How We Speak About the Failure of the PLO

J. W. Associate Blog, Gaza, International law, Israel, Palestine

by Helena Cobban

We’re pleased to crosspost this piece from JWE CEO Helena Cobban which was first featured in the Boston Review

It is hard to believe that it has been fifty years since I used to sit on the floor of drafty college residences in Oxford with Hussein Agha, Ahmad Samih Khalidi, Ahmad’s cousin Rashid Khalidi, and other luminaries of the Oxford University Arab Society, listening to their discussions of the then-parlous state of the Palestinian freedom movement (and voicing an occasional interjection). During the previous year, Palestinian guerrillas earlier chased out of the West Bank by Israel had proceeded to challenge King Hussein’s rule in Jordan; and during “Black” September 1970, Hussein hit back at them hard. In Spring 1971 the guerrillas were still reeling from Black September and were struggling to regroup in the extensive Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. In Oxford we eagerly read any scrap of news we could get about their achievements there.

In 1974, one year after I graduated, I took out a loan to travel to Beirut to build a career as a foreign correspondent. During the next seven years one of the biggest constants in my news budget was the Palestinian story. In 1981, after the demands of motherhood made it clear I could not continue buckling the swashes as recklessly as other gringo reporters in the region, I fled with my children to Harvard. I wrote my first book, The Palestinian Liberation Organisation: People, Power, and Politics, as a senior fellow there. I then carved out a slightly less stressful career as an author and a Christian Science Monitor columnist. Meanwhile, Rashid Khalidi started his distinguished teaching and publishing career. And Ahmad and Hussein? It’s too simple to note that they are still at Oxford, both of them now Senior Associates at St. Antony’s College (founded, by the way, from the ill-gotten gains made by eccentric arms dealer Antonin Besse, though that is another story). The significant fact here is that both Ahmad and Hussein played senior—though sometimes informal—roles as political and diplomatic advisors to the leaders of the PLO.

These non-trivial facts are featured in the bios they provide at the very end of the long article “A Palestinian Reckoning: Time for a New Beginning,” recently published in Foreign Affairs—but they are not mentioned anywhere in the article itself. I think that’s a pity. By failing to tell readers along the way that they had been key advisors to PLO head Yasser Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), Agha and Khalidi miss the chance to share a reasoned and well-informed insider account of what actually went wrong with the PLO’s diplomacy.

They are clear, though, that something did go seriously wrong. Early in the article, they conclude their introductory assessment of the achievements of the Palestinian movement to date with this: “In short, Palestinian diplomacy has failed massively. It takes exceptional talent to transform an almost complete consensus among Arabs and Muslims on the future of Palestine and Jerusalem into just another matter on a packed Arab agenda.” It is clear that the phrase “it takes exceptional talent” is ironic. But they fail to mention that much of the diplomatic talent that the PLO’s leaders relied on was their own. Imagine how much more powerful, informative, and well-grounded their article would have been had they come clean about the judgments they shared with Arafat about the balance of power and the role of the United States in the region, among other things, and explored why those judgments had turned out to be so wrong.


During the crucial months between the end of the 1991 Gulf War and the 1993 signing of the Oslo Declaration on the White House lawn, Agha and Khalidi both played key roles in advising Abu Mazen, who greatly influenced Arafat’s peace diplomacy in that period. Both Agha and Khalidi, directly and indirectly, also guided Arafat himself. I know this because for much of that time I was co-leading an Israeli-Palestinian “Track Two” initiative in Washington, D.C., that had an indirect green light from the State Department. Due to this role, I was in good contact with Agha and many of the people he was dealing with. (I resigned in Spring 1993 because of the dysfunctionality of the organization in question. However, I did get an invite to the Oslo signing ceremony, which I attended with fascination bordering on disbelief.)

Plenty of other Palestinians were providing input to the PLO headquarters in Tunis at that time. Among them were people from the diaspora—such as Edward Said, who thought Oslo was a terrible mistake—and, much more importantly, seasoned community leaders from inside Palestine such as veteran Gaza leftist leader Dr. Haidar Abdul-Shafei, or the widely acknowledged head of Jerusalem’s Palestinian community, Faisal Husseini, who were both horrified by Arafat’s pursuit of the Oslo Accords. These men and other community leaders from the West Bank and Gaza had since 1987 guided and led the mass uprising in the occupied West Bank and Gaza known as the First Intifada, the continuation of which was the single strongest card in the PLO’s political hand at that time. Crucially, Dr. Abdul-Shafei, Husseini, and other community leaders from inside Palestine also had a well-honed and intimate understanding of how the Israeli government deployed its power. They had implored Arafat to listen to their concerns about the Oslo Accords, both before and after they were signed. One especially strong concern was that the Accords said nothing about what would happen if, after the five-year interim period prescribed therein, the two sides failed to arrive at a final peace agreement. But Arafat and Abu Mazen signed the agreement anyway. They did not listen to Dr. Abdul-Shafei or any of the other experienced leaders from inside Palestine who knew what their community needed.

