Before I left for the twentieth meeting of the Palestine National Council which met in Algiers in September, I tried to send a fax to the Information Department at PLO headquarters, hoping to arrange interviews with a few senior PLO officials. Even in calm political times they are hard to pin down. After Yasser Arafat and his staff began using fax machines almost exclusively a few years ago, I soon learned that to accomplish even the simplest task in dealing with the PLO a fax is worth a thousand phone calls. In this case, however, the line repeatedly failed at the PLO’s end.
I gave up and flew to Algiers. As I entered the conference center, at the Club des Pins on the Mediterranean coast just west of the city, I ran into Jamil Hilal, the director of the Information Department. I first knew him in Damascus in the mid-1980s when visiting journalists could always rely on him for a cup of coffee and a useful rundown on what was happening in the Middle East. When I told him of my fax problems, he said with a shrug, “The Tunisians cut the line. We didn’t pay last month’s bill.”
The Palestinian “revolution” is exhausted. By revolution I mean the guerrilla movement launched by Yasser Arafat in 1965 that grew with rapid fury following Israel’s crushing defeat of conventional Arab armies in the 1967 war. This is an armed force that has mostly operated from outside, not inside, Palestinian lands. The guerrillas had a few heady years in Jordan and for a time it seemed they might take power in Amman. But after King Hussein’s army expelled them in 1971 they ceased, in fact, being a revolutionary threat to Jordan or to Israel. The “armed struggle” went on, but the PLO has gradually transformed itself into a huge bureaucracy, with more minor officials than guerrilla fighters. It was a state-within-a-state in Lebanon. Since 1982 it has been based in Tunis and has continued to maintain offices in other Arab capitals and, in fact, throughout the world. During the past ten years this bureaucracy, PLO reformers say, has grown rustier and rustier. Now the money is beginning to run out. Many of the PLO’s fighters spend their days uselessly in camps hundreds or even thousands of miles away from Israel. The bureaucrats are seeing their salaries reduced, some of their offices closed, and, it seems, some of their fax lines cut off.
The PLO’s “geopolitical situation,” as Arafat’s strategists call it, has grown steadily worse. The Israeli army’s expulsion of Arafat from Beirut in 1982 resulted in the loss of the PLO’s military and political base in Lebanon. It enabled Arab regimes, particularly Syria’s, to promote debilitating splits in the scattered organization, several of whose radical factions, such as George Habash’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, made their headquarters in Damascus. The intifada, which breathed new life into …