PLO Institutions: The Challenge Ahead

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VOL. 23


No. 1
P. 46
PLO Institutions: The Challenge Ahead


Since its inception nearly three decades ago, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has faced many difficult situations. Never, before, however, have the challenges been as formidable as they are today, particularly following the signing of the "Declaration of Principles" agreement with Israel; the agreement's open-ended nature-and especially its deferment to the "final status" negotiations of core issues such as Jerusalem, refugees, sovereignty, and settlements-makes the challenge facing the PLO all the more daunting.

Thus, the organization's leadership will have to demonstrate to the Palestinians in the occupied territories that it can create from the September agreement the necessary conditions to build an independent state in these areas; it will have to demonstrate to the agreement's opponents its fidelity to democratic principles of government; and it will have to show the Palestinians of the diaspora that their rights and interests will not be ignored. In other words, the PLO leadership must prove that it is still able to represent, defend, and further the interests, aspirations, and rights of the entire Palestinian people, and not just a portion of them.

How the PLO meets the challenges ahead will not only determine its future and functions, but is bound to have a significant impact on the political fate of its people. And whether the organization is up to the task very much depends on its ability to handle the internal crisis that has been undermining it for some time.

Background to the Crisis

The process by which the PLO acquired the legitimacy to represent the Palestinian people is historically complex and politically intricate. The fact that since 1948 the Palestinian people have lived in many scattered communities and under widely diverging socioeconomic and political conditions, therefore lacking a unitary societal formation, has made the unifying role of the PLO essential in maintaining and developing Palestinian national identity. The Palestinians' need for an organizational expression of their national identity was increasingly felt as the communities in exile came under the conflicting pressures of assimilation and segregation, and as those that had remained within what had been Mandatory Palestine were split between Jordanian and Egyptian rule.

Following the 1967 war and Israel's occupation of what remained of Pales- tine, the PLO, now under the control of the resistance organizations, provided the necessary integrative institutions to interconnect the far-flung Palestinian communities into a well-defined political entity. The PLO's institutions, its cross-community social and cultural structures (education, health, social assistance to martyrs' families, artisan centers), its mass and professional associations, as well as the organizational networks of its constituent political groups, provided vital linkages not only between the various Palestinian communities of the diaspora but also between the diaspora on the one hand and the Palestinians inside the occupied territories on the other.

The sense of unity this political entity conferred on the Palestinians as a people despite their dispersal probably explains why the many and persistent attempts to create alternatives to the PLO or to marginalize its representative function have decisively failed. Indeed, no other organization has been able to address the demands of Palestinian nationalism or mobilize the Palestinian people in their struggle for their national rights. The focus on armed struggle in the early years as the core of the Palestinian strategy of liberation was necessary at the time to politically mobilize the Palestinians. Hence the major confrontations between the PLO and Israel as well as between the PLO and Arab regimes strengthened and confirmed the organization as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. The acknowledgement in 1974 by the Arab League and the United Nations General Assembly of the representativity of the PLO enhanced the legitimacy already granted it by the vast majority of the Palestinians.

The PLO's position remained unchallenged as long as it was able to respond to the dynamics of the struggle for self-determination and independence, enhancing its adaptability without compromising its cause. It was thus that, starting from 1974, the PLO embarked upon a strategy that gradually was to lead to the historic resolutions of the November 1988 session of the Palestine National Council (PNC) in Algiers, when, after a long and in- tense dialogue among the main factions of the PLO, the organization declared itself unambiguously in favor of a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, to be achieved through diplomatic means.

But despite its gains, the PLO had early on been confronted with a number of serious challenges. The resistance movement lost its major operational and social base in Jordan in 1970-71, which meant that it could no longer operate freely against Israel from Jordanian territory or mobilize the large Palestinian population in the country. But serious though the ramifications of the defeat in Jordan were, they paled before the effects of the bloody civil war in Lebanon that began in 1975, in which the PLO had become entangled. The Israeli invasion and three-month siege of Beirut in 1982 culminated in the forced departure of the PLO and its exile in Tunis, the effects of which reverberate to this day.

