October 1974 Rabat Arab Summit Conference

What was the significance of the October 1974 Rabat Summit Conference of Arab leaders?

In the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, negotiations commenced between Israel and its Arab neighbors. These talks were mostly focused on a cease-fire, but there were serious attempts to progress further. Even the Soviet Union co-sponsored the first Geneva Conference in 1973 to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute.

Consequently, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was concerned that Arab regimes might make peace with Israel over its head. The PLO also worried about the possibility of having the West Bank return to the Jordanian rule that was lost in the Six Day War in 1967, a development which would eliminate any hope of Palestinian control over that territory. A proposal fielded by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), led by the Jordanian-born Nayif Hawatmeh, suggested the solution for the PLO.

The DFLP proposal was to establish a secular, democratic state where Arabs and Jews would both have an equal role as individuals. This aspect was rejected by the PLO. But the DFLP plan had a second part, which became the cornerstone of the PLO's whole approach from then on. This plan suggested that the PLO announce its readiness to take any part of Mandatory Palestine that was up for grabs. In short, if Israel was to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza, that territory should go to the PLO and not to Jordan or Egypt. This avoided the unthinkable (to the PLO) question of making peace with Israel, it was merely a claim to any available land.

In the same time period, Arafat sought contacts with the United States. He sent two messages to the Nixon administration requesting clarification of the US position on key diplomatic issues. The US agreed to a meeting, and on November 3, 1973, Vernon Walters, then deputy director of the CIA, met secretly in Rabat, Morocco with a top Arafat aide. Henry Kissinger described that Rabat meeting in the second volume of his memoirs, Years of Upheaval. Walters was instructed to say that the question of who represented the Palestinians -- Jordan or the PLO -- was an "inter-Arab concern." The PLO took this as an American invitation to seek Arab backing as the sole representative of the Palestinians, and they obtained this status at the Arab summit meeting in Rabat in 1974. Arafat expected, wrongly, that this would also lead to prompt American recognition of the PLO.

In 1974, the 12th session of the Palestine National Council followed Arafat's script when it called for the establishment of a "national authority" on any portion of Palestinian land liberated.

The Rabat Summit conference in October 1974 brought together the leaders of twenty Arab states and representatives of the PLO, whose leaders threatened a walkout if their demands for unconditional recognition were not met. The PLO required a statement from the conference that any Palestinian territory liberated by Arab forces would be turned over to the "Palestinian people" as represented by the PLO. Jordan protested, pointing out that recognition on these terms would give the PLO sovereignty over half of the population in the East Bank and that in fact the annexation of the West Bank by Jordan had been approved by popular vote.

A compromise solution was adopted that nonetheless favored PLO interests. The conference formally acknowledged the right of the Palestinian people to a separate homeland, but without specifying that its territory was restricted to the West Bank. Most important, the PLO was for the first time officially recognized by all the Arab states as the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people." The Arab heads of state also called for close cooperation between the front-line states and the PLO but prohibited interference by other Arab states in Palestinian affairs.

The Rabat Summit declaration conferred a mantle of legitimacy on the PLO that was previously absent. It gave official Arab recognition to PLO territorial claims to the West Bank and unambiguously put the fate of the Palestinian people solely in the hands of the PLO. Jordanian King Hussein opposed the declaration, although he eventually signed it under intense Arab pressure and after the Arab oil-producing states promised to provide Jordan with an annual subsidy of $US 300 million.

The Rabat statement allowed Arafat to proceed against Israel without worrying about other Arab countries (e.g. Jordan) grabbing the prize. At the same time, the message to Israel was clear: The resolution clearly states that the conflict would continue until Israel's destruction. Indeed, it explicitly states that any land the PLO took over would be used primarily as a base for attacking Israel.

The continued subsequent use of terrorism against Israeli civilians made it clear that this resolution did not mean favoring any kind of compromise with Israel. Nevertheless, there have been attempts made by Arafat and various Western writers to rewrite history and misrepresent what happened in 1974 as some kind of major peace initiative.

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