What Price, Palestine?

What Price, Palestine?

The plan to take Israeli athletes hostage during the 1972 Munich Olympic Games was conceived at a cafe on the Piazza della Rotonda in Rome, in the shadow of the Pantheon and the tomb of Raphael.


The plan to take Israeli athletes hostage during the 1972 Munich Olympic Games was conceived at a cafe on the Piazza della Rotonda in Rome, in the shadow of the Pantheon and the tomb of Raphael. Sitting at an outdoor table were three PLO officials, Salah Khalaf, Faqri al-Umari and Muhammad Audeh, whose respective noms de guerre–Abu Iyad, Abu Muhammad and Abu Daoud–carried, until not so long ago, considerable weight. The sole surviving member of the triumvirate, Abu Daoud, recently published the first volume of his memoirs, in French and Arabic.

The product is exceptional, thanks largely to Abu Daoud’s divulging of original information. When secretive former operatives confess, they often admit to more than politicians, who generally regard the truth as unsafe. Abu Daoud, once considered among the more sinister of Palestinian officials, believes he can admit to what he did because he has mouthed the proper password: He accepts the Oslo process, though with reservations. As he sees it, his book serves, in this context, a useful design: “Our past is what it is. However, one must also know what constitutes it, so as not to repeat the same errors in the future, or the same tragedies. That is why I also consider that a real peace cannot be built on information that remains obscure to this day.”

For the moment, the information has yet to appear in the United States. Abu Daoud’s memoir is to be published by Arcade Books, with a publication date loosely set for next summer. Craig Offman, writing in the online magazine Salon, noted that the book’s preparation has already agitated the publishers, Richard and Jeannette Seaver, who claim that on a visit to Israel they were shadowed. The pair has reported receiving daily telephone calls and letters from people outraged that the mastermind of Munich might have his say. One fears that if the work proves too much of a nuisance, the American public may be spared the affront of ever contemplating it.

Of course, that outcome would be downright insolent, given that just about every leading player on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian divide has something to conceal. In the constellation of transfigured PLO militants, one need not reach so elevated a summit as Yasir Arafat to gauge the magical powers of redemption provided by the willingness of Palestinians to live in a smattering of West Bank and Gaza hamlets. Recall that Israeli President Ezer Weizman made time at the funeral of King Hussein of Jordan to shake the hand of Nayef Hawatmeh, leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and formerly one of the most ferociously intransigent of Palestinian leaders.

But Munich was singularly reprehensible, many might persist. The quarries were, after all, civilians and, worse, athletes. In that case something must be done to discipline Abu Daoud’s close friend Mahmoud Abbas. He is the gentleman who placed his signature on the Oslo accords, watched by millions of moved television viewers, who couldn’t have imagined for one second that it was he, Abu Mazen, who financed the Munich operation. Oddly, there was no fracas when his memoirs were issued.

Nor was there dissent when Ariel Sharon published his martial reminiscences. And who can forget Shimon Peres? Surely the fact that his cannoneers killed more than 100 civilians at Qana during the Grapes of Wrath operation against Lebanon in 1996 merited an irate phone call or two ordering his The New Middle East banned from public-library shelves. One can move on, deeper into extravagance. But that would be missing the point that the reconciliation favored by Palestinian and Israeli leaders today requires large measures of amnesia.

It is more surprising that Abu Daoud’s memoir received an ambiguous welcome from commentators in the Arab world. Although excerpts were published in prominent Arab newspapers, including Al-Hayat and Beirut’s An-Nahar, and though Abu Daoud made the rounds of the region’s television stations, there was palpable restraint toward his account of the Palestinian-Israeli contest, which was, hitherto, the daily political preoccupation in the Arab world.

This reserve was the result, primarily, of three things: The memoir has only just been translated into Arabic, which means it is too early to evaluate accurately its impact. There is also something inherently incomplete in the first of a two-volume work: The reader is not allowed to determine how Abu Daoud’s actions affected the ultimate destiny of the Palestinian nationalist movement–acceptance of statehood in the territories occupied in 1967. That will be the substance of the second volume, though now one is compelled to read a narrative with no ending.

The third problem is that Abu Daoud may be paying the price for the subtle and perilous transformation of the Palestinians into the pariahs of the Arab world. By the mid-eighties, the Palestinians were on their own. One difficulty was relevance. Banished from Lebanon after the 1982 Israeli invasion, the PLO watched as the Syrian leader, Hafez al-Assad–unwilling to be drawn into another costly war with Israel–engineered a rift in Palestinian ranks. In late 1983 Arafat, having been ejected from Damascus, attempted to regain a foothold in northern Lebanon, if only to remain close to Israel. Assad put a stern end to the adventure, however, when he had the PLO leader turned out of the port city of Tripoli and packed off to distant Tunis.

The intifada arrived in time to save the PLO. Though the organization’s expatriated leadership commandeered the revolt, it was mostly the youths of the West Bank and Gaza who served as cannon fodder. These were the years in which the Palestinians living under occupation began developing a combative identity of their own, a development Arafat and his comrades would learn, uneasily, to contend with. By the time the PLO reached the nadir of its fortunes–when Arafat, in a drive toward self-immolation, sided with Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War–the organization had already sensed that the only political lifeline available was negotiations with Israel.

