Make the PLO Great (Central and Relevant) Again
The Palestinian political agency is begging for new leadership.
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the Palestinian political agency, is 100% intact.
The PLO is internationally recognized and legally legitimate, but its domestic standing has declined due to self-inflicted poor governance and deficient communication with the local community. Locally, the PLO today lacks the bare minimum of public credibility — assuming that the younger generations even know what it is although they have never had an opportunity to be part of it in any real way.
Organizationally, the PLO has been hollowed out ever since the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993. With ostensible opposition parties inside the PLO coerced into sustaining an organizational house of cards, Palestinians are left with what is effectively a one party system (Fatah) plus a second, external party (Hamas) that seeks entry to the PLO so as to replace it with a similar, if not worse, model of governance.
All of that notwithstanding, the PLO remains the only Palestinian political agency that can propel Palestinians to freedom and independence. The Palestinian Authority (PA), born out of the infamous Oslo Peace Accords and deemed a part of the PLO’s structures, is actually just an implementing body mandated by the PLO governing bodies to be an administrative caretaker for Palestinians living under the yoke of Israeli military occupation. As such, the PA, in and of itself, has no real political policy making role.
Organizational structures can only really be as effective as their leaderships are. Over time and without a public mandate, even the best leadership will falter, so we cannot expect much in this case, after decades of calcification. Palestinian domestic affairs are in a dire state now. This is due partly to the sustained Israeli military fragmentation of Palestinian geography and its ripping apart of Palestinian society’s social fabric, and partly to the absence of a functioning political system. Whatever the causes, renewed leadership will be required to keep the national project of freedom and independence on track.
The PLO’s ruling party, Fatah, originally under the charismatic and historic leadership of Yasser Arafat, imposed on the Palestinian people the Oslo Peace Accords; embraced the so-called peace process for over 25 years; and has overseen multiple collapses of this process — not to mention witnessing an 80% increase in Israeli settlers, the erection of the Israeli Separation Barrier, multiple Israeli military aggressions against Gaza, an increase in house demolitions and arrests of its citizens by the Israeli occupation authorities, and much more. Despite any good that may have emerged from the Oslo peace process over the past two decades, the outline of the deteriorating situation is detailed and well documented by numerous international organizations, Israeli human rights organizations, and a score of others.
Stuck in place and standing fast
With all this reality visible to the naked eye, the current Palestinian leadership refuses to retire and enable the Palestinian political system to be renewed and rejuvenated, allowing effective political representation and pluralism to take the baton. Instead, the preferred mode of operation was for President Abbas to recently announce that the PLO/PA will end all agreements with Israel, which made most Palestinians living the daily reality cynically smile at this new-old announcement, knowing that everything from our “passports” to the water we drink, currency we use, and vaccines we give our children, are all a function of agreements with Israel.
President Abbas, now 84, has himself announced at various past junctures that the PLO/PA will end its compliance with agreements with Israel, excluding security cooperation which he claimed was “sacred.” Nothing materially changed.
Recently appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Dr. Mohammad Shtayyeh followed suit and declared that all areas of the West Bank, including the 62% supposedly under full Israeli control, are now considered designated under the Oslo Accords definition as “Area A,” meaning under full Palestinian civil and security control. Another grand statement full of intention but without even a minimal explanation of what this means on the ground. One can expect this to have some legal meaning, but on the ground most Palestinians would say Israel has already classified all of the territory as “Area C,” meaning under full Israeli civil and security control, decades ago.
Then, as if to outdo himself, Prime Minister Shtayyeh made another grand announcement stating that his government is proceeding with economic disengagement from Israel. This was followed by actual steps which further disrupted the already economically volatile Palestinian market. Shtayyeh, veteran economist that he is, must surely know better than to believe that it is in his government’s hands, without an effective PLO in operation and without elected leadership, to actualize such a long-needed restructuring of the economic relationship with Israel. Possibly this is merely an early start to a possible election campaign for him to assume the reins of leadership through a public mandate.
More recently, President Abbas made another grand announcement at the podium during the UN General Assembly’s 74th Session in September, pledging to call for “general elections” upon his return to Palestine. This made news — with few remembering that this is not the first time that he has made such a promise, to no avail.
So has anything changed?
What is different this time around? It seems that the Trump administration’s systematic bypassing of the existing Palestinian leadership is driving the need for grand statements like these as an attempt to leverage the resultant attention to move the world powers to bring the PLO back into the discussion.
The bottom line is that the loss of public confidence — in a leadership which has been at the helm during the largest political losses in modern Palestinian history — makes any political or policy statement, no matter how grand or how badly needed, impotent.
I published an Open Letter to President Abbas (Arabic and French versions here) after the failure of Jared Kushner’s Peace to Prosperity Economic Workshop in Bahrain. To exit the deep hole the PLO is in today will require more than just calling for elections with the same players that brought us to this point. Credible leadership will be required and that will happen only if the public speaks up and speaks out loudly for real change.
The only way forward is to restart the Palestinian political system from the ground up and make the PLO great (central and relevant) again.
Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American business consultant from Ramallah/Al-Bireh in the West Bank. He is chair of the board of Americans for a Vibrant Palestinian Economy (AVPE) and serves as a policy adviser to Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network and is co-editor of “Homeland: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians” (1994). He blogs at ePalestine.com. @SamBahour.