Although the two parties have negotiated several agreements since 2005, none has been implemented. The unwillingness of Fatah and Hamas to reach a national unity agreement is emblematic of the larger failure of the Palestinian national movement to achieve its goals. As this year marks the 65th anniversary of the Nakba — the ethnic cleansing ahead of Israel’s foundation — and the 20th anniversary of the Oslo accords, this continued discord also highlights a pressing concern: who represents the Palestinian people today?
As part of a national unity agreement, Hamas would join the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which is still recognized internationally as “the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” Elections would also be held to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), which “represents” Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Some Palestinians are also advocating direct elections to the PLO’s Palestinian National Council (PNC), which is considered the “parliament-in-exile” of the Palestinian people. It is believed that this would provide a path to revitalizing the PLO and make it more accountable to all Palestinians.
Leaders without legitimacy
However, restoring the PLO — even through direct elections — is unlikely to make the organization more representative or its leadership more accountable. Instead, it will serve to further entrench the status quo and provide legitimacy to a leadership that no longer enjoys it.
The PLO’s institutions were designed for a national liberation movement and were deliberately constructed to limit broad-based representation until victory was achieved. In the absence of victory, the same institutional structures have been used to block potential reforms and distance the Palestinian leadership from the population it purports to represent. Initially established with the support of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the PLO was the product of inter-Arab rivalries. The organization was not truly independent of Cairo until 1968.
Although the situation of the Palestinians and the PLO has changed dramatically since 1968, the organization’s institutional structures and governing by-laws have effectively remained the same. The PLO’s key institutions are not only anachronistic but serve to hinder internal and external challenges as is clear from a comparison of the PLO’s two highest bodies: the PNC and the executive committee.
On paper, the PNC is responsible for establishing the PLO’s “policies, plans and programs.” Meanwhile, the executive committee serves as the organization’s “primary executive organ,” according to legal researcher Mazen Masri (“Memo: distinction between PLO, PA, PNC, PLC,” 5 February 2006).
Over the past four decades, however, the executive committee has essentially performed the PLO’s legislative and executive functions. Throughout, the PNC did not check, balance or even advise the executive committee, but affirmed its decisions. Moreover, the executive committee, much like the PLO and the broader Palestinian national movement, became increasingly beholden to and reliant on PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s often uncontested decisions and actions. Since Arafat’s death, Mahmoud Abbas has sought to fill this role.
While there may have been debates between the different political groups represented at the PNC, it would be difficult — if not disingenuous — to call it a legislative body. All PNC seats were appointed not elected, and the vast majority of seats were awarded based on the PLO’s quota system of representation in proportion to the size of the particular political faction. Although the PNC had seats for independents and members-at-large, those appointed were largely aligned with Fatah, further bolstering its weight within the PLO and enhancing Arafat’s power. In addition, even at the height of the PLO’s activity and influence, the PNC only met annually or biennially.
The 1993 Oslo accords revealed the weakness of PLO institutions, in particular the PNC, as well as Arafat’s predominant role within the executive committee. Knowledge of the negotiations was restricted to a small clique around Arafat. In addition, the agreement was not ratified by either the PNC or the PLO’s central committee. Instead, Arafat first met with Fatah’s leadership and then only under pressure agreed to convene the PLO’s executive committee. When the agreement was finally debated within the Fatah central committee and the PLO’s executive committee, both bodies approved the accords.
The Oslo period served to exacerbate the PNC’s ineffectiveness. With Arafat’s power unchecked and the PLO moribund, the PNC became a symbolic rubber stamp. This was on full display in the December 1998 PNC meeting held in Gaza to amend the PLO’s charter — a decision made by Arafat and affirmed by the PNC (“Clinton watches as Palestinians drop call for Israel’s destruction,” The New York Times, 15 December 1998). Yet who comprised the PNC at the 1998 session is unclear, as members and non-members were present and voting.
The limited effectiveness of the PNC before and after Oslo raises questions about the potential for reform of such a body. While the composition, representation and by-laws may have been justifiable for the “parliament-in-exile” of a national liberation movement, the same cannot be said today. In addition, it is not clear how a PNC — even one that is directly elected — can hope to limit, constrain or even influence an executive committee that maintains authority over the budget as well as domestic and foreign policies. Therefore, reforms to the PNC alone will not change this dynamic.
Moreover, an example of an elected but toothless body already exists in the form of the PLC. As president of the Palestinian Authority, Arafat managed the PLC much as he did the PLO and the PNC. Fiscal and political authority rested not with the legislature but with the PA president. In addition, the PLC’s functions and authority are limited by the terms of the Oslo accords, which also served to expand the executive and legislative powers of the PA president. Thus, when the PLC attempted to behave independently, Arafat either ignored the body’s decisions or used the power of the presidency and the dual title and position of chairman of the PLO’s executive committee to undermine or override those decisions.
This trend has been even more pronounced under Abbas. After Hamas won the 2006 elections, the United States, Israel and the PA leadership worked to overturn their victory at the ballot box. Even after a unity government was declared, elected legislators to the PLC have consistently been prevented from taking their seats. This includes an active campaign by Israel to jail PLC members in the West Bank and prevent those in Gaza from traveling to Ramallah for meetings. In addition, the PLC has not convened in more than five years and a significant number remain in Israeli custody.
Imagining a different future
These issues and limitations also reveal a major contradiction in the attempts to revive the PNC and the PLO. Namely, democratic elections that serve to enshrine the rule of non-democratic movements will bring neither reform nor democracy. Instead, the elections will serve to reinforce the existing leadership and harden factional differences.
Fatah and Hamas have demonstrated similar approaches to governing and dealing with opposition and dissent. Neither of the competing truncheon authorities ruling the West Bank and Gaza offers a compelling vision for the future. In large part it is because they do not represent the future of the Palestinians but their past. They will not drive a rebirth of the Palestinian national movement and are far more likely to delay and hinder its development.
If Palestinians want a revitalized national movement that is unified and representative, they will need to build it themselves from scratch. They will also need to make the previous body and its leaders — regardless of their revolutionary origins and rhetoric, titles, symbolism and emotional ties — obsolete and irrelevant. With a past marked by failure, Palestinians must imagine and work toward a very different future. Otherwise there will be little hope of finding a successful strategy or vehicle to achieve Palestinian rights.
This article is based on a longer paper published by al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network.
Osamah Khalil is an assistant professor of US and Middle East history at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and is a co-founder of al-Shabaka.