Internationally, the PLO has been adversely affected by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc as a whole. The end to the Soviet counterweight to the continued U.S. support for Israel brought accelerating Soviet Jewish immigration, stepped-up Israeli colonizing activities in the occupied territories, and a near-absence of effective support for the PLO's political program. At the regional level, the decline of the Arab League meant, among other things, the loss of collective Arab support for the intifada, the PLO, and its peace initiative. The Gulf war, especially, dealt a devastating blow, leaving the Arab world divided and the Gulf states hostile toward the PLO as a reaction to the organization's political position during the Gulf crisis. Thus, at both the regional and international levels, the balance of power tilted more heavily than ever in favor of Israel and its aims and against the PLO and the Palestinian struggle for independence. By 1990-91, the impact of these set- backs, combined with the expansionist policies of the Likud government in Israel, had brought the PLO almost to a state of siege.

Meanwhile, the social spaces on which the PLO depended for political mobilization and support among its own constituency were significantly narrowed. In Lebanon, the war against Palestinian camps by Amal from late 1986 to early 1988 and the dramatically worsened situation of the Palestinians there (e.g., tightened restrictions on mobility and employment) following the PLO's departure in 1982 made any kind of political mobilization by the PLO and its constituent organizations extremely difficult, and the attitude toward the PLO of the Palestinians in Lebanon has remained very critical since then. In Syria, the PLO found it almost impossible to work openly among Palestinians as a result of its widening rift with the Syrian leadership after 1982. Nevertheless, the PLO has retained-probably for this very reason-wide support among Palestinians in Syria. In the Gulf, the expulsion of the majority of the Palestinian community from Kuwait immediately after the 1991 war meant the loss of an important source of financial and political support for the PLO and Palestinians in the occupied territories. Restrictions on political and organizational activity by Palestinians in some other Gulf states compounded the loss. Finally, in Jordan, democratization and the legalization of political parties have complicated relations between the PLO and its constituent groups on the one hand and Jordan's Palestinian community-the largest outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip-on the other. In the absence of direct political mobilization, given the citizenship status of Palestinians in Jordan, indirect and complex mediations have been necessary.

The only exception to the ever-diminishing field of action available to the PLO was the occupied territories, which, in contrast to the situation that prevailed elsewhere in the 1980s and early 1990s, acquired increasing significance as the social space on which the PLO relied for active popular support. The occupied territories, in turn, played a vital role in legitimizing the PLO, especially after 1970. The intifada, erupting when Arab support was at its lowest ebb, was of special importance in renewing the PLO's legitimacy through its repeated emphasis on the organization's status as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Moreover, it was partly as a result of the impact of the intifada, which combined political realism with militancy in its confrontation with the occupation, that the PLO adopted a clear political strategy and launched its peace initiative, based on the two- state solution, at the PNC session in Algiers in November 1988.

But the strategy adopted by the PLO in November 1988 was not combined with the structural reforms urgently needed to revive and widen its capacity for political mobilization and to ensure the intensification of the intifada. At the same time, the intifada called attention to the need for major changes in the PLO to make it more adaptable and effective in a rapidly changing regional and international political environment. Specifically, it brought to the fore such issues as the relationship between the PLO's leadership organs and the occupied territories, bureaucratization and organizational development, and the structure and role of the national institutions (such as the PNC, the PLO Central Council, and so on).

The Two Wings of the Palestinian National Movement: Organizational Development

The shift of the center of gravity of the Palestinian national struggle from the diaspora to the occupied territories began, in a sense, with the massive defeat in Jordan in 1970-71 and the growing realization that an autonomous territorial base was necessary to shield the Palestinians from the precariousness of their situation and from their vulnerability to external pressure and intervention: hence the centrality of statehood as the goal of the movement, the first step toward which was the 1974 PNC ten-point "transitional" pro- gram calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state on any part of the territory to be liberated. The Lebanese civil war and the 1982 Israeli war against the PLO in Lebanon completed the objective conditions for this shift in the center of gravity. The subjective conditions were met with the outbreak of the intifada in December 1987.

