When it comes to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), there’s good news and bad news.
The bad news is that the PLO is near dead. The good news is that the Palestinian people’s quest for national self-determination remains very much alive and well.
The PLO was created to embody the Palestinian people’s right to national independence and self-determination. Israel always hated the PLO, and from the organisation’s inception Israel waged an intense propaganda campaign to project it as a terrorist entity or an agent of the Soviet Union.
When the PLO was embraced by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), Israel drew on a colonial-era racist trope, describing it as the uncivilised peoples of the world confronting civilised democracies.
In fact, Israel’s main objection to the PLO, according to their leaders, was not “terrorism”, but rather because the PLO represented Palestinian national identity and its recognition meant accepting the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination.
In 1975, Israel extracted a US pledge not to engage with the PLO in exchange for Israel’s acceptance of a US-brokered Israel-Egypt-Syria disengagement plan. That “no-talk” pledge hampered US diplomacy for 17 years. It cost UN Ambassador Andrew Young his job for meeting with the PLO’s UN representative. Legislation prohibited the PLO from operating an office or even visiting the US.
This Israeli rejection of the PLO and Palestinian self-identity complicated US efforts to organise the Madrid Peace Conference, resulting in 11 failed rounds of talks.
The impasse was broken when some Israeli and PLO representatives decided to negotiate outside the Madrid process. In their agreement, later accepted by both the Israeli government and the PLO, the PLO affirmed its recognition of Israel’s right to exist and Israel recognised the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people.
Tragically, Oslo turned out to be a trap. While the Palestinians repeatedly reaffirmed Israel’s right to exist, Israel clearly never intended to move beyond its pre-Oslo position that Palestinians should expect no more than “limited autonomy” under Israeli control.
During the next three decades, as Israel tightened its domination of Palestinian life, the Palestinians took disastrous steps that have proved fatal to the PLO, merging it with the Oslo-created Palestinian Authority (PA), effectively cutting off the organisation from the Palestinian diaspora.
Subordinating the PA to Israeli domination of their economy and security, and relying on Israeli goodwill and the international community’s whims, the PA became a supplicant for funds and a dependent.
The emergence of factions outside the PLO framework, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, only complicated this deterioration. Their rejection of Oslo’s terms and their penchant for self-destructive violence against civilians — whether past use of suicide bombers or more recent launching of missiles — have tightened Israel’s strangulation of Gaza and deepened the Palestinian divide.
Today, the PA and Hamas run parallel organisations — in the West Bank and Gaza, respectively — using funds, from taxation or external donors, to support limited services and a patronage system rewarding operatives.
The Palestine Central Committee, the PLO’s governing body, has just convened. Many boycotted; others were absent having been expelled by Mahmoud Abbas. Being a patronage system, attendees ratified hollow resolutions as they were told. It was the last gasp of breath for a moribund institution.
Tragically, the once-respected national liberation movement has devolved into two competing unrepresentative leaderships, the PA and Hamas, both focused on their survival and retaining “control” of their occupied fiefdoms.
On the other hand, it is inspiring to witness how ordinary Palestinians are daily confronting the occupation, mainly using the techniques of civil disobedience.
In the wake of the PLO’s demise, the resilience and determination of the people ensures that the Palestinians and their just demands will remain, in the words of the poet Tawfiq Zayyad, “like a cactus thorn in the throat” of Israel.
To resuscitate the national movement, the PLO must be reconstituted from the bottom up. Our polling shows that Palestinians want unity. But unity cannot be based on the coalescing of two self-serving entities.
New life can only come by empowering Palestinian civil society. That means elections – open, fair and free.