The clock on the Accords’ five-year interim started ticking in 1994, when Arafat returned to the occupied territories from the exile he had started in late 1967 (when he and the last band of Palestinian guerrillas were chased from the West Bank into Jordan). When Arafat, Abu Mazen, and their colleagues from the Fateh component of the PLO returned—along with some members from other PLO factions—to their Israeli-occupied homeland, they received a rapturous welcome from Palestinians throughout the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. They represented, to an almost mythical degree, the symbols of a national rebirth. As decreed at Oslo, they established a “Palestinian Interim Self-Governing Authority” (PISGA) to which the Israeli occupation forces slowly ceded increasing blots of land in the two occupied territories. The inaugural elections for the PISGA’s president and legislative body were held in 1996. To no one’s surprise, Arafat was elected president. Fateh’s victory in the legislative election was all the more pronounced because the much younger, Islamist-nationalist movement Hamas boycotted the polls completely.

In May 1999, when the end of the “interim” period loomed near, I attended a conference on the peace negotiations at the West Bank’s Birzeit University. It was clear that the final-status negotiations were still nowhere close to succeeding and that nothing would change when the negotiators failed to meet the five-year deadline. By then Arafat, Abu Mazen, and their cronies were too comfortable in their United States-, European Union-, and Japan-funded status quo in Ramallah to care much about anything else—such as the Israeli government’s continued push to expand settlements in the West Bank and the extensive infrastructure required to sustain them, its refusal to allow the PISGA to exercise any powers at all in occupied East Jerusalem, or the Israeli military’s heavy-handed and regular crackdowns throughout the occupied areas.

During that visit, and several others I made to the West Bank and Gaza in those years, I heard a lot more about just how badly Arafat and his negotiators had failed to understand the details of what they were negotiating at Oslo. For example, at a time when most people still thought that Israeli settlements in the West Bank could and should one day be removed, Arafat had agreed that the Israeli government could build “bypass roads” during the Accords’ interim period that would allow the settlers to travel freely between the settlements and Israel proper without having to face the “risks” of driving through Palestinian towns and cities. The government of Likud’s Ariel Sharon that was in power from 1996 to 1999 used that “permission” granted at Oslo to build an entirely new network of Israelis-only superhighways throughout the West Bank that upended the human geography of the entire region, facilitating super-fast travel for the settlers while cutting off the Palestinian towns and cities from one other. Those highways were certainly never built to be only temporary. In regard to Jerusalem, I sat with Faisal Husseini numerous times in his besieged “Orient House” headquarters in the east of the city and listened as he told me, sometimes near tears, how badly Arafat’s negotiators at Oslo had misunderstood the situation in the city and sold out Palestinians’ vital interests there.

The Accords expired twenty-two years ago. What used to be known as “PISGA” has long since dropped the markers “Interim” and “Self-Governing” from its name. The “PA” has lived through repeated zombie half-lives of its own, long after the original rationale for its existence—as an “interim” body pending imminent conclusion of the final-status peace—has seemingly been forgotten.

Agha and Khalidi rightly note in Foreign Affairs that the PLO/PA’s diplomacy since Oslo has been outrageously poor and self-defeating, but it already was during and prior to Oslo. There is no avoiding this fact. While they make a number of good observations about the dreadful state of Palestinian political leadership, these are also riddled with omissions and misleading references. They declare that “the official Arab-Israeli conflict has ended.” But what about Syria and Lebanon—two countries that border Israel, but for whom the state of war most definitely continues? Then, throughout the article, they conflate “the Palestinians” with the leadership of the PLO/PA—a small coterie of ageing leaders, all on the U.S. payroll, whose maximum claim to “authority” extends only to the 3 million Palestinians of the West Bank (where numerous other political currents face often harsh repression from the PA). The PLO/PA does not, in any meaningful way, represent the interests of the more than 80 percent of the Palestinian people who live elsewhere—whether in the forced exile of the diaspora (60 percent), in Gaza (about 13 percent), or in Israel proper as Israeli citizens (about 8 percent).