The PLO, as most of its factions, had been structured to view the occupied territories as providing a supportive role rather than as the main arena of national struggle. The PLO could not, given its oversized bureaucracy, adjust itself easily and quickly to the shift to the occupied territories. Its bureaucratic elite, as well as the leaderships of its constituent organizations, saw in the emerging political reality a threat to their command and privileges. De- spite the pressing need for a more democratic relationship between the two wings of the Palestinian movement engendered by the new reality, the centers of decision-making (political, financial, organizational, administrative, et cetera) and their mechanisms remained unaltered. The organization's failure to respond to this new requirement is one factor in the PLO crisis.

The sharply differing conditions of Palestinians in the diaspora and the occupied territories have resulted, quite naturally, in somewhat different paths of growth in the two wings of the Palestinian movement.

Of special significance in the separate developments of the two branches is the fact that the Palestinians of the diaspora share no common social formation or common society. Leaving aside the obvious fact of dispersal among various countries with different systems, it is only the refugee camps that have specific community features. But even there, these features vary from place to place and remain subject to the caprices of political change and upheaval, as the history of the camps in Lebanon over the past three decades illustrates. As for the diaspora Palestinians outside the camps, they lack the basic features of communities, dispersed as they are in their places of work and residence and, in some cases, more or less integrated economically and socially into the host country (as in Jordan and to a lesser extent Syria). Moreover, in the various countries where the Palestinians are concentrated and where their cause has popular support, any organized expression of Palestinian national identity-which of necessity has a prominent political dimension-is almost inevitably seen as destabilizing. The Palestinian communities in the diaspora are therefore restricted, legally and politically, by host governments that tend to view the exercise of control over the Palestinians residing within their jurisdiction as part of the domination of their own civil society. In some countries, Palestinian trade unions or professional associations are banned.

In the diaspora, then, it was the PLO and its constituent political organizations that initiated "civil society" institutions, ranging from youth and women's associations to clinics and hospitals, from militias and popular committees in camps to artisan shops and, in some cases, factories. It was thus that the growth of community features for the Palestinians of the diaspora during the 1970s and 1980s was generally confined to areas where the PLO had control, or at least some form of influence, and where it maintained amicable relations with the host government. Once this situation ended, most of the community-like structures erected by the PLO collapsed, withered away, or were banned, as was the case in Lebanon after 1982.

The Palestinians of the occupied territories, on the other hand, never ceased to maintain a genuine society, rooted in the land, with its own economy, its own agricultural, industrial, and service sectors, its own civil institutions, and with its values, class and status structures, and kinship system intact. The Israeli occupation did, of course, have an enormous impact on that society, but, despite restrictions and repression, Palestinian civil society existed and developed. It is even possible that certain aspects of civil society were strengthened and enhanced through the population's collective response to the challenge of occupation.

Furthermore, certain features of life in the occupied territories facilitated the development of mass organizations and more particularly the development of open organizational frameworks allowing for public participation in the decision-making process. It is no coincidence that the popular commit- tees set up in the early days of the intifada evolved in the conditions of the territories; the fact that these committees failed to develop to their full potential, for reasons that will be touched upon later, detracts nothing from the lessons they hold in terms of the need for direct popular involvement in democratic political mobilization.

Thus, the changes in the class and employment structures in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that followed the Israeli occupation (the undermining of the manufacturing and agricultural sectors through new restrictions, the erosion of the limited opportunities for upward mobility in the middle classes, and the growth of the Palestinian working class through a stepped-up demand for cheap unskilled labor in the Israeli labor market) facilitated the political orientation adopted in the late 1970s by left-wing organizations to build popular associations and develop the trade union movement. Fateh was soon to follow the left's lead. Another outcome of this policy was to transform the social composition of the Palestinian national movement in the occupied territories, which began to attract cadres and local leaders from the working class and the petite bourgeoisie. With the building of the grass roots, mass, professional, and trade union movement, wider social strata-workers, students, women from poor areas, professionals of peasant origin, et cetera- were drawn into the active space of the Palestinian national movement. Rising unemployment, the rapid commercialization of agriculture, the weakening of traditional craft industries, the penetration of capitalist relations into the economy, and various Israeli economic and fiscal restrictions (for example, water use for irrigation, import-export) and prohibitions (for example, of Arab banks) forced large numbers of Palestinians either to emigrate in search of work or to seek employment in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs in the Israeli labor market. Recession in the Gulf states and Israel in the 1980s inflated the ranks of the unemployed, especially among university graduates. The proletarization of large sectors of the population was accompanied by stepped-up efforts to build civil society institutions and grass roots organizations. The result was a proliferation of welfare, voluntary, professional and mass associations and trade unions, research centers, universities, colleges, clinics, newspapers, magazines, and information centers. There was also a flowering of political organizations (clandestine or semi-clandestine) and economic enterprises, albeit operating in a captive economy.

