By Dr. Mohsen Moh’d Saleh
The existence of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) is an achievement to be proud of. It expressed the Palestinians’ spirit to liberate the land and not see their cause subsumed in the wider Arab political and social milieu. Nevertheless, an objective analysis shows that the PLO that was established in 1964 is not the same organization now. It is suffering from five main problems, which reduce the PLO’s ability to represent the Palestinian people, and impede its ability to work efficiently and achieve its aims and objectives.
The Problem of Representation
On the official level, the PLO is "the only legitimate representative for the Palestinian people" and that’s the way it is dealt with on the world stage. In practice, though, that definition has been diminished amongst the Palestinians and their factions. With the rise of Islamism (particularly Hamas and Islamic Jihad) a quarter of a century ago, a large segment of the Palestinian people has no representation within the PLO; neither faction is part of the organization.
Fatah has controlled the various PLO’s sections and decision-making since 1968. The Cairo Agreement of March 2005, the national accord document of June 2006, the Makkah accord of February 2007 and the reconciliation agreement of May 2011 have all called for the reform and reactivation of the PLO, but none of these agreements has been implemented. Fatah’s leadership has not put any effort in to include all Palestinians and factions. Indeed, the PLO has shrunk to fit Fatah, not expanded to take in the breadth of Palestinian political thought.
Thus, the PLO is no longer a truly representative umbrella body for all Palestinians inside or outside historic Palestine. Many feel that it doesn’t look after their interests or that they have any connection to it. The PLO can’t accommodate independent thought, intellectuals and civil society organisations. This problem is also clear in the criteria with which representatives of the Palestinian people – including independents – are chosen and appointed to the Palestinian National Council (PNC).
Apart from the non participation of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the PLO, the addition of 400 members to the PNC in 1996, bringing the total number close to 800, was a surprise. Disapproval was expressed not only by PLO factions but also some leaders within Fatah, including the PNC head, Salim Alzaanoun. At that time, the PLO leadership was in need of a majority to repeal most of the Palestinian National Charter, and thus sign the death warrant of the objectives for which the PLO was established, in response to the conditions of the Oslo Accord.
The Problem of Institutions and Institutional Work
The Palestinian National Council has not been active in any real sense since 1991, nor has it been able to renew its membership according to the bylaws of the PLO, which it is supposed to every three years. The various sections of the PLO, which perform the functions of ministries in any other country, are either dead on their feet or pale shadows of what they should be. They are absent from the political arena and meaningful interaction with the Palestinian people; they are departments lacking budgets, well-trained and active cadres, and an effective program concomitant with a people fighting to liberate their land.
Some of these sections and departments are very low profile, to the extent that we don’t hear anything about or from them: the Occupied Land Department; the Department of Refugees’ Affairs; the Department of Education; The Department of National Relations; the Information and Culture Department; the Department of Public Organization; the Military Department; and the Social Department.
The PLO research center, which was a source of pride for the Palestinian people, is finished, and the planning center has been neglected. For example, in early 1970, the planning center completed "the comprehensive strategic plan for the Palestinian revolution" after a great deal of effort, and sent the top secret document to its leadership in Amman. When no one called to discuss the details of the plan, Yousuf Alsayegh, the center’s director, travelled to Amman to find out what was going on. There, he found a copy of the "top secret" plan on a table at the leadership headquarters with tea and sugar splashed on the cover. He turned around and went back to Beirut.
The last actual election for membership of the PLO Executive Committee was held in 1996. According to the PLO’s internal bylaws, the membership should have expired long ago, but it remains the same today. The PLO leadership faced a dilemma when six of its ExCo members died, which threatened the two-thirds quorum necessary for it to convene, as it is made up of eighteen members. The PLO leadership was forced to convene a Palestinian National Council meeting in August 2009, without renewing or changing any of its old membership.
The meeting was attended by 325 out of 700 surviving members of the 1996 PNC; six new members of the Executive Committee were elected. It was noted that Saleh Ra’afat attended as a representative for the Feda movement, while Yasser Abed Rabbo had been member of the PLO Executive Committee years ago as the Feda representative; he left the organization but he retained his membership of the Executive Committee.
Feda formed an alliance with the People’s Party and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine to stand in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council election. Although the alliance only won 2 seats out of 132, it has four members in the PLO Executive Committee. Hamas has no presence in the PLO at all, while it won 74 seats in the 2006 election (including four seats for independent figures it had included in its lists), which is 56-59 per cent of the total.
