In light of the breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations last week, prospects for a peace settlement seem increasingly bleak.
Add to the equation that the Palestinians remain a house divided, with Gaza’s Hamas government estranged from the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and the situation appears even grimmer. But it wasn’t that long ago that the Palestine Liberation Organization also was seen as a deadly terrorist group with which Israel refused to speak. As Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans try to figure out how to move forward in the crumbling peace process, it is worthwhile to take a step back and examine how the present situation came about.
The PLO emerges
“The main goal of the PLO over the years has been to insert itself whenever the Palestinian issue is discussed,” said Khaled Elgindy, who worked as an adviser to the Palestinian Negotiations Support Unit in Ramallah from 2004 to 2009. “What they refused to accept was for others to deal with the Palestinian question without their involvement.”
The PLO was created in 1964, when Egypt ruled Gaza, Jordan had annexed the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and the Arab League took it upon itself to restore Palestine. The Palestinian narrative was controlled by everybody except the Palestinians. In six days in 1967, Israel defeated the combined armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, and the Arab world’s goal of redeeming Palestine became secondary to avenging its humiliating defeat. This shift allowed the PLO to seize control of the Palestinian narrative.
“Armed struggle” was the chief weapon of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, a member of the PLO. Following the Six Day War, Fatah led dozens of guerilla attacks against Israel from its base in Jordan, but one in particular would stand out in the annals of Palestinian history. On March 18, 1968, Fatah guerillas planted a land mine inside Israel, which blew up under an Israeli school bus, killing two people. It was the 38th Fatah attack that year. In response, Israel launched an attack on the PLO’s headquarters in Karameh, Jordan, in what became known as the Battle of Karameh.
Tipped off about the coming Israeli invasion, Fatah prepared to ambush the Israelis. More than 120 Fatah fighters died during the battle, but so did 28 Israeli soldiers, and though Israel claimed a physical victory, Fatah claimed a propaganda victory that propelled Mr. Arafat to the PLO leadership in 1969. The PLO had stood up to the Israelis, survived, and caused damage. “Armed struggle” was the new way forward for the PLO under Mr. Arafat’s leadership.
“It wasn’t uniquely an armed struggle,” said Thomas Pickering, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel from 1985 to 1988. The PLO always had a political strategy, even while it was engaged in its armed struggle against Israel, said the ambassador, who grew up in Rutherford.
Still, the PLO used violence to draw attention to its cause. On Sept. 6, 1970, the PLO-affiliated Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked four airplanes, landing three of them in Jordan and blowing them up after evacuating passengers. In response to continued PLO terrorism from its territory, Jordan launched a massive crackdown on the PLO and expelled it from the country, killing thousands of Palestinians in what has become known as Black September.
On Sept. 5, 1972, the PLO again grabbed headlines as a Fatah-affiliated group called Black September murdered 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich.
“You had the PLO emerging as a regional power. Challenging the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan, the Munich Olympics, and other events put the Palestinian cause on the map,” Mr. Elgindy said.
In 1974, the PLO began its transition to international legitimacy. First, in June, the Palestine National Council adopted a political program reaffirming the PLO’s dedication to “armed struggle” and called for the creation of a national authority over liberated Palestinian territory.
Four months later, the Arab League voted to recognize the PLO as “the sole representative” of the Palestinian people. The vote marked the completion of the PLO’s first stage in its evolution: It had earned the recognition of the Arab world.
Recognizing a need to address the Palestinian issue, the UN General Assembly invited Arafat to address it on behalf of the PLO that November.
“In line with the thinking of the time, the ’60s and ’70s, there was this revolutionary fervor in the Third World and the PLO aligned itself with this movement,” Mr. Elgindy said, pointing to the number of Latin American and Asian countries in the U.N. that at one point or another were engaged in anti-colonial battles. “There was a glorification of armed struggle.”
He pointed to the international community’s recognition that it could no longer ignore the Palestinian issue. “If you were going to deal with the Palestinian issue, there was only one address and that was the PLO,” he said.