Just as conditions in the occupied territories fostered a certain type of organizational development, so too did the situation in the diaspora affect the evolution of the PLO. The PLO's need to provide quasi-state functions- ranging from health care, education, and cultural services to judiciary, police, and military protection-to meet the needs of a people spread among various countries increased its predisposition toward bureaucratization. The organization's quasi-autonomous status in Lebanon from the early 1970s exacerbated the trend; the Lebanese civil war, especially, nourished the tendency to enlarge and regiment the military formations of the PLO and the resistance groups. Meanwhile, the sizeable financial assistance from the oil-rich Arab states made possible the employment of large numbers of individuals in PLO offices, departments, and mass organizations (as well as those of its constituent groups). Ironically, one aspect of the present crisis involves the difficulties caused by the sudden cutoff, since the Gulf crisis, of this same Gulf financial aid that had helped to inflate the bureaucracy in the first place (the cessation of funds serving both as a means of marginalizing the PLO and as a form of pressure during the peace negotiations). Other factors contributing to the organization's bureaucratization included the diplomatic success of the PLO, with the consequent establishment of numerous missions throughout the world, and aid from the Soviet bloc, thanks to which large numbers of PLO cadres studied in the socialist countries and were influenced in varying degrees by their highly bureaucratized state structures.

With the move of the PLO headquarters from Beirut to Tunis in 1982, the semi-state apparatus (military, paramilitary, diplomatic, administrative) became an obvious political and financial burden. Equally important, the exile in Tunis cut the organization off from the large Palestinian communities with which it had had direct interaction, especially in Lebanon and Syria. It is no accident that many of the leaders of the Fateh rebellion of 1983 came from the top of the movement's relatively large military and paramilitary bureaucracy, which at the time was undergoing fragmentation, and which had lost as a result of the war with Israel most of the military bases and camps in southern Lebanon that had legitimized it and justified its privileges and political role. With the loss of its territorial base in Lebanon in 1982, the PLO had even greater difficulty in maintaining the cohesiveness and effectiveness of its institutions outside the occupied territories.

Bureaucratization was not limited to the PLO's leadership apparatus. It also took its toll on the Palestinian mass organizations and professional unions of the diaspora, where their role began to erode rapidly. Indeed, the semi-state functions of the PLO had been duplicated by the various political organizations. Each acted, more or less, as a ruling party and reproduced, albeit at a scale commensurate with its size and resources, the functions of the mother organization, maintaining its own military formation, security apparatus, clinics, prisons, kindergartens, artisan shops, publications, and, on occasion, broadcasting stations. With bureaucratization came the alienation of the social base of the organizations from their leaderships (with the possible exception of the General Union of Palestinian Students, for the reason that it has remained the least bureaucratized).

Another reason for the weakness of the mass organizations and popular unions of the diaspora was the fact that many of these bodies had been established with an eye to their political value rather than with regard to the community's other needs (social, economic, educational, et cetera). Political mobilization was an essential part of the national liberation feature of the Palestinian struggle. Thus, instead of devoting the requisite time to organizing sections of Palestinians to protect and promote their interests and rights (even while mobilizing their supportive and political capabilities behind the strategy of the PLO), these bodies were turned primarily into "political fronts" or used as direct political instruments. The delicacy of the organization's relations with host governments in its role as defender of the collective interests of the Palestinian people also played a role. Moreover, very few of these bodies set up by the PLO had been built to be independent organizationally; they were completely dependent financially and very few relied to any sizeable extent on voluntary work. Bureaucratic control began to replace political and social mobilization. The "control" of mass organizations was incorporated within the PLO "state" functions.

