Written by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, the Declaration was significant for its definition of an independence state (“The State of Palestine is the state of Palestinians wherever they may be”), its rejection of violence and terrorism by both Palestinians and those who attack Palestinians, and, for the first time in Palestinian history, an implicit recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a state coexistent with a future Palestinian, independent state.
The Declaration recognized all United Nations resolutions pertaining to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In so doing, the Palestinian National Council recognized UN Resolution 242 and Resolution 338, two key resolutions in the conflict. Resolution 242 called on Israel to withdraw from territories it occupied in the 1967 Six Day War, and, implicitly, on Palestinians to recognize Israel. Resolution 338, initially a resolution calling for a cease-fire in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, called for immediate negotiations and all sides to seek “a just and durable peace in the Middle East.”
Getting Over Conditions
Previously, the Palestine National Council had not supported the resolutions unconditionally. “What prevents it from saying so unconditionally is not what is in the resolutions but what is not in them,” explained PLO spokesman Bassam Abu Sharif in a New York Times OpEd several months before the Declaration. “Neither resolution says anything about the national rights of the Palestinian people, including their democratic right to self-expression and their national right to self-determination. For that reason alone, we have repeatedly said that we accept 242 and 338 in the context of the other U.N. resolutions, which do recognize the national rights of the Palestinian people.”
The Declaration of Independence, also known as the Algiers Declaration, dispensed with the conditional even as it retained the right to define, for Palestinians, what’s meant by independence and rights.
Israeli and American Authorities React Derisively
Israeli authorities immediately derided the Declaration, focusing primarily on its assumptions of “independence” rather than its concessions regarding Resolutions 242 and 338—concessions Israel had itself made a pre-condition to any talks with Palestinians. The response from Washington was similarly derisive. The Reagan administration was in its last days. President George H.W. Bush had just been elected but was ten weeks from inauguration.
“The reference to U.N. resolutions 242 and 338 is an advance over previous efforts by the P.N.C.,” State Department spokesman Charles E. Redman said on behalf of the Reagan administration. “Nevertheless, it is ambiguous, both in its placement in the text and its meaning. Possibly implied or indirect recognition of Israel is not sufficient. Recognition must be clear and unambiguous.”
Resolution 242’s recognition of “secure and recognized” borders had itself been implicit, however—an implicitness designed to apply to all countries in the region—existing and anticipated ones.
An unnamed foreign policy aid to President-elect Bush at the time told The New York Times that the Declaration was “a slight step forward on their part, an effort to move in the right direction under pressure from those Palestinians in the territories.” But, the aide added, “They’re still operating on the basis of the lowest common denominator. To meet them and reward them would send the wrong signal.”
Israel’s outright rejection and the Reagan-Bush administration’s cagey responses dealt a blow to Palestinian hopes that peace talks would start in earnest—or that either Israel or the United States were earnestly interested in a breakthrough. The PLO’s Yasser Arafat demolished his own credibility two years later when he enthusiastically endorsed Saddam Hussein in Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait—and his war with the U.S.-led coalition in Operation Desert Storm.
Milestone Toward Madrid Peace Conference
Still, the Palestinian Declaration of Independence helped set the stage for less rigidity on that score within the Bush administration, as Secretary of State James Baker used the Declaration to steer Palestinians and Israelis toward the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991. The conference didn’t achieve a peace, but it achieved something that hadn’t been done before: It got Israeli and Palestinian delegations to sit at the same table and talk. In a concession to Israel, the Palestinian delegation wasn’t formally made up of PLO representatives. But throughout the three-day proceedings it was to remain in contact with PLO representatives.
The Declaration, while marginalized since, remains, thanks to its author (who had been short-listed for the Nobel Prize in literature before his death in 2008), an eloquent summation of history and principles from the Palestinian perspective.