The General Assembly granted the PLO non-state observer status. The United States voted against the resolution.
“The PLO had finally arrived from being a guerilla movement to earning the international legitimacy and that opened up political possibilities and opportunities for the PLO,” Mr. Elgindy said. “That made diplomacy much more attractive for the PLO than armed struggle.”
The PLO had sought a diplomatic resolution since the 1970s, according to Mr. Elgindy, and Chairman Arafat actually led a moderate faction of the PLO that wanted to pursue some kind of dialogue, but more militant groups within the PLO held more sway. Terrorism remained in the PLO’s toolbox as leverage, but it was during this time that Mr. Arafat began to realize the necessity of the United States’ involvement in solving the Palestinian issue.
PLO terrorism from its base in Lebanon led to Israel’s 1982 invasion and expulsion of the PLO, which fled to Tunisia. Having suffered a crushing defeat and no longer based in a country contiguous with Israel, the PLO’s status among Palestinians fell dramatically, but the first intifada began the PLO’s final phases of transformation and restored it to prominence.
The intifada brings the PLO to the table
Driven by Palestinians within the territories, the 1987 outbreak of the first intifada took the PLO by surprise. After years of struggling to gain recognition by the Arab League and the United Nations, the PLO was losing control of the Palestinian narrative, which led it to take steps to advance a diplomatic process that would put it back in control.
In December 1988, Mr. Arafat held a highly publicized meeting with five American Jewish leaders in Stockholm, resulting in his rejection of terrorism and recognition of Israel. A few weeks later, he recognized Israel outright during an address to the U.N. General Assembly, held in Geneva because the United States refused to grant him an entry visa. Behind closed doors, Mr. Arafat worked with the United States to craft a speech that renounced terrorism and laid out a vision of a peaceful Palestine alongside a peaceful Israel.
“The hardliners [in the PLO] were sidelined, at least for the moment,” Mr. Elgindy said.
The United States would not recognize the PLO, but President Reagan began a quiet channel of talks. In 1990, however, after Mr. Arafat backed Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the PLO found itself newly ostracized not only by the United States but also by the Arab League. This was exemplified by the PLO’s exclusion from the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference.
“As doors closed off to the PLO, it realized it could no longer sustain itself simply as an organization involved in resistance,” said Daniel Kurtzer of New Jersey, U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005.
Following Madrid, Israel began negotiations with a Palestinian delegation that had no official ties to the PLO, but still deferred back to Tunisia. As a result, those talks led nowhere.
“If the PLO offered a hope for change, that’s where you went,” Mr. Pickering said.
Israel began a secret track of negotiations with the PLO, culminating in Mr. Arafat famously shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to sign the first Oslo Accord in 1993. When then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres first told Ambassador Avi Gil, then the Foreign Ministry’s chief of staff, of plans for secret talks with the PLO, Mr. Gil’s reaction was, “It’s about time.” No one in Israel actually trusted the PLO, Mr. Gil told the Standard, but he didn’t see any alternative.
“Trust is not enough,” he said. “If past performance is the measure to judge whether to negotiate with somebody, you would never negotiate with any enemy.”
Israel loses faith, Arafat loses legitimacy
The Oslo Accords produced the Palestinian Authority, which had limited self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza while the parties planned final-status negotiations, but the 1995 assassination of Mr. Rabin derailed the timetable. Newly elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposed Oslo, but he signed the Wye River Accord with the PLO. A budget dispute toppled his government, however, stalling its implementation. Labor’s Ehud Barak won the premiership in 1999 and in the summer of 2000, he, Arafat, and President Clinton gathered at Camp David to negotiate a final deal. In order to make painful, far-reaching concessions, the Israelis needed Palestinian guarantees that an agreement would surrender all future claims.
“And the one thing I don’t think he could do was end all claims because to end all claims meant he was giving up the dream once and for all forever,” recalled Dennis Ross, a Middle East policy adviser in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton administrations and a key participant in the Camp David summit.