The Problem of Decision Making and Its Mechanism
The President of the PLO imposed himself upon the decision making process inside the PLO, where Yasser Arafat was criticized by many – by his colleagues in Fatah as well those from other factions and independents – that he had a monopoly of the decision-making process. Power was concentrated in his hands, especially concerning political, military and financial affairs.
This was accompanied by the fact that legislative and monitoring institutions convened infrequently, which weakened monitoring and accountability mechanisms, allowing the ExCo leadership to do what it wanted. For example, the Palestinian National Council held 11 sessions during the first ten years of its existence from 1964-1973; five sessions during the next ten years; then four sessions between 1984 and 1993; and only two sessions during the next 19 years from 1994 to 2012. That is if we agree to consider the meetings held in 1996 and in 2009 as real PNC sessions, owing to the question marks over membership issues and the fact that they were held on just one day each to push through changes to the National Charter and add members to the Executive Committee. Other sessions lasted, at best, for a few days. Decisions taken by the Palestinian National Council, have usually been taken through clapping hands, without counting votes for or against.
As the Islamic trend gets more popular, and following the victory of Hamas in the 2006 elections, it is clear that decision-making in the PLO lacks the presence of the faction most popular in the Palestinian arena.
There was a Palestinian consensus – based on the Cairo Agreement of 2005 – to rebuild and reactivate the PLO, and there was almost a consensus that the membership of the PNC should be limited to around 300 members, with a fifty-fifty split between those based inside Palestine and those in exile. Members from inside Palestine should be elected, including the 132 members of the Legislative Council.
However, Hamas’s unexpected election victory (gaining 74 seats compared to Fatah’s 45) pushed the Fatah leadership to block PLO reform. This also meant standing in the way of having Palestinian decision-making under the PLO umbrella.
The Problem of a Diminished Role and Effect
As the institutional work of the PLO has diminished while the role of the Oslo-created Palestinian Authority increased, the organization became a pale shadow of its former self.
The Fatah leadership kept the PLO because on the official level it is still regarded as the "sole legitimate representative" of the Palestinian people; negotiations, agreements and diplomatic relations are all carried out under its name. Practically, though, the PLO remains in "intensive care" enough to keep it alive, and enough to get its stamp of approval for the decisions and policies of its leadership and the leadership of the PA.
The Problem of Vision, Path and Reference
What is the reference base governing the PLO and setting its vision, path and red lines? Or setting its political agenda in line with the strategic path upon which it was founded? Is it the Palestinian National Charter; the ten points program; the Declaration of Independence; the Oslo Accord; the Arab Initiative; or the Road Map?
Fatah is based upon Article Nine of the Palestinian National Charter; in 1974, the ten points program allowed the PLO to work temporarily, and offered it partial solutions, as well as established a "fighting authority" on any part of Palestine which is liberated. In 1988, the Declaration of Independence came with implicit recognition of the decision to divide Palestine, and recognition of UN resolutions, including 242 which deals with the issue of the Palestinian refugees. As for the 1993 Oslo Accord, the PLO leadership recognized Israel’s "right" to 77 per cent of historic Palestine, gave up the armed struggle, and committed the organization to the peace process.
Thus the Palestinian people found themselves with a real problem. If the point of reference to which the Palestinians should refer is the National Charter, then Hamas and Islamic Jihad – which are outside the PLO – are closer to the goals of the organization than the factions which are its members and leadership.
With regards to membership of the PLO, the leadership listens to the international Quartet and insists that factions applying to be members must commit to the agreements that the PLO is committed to (mainly Oslo and what came after). Thus the PLO limits its membership to factions and people who agree to abandon most of historic Palestine and recognize Israel, which neither Hamas nor Islamic Jihad is willing to do.
For the PLO to get out of this crisis, its leadership must open the doors to all Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Reformation of the organization should have as a priority arrangements related to the Palestinian Authority portfolio.
The reactivation of the PLO will bring it back to its real size and role in representing the Palestinian people at home and abroad, and away from dependence on external factors. It will also restore the Palestinian Authority to its natural size as one of the tools available to the PLO to achieve Palestinian national goals.
(The Arabic version of this article appeared on Al Jazeera.net on 15/10/2012. This English version was translated by Middle East Monitor (MEMO) and published on 20/10/2012.)