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.”

Not only has the Soviet Union lost its former presence on the international scene, Al-Hassan continued, but Europe has lost its ability to maneuver in the Middle East. Even China, he added, is preoccupied with internal problems and will not use its veto in the UN Security Council. “America was left alone to dominate the world.” All of this, he concluded, “gives us a clear warning that everything that is on the way is American…. Whether we like it or not, whether we accept it or not, these are the actual facts.”

Al-Hassan frankly acknowledged that the PLO had failed in its efforts to receive satisfactory clarifications and guarantees from the US regarding Baker’s proposals for a Middle East settlement. He discussed more openly than any other PLO leader had done the details of the confidential “Memorandum of Understanding” that Baker transmitted to the Palestinians on September 16 before the Algiers conference. Published in the London-based Arabic newspaper Al Sharq al Awsat, the memorandum, and Al-Hassan’s comments on it, give a sense of the indirect discussions Baker has been carrying on with the PLO since March. Al-Hassan said:

In the resolutions of the 1988 PNC, we talked about the right to self-determination. The American position says “no” to self-determination.

We demanded the right of return [to former Palestinian homes in Israel]. In the American memorandum there is no reference to the right of return.

We mentioned Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Palestine. The Americans say that Jerusalem is united and that the future is subject to negotiations.

We said the PLO is the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. They say “no” to the PLO.

We proposed a peace initiative, including a comprehensive solution to the question of Palestine. They answered: a peace based on ending the occupation that took place during the 1967 war, but not the withdrawal of the Israeli forces.

We talked about an effective international conference. They answered by talking about bilateral negotiations and a ceremonial international conference.

We said an independent Palestinian state. They said “self-rule.”

We said national rights for our people. They said “political rights only.”

In his conclusion, Al-Hassan posed alternative responses for the PLO. The first was to reject Baker’s proposals and to forbid Palestinians from attending a peace conference. Such a choice, he warned, risked seeing the PLO fall into political oblivion as well as losing a chance, perhaps the last, to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It could not be ruled out, he suggested, that Syrian President Hafiz Assad and Jordan’s King Hussein would make separate deals without the Palestinians. He continued:

Will the PLO be able to pursue its effectiveness? Or will it merely become another “Arab Higher Committee”? Can the PLO revert and once again become an underground movement? Do we have to start from square one? Will the enemy wait for us until we rebuild our strength and change the balance of power, as some in this session have tried to imply? Or will he persist in his policy of settlement, deportation, and the implementation of the mass transfer of Palestinian population? Does this serve the interests of the future of our people? It is not enough for us to say that our conscience rejects, and therefore we have to reject everything. We are dealing with politics, with the future of a people, and not with wedding arrangements.

By the “theory of stages,” Palestinians once meant that the PLO should first concentrate on regaining the West Bank and Gaza Strip and then proceed with the final stage of conquering Israel. Al-Hassan seemed to amend the theory by suggesting that the PLO should now seek to regain the West Bank and Gaza Strip and that it should do so in several stages. In other words, the PLO, through a process that settled for something less than immediate and full Palestinian independence in the territories—Al-Hassan did not explicitly either accept or exclude self-rule, or autonomy—could take at least a first step toward self-determination.

Al-Hassan said it was not yet the time to give an unqualified “yes” to the peace conference. But his speech—and the tone of the resolution subsequently adopted by the PNC—led me to conclude that the PLO would eventually give Baker what he wanted, a “green light” allowing Palestinians from the occupied territories, rather than from the PLO leadership in exile, to participate in the peace conference—and do so as part of a delegation with Jordanian representatives. “What is required,” Al-Hassan said, “is a formula that would enable our people inside the occupied homeland, in coordination with us, and under our guidance, to regain their national rights.” That, Al Hassan added, would “preserve the effectiveness of the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people without, for that matter, closing the [Palestinian] file, leaving it open for our future struggle.” The PNC resolution left it to the PLO central council, the group of 108 delegates that acts as the PLO’s highest authority between PNC sessions, to make the final decision regarding the green light. The PLO authorized Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi to hold further meetings with Baker to narrow the differences in the US memorandum of understanding. When I spoke with Arafat later, he went out of his way to say that in 1977, he had authorized “low-level” representatives—he identified them as Edward Said, Ibrahim Abu Lughod, and Hatem Husseini, prominent Palestinians living in the US—to take part in a combined Arab delegation to the proposed Geneva Peace Conference.