A further factor preventing the development of genuine grass roots in the diaspora mass organizations was the operation of the "quota" system, whereby each of the factions had a given number of seats in the PLO leader- ship bodies and a set representation in the mass organizations irrespective of its size, ideology, or influence or popularity among Palestinians. Because positions in the leading public institutions were not filled by elections, it was not possible to determine objectively the degree of support enjoyed by the various political organizations and to apply on that basis a system of proportional representation. Furthermore, some Arab-sponsored factions were disproportionally represented in certain of the PLO institutions and in the leading organs of mass organizations for reasons of expediency rather than the requirements of Palestinian national interest.

It is true that the quota system operated in the occupied territories as well, but in an attenuated form. There, only those groups with some local following could be represented in the various national bodies (for example, the mass organizations, the National Guidance Committee until it was banned in 1982, and the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising). Furthermore, each of the political groups operating in the territories established its own mass organizations, professional associations, and trade unions. The fact that these groups, as part of the PLO, could not work openly in the occupied territories because of Israeli repression was one of the reasons that they had built these mass organizations and professional associations in the first place. Other reasons had to do with attempts by left-wing political organizations to establish new methods of recruitment and to widen their popular base and public influence in areas where Fateh could not use to the full its own financial and bureaucratic weight to foil or restrict such attempts. Furthermore, the absence of Arab-sponsored political organizations in the occupied territories freed these attempts from other forms of restrictions.

Finally, competition in the occupied territories in the form of democratic elections for the control of popular and professional organizations with a national character (for example, university student councils and chambers of commerce) has dictated an interest on the part of these groups in maintaining grass roots links, thus ensuring the survival of a popular dimension to the national movement there. However, this dimension has come under threat from the strong tendencies pulling toward bureaucratization. The disappearance of the popular committees of the intifada is a striking example of this.

Certainly, there were external reasons for the decline of the committees, notably Israel's iron-fist policy that singled out the popular committees for special repression and the large-scale arrests and prolonged detentions or imprisonment of experienced political and organizational cadres. But the internal reasons were also very important. The popular committees were in effect dismantled as frameworks open to all sectors of the local population under the pressures of rivalries among the main political factions, each seeking to bring these frameworks under its own control. Thus, while competition among the PLO groups was an important factor in building grass roots organizations, the fact that this competition was confined to political issues and that social issues were relegated to marginal positions hindered the process of building national institutions capable of functioning independently of political groups. In place of the popular committees, factional committees were instituted that lacked two of the former's novel and vital features: their openness, and their democratic structure. In other words, those at the center of the political system could not adjust to a democratic and organizational innovation as represented by the popular committees.

The Crisis of Political Representation

A tendency to move the political decision-making process outside the national legislative and executive institutions has always been present within the PLO. The political discourse of the Palestinian left has always alluded to this by accusing the Fateh leadership of running PLO institutions in an individualistic and autocratic manner, of dominating the organization's institutions, departments, and offices through the appointment of its own followers, and of appropriating the bulk of its funds. However, the calls made by the left to "democratically" reform the PLO institutions and Palestinian mass and professional associations and trade unions never gained active popular sup- port, despite the fact that they contained much truth and validity. This is partly because these calls were seen as little more than bids to improve the left's share in the "quota" system, which has determined the composition of the leading bodies of the organization since the late 1960s.

The "quota" system mentioned above is a direct outgrowth of the 1968 takeover by the resistance organizations of the PLO, which had been created four years earlier by the Arab League and which until then had functioned as a tool of Arab regional politics. The incorporation within its framework of the main resistance factions was a necessary step in the PLO's acquisition of political legitimacy as a pluralistic system and in its transformation into a tool of Palestinian nationalism. But while doubtless necessary historically, the "quota" system contains within itself the ingredients that led to bypassing national institutions. By assuring the resistance organizations the preponderance of seats in the PNC and the Central Committee and by assuring that each is represented on the Executive Committee regardless of its size, the system in effect gives the power of decision-making on national issues to the representatives of the political factions rather than to representatives of the Palestinian communities. By the same token, it gives the decision-making authority to the leadership (or the leader) of the dominant faction. Rivalries and differing political outlooks among left-wing groups (as well as the readiness of each to enhance its own position regardless of the interests of other left-wing organizations) were used by the Fateh leadership to maintain its dominance. And given the highly centralized command structure operating in all the factions of the organization, the "quota" system formula helped gradually to disempower the national bodies as well as popular associations.