When Agha and Khalidi make a brief reference to the role Hamas plays in Gaza, they omit any historical context. In 2006, two years after Arafat died and one year after Abu Mazen was elected as PA president, Hamas reversed the stand it took in 1996 and decided to participate fully in the PA’s new legislative elections. Secretary of State Condolleezza Rice and the Israelis welcomed that decision and helped to negotiate the modalities of their participation. In those January 2006 elections, Hamas won a clear victory. Israel, Washington, D.C., Abu Mazen, and his key then-ally Muhammad Dahlan immediately mounted a brutal but failed attempt to seize power from Hamas in its long-time base in Gaza. Israel, Washington, and Abu Mazen then imposed a suffocatingly tight siege on Gaza that remains in place to this day. (Dahlan fell out with Abu Mazen and is periodically rumored to be angling to replace him.) Agha and Khalidi say nothing about this 2006 effort to overturn the election; they say nothing about the siege inflicted on Gaza’s two million people for the past fifteen years; and they say nothing about the extremely violent assaults that Israel launched against both the West Bank and Gaza in 2002 and 2003, and against Gaza alone in 2008, 2012, and 2014. Those Israeli actions, and the full permission that Washington, D.C., gave to each of them, played a massive role in shaping (and limiting) the possibilities in Palestine today. But Agha and Khalidi fail to mention any of that history. Only through that significant erasure of historical memory can they imagine that, with just the right constellation of negotiators at the right-shaped table, some kind of U.S.-sponsored negotiation might still be possible today.

This negotiation, they propose, should be over some form of “soft” sovereignty. They argue that “the prospects of [the Palestinians] securing ‘hard’ sovereignty, based on nineteenth-century notions of the nation-state, with full and complete control over land, borders, and resources, are remote.” They continue:

Harsh as this conclusion may seem, the Palestinians’ choice may be between clinging to the self-defeating chimera of hard sovereignty . . . and adopting softer versions, as in the case of member states of the European Union, that may offer a way out, although at a cost to what they have so far set up as a national prerogative. Under soft sovereignty, border security arrangements would need to be trilateral in both the West Bank (Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian) and Gaza (Egyptian, Israeli, and Palestinian). The exact terms of such tradeoffs may be navigable, but the precondition is an adjustment in political discourse that has yet to be embraced by the Palestinian political elite.

Their proposal to involve the Egyptian and Jordanian governments more closely in negotiations over the situation in Gaza and the West Bank, respectively, is by no means a new one—and it has never gained traction in the past. But more fundamentally their view that “hard” sovereignty and other concepts at the heart of Grotian international law are outdated seems deeply flawed. Indeed, the two authors repeatedly express their disdain for the concept of international law as a whole, calling it, for example, “one of the more enduring delusions of the Palestinian leadership.” They thereby place themselves at odds with the major emerging current in Palestinian political thinking worldwide.

Palestinian intellectuals from around the world—and, crucially, within the PLO/PA leadership—have increasingly sought to use international law to defend what authority they have left. They have also used it to plant markers that might—as the global balance of power shifts away from U.S. unipolarity—help buttress their case for a better outcome for their country. The PA/PLO leaders’ decision to join the International Criminal Court as a state party should be seen in this light. Nobody expects the ICC to suddenly provide the Palestinians, whether in the occupied territories or in exile, with full satisfaction of key demands like the complete end of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state that spans and connects those two territories, and the return of the refugees from the wars of 1948 and 1967 to their homes and lands. But the ICC can lay down significant international law markers for the future while also holding out the possibility of curbing some of the violence that Israel continues to enact daily against the Palestinians under its control. These ideas are laid out compellingly in writings by Palestinian-American writers and legal experts such as Noura Erakat or Lisa Hajjar, neither of whom gets any mention in Agha and Khalidi’s article.


Back in the late 1970s and early ’80s, when the tempo and direction of the civil war in Lebanon ebbed, flowed, and surged in unpredictable ways, Hussein Agha and Ahmad Khalidi would pop into Beirut every few months on some mysterious mission. We who lived there full-time would joke, “Oh, Ahmad and Hussein are in town. It will probably be calm for another few days.” While there they seldom showed much interest in what was going on in the refugee camps, where most of the Palestinian political action and organizing took place. They seemed to have a disconnect from what was happening on the ground then, as they did later in the 1990s; and they still do today.