To me, and to other observers at the PNC meeting, Al-Hassan’s reference to “our people inside” seemed a recognition that the center of political gravity for Palestinians had shifted from the people “outside” to those living under occupation. Although this has in fact been more and more the case since the start of the intifada, the PLO leaders in Tunis have been reluctant, at least up until now, to relinquish much of their authority to the Palestinians inside the occupied territories.

Since the end of the Gulf War, however, Baker has held eight meetings with well-known Palestinians from the “inside.” The delegations he sees usually include Faisal Husseini, who is a member of one of Jerusalem’s most prominent political families, Hanan Ashrawi, a professor at Bir Zeit University, and Zakariya Agha, a medical doctor from Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip. They always come with written authorization from Arafat, indicating the powerful hold of the PLO’s political authority, but the fact that they have themselves become so visible amounts to a tentative loosening of Arafat’s hold over the future of the Palestinians living under the occupation.

A decision of symbolic importance took place just before the PNC meeting, when Baker invited Husseini, Ashrawi, and Agha to meet with him in Amman, in an apparent attempt to get support for his proposal that Palestinians from the occupied territories begin coordinating their strategy with the Jordanians. The PLO refused to allow all three to go, but authorized Ms. Ashrawi to do so; and when she arrived to meet with Baker, she displayed a letter from Arafat concerning her trip. In this way the PLO seemed to be demonstrating its authority over Palestinian representatives, while at the same time suggesting both that it was ready to accept the formula for a Jordanian-Palestinian partnership in negotiations, and that it had confidence in the negotiators who have emerged inside the territories. Moreover, although Arafat has denied it, I was told by reliable sources that the PLO secretly brought Husseini and Ashrawi to a closed session in the Algiers conference hall, where they received an emotional standing ovation lasting three minutes. Some of the delegates wept openly when Ashrawi addressed them. Many of them had had no contact with West Bank leaders before. Even rejectionists such as George Habash joined openly in the applause for Ashrawi and Husseini. The event was symbolic of the shift in political gravity toward the occupied territories.1

It is doubtful that the PNC discussions would have been as conciliatory had it not been for two other factors, one old and one new. The old one is the formula for a confederation between Jordan and an independent Palestinian state. Particularly after 1982, with Israel and the US refusing to deal seriously with the PLO, Arafat has sought to use Jordan as a back door through which Palestinians could work politically to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In 1985 Arafat and King Hussein signed the Amman Accord, which provided a basis for a confederation. The agreement was scrapped in 1986 during a dispute between the PLO and the king, but it could easily be revived. Among Arafat’s first acts after the PNC meeting ended was to dispatch the members of the inner cabinet who advise him on the peace process—Mahmoud Abbas (known as Abu Mazzen), Yasser Abed Rabbo, Abdullah Hourani, and Suleiman Najab, all members of the PLO Executive Committee—to Amman to begin arranging the details of a joint negotiating strategy and confederation.

Increasingly, many in the PLO are becoming drawn to the idea that eventually Jordan—with the addition of the regained West Bank and Gaza Strip—would become one large Palestinian state. Already more than half of Jordan’s citizens are of Palestinian origin. The king’s current prime minister, Taher al-Masri, is from a Palestinian family that is still prominent in the West Bank city of Nablus. If negotiations result in some form of self-rule in the West Bank, and Palestinians living there are allowed to hold elections, democratic expectations will then spread to the kingdom across the Jordan River. That doesn’t mean the monarchy will come to an end, but it does suggest that Palestinians would acquire a larger share of political power than they now possess there.

