By Richard Falk
Ever since Gandhi and Gandhism revolutionized resistance politics there have been a variety of contradictory efforts by oppressors and resistors to learn from their successes, and especially from their failures.
On the side of the oppressors, have been an endless series of tactical and technological innovations to make brute force and psychological intimidation more effective, and compel resistors to surrender and submit.
On the side of the resistors, have been a variety of tactical and conceptual adjustments designed to weaken the resolve of oppressors, essentially overcoming military and hard power inferiority by psychological, nonviolent, and less violent means. What made the last half of the twentieth century hopefully progressive were the seeming shifts in the balance of forces toward these latter emancipatory forms of power and away from the former dominance of the oppressive forms, but since 2000 the balance seems to be shifting back in favor of the oppressors at least temporarily.
After Gandhi came Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela who each managed to turn the tables on the realist calculus relied upon by ruling elites throughout the world, demonstrating that under appropriate conditions, the emancipators can win out overcoming their material inferiority. There is no formula that can guide political actors, but attentiveness to historical analogies and present context can be illuminating, which helps explain why leadership attuned to the specific circumstances is so vital. Although Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela did not reject armed struggle on principle, their victories, like that of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., were essentially based on the psychological advantages they possessed that eventually prevailed in the battlefields of the mind. In this sense, even Ayatollah’s Khomeini’s tactical reliance on massive mobilization on behalf of nonviolent opposition to the Shah’s armed thugs was illustrative of a new order of battle in the world, and should not be overshadowed by the violence relied upon by the Islamic Republic once it gained control of Iran.
It is against this background that I take note of the present ordeal of the Palestinian people who are being cruelly pushed hard against walls of submission by violence and threats, and offered a poisonous chalice of economic inducements provided they submit politically, which it is insisted, only amounts to acknowledging what in fact has become in any event ‘a lost cause’ somewhat along the lines of Tibet, Western Sahara, and the fates that have befallen most indigenous peoples throughout the world. Without the need for much explanation or analysis this is what the Trump presidency is promoting as ‘the deal of the century’ and this seems to be what the Arab dynastic autocrats of the region would like to see happen so that they can get on with their business of confronting Iran and keeping their own peoples forever captive.
Viewing these issues on a larger historical canvas there seems to be a number of developments that have rendered more formidable the challenges facing resistors. Above all, the oppressors have greater resolve because the world as a whole is the relevant battlefield including their homeland. While we are living in period of ultra-nationalism and autocratic leadership of most leading sovereign states, what happens at a distance alters the realities of homeland security. As a result, drone warfare and counterterrorism are no longer matters of the enforcement of criminal law at the level of the state, but warfare of global scope. Such concerns are both distinct from and directly connected to ending the Palestinian ordeal. As with the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, what was at stake was whether the new anti-colonial/anti-oppressor balance would prevail in this most crucial symbolic battleground of the last century where the evils of colonialism were tightly bound together with the evils of racism.
The struggle over the future of Palestine exhibits the same pattern in a heightened symbolic context due to the engagement of geopolitical forces in sustaining Israel’s enactment of an apartheid regime of control that victimizes the Palestinian people as a whole, whether under conditions of occupation, in refugee camps or exile, or living as a discriminated minority in what was until a century ago their own country and homeland. For over a hundred years Palestinians have resisted in a variety of ways that have been stymied without being defeated. In a series of stages that overlap and interact, neighboring countries have sought to empower Palestinians by armed intervention, Palestinians have resorted to armed struggle, the UN with the support of the West has attempted to impose partition and offered guidelines for behavior based on international law that Israel has ignored or defied, a flawed framework for diplomacy was established with a partisan intermediary that reached no sustainable peace agreement, and now a geopolitical ultimatum is being put forward as a way of proclaiming an Israeli victory and the defeat of resistance.
In my view, the Palestinian national struggle has manifested creativity in several phases of its resistance, especially when it developed several strategies of predominantly nonviolent resistance. I commend attention to the two intifadas of 1987 and 2000, the periodic collective prison hunger strikes, and the prolonged and continuing Great March of Return on successive Fridays along the Gaza border with Israel. Palestinian resolve has been extraordinary given the oppressive weight of the Israeli apartheid regime as reinforced by geopolitical muscular tactics. The prospects of a successful resistance in such an atmosphere require the most imaginative mobilization of available psychological resources. In my view, these resources can be considered under the labels of ‘Legitimacy Wars’ and ‘The Politics of Impossibility,’ which have applicability to other ongoing struggles of many oppressed peoples.
In the early period after the end of the British Mandate Zionism was winning Legitimacy War in Palestine by projecting Jews as a tragically victimized people in need of a sanctuary and \ Arabs residents as hopelessly backward and lacking in the abilities needed to build a modern state. In this narrative, epitomized by the novel and movie Exodus, the Jewish settlers were transforming an impoverished regressive society into a miracle of democratized modernity that would even benefit the lazy and dysfunctional Arabs. Only in recent decades has a Palestinian counter-narrative emerged that stresses the right of self-determination enjoyed by a majority native population together more understanding that Palestinians were victimized from the outset of the Zionist Project, which culminated in the Nakba, the catastrophic ethnic cleansing of over 700,000 resident Arabs as followed by the denial of any right of return and an expanding territorial agenda.
At this point, it can be reasonably concluded that the Palestinians are winning The Legitimacy War, which means gaining control over the normative dimensions of law, morality, and basic historical trends supporting their claims for peaceful coexistence between the two people based on mutual respect and equality of rights. Such normative hegemony also affects world public opinion, and indirectly, the strength and impact of such global solidarity tactics as the BDS Campaign. These developments are lending vital psychological support to Palestinian resistance activities, but are not by themselves enough to overcome oppressive structures in this instance given the Zionist resolve and self-confidence, and the operational effectiveness of the apartheid regime in place. A Legitimacy War by itself cannot have a transformative effect under these conditions unless supplemented by ‘the politics of impossibility.’
The Politics of Impossibility
Because ‘realists’ are out of touch with reality, yet enjoy the backing of most media and elites, the successes achieved by resistance forces seem ‘impossible’ until after they have occurred and must be explained. Early commentary on Gandhi’s efforts or those of Ho Chi Minh and Castro were uniform in their extreme skepticism about the viability of their undertakings. Until Mandela’s release from prison was announced, not one responsible voice was heard in South Africa anticipating a peaceful transition to a post-apartheid constitutional democracy in the country. Numerous other examples can be given. Perhaps the most dramatic non-verbal illustration of The Politics of Impossibility occurred in the triumphal ending of the film The Battle of Algiers. The idea here is that the realist sensibility presupposes that the established order has the means and will to address challenges from below, rendering them as ‘impossible,’ and calling for explanation only if and when they occur.
In my view, the Palestinian struggle is now on this uncertain terrain of having won the Legitimacy War and yet still blocked politically. A Palestinian political victory is viewed as more impossible than ever before, and is thus widely treated as ‘impossible.’ If it happens, learned commentators will come forward with convincing explanations of the previously unconsidered outcome.
The analysis offered provides a way of thinking about how the Palestinian ordeal might yet be overcome, in keeping with the anti-colonial flow of history. Despite the strength of this flow, it does not always foreshadow outcomes, and thus The Politics of Impossibility falls in the domain of ‘plausible hope’ and does not pretend to be a prediction. As the political future is radically uncertain, we have the opportunity and possess the responsibility to struggle for what we believe is right.
*Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, Distinguished Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).