It was an exotic feature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that only when the PLO lost its élan did it become an attractive interlocutor for the Israelis. The Israelis took their time but eventually grasped that the intifada, though it had abated by 1990, represented an irreversible phase in the Palestinians’ struggle for their national rights. Henceforth, the fight–regardless of the weaponry used–would be carried to the occupied territories, even to Israel proper, an objective that the PLO commanders, among them Abu Daoud, had pointedly failed to achieve in the seventies from their exile in what was known in the jargon of those years as the “confrontation states.”

It was to Arafat’s credit that he successfully transformed the lessons of the intifada into something he could bring to the negotiating table. Abu Daoud’s memoirs are most useful, however, in measuring the time it took for the PLO to focus its attentions on the single issue that always mattered: liberation of Palestinian territory. Until virtually the eve of the Madrid conference in October 1991, Arafat and his acolytes were ensnared in senseless sideshows: in Jordan, then in Lebanon and, finally, on the wrong end of the Gulf War.

Much of Abu Daoud’s book is taken up with the Jordanian interlude. After having joined the PLO in the mid-sixties, the former schoolteacher moved to Amman, where he came to lead the Palestinian militias, an auxiliary force of several thousand men that protected the refugee camps. Abu Daoud takes us through a blow-by-blow account of the growing animosity between the Palestinian organizations and the Jordanian regime. This culminated in full-scale warfare in September 1970. Though the Palestinian organizations were severely weakened, King Hussein had to wait until October 1971 to complete their eviction from the kingdom.

Abu Daoud’s revelations about the conflict with Jordan are predictably partial. They will also become indispensable reading for anyone interested in the PLO’s decision-making during the ascending crisis with the Hashemite regime. Though Arafat is depicted as a Neville Chamberlain-like figure, capitulating at the drop of a hat to Jordanian provocations, he comes across as far more sensible than Abu Daoud. Arafat understood that a war with Jordan would alarm most Arab states and isolate the PLO regionally.

The account of the confrontation in Jordan leads Abu Daoud to an interpretive impasse. He is highly critical of Palestinian organizations that openly sought to undermine Hussein’s regime, arguing that it was their machinations that allowed the king to vindicate his showdown with the Palestinians in September 1970. At the same time, Abu Daoud admits, rather inconsistently, that he too favored overthrowing the monarchy, but through different means. While his quibble may be with strategy rather than objectives, he never adequately explains how the appropriation of Jordan would have helped regain Palestine.

The case for the Munich hostage takeover is similarly unsettling. Though the Israelis bombed Palestinian civilians in Lebanon with careless abandon in the early seventies, it was high-profile operations like Munich that Western governments remembered, much to the PLO’s detriment. Even certain Palestinian officials legitimately wondered how hostage-taking would recover occupied land, particularly at a time when the PLO officially rejected–to the displeasure of many Arab governments–the notion of establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Munich was carried out by the Black September organization, a secret tributary of Fatah, the PLO’s largest faction. It was established in 1972 by Abu Iyad, Abu Daoud and Abu Mazen. Even before its founding, however, a major operation ordered by Abu Iyad was carried out in its name: the assassination in November 1971 of Jordanian prime minister Wasfi al-Tal. Al-Tal had not only masterminded the PLO’s ouster from Jordan–in the process manipulating and antagonizing Abu Iyad–he was trying to set up a pan-Arab structure that would have limited the military autonomy of the Palestinian organizations.

Abu Daoud goes into considerable detail to correct long-held misperceptions of the Munich operation. His account was persuasive enough for the Germans to issue an arrest warrant on him. He admits to having planned Munich and maintains that the person long thought to have directed the operation, Ali Hassan Salameh, had nothing to do with it. Rather, Salameh, who became Arafat’s liaison to the CIA, had established a separate Black September, which, though it carried out several attacks in Europe, was never regarded as the real thing.

As Abu Daoud reconstructs the Olympics operation and its aftermath, one of the motives for his memoir becomes apparent: not so much to defend his legacy as to rectify it, to remind readers of what it is he actually did and did not do. Abu Daoud wants to delay anonymity, a justifiable incentive for a public confession, but he also does not want to be remembered for the wrong reasons. That is because in 1973 the Jordanian regime almost rewrote his story.

In February of that year, Abu Daoud was arrested in Amman and held for several months. During this period he endured torture and a death sentence, later reversed by King Hussein on the advice of the head of the Jordanian intelligence services, Abdel Rasoul Kilani. The Jordanians forced Abu Daoud to admit to a version of the Munich operation that, paradoxically, absolved him of responsibility while blaming others. This had the dual effect of discrediting Abu Daoud among Palestinians and sending the Israelis in the direction of men who had not participated in the hostage takeover. Indeed, in April 1973 Ehud Barak–now Israel’s prime minister–led a commando team to Beirut to murder a trio of Palestinian officials, supposedly to avenge Munich. Not one of them, Abu Daoud maintains, had been involved in the Olympics affair.

While Abu Daoud was in prison, Black September seized more hostages, this time at the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Khartoum, to secure his release. Two American diplomats, Cleo Noel and G. Curtis Moore, as well as a Belgian counterpart, were shot after being detained for hours. With unusual timorousness Abu Daoud dispatches the story in a few lines. He may now know that Noel and Moore were part of an exceptional group of Americans who were willing to accept the Arab world on its own terms. He does not know, however, that the wife of one of the men traveled to Beirut not long afterward and, in response to a remark that the Arab world must have seemed a bitter place after her husband’s assassination, observed that perhaps the explanation for that senseless act had to be sought in the squalor of the Palestinian refugee camps.

Doubtless Abu Daoud would value the story. For he spent too long a time buffeted by the misreadings that have shaped the recent history of his people.

Ad Policy