After Ariel Sharon’s September visit to the Temple Mount, rioting spread throughout the territories. As the Clinton administration made a last-ditch effort to reach a deal during its final months, Mr. Ross said, there was a belief that the burgeoning violence would end if only Arafat gave the orders.
“Our approach was very much to deal with Arafat and to see getting him to change his behavior as the key to changing the PLO and the PA’s behavior,” he said.
U.S. and Israeli political leadership shifted to George W. Bush and Mr. Sharon, respectively, but Mr. Arafat remained a constant. The riots transformed into the Al Aqsa Intifada and a wave of suicide bombings across Israel. The turning point was the 2002 bombing of a Passover seder at the Park Hotel in Netanya. In response, Israel initiated Operation Defensive Shield, a massive invasion of the West Bank, which began Mr. Arafat’s isolation in his Ramallah headquarters. Mr. Sharon had effectively rendered Chairman Arafat as persona non grata in the diplomatic process. The United States, meanwhile, tried to distinguish between Mr. Arafat’s leadership and the PLO as an institution, Mr. Kurtzer said.
“It wasn’t that the PLO was in danger of losing its standings as it was the U.S. and Israel were demanding the PLO change in order to proceed in the peace process,” he said.
The PLO retained its legitimacy, but Mr. Arafat lost his on June 24, 2002, when President Bush called for a new Palestinian leadership.
“There’s still no concrete evidence how deep the instructions were coming from Arafat, but there was an assumption that if Arafat really wanted to stop the intifada, he could have,” Mr. Kurtzer said.
After Mr. Arafat’s death in 2004, Mahmoud Abbas succeeded him as head of the PLO and Palestinian Authority. Mr. Arafat had defined the Palestinian struggle for so long that his death left a power vacuum that created an opportunity for Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections.
“Legitimacy is a function of domestic as well as international factors,” Mr. Elgindy said. “No country is going to recognize Hamas as the replacement of the PLO. There was a feeling preordained on Hamas’ international acceptance that if it really wanted to dominate, it had to do it through the PA and through the PLO.”
Hamas edged out Fatah to claim a majority, but maintained its commitment to terrorism. By 2006, Kassam rockets had largely replaced suicide bombers and Hamas had fired thousands of rockets at southern Israel. In June 2006, a Hamas cross-border raid into Israel led to the five-year captivity in Gaza of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. Following a summer war between Israel and Hamas, the United States began bolstering PA forces loyal to President Abbas with training, weapons, and funding.
Hamas and Fatah had begun a back-and-forth series of attacks against each other and tensions boiled over in June 2007 when Hamas overran PA offices in Gaza, expelling Fatah and becoming the de facto ruler of the coastal strip.
Could Hamas follow the PLO’s path to legitimacy?
The PLO’s evolution can be credited to a large extent to pressure and ostracism from the United States, Israel, and Arab nations. The PLO found itself “progressively pushed to the margins,” Mr. Kurtzer said. “That ultimately became the persuasive set of circumstances.”
Today, Hamas has lost its political base in Syria; Egypt has turned its back following the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government there; and domestic opposition is growing because of Gaza’s financial crisis.
“One might see this as the beginning of a process in which Hamas may be led to believe that its policies need to change but we’re too early to know that,” Mr. Kurtzer said.
Fearing what happened to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas’ goal now is survival, Mr. Elgindy said. He believes Hamas will “cling to Gaza with everything they have while keeping the door open to reconciliation” with Mr. Abbas’ government.
“They want some sort of arrangement in which they preserve whatever gains they think they have and continue ruling Gaza,” he said.
Hamas remains opposed to Oslo and recognition of Israel, but “they are prepared … to allow Abu Mazen [Mr. Abbas’s nom de guerre] to do the dirty work of recognizing Israel,” he said. “It’s becoming increasingly clear to a lot of Palestinians that Hamas can play a role but can’t play the role.”
