The Palestinian Left and Right of Return

By Haidar Eid – Gaza

The status of the left and its’ role in the liberation of Palestine continues to be the focus of analysis and discussion. Some argue that the Palestinian left is dead and that it has subsumed its’ historic role to that of the right wing within Fateh for too long to be considered an independent force anymore. Others argue that the lefts‘ participation in the PLO is necessary because the PLO is a Palestinian national achievement that was created to embody the national aspirations of the Palestinian people. This view sees the PLO as a coalition of most Palestinian political organizations who subscribe to the Palestinian National Charter and the Interim Program. A key demand in the Interim Program is the right of Palestinians refugees to return to the villages and towns from which they were ethnically cleansed in 1948 – a right also guaranteed by UN resolution 194.
With the rise of the two-state solution as a possible resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and more especially following the signing of the Oslo Accords, the official leadership of the PLO began to use the right of return as a bargaining chip in its’ endless rounds of negotiations with the Israelis. However, in spite of this, they have never clearly and directly indicated a willingness to abandon this right in its’ entirety. It was only in the semi-official Geneva Document– rejected outright by almost all political parties and civil society organizations in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, 1948 Palestine, and the Diaspora– that an attempt was made to force Palestinians to give up this right in exchange for a truncated ‘state.’
Mahmoud Abbas has in two recent interviews (with the Dubai based Al-Arabiya TV satellite channel and with the Israeli Haaretz newspaper) indicated that as he does not expect Israel to accept the return of 5 million Palestinian refugees, he therefore is willing to accept a symbolic return. Here we have the chairman and head of the executive committee of the PLO, clearly abandoning the right of return for the first time. In doing so, he sends a very strong message to more than 5 million refugees that their horrific exile has no end; and that moreover, they are not part of the Palestinian people because the PA, gaining political power at the expense of the PLO, represents those who live in the West Bank and Gaza.
Following this seismic change, one has to ask what still remains of the Interim Program and the PLO and in fact, what remains of the Palestinian question at all? What is the position of the left-wing organizations that are represented in the executive committee, after these two declarations? Surely the organizations representing the left within the PLO cannot continue to participate in the executive committee of the PLO. What rationale can they possibly have for their "ongoing commitment" to a PLO that they say has been "hijacked?" Are their supporters to be satisfied with their condemnations of the interviews and the tired mantra of calling for reforms? The heavy burden of the legacy of Stalinism is still stifling the Arab left, in general, and the Palestinian, in particular. This is one of the major differences between Arab/Palestinian Left and that of Latin America .
The Left needs, with the utmost urgency, to present both its analysis of the current situation in Palestine and its alternative programme. Undoubtedly, the participation of the left, including ‘radical Leftists’ in the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, legitimized both the elections, and as a consequence of the elections being legally based on the Oslo Accords, the Oslo Accords themselves.
The dominant political discourse in Palestine sees the Accords and the PA as the only political route to a Palestinian state: this analysis has lost faith in the power of the Palestinian people to reclaim their land and relies instead on the largesse of the US , EU, reactionary Arab regimes to give them that state.
Taking this important issue further, the concept of ‘disparticipation’ needs to regain the ideological power that it is claimed to have lost. To disparticipate is to put the legitimacy of the actually existing order at stake, and to argue for other alternatives/possibilities at the same time. Put crudely, to participate as a candidate is to legitimize pragmatically. It is an ideological distortion to claim that elections for the LC were a manifestation of plurality–in plurality there is no exclusion of ideas whatsoever.  (Needless to repeat that the Diaspora refugees never participated in these elections.) However, any opposing radical points of view should work ‘within’ the system as the only legitimate one, as incorrectly claimed by those who called and participated in the elections in the presence of the occupation. Rejecting the system and its political, and even ideological, basis by revealing and opposing its exploitative, distortive, authoritarian features would have led to exclusion and accusations of ‘illegitimacy’. Even if one is not ‘persuaded’ by the Oslo accords, one is still expected to accept them; otherwise, one is considered ‘undemocratic’ and ‘radical’ even though the elections are not taking place in an independent state.
The PLO has demanded that all factions accept the PA and participate in elections, forcing some left organizations to falsely claim that elections for the LC were a manifestation of plurality. This has resulted in a situation in which political legitimacy is only granted to those who agree to work within the system.
Mesud Zavarzadeh and Donald Morton, in a different context, put it very persuasively, "…the options come down to either being ‘persuaded’ of the legitimacy of working within the system and thus accepting the existing structures, or finding that there is no space for radical change. Disparticipation as a revelation of the socio-economic and ideological basis of the elections is rejected completely by the official participants because it points out the illegitimacy of the existing system by a refusal to ‘play the game’ according to its distorted manipulative rules, and because "it is to point out the possible which is suppressed in the pragmatic is" (Zavarzadeh and Morton). Of course, the alternative should also emphasize the importance of democratic elections but this can only be legitimate if they take place in an independent sovereign state—be it on 22 or 100 percent cent of historic Palestine .
The PLO is not a state; rather, it is the vessel of the Palestinian national liberation movement. Elections have never taken place to elect the members of its National Council. But this also allows for a tactical move: you can keep your "seat" within the unelected National Council and resign your position in the Executive Committee since it legitimates concessions made by the controlling party.  
The left wing organizations ought to, dialectically, analyze this particular moment in the history of the Palestinian struggle for liberation. What is, for example, their contribution to the rising debate about the one state solution? If most of their ideologues have recently reached the long-gone conclusion that the two state solution has come to an end, thanks to Israeli colonization policy in the West Bank, what, then is their alternative?
Moreover, left organizations must rather show more interest in backing the call for the BDS campaign, launched by more than 170 Palestinian organisations in 2004. This call has been backed by organizations all over the world because it represents a progressive and challenging alternative to the status quo.
The creation of a Palestinian Bantustan in the GS and WB which denies the right of return is not a political programme that could ever gain legitimacy among the Palestinian people. A Palestinian state without the right of return is slavery, not liberation. The Palestinian cause is the right of return for all refugees and nothing less.

– Haidar Eid is a political commentator residing in occupied Palestine. He contributed this article to

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