No change in the "quota" system can take place without either the approval of Fateh or a real challenge by left-wing organizations. But the Fateh bureaucracy has no interest in changing a system that has ensured its control of the PLO. And up to now, the various groupings of the Palestinian left have never joined forces in a unified political platform to challenge Fateh's leadership and control of the PLO. Nor have they ever put forward a clear conception of a more democratic political system that would genuinely empower Palestinian communities in both the diaspora and the occupied territories. Such empowerment could be possible through holding elections to select representatives of leading PLO institutions. Democratization requires making executive bodies accountable to a representative body, instead of making members of national institutions accountable to the political factions of the PLO, as has been the practice so far. What is needed is a pluralistic system that gives due attention to constituency in order to enhance its own representativity. Equally necessary is the institution of a form of accountability to the people.

It is thus that even while true decision-making within the PLO does not take place within the national institutions, neither are these institutions as now constituted properly representative. The most striking example of the dislocation of the political system is the absence of representatives from the occupied territories in the PLO's national institutions and their partial and ineffectual role in the political decision-making process. In fact, when the PNC was first formed a number of seats were allotted for the occupied territories, but no nominations were ever made for fear of Israeli repression. This situation has never been remedied, and there are still no representatives from the occupied territories after nearly six years of the intifada and two years of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

The PNC included in its membership Palestinians of standing from the various Palestinian communities in exile. The PLO constitution stipulates that members of the PNC should be elected. This, however, was never put into practice, and membership in the Palestinian parliament-in-exile became in effect subject to the agreement of the leadership of the various resistance organizations. It was then that the "quota" system, never clearly specified, came to operate in all PLO institutions, as well as in the popular and professional associations and trade unions as discussed above.

The decline of armed struggle as a legitimating source of authority for the PLO, originally an alliance of resistance groups, has called for new forms of legitimacy. A restructuring and democratization of the national institutions alone seem capable of providing the PLO-as an organization, a political program, and as the authority responsible for building a state infrastructure- with active and popular legitimacy needed at the present Palestinian, regional, and international juncture. Without wide-ranging reconstruction, it is difficult to see how the PLO will be able to tackle the huge tasks that lie ahead.

The Challenge from Without

In the past few years, the most potent challenge to the PLO has come from outside the Palestinian nationalist political system with the rapid rise of political Islam in the occupied territories. Indeed, it was inevitable that the challenge should come from the outside: it could not have been otherwise given the ossification of the PLO structures and their failure to adapt under the impact of the intifada (this applies as well to the organizations of the left), and given their almost total dependence on full-time paid functionaries as opposed to volunteers. The highly centralized organizational forms that have dominated the PLO's constituent organizations since their rise as resistance groups in the 1960s (they were, after all, organized among military lines) made a challenge from within even less likely.

Nor was it an accident that the most powerful manifestation of this challenge, Hamas, appeared on the Palestinian scene soon after the outbreak of the intifada, at a time of rapid change in the Palestinian political situation both in the occupied territories and in the diaspora. The movement quickly gained popular support, which has grown still stronger as the PLO and its main constituent organizations failed to implement significant reforms enabling them to cope with the new complex situation or to introduce greater balance in the relationship between the PLO leadership bodies and the national movement in the occupied territories.

Hamas and political Islam in the occupied territories have benefitted from regional and international changes and from various forms of assistance from certain regional centers. But the movement's growth has fed first and fore- most on the crisis of the Palestinian national movement and the PLO. It could not have prospered without the political discontent that had been spreading among ever-widening sectors of Palestinians in the occupied territories and the diaspora. It is true that the worsening socioeconomic conditions of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, coupled with intensifying Israeli repression, played a role in widening the social base of the discontent, but these factors do not provide a sufficient explanation for its extent.