The new factor is the belief of many in the PLO that the US not only has the power to force Israel’s withdrawal but now has the determination to do so. The US, some of the PLO leaders say, has to prove its leadership in the “new world order” by settling the Arab-Israeli conflict. In any case, the chance of more instability in the region is contrary to America’s economic interests. Since the US is not only on record as opposing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but has been talking of tying future aid to a freeze on settlements, ending the occupation would seem a principal American objective. The end of the cold war also makes it less important strategically for the US to support Israel at any cost. The fact that the US prevented Israel from retaliating for Scud missile attacks during the Gulf War shows, in the view of PLO leaders I talked to, that the US maintains political leverage over the Israeli government, which the US will use to prove its leadership. Though on the losing side, the PLO was deeply impressed by how the Bush administration first put together the Gulf alliance and then proceeded to pulverize Iraq. I am told that Arafat was surprised by Iraq’s inability to mount a credible defense, much less offense.

If peace negotiations take place, what will become of the PLO? Palestinians will not dump the PLO. For them, it is more than an organization, it is an ideal. To judge from Al-Hassan’s speech, the PLO itself believes that it can survive as a political organization, even if it is only an indirect participant in Middle East talks.

That is probably true. But the PLO’s survival as an “effective organization,” as Al-Hassan puts it, may depend on whether Arafat gives in to the growing pressures for democratizing the group and giving it a new structure. Democracy is impossible for the PLO to achieve now, since most Palestinians either live under occupation or in undemocratic Arab countries. But particularly if the peace process gets under way, some ad hoc method of broadening the decision-making process will probably become essential. This inevitably would entail, among other things, PLO leaders in Tunis giving even more say to Palestinians living under occupation.

Despite the PLO’s efforts to appear as the center for Palestinian politics, economics, and culture, the organization has in fact always been dominated by the leaders of the guerrilla factions, whether inside Fatah or outside it.2 These are sometimes referred to as “the godfathers”—the mostly aging exile commando leaders who founded them as many as three decades ago. The PNC, the organization’s “house of democracy,” in Arafat’s words, has 669 members. Of that number, the 186 living in the occupied territories are prevented by the Israeli authorities from attending the PNC meetings. Of the 483 members who can attend, 155, more than 30 percent, including those from Fatah, directly represent the commando groups. Another 108 represent “mass organizations,” such as trade unions, teacher associations, and women’s groups, but most of these also belong to one guerrilla group or another. The remaining 220 members are supposed to be “independent personalities,” but they are handpicked by a “preparatory committee” which is itself dominated by the guerrilla groups. (The increasingly powerful Islamic movement, Hamas, is not formally part of the PNC.)

Now that the revolution has withered, the commando groups and their activities often complicate the PLO’s efforts to seek a political settlement. Because the guerrilla organizations are assured a large share of seats on the eighteen-member PLO Executive Committee and in the PNC, the radical groups, George Habash’s Popular Front in particular, have been able to cause difficulties for the conciliatory line that Arafat has been pursuing for many years. Except for Fatah, moreover, most of the groups are directly or indirectly controlled by one Arab regime or another.3

A case in point is Abul Abbas, the leader of what became known as the Achille Lauro hijacking in 1985. Last year, his men attempted a landing on a beach in Tel Aviv and were soon killed by the Israelis. Because Abul Abbas, whose headquarters are in Baghdad, sat on the PLO Executive Committee, the raid caused the US to break off the dialogue it had begun with the PLO after Arafat put forward his peace initiative in 1988. That was a direct dialogue with US diplomats one that could be serving the PLO well in the current circumstances; but it was disrupted by, apparently, the unilateral action of a single guerrilla leader. An internal PLO report, I was told, condemned Abul Abbas for acting as he did, but Arafat did not censure him publicly. Abul Abbas himself told me in Algiers that he still reserves the right to act independently if he so chooses.