Disbanding its armed wing would be tantamount to surrender, Mr. Elgindy believes, and Hamas’s religiously based ideology is ingrained in the organization’s fibers, but the parties may be able to work out some sort of compromise.
“You can have one body that is pluralistic and has competing factions and parties that compete for the votes of their constituency. And that’s normal politics,” he said. “Abnormal politics is what you have now.”
The Americans and Israelis are not optimistic about a Hamas turnaround, which would require a complete ideological shift in the organization. After Hamas’ 2006 electoral victory, the United States and other nations imposed conditions for recognition: end terrorism, recognize Israel, and recognize past agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority.
“The moment Hamas will be ready to do all that, it is a potential partner to talk with,” Mr. Gil said.
These conditions are not that different than those imposed on the PLO, but Hamas faces a different hurdle: The PLO already exists.
“Hamas is trying to supplant an existing Palestinian organization and a Palestinian Authority that does have recognition internationally,” Mr. Ross said.
Rather than completely cut off Hamas from the process, though, Mr. Pickering suggests quiet talks with Hamas that could lead to “conditioning the thinking in the organization to where they become more malleable. Being able to try to work in that direction opens a door.”
Pragmatism may push the parties closer together. A two-state solution is the only way to achieve normalcy, Mr. Elgindy believes.
“If Hamas is going to wait until it conquers from the river to the sea – then they’re simply never going to rule. It is in Hamas’ interest to sign on to a two-state arrangement,” he said.
At one point, there was consensus among Palestinians that the two-state solution was “the least-worst option,” but the idea is quickly losing favor in the territories, he said. He believes the Palestinians are willing to compromise on contentious issues, but only in exchange for real sovereignty.
“That’s not what’s on the table,” he said. “It’s important to Palestinians what kind of a state and not just a state. If it looks like a Jerusalem-less state that doesn’t have real sovereignty then there’s no reason for Palestinians to support it.”
Mr. Elgindy blamed U.S. policy for helping to sustain the dysfunction between Hamas and Fatah. It is self-defeating, he said, to boycott a Palestinian cabinet that includes members of Hamas, he said, casting blame on America for the failure of moderate Palestinian voices and creating “an impossible choice for Palestinians.”
“Either you choose permanent internal division and dysfunction or you choose sanction by the international community,” he said. “When you exclude groups, then they have an interest in becoming spoilers and they don’t have an interest in seeing political processes succeed.”
Pointing to Hamas’ Islamist ideology, which seeks a state dominated by Islam, Mr. Ross dismissed outright Hamas’s ability to moderate. While it can be debated whether the PLO actually shifted its ideology, he said, it is at its core a secular, nationalist organization while Hamas has elevated its ideology to the level of religion.
“Hamas, in many ways like the Muslim Brotherhood, is a cult,” he said. “I don’t believe it can change.”
In 2012, in another boost to the international legitimacy of the PA – and by extension, the PLO – the U.N. General Assembly elevated Palestine’s status to Non-Member Observer State. Mr. Abbas repeatedly has threatened to seek membership in additional international treaties and bodies, but he promised to forgo such endeavors as a condition of the current round of talks. In response to Israel’s refusal to release the last batch of Palestinian prisoners it had promised as a condition of the talks, Mr. Abbas signed requests for Palestine to join U.N. treaties in early April, continuing the Palestinian quest for international recognition.
“The PLO in effect took a long time but went through these stages of transformation until it became a legitimate interlocutor representing the Palestinian people,” Mr. Kurtzer said. “All other avenues were effectively being closed off and at least the PLO had the agility to maneuver itself back into the middle of the game.”
Whether the Palestinian Authority will continue demonstrating that agility remains to be seen.
(The PLO office in Washington, D.C., failed to return several calls for comment for this article. The PLO Negotiations Affairs Department also did not respond to multiple emails for comment. The Israeli embassy and U.N. mission also declined comment because of the ongoing Foreign Ministry strike.)