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The Return of the PLO

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The past two and a half decades witnessed the slow death of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO, established in June 1964 by the Arab League and then taken over internally by the various resistance movements, led by Fateh, is credited with the unification of the Palestinians in the diaspora. It is also seen as the main factor that reignited the Palestinian identity in pursuit of national liberation.

The PLO's importance faded in 1993 when its leader and chairman of its executive committee, Yasser Arafat, signed a memorandum of understanding with the state of Israel. And while the Palestinian Authority became the focal point of Palestinian political activity, few people noted that the PA is subservient to the PLO.

Every single official document of the PA confirms that the Oslo accords and all its ministries and institutions are part and parcel of the PLO.

Having control over land, people, money and weapons (albeit small weapons) made the PA a much more important organization than the scattered PLO. After Beirut and Tunisia, the PLO was but a few offices, usually at Palestinian embassies. And with money drying up, it was mostly Ramallah that was keeping the PLO alive.

But the PLO's problem was not just that its attention was turned inside Palestine (albeit in the small enclaves named by Israel and the US Palestinian Authority areas). It had a bigger problem in terms of legitimacy.

Yes, the PLO continues to call itself the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and its national council (PNC) continues to be referred to as the Palestinian parliament in exile, but the rise of the Islamist movements, especially Hamas, and this latter's refusal to join the PLO rendered the term "sole and legitimate" representative rather empty.

While the PLO was fighting for legitimacy, its embrace of "sole" became a joke after candidates affiliated with the Islamic movement won the majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). And while the Palestine National Council automatically considered all elected parliamentarians de facto members of this parliament in exile, the legitimacy of the PLO continued to be questioned for as long as Hamas refused to join.

A number of factors, not the least of which the failure to reach a Fateh-Hamas reconciliation, have revived the ailing movement.

The reconciliation agreement between Palestinian nationalists and Islamists included a clause calling for the reinvigoration or the PLO in a way to be truly more representative of all Palestinians.

Hamas, which has for years opposed the PLO, agreed to join the efforts to reform the PLO. Talks behind the scenes, mostly in Amman and led by the PNC secretariat, produced positive results. A new PLO will soon see the light, provided that reconciliation continues and that elections take place in Palestine.

To be sure, the Gaza-West Bank split is not an obstacle. Negotiators agree that Palestine (i.e., West Bank including Jerusalem and Gaza) is to be treated as one single territory. Representation in the next PNC will therefore be based on elections inside and outside of Palestine, with one exception. Jordan, where Palestinians, including refugees, are given citizenship, will not see elections but its representatives will be agreed to based on an unannounced system of internal agreement.

Whatever the process for choosing the next PNC, and therefore its executive committee and its chairman (a position that has been monopolised by Fateh's Arafat and Abbas), the return of the PLO will have much wider political ramifications.

The new PLO will most likely be based outside Palestine for the time being. Rumors that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (who announced he would not run for PA presidency but did not exclude running for the chairmanship of the PLO) is looking for a family house in Amman tend to confirm that the PLO's headquarters are not likely to be in Ramallah.

Furthermore, the return of the PLO will certainly add strength to Palestinians' demand of the right of return even though this demand was never taken off the negotiating table.

A new PLO with a strong Islamic factor in it will also mean that it can better communicate with the new Islamist leaders in Tunis, Egypt and possibly other Arab countries.

Whatever the composition of the new PLO, one does not expect it to be the same as the PLO of the 1970s and 1980s. One should expect much more stress, inside Palestine and outside it, on nonviolent activities, popular resistance, boycotts, divestments and sanctions.

The international community and the world solidarity movement are ready for a new and reformed PLO that will engage with them based on a clear political agenda. Regionally, the return of the PLO as a political, not a military, power will also mean that Palestinians will want to use the newfound people power in the Arab world to strengthen Palestinian aspirations.

Internationally, the new PLO will use its local, regional and international popular support to demand real changes of policy, thus paving the way for serious negotiations, away from photo opportunities and lip service. Such a change will no doubt improve the negotiating position of whoever will be responsible for that feat, hopefully a different group than the ones that so far had no impact.