The guerrilla groups maintain their political strength even though they have almost ceased to exist as serious military forces. Neither Egypt, Syria, nor Jordan has permitted the commandos to use its state as a military base for many years. Now Lebanon, where the remaining groups of active guerrilla fighters have their camps, is becoming less hospitable. Seemingly as part of a deal to secure Syria’s participation in the Gulf alliance, the US and Israel have looked the other way as Syria, using the Lebanese army, has extended its authority over more Lebanese territory. In July the Lebanese army took over positions held by the PLO outside the port city of Sidon.

At the Algiers meeting, Bassam Abu Sharif, a close adviser to Arafat, called on the PNC to replace, with truly free elections, the backroom dealing among the guerrilla groups for places on the PLO Executive Committee. “It must be a homogeneous coordinated team in order to deal effectively with the coming challenges, and be able to make decisions with the speed and precision required in a changing world,” Abu Sharif said. “Making the Executive Committee a debating club rather than a decision-making apparatus means paralysis.”

Abu Sharif told me later that he feels the PLO’s political program has quickly been becoming more mature. In contrast, he said, the PLO’s organizational structure has lagged behind. “To ensure a dynamic and stable political formula, the organizational structure should be changed at a faster pace,” he said, “Otherwise, the gap might cause hindrances.” Arafat rejected Abu Sharif’s proposal for democratizing the Executive Committee, however, apparently feeling that he would have to give seats to the guerrilla leaders in order to blunt any opposition they would pose to his conciliatory political line. In this decision, it seems to me, lies the heart of the PLO’s contradictions.

Arafat, of course, is part of the problem. Few Palestinians question his importance as the supreme symbol, and political leader, of their cause, or his skill in keeping their often divided movement glued together. The secret of Arafat’s strength, apparently, is that he controls virtually all of the PLO’s money. The death of other powerful Fatah leaders over the years has left Arafat with almost complete authority to sign the checks allocating funds to PLO departments and for support of Palestinians in the occupied territories. The total amounts to millions of dollars each month. Arafat is not a dictator. He governs, much of the time, through a process of intensive consultation. Nonetheless, even though the PLO Executive Committee engages in intense debate, and the PNC is probably the only forum in the Arab world where people can stand up and vigorously state their opinions, Arafat possesses enormous leverage to get his own way. The PLO’s peace initiative is his work. But so was the disastrous decision to ally the PLO with Saddam Hussein.

Arafat may justifiably fear what would happen to the Palestinian cause and to himself if he dismantled the system of horse-trading that keeps him in control. He also has a longstanding commitment to the armed struggle that he may be reluctant to give up. Or perhaps he simply does not know how to go about changing the structure of an immensely complicated organization. I don’t think that Arafat is oblivious of the need for change. His decision to allow the West Bank leaders to deal with Baker suggests a move toward giving them more weight and, perhaps, a share in decision-making authority.

In his speech to the PNC Arafat talked of the kind of change he thought should take place. Although his language was characteristically elusive and abstract, he still suggested that he is aware that new Palestinian leadership must come out of the Palestinian communities, including those under occupation: “The creative Palestinian mind will make new and modern formulas for the development of the democratic performance in our national institutions, frameworks, and structures,” he said. “I call upon our people in all its places of existence for more grass-roots initiatives, which if crystallized in modern frameworks and new institutions, will provide strong tributaries to the process of renewing our organization.”

Arafat, who turned sixty-two in August, prides himself on being a survivor. He certainly shouldn’t have any illusions about the fate of leaders who do not change with the times. Saddam has been one of his closest Arab friends, and two of his closest allies outside the Middle East were Honecker and Ceausescu.

This Issue

November 7, 1991