The Palestine Liberation Organisation has, over decades, committed many strategic blunders that continue to reverberate today, especially as its leadership seems poised to commit yet more, if granted the opportunity.
First, a little historical context. The 1967 Arab defeat led to a reluctant revision of previous Arab positions which viewed Israel as an illegal implant in the heart of the Arab world. That position was no longer sustainable, in spite of the postwar Arab Summit in Khartoum in September 1967 which produced the famous “three nos”; no recognition, no negotiation and no peace with Israel. While appearing rejectionist on its face, the summit declaration actually signalled a major conciliatory shift. Arab leaders unanimously agreed “to unite their political efforts at the international and diplomatic level to eliminate the effects of the aggression [not the aggressor itself] and to ensure the withdrawal of the aggressive Israeli forces from the Arab lands which have been occupied since the aggression of June 5, ”, and, significantly, not from any occupation that had taken place earlier.
In other words, the declaration indirectly laid the basis for an accommodation with Israel as long as Israel withdrew from the territories occupied in 1967. This set the stage for Security Council Resolution 242, which enshrined the land-for-peace formula in international law.
One of the PLO’s earliest miscalculations was to oppose Resolution 242, the most valuable legal document in Arab hands for claiming back the occupied territories in their entirety. PLO leaders disliked the resolution mainly because they feared that it meant that the West Bank would be returned to Jordan, which governed it until the Israeli occupation. King Hussein had repeatedly pleaded with the PLO leadership to support his efforts to recover the territory and promised he would transfer it to the Palestinians, with any guarantees they would have demanded, but to no avail. The PLO maintained the battle with Jordan over this issue until the King announced, on July 31, 1988, a total disengagement of Jordan’s role and any claims in the West Bank. (During two decades of Israeli occupation, Jordan had continued to pay salaries and operate many of the civil and educational institutions in the West Bank).
That ended one of the arguably few viable unification projects in Arab history and forced out of Jordanian possession an internationally recognized legal claim to an occupied territory without securing that claim elsewhere. This freed Israel to challenge the occupied status of the West Bank and Jerusalem on the basis that they were not under any other sovereignty and, therefore, should only be considered “disputed” territory.
The second major miscalculation, related to the first, was that the PLO insisted in all possible forums that it was the “sole legitimate representative” of the Palestinian people. This demand had serious implications for the status of Palestinians who were granted full Jordanian citizenship when East Jordan was constitutionally united with the West Bank in 1950. The PLO position had the effect of redetermining the status of these Palestinians without their approval and creating a contradiction and tension between the Palestinian and Jordanian identities that has had lasting negative consequences. Yet, the PLO pushed this demand until it was recognized as the “sole legitimate representative” at the 1974 Arab Summit in Rabat.
Unconcerned with the massive cost of this Pyrrhic victory, the PLO later had no qualms about abandoning and disenfranchising the entire Palestinian diaspora when the notorious Oslo Accords dealt with only the existence of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Today, “the sole legitimate representative” makes no effort to speak for millions of dispossessed, stateless and exiled Palestinians all over the world, especially those among whom it was based in Lebanon in the 1970s.
The third and worst blunder was the PLO’s insistence over the years that any resolution of the Israeli problem must include the creation of a Palestinian state, primarily, it should be admitted, to preclude, yet again, any possibility of a settlement that would return the West Bank to Jordan. PLO leaders did not want to risk their own chances of being rulers of a “state” at any cost.
The essence of the failed PLO strategy is that it put the priority of having a state under PLO leadership ahead of liberating the land from Israeli occupation. It ought to have been self-evident that once the land was liberated no one would have been able to stop the Palestinians from establishing a state on it if that was their wish and that, therefore, all efforts should have been aimed at liberating the land first and worrying about its political status later.
The PLO’s relentless emphasis on the establishment of a state, opposed equally relentlessly by Israel, has gradually marginalized all the central causes of the conflict, such as the denial of the rights of the refugees and dispossession from the land.
Achieving a “state” has become purely a symbolic “national goal” unconnected with territorial reality. The slogan of statehood became so central that much of the world now perceives the Palestinian issue within that narrow context. Israel maintained its opposition to Palestinian statehood — while using the time to create facts on the ground — only until it became a truly empty slogan. We have reached the point where the obsolete but absolutely dominant discourse about Palestinian statehood serves only Israel’s interest in preserving itself as a Jewish-dominated state even if that means denying fundamental human rights to millions of non-Jews and therefore legitimizing its “right” to be racist.
Israel has successfully reduced the PLO’s expectations and demands, such that it is perfectly possible to conceive of a Palestinian “state” which controls no territory, borders, airspace or water, which has no right to defend itself, and which is not even allowed to decide who lives in it.
Israel has even succeeded in getting the rest of the world to believe that such a “state” would represent generosity, moderation and sacrifice on its part. Now that the Palestinians are being offered this “state”, with the backing of the international peace process industry and its leading “Quartet”, who will listen to them if they raise any “unreasonable” demands about the rights of refugees, or actually evacuating massive illegal Israeli colonies such as Ma’ale Adumim, Ariel, Ramot and Gilo and the “Jewish quarter” of occupied East Jerusalem from which thousands of Palestinians were ethnically cleansed after 1967?
All that is left of Palestine, in which to establish this famous state, is 10 percent of the country in fragmented shreds scattered between massive Jewish settlement blocks. That is the absolute most the present Palestinian leadership can hope to realize for its people under the current circumstances: symbolic statehood, and nothing else.
Granted, it is easy to judge PLO decisions with the benefit of hindsight. But surely, the PLO ought to have learned something from history to avoid repeating its worst mistakes. And yet, we have already seen Mahmoud Abbas, the declared-in-advance winner of the Palestinian Authority election, calling for an unconditional end to Palestinian resistance, even as Israel continues to actively colonize Palestinian land using extreme violence. Today, the PLO has nothing to bring to any negotiation with Israel, except to throw itself at Israel’s mercy. This strategy will fail again, as it failed after Oslo, but at a cost in suffering and chaos across the region that makes all we have witnessed seem mild. If the PLO plunges the Palestinian people into the trap that is being prepared for them, it will be for the mother of all disasters.
Hasan Abu Nimah is former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations. Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada.