitness account, she relies on a wide variety of English and Arabic sources, including taped interviews with PLO leaders.
The concern for accuracy exhibited in her book is immediately evident from its title. Cobban correctly renders its Arabic name as the Palestinian Liberation Organization, rather than the more usual Palestine. . . . The shift to the adjective reflects one of her major themes--the movement toward accommodation in the political thinking of the PLO. In successive sessions of the Palestine National Council, the original program of liberating all of Palestine was gradually modified such that recognition of Israel was implied in the resolutions of the 16th session (February, 1983) endorsing the Fez and Brezhnev peace plans, both of which had called for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and the security of all states in the area.
Cobban's book is basically a history of the Palestinian national movement, though at times it sounds more like a chronicle of it. She focuses on Fatah, but does not leave out of account the internal struggles with the other groups in the PLO. Very significantly, she also devotes a chapter to the rise of the national movement among Palestinians living in what she calls "historic Palestine"--that is, the West Bank and Gaza, and Israel:
"By 1983, the fact and vitality of (Palestinian) nationalism seemed incontrovertible, as did the role of the PLO/Fatah leaders in having achieved this. The continued existence of the Palestinian people, as a people, no longer seemed in doubt, nor its leaders in jeopardy."
In substance, there isn't a great difference between the themes interwoven in Cobban's book and those articulated in Alan Hart's. Both focus on Fatah as the mainstream movement within the PLO, both stress the emergence of Palestinian nationalism as a fact of modern history, and both emphasize the basic moderation and pragmatism of the Palestinian leadership in the pursuit of a just peace. As Hart puts it, there would by now have been a comprehensive settlement "if Israel had produced a leader with the skill and the courage to match that demonstrated by Arafat as he set about the task of persuading his colleagues and people to make unthinkable concessions for the sake of peace with Israel." In style, however, the two books are different. Cobban engages readers calmly, and Hart, as we see, challenges them to review their received opinions on the PLO and the Palestinians.
Alan Hart was a widely traveled foreign correspondent for British television who contributed regularly to the BBC's "Panorama" program. It was on this program in 1971, in an interview with him, that then Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir made her famous statement that "the Palestinians do not exist." His book, in a sense, is a response to Golda Meir's negation.
It also is as much a portrait of the top PLO leadership, veterans of 20 years political experience, as it is a biography of Arafat. It contains many surprises, not the least of which being the important contribution of Intissar Wazir (Um Jihad), the wife of Khalil Wazir (Abu Jihad), Arafat's senior aide. This leadership is articulate, and the author lets them tell their story in their own words from which he quotes extensively. Khaled Hassan emerges as an intellectual, providing the reader with a Palestinian perspective on events in the recent history of the region.
Cobban's balanced presentation and her studied objectivity of tone reflect the hallmarks of her medium (print) and Hart's approach has all the liveliness and drama of a television closeup. These two complementary books are essential reading. They are valuable additions to the library of international politics.