While the political discontent has not always directly focused on the PLO, it was nonetheless seen as reflecting the body's inadequate performance. It was also seen, rightly, as an expression of the PLO's inability to play an effective role in mobilizing the population inside and outside the occupied territories and of the increasing isolation of its bureaucratic structures from the problems of Palestinians in their various communities. At the same time, there has been an increasingly public awareness of the formalistic character of national institutions, the autocratic nature of the decision-making process, and the existence of forms of favoritism and corruption.

The relative decline in the numbers of active supporters of the PLO's main political organizations in the last few years is another expression of the crisis in the established Palestinian political system. (One might note here a contraction in the role and size of popular organizations and open frameworks for youth, women, et cetera in the occupied territories since the Gulf crisis.)

The challenge of political Islam comes from the fact that it questions the foundations of Palestinian nationalism. It adopts a sectarian conception of society and offers Islam as an alternative to the secular nationalism of the PLO. Furthermore, it rejects the pluralistic features of future Palestinian society in favor of a totalitarian perspective, an alternative to a political society that negates "territorial" nationalism. The dangers entailed in such an alternative in the Palestinian condition cannot be minimized. For the Palestinian national and cultural identity has been one of the strongest and most enduring militant tools in the fight against Zionist sectarian ideology, Israeli occupation and expansionism, as well as one of the strongest safeguards against attempts to assimilate, dominate, and settle Palestinians in the diaspora. But the challenge posed by the rise of Hamas can only be met by restructuring the PLO and modernizing the Palestinian political system.

What Is to Be Done?

Given the very serious nature of the challenges that the PLO faces, both internally and externally, it seems that the organization has no option but to reconstruct itself so as to give more weight to its representative and democratic functions. This means the development of effective and genuine national institutions that can cope with the many complex problems that Palestinians face in the occupied homeland and in the diaspora. Whatever the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the need for transforming the structure of the PLO will remain. Indeed, Palestinian participation in the negotiations makes such a restructuring all the more urgent: an enhanced PLO capacity to mobilize all available resources and to inject a new dynamism in the political system can only strengthen the Palestinian negotiating position.

The most urgent internal political task facing the Palestinian national movement is to empower the national institutions, thereby reversing the deterioration of their role in the decision-making process. The reshaping of Palestinian national institutions must begin with the Palestine National Council; it is no longer possible to leave a body so central to the Palestinian movement in its present state-that is, as a mere annual or biennial gathering of Palestinians appointed from the diaspora whose function is to provide legitimacy to political deals reached by the leaderships of the various resistance organizations. Since the membership of the council has been appointive, the PLO's constituent organizations automatically have commanded the overwhelming majority of seats. The fact that there have always been major political disagreements among the political groups, assuring often vigorous debate, does not alter the largely formalistic and ceremonial nature of the PNC sessions.

Any serious reform in the structure of the PLO, then, must give priority to the reconstruction of the PNC on similar lines to those of a parliament or a national assembly with clear legislative functions. The mandate of legislative powers has to come from the various Palestinian communities which should, therefore, be able to elect their representatives to the PNC in proportion to their relative size. In areas where it proves practically impossible to hold elections, other democratic procedures for selecting PNC members must be sought. Like other democratic parliamentary bodies, the PNC should hold regular sessions and have permanent committees to issue recommendations concerning the various aspects of the Palestinian people's struggle. A clear separation of the legislative from the executive (and judicial, where it exists or comes into being) should be strictly adhered to. It is thus that the debate that began during the last few years on reforming the PLO's leading institutions (especially the National Council and the Central Council) and other institutions of the national movement (for example, mass and professional organizations, PLO offices and departments, higher councils established in the occupied territories for workers, women, students, and so on, but thus far not functioning effectively) should be revived and widened. Such a debate should include not just general principles but in-depth discussions on such details as the size of the proposed PNC, its composition, how Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip should be represented fully and effectively, and so on. These debates should be carried out not only in the Palestinian mass media, as has been the case thus far, but also in convened national institutions (PNC, PCC) as well as in special seminars and work- shops held for that purpose.

