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Inside the PLO

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 the PLO, is waning. After nearly four years of street confrontations and the deaths of over nine hundred Palestinians, the Israeli army keeps the occupied territories under a tough and often brutalizing control. The intifada, in contrast with the guerrilla movement that sprung up in the 1960s, is an unarmed popular uprising. I doubt that it could resort to widescale use of weapons or that it could achieve better results if it did.

The outcome of the Gulf War, moreover, has isolated the PLO more than ever. Because Arafat stood with “brotherly Iraq,” as he put it, the PLO has lost most of the important political support and financial aid that it once received from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Nor is it on good terms with Egypt and Syria. Saddam Hussein, who had impressed Palestinians by threatening to “burn half of Israel,” is a worthless ally now. The popular revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989 swept many of the PLO’s non-Arab allies out of power. As the Palestinians learned when the Soviets sided with the US in the Gulf conflict, the Soviet Union could no longer be relied on to put its weight on the side of the Arabs, and particularly the Palestinians, in order to counter US policy supporting Israel.

The PLO’s current condition should not overshadow the organization’s political accomplishments. Virtually all Palestinians give Arafat credit for having brought their cause to the attention of the world. It was also largely Arafat who for a quarter century kept the Palestinian movement from being dominated by one Arab regime or another, and made the PLO the political representative of the Palestinians. In his attempts to put together a Middle East peace conference, Secretary of State Baker refuses to have direct dealings with the PLO; but he recognizes the PLO’s power by making it clear that he hopes that the PLO will allow Palestinians who are not, strictly speaking, members of the organization to participate in the conference in a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.

The withering of the PLO’s revolutionary threat, the weakening of its support from the Arab states and the USSR, and its inability to draw Israel into negotiations have resulted in a policy of compromise that became clearer at the Algiers meeting I attended. Pushed by Arafat, the delegates in effect agreed to acquiesce in Baker’s current peace efforts even though Baker will not allow the PLO a visible part in any conference that takes place.

In the final session of the five-day conference, the delegates voted 256 to 68 (12 abstained and 147 did not vote) for a resolution that directs the new PLO Executive Committee “to continue the current efforts to provide the best conditions which ensure the success of the peace process in accordance with PNC resolutions.” The resolution somewhat lamely listed various conditions such as the right of the PLO to form the Palestinian delegation and the right of the Palestinians to self-determination. But instead of putting them forward as demands that must be met before Palestinians would participate in a peace conference, the resolution referred to them as PLO “aims” or points upon which the PLO believed the success of negotiations would depend.

In view of the debates preceding the vote, in which hard liners like George Habash advocated outright rejection of Baker’s efforts, the unmistakable message of the resolution was that the PLO was ready to cooperate with Baker in almost every possible way. It was not lost on the delegates who voted to “ensure the success of the peace process” that Baker’s plan, according to reliable reports, rejects two demands that have always been absolutely fundamental to the Palestinian movement: a direct role for the PLO in negotiations, and the eventual establishment of an independent Palestinian state. More than one PLO official told me afterward that the organization feels that it has no other choice.

Since its establishment in 1964, the PLO has issued four major political statements, each in the form of a resolution adopted at meetings of the PNC, which serves as the PLO’s parliament. Its members are for the most part delegates from the principal Palestinian organizations and factions throughout the world, although it has long been dominated by Arafat’s Fatah. In 1968 the delegates to the fourth PNC meeting, which followed the rise of the guerrilla movement, amended the PLO charter to read that “armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine.” After the 1973 Egyptian and Syrian attack on Israel opened the possibility of a political settlement in the Middle East, the PNC adopted the Ten-Point Plan, which was aimed at establishing a provisional Palestinian state in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip but which avoided recognizing the existence of Israel.

More than a decade later the uprising in Gaza and the West Bank gave the PLO the strength and political confidence to offer a more realistic and conciliatory plan, the Algiers Declaration adopted in 1988. This time the Palestinians dealt with the other half of the problem, finally recognizing the sovereignty of Israel by accepting a series of UN resolutions, including Resolution 181, calling for a division of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, and Resolutions 242 and 338, which among other things called on the Arabs to respect Israel’s borders. The proposal, which Arafat called his “peace initiative,” was praised in Washington and other capitals but was rejected by Israel.

The September 28 resolution in Algiers may represent a final victory of the “realists” over the “rejectionists” within the PLO. Arafat, who always has been more a wily tactician than an ideologist, set the tone and direction for the PLO’s line in his opening speech to the delegates. “The whole world is talking sincerely about a rich opportunity that looms on the horizon,” he said. “We the Palestinians…will be the most serious of all the parties in treating this opportunity with an open mind and strong will.”

Arafat’s Fatah has always counted most in the PLO because it has something like 80 percent of the PLO’s manpower, resources, and popular support. It became clear that even the minority of hard liners within Fatah would go along with Arafat when Faruk Qaddumi, the leading militant in the group, who is called the PLO’s “foreign minister,” rose to speak favorably of Baker’s efforts.

But it was the address of Khalid al-Hassan, a native of Haifa and like Qaddumi one of the “historic leaders” who founded Fatah in Kuwait in 1959, that seemed more than any other to characterize the predicament of the PLO and to express the mood of resignation among most of its members. One of Arafat’s advisers told me that Al-Hassan’s speech was an endorsement of Arafat’s line, and when I visited Arafat in Tunis in early October he told me that he basically agreed with Al-Hassan and had congratulated him for making the speech.

Speaking without a text, Al-Hassan alternated between highly emotional statements and coolly logical analysis. He began by stating the conundrum of the Palestinian revolution: “The Palestinian,” he said, “lives in a state of acute contradiction between his mind and his heart, torn between what he desires to achieve and what he can achieve.” He then talked of the imperative need for realism. “We cannot but be aware of the drastic, radical, and serious transformations which have affected the world on the political, military, and economic levels,” he said. “If we are not aware of these transformations, and continue rehashing absolutes and ideals, we will find ourselves left out. Idealistic rejectionism will only lead us to a state of stagnation.”

Al-Hassan spoke of what he called unprecedented American hegemony in the Arab region. For the first time, he said, Palestinians are completely alone. Not only was Iraq defeated but “Syria transformed its stand from rejectionism to agreeing to enter negotiations for a political settlement.” Al-Hassan said with some bitterness that the boycott of Israel has begun to break down, “and the talk about the normalization of Arab-Israeli relations has started to become an almost open debate.”

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