Throughout the present century Palestinians from inside their historic homeland—whether in the lands occupied in 1967 or in the land of the 1948 State of Israel—and from their extensive diaspora have convened in a galaxy of online forums, brainstorming ways to address the existential challenges that their people face. Ali Abunimah’s Electronic Intifada (EI) was the first of these forums; Jadaliyya (which has a broader, more pan-Arab perspective), the Al-Shabaka network, and others have followed. The venerable Journal of Palestine Studies (edited for some years now by Rashid Khalidi) even jumped into the world of online discussions and forums. In some ways Al-Shabaka is the most impressive of these online efforts. Founder Nadia Hijab and her colleagues designed it from the get-go as a global, all-virtual policy think tank for Palestinians. Unsurprisingly, during a year in which nearly all the world’s think tanks have had to go online, Al-Shabaka has really shone. Their colloquia on “Reclaiming the PLO; Re-Engaging Youth” or “Focus on Palestinian Political Leadership” are bursting with ideas and rich, thoughtful discussions. Crucially, many of the writers in these fora have wrestled with what Palestinians should do in the circumstances that Israel’s continued building of settlements and settler-only infrastructure in the West Bank renders the “two-state outcome” so long advocated by Abu Mazen impossible to achieve.

After 1999, when (with full U.S. support) the Israeli government blithely ignored the five-year deadline set at Oslo for completion of the final-status agreement and continued its settlement project without pause, it became increasingly clear to Palestinians and many others—including a few Jewish Israelis such as Miko Peled or, most recently, Jeff Halper—that there could be no viable two-state outcome. It therefore also became clear that the PLO’s older, bolder program of aiming for a single, secular, and democratic state in all of Mandate Palestine should urgently be revived.

The PLO drifted from that earlier vision toward supporting a two-state outcome from 1974 on. For a long time thereafter, it continued to insist on full respect for the U.N.-endorsed right of Palestinians who were exiled from their homeland in 1948, 1967, or later to return to their ancestral homes and lands. But after Oslo that insistence became increasingly diluted and has often been omitted from the PLO’s rhetoric completely. The PLO, which had originally been incubated in the angry refugee camps of the Palestinian diaspora, increasingly came to be seen by diaspora Palestinians as having completely abandoned their demands, their grievances, and even their internationally sanctioned rights.

It is therefore small wonder that Palestinian intellectuals from the diaspora have done the most to keep alive—or resurrect—the old vision of a single democratic state in all of historic Palestine. Edward Said was one of the first. Then, in 2006, Ali Abunimah published his clarion call: One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. In it he drew an explicit comparison with the democratic transformation brought about in South Africa in 1994. Throughout the present era’s almost fully globalized Palestinian discourse space, a broad variety of Palestinians debate various issues connected to the one-state goal, as they also address the numerous details of how to organize and lead their broad range of different movements. These movements face grave obstacles not only in the areas occupied by Israel, but also in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and around the world.

Few others in this twenty-first-century discourse spend any time discussing the notions like the “soft sovereignty” that Agha and Khalidi propose. Their proposal feels like the dusty, dying end of the tail of a comet named Oslo that passed close to the world a long, long time ago but never had a chance of making landfall. Moreover, we may be witnessing the dying end of the PLO itself. Its leaders committed themselves irrevocably to Oslo twenty-eight years ago, and it is almost impossible to imagine that they would leave the arrangements that flowed from it. Their longstanding claim that the PLO is the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” now looks—especially in light of their lengthy and inexplicable exclusion of Hamas from its ranks—almost completely hollow.

There is talk today of the possibility of another round of elections for that roughly one-third of Palestinians who live in the Israeli-occupied territories. Maybe, as in 2006, Fateh will agree to include Hamas in the process; and maybe Hamas will agree to participate. But even if those elections happen—a very big “if”—that will not solve the broader challenge of national-level Palestinian leadership that lies in the crisis of the PLO.

I have not seen Hussein Agha or Ahmad Khalidi for many years now. If I were to see them today, I’d urge them to leave the modernist cloisters of St. Antony’s and engage more substantively in the real-world discussions occurring in today’s globalized Palestinian discourse. With their backgrounds and contacts, they could make a distinctive and significant contribution. What they offer the readers of Foreign Affairs seems, by contrast, a waste of their talents.