However, reforming the Palestinian political system requires more than democratizing and empowering the PNC. The prospect, in the event of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, of a legislative council in the occupied territories and a Palestinian authority to take over from the military authorities profoundly changes the givens. The PLO's leading bodies as well as its various constituent organizations need to pay special attention to defining clearly the relationship between these two proposed bodies and the PNC and the PLO Executive Committee respectively. A democratic and institutionalized mechanism for regulating the interaction between the Palestinians of the "interior" and those of the "exterior" must be evolved. This could be through such existing institutions as the PNC and the PCC, but made effective by reducing their size, having them meet regularly and frequently, endowing them with permanent committees, and, of course, having the occupied territories fully and proportionally represented. Without a means of effecting this interaction between the inside and the outside, the PLO will find it even more difficult to survive as a viable expression of the unity of the Palestinian people, the embodiment of their national identity and rights, and the organizational framework that defines and formulates their strategy and represents their interests.

The unique features of the Palestinian condition and the particular characteristics of the present local, regional, and international juncture require, I believe, a critical look at the existing Palestinian political system. Reports from the occupied territories and from areas of major Palestinian concentration stress a strongly and widely felt need for a radical change in an inertia- ridden system seen as having lost its dynamism. Criticism is levelled against the omniscient attitude of the organization's leadership, the personality cult, and the modes of conduct and style of work these aspects encouraged. Organizations are criticized for showing little or no interest in democratic practices, for turning a blind eye to public corruption, and for practicing favoritism, patronage, demagoguery, elitism, and so on. Much has been said about the need to rid the intifada of unpopular and gangster-like practices that have attached themselves to it through factionalism and unprincipled conduct. Yet little has been done by the political organizations to stop such practices.

But reform, and indeed critical scrutiny, require an informed public opinion that can exercise pressure on what has come to constitute the Palestinian "political establishment." This in turn requires the development of Palestinian mass media and public forms of communication so as to keep the public informed about developments of national significance; the disinformation manufactured by more than one party concerning the negotiations process illustrates the need for responsible media. Of course, leading PLO bodies have a role to play in this matter, as do the constituent groups and in some cases special groups (for example, the negotiation team).

Another way of enhancing democratization is to institute a multi-party system and institutionalize the opposition: everything suggests that the time has come to move from the present system of "factions" to a system of political parties with all that entails, including making them accountable to the public, making known their political and social programs, and instituting a system of democratic competition for positions of public responsibility and office. It should be mentioned, however, that as long as the Israeli occupation continues, such a system need not entail, for example, renouncing the military struggle or underground forms of organization. What is needed is making the system sensitive to the needs, interests, and aspirations of ordinary men and women in the various Palestinian communities. Only such a system can prepare the way for the building of a democratic Palestinian state with a dynamic "civil society," and instill the necessary emphasis on the values of freedom, equality, and social justice, as well as on respect to human and democratic citizens' rights.

The PLO has been the major achievement of the contemporary Palestinian national movement. It has also been essential for preserving and developing the political unity and national identity of the Palestinian people. But the PLO, in its present form, remains tied to the conditions that gave rise to it. These conditions have been overtaken by events, and unless the PLO is reshaped along more democratic and representational lines, it faces a real danger of losing the militant functions and national role that the Palestinian people paid so dearly to develop.

A reconstructed PLO is triply needed at the present-and crucial-political moment to boost the Palestinian position in the negotiations with Israel now beginning, and to give impetus to the building of institutions of Palestinian civil society. Furthermore, the reconstruction is needed to create the necessary infrastructure for an independent state, and for encouraging a self- oriented economic development, that is, development directed to fulfilling the needs of the Palestinians and not the needs of the international market.

A dynamic, democratically legitimated and sensitive political system has enormous mobilizing potential. The utilization of the widest possible range of Palestinian resources (political, economic, diplomatic, organizational, informational, et cetera) in the struggle for independence has probably never been as urgently needed as it is now.


Jamil Hilal, director of the PLO Information Department in Tunis and a member of the PNC since 1983, is a sociologist by training and the author of The West Bank Economic and Social Structure, 1948-74, and numerous articles on Palestinian-related issues. The views expressed are his alone. 


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