Book Review: How the PLO dropped the ball during the Oslo process

The Olive Branch from Palestine, The Palestinian Declaration of Independence and the Path Out of the Current Impasse, with a foreword by Noam Chomsky, University of California Press, 2022. 291 pages, by Jerome Segal

Review by Menachem Klein

As hopes for achieving peace between Israel and Palestine fade away, key events in that drama are forgotten. The PLO Declaration of Independence, in November 1988, is one of those milestones that only few remember. In the Declaration, the PLO accepted the UN partition plan of November 1947 to divide Mandatory Palestine into two states, and legitimized the existence of a Jewish state next to Palestine. The author, an American philosopher whose writings and meetings were a catalyst for that Declaration, aims to keep it in the collective memory and learn the lessons of its failure to shape a new reality.  

Jerome Segal describes in detail how the Declaration was composed less than a year after the outbreak of the first Intifada, by whom and for what purpose. It started with his article in the daily al-Quds on April 27 1988. Segal wrote: “The PLO issues a Declaration of Independence and statehood announcing the existence of the State of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza” (p. 45) in order to transform the uprising into an independent state. Segal argued that the declaration should be the first step in a unilateral state-building strategy. It should include the transformation of the PLO into a provisional government and legislative body. That government should forbid all acts of terrorism, issue currency and passports, hold secret-ballot local elections and advance a self-reliance economy.

Segal discussed his ideas with the PLO leadership in Tunis and Palestinian leaders in the occupied Palestinian territory. One of the latter, Faisal Husseini, published his own version in August 1988. He did not propose that the PLO should cease to exist, and instead of unilateral state-building acts, even though symbolic, he favoured the PLO strategy of an international conference that would force Israel to end its occupation. Contrarily, Segal argued that no external power would or could force Israel to withdraw. The Palestinians would have to create the right conditions inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip for Israel to decide to withdraw and therefore end the occupation.

Husseini’s paper was only partly adopted by the PLO leadership in Tunis. Arafat and his colleagues refused to let the local leadership play a key role in forming the declared state institutions, as Husseini had suggested. Instead, they composed a declaration that merely paved the PLO’s way into the negotiation hall, as happened a few years later with the Oslo process. The PLO leaders, Segal argues, missed the opportunity. Not only did Oslo fail, but “The Declaration itself never made it into Israeli consciousness… the PLO, if it was even aware of this, made no concrete effort to rectify this situation” (p.164).   

The reactions to the Declaration, the negotiations with the outgoing Ronald Reagan administration that led to the PLO-US dialogue, and the struggle with the US over recognition of the declared state are detailed in several chapters.   

Segal is not a historian but a self-nominated mediator, activist and eyewitness. He writes in detail about every meeting that he had with PLO senior officials and US diplomats and quotes US documents that he was allowed to access and many articles he published in leading US newspapers. In addition, he provides transcripts of his interviews with the Declaration’s drafters, Anis al-Qasem, the head of the Palestinian National Council Legal Committee, and the poet Mahmoud Darwish, who was then a PLO Executive Committee member. The over-detailed text can make the book reader-unfriendly.

One document that he quotes is highly interesting. It is a message that Arafat sent secretly to Henry Kissinger in the midst of the 1973 war expressing the PLO’s willingness to participate in peace negotiations (p.19-20). It shows that Arafat understood quite early on that liberation was unachievable without diplomacy and direct contact with the US. Later, Arafat managed secret talks with President Carter’s administration. Segal’s contribution to history could have been greater if we could compare his records with the studies that have been published.

Toward the end of the book, Segal analyses the PLO’s failures to make a reality of the proclaimed state. Israeli pressure, he argues, “falls short of being an explanation” (p.180). He partly supports two other reasons: the competition for power between Tunis and the Occupied Territories leaders, and the PLO refusal to cease existence, as Segal had suggested. The main reason, according to him, is that the PLO remained wedded to ending the occupation through an empowered international conference. But this worked against the logic of the Intifada. “The logic of the Intifada was to bring the state into being without Israel’s consent. By contrast, the logic of negotiations was to bring it into being through agreement reached in negotiations” (p.189). The PLO, in other words, lacked “a clear strategy for unilaterally pushing Israel out of the territories” (p.185). These fundamental misconceptions led Arafat and his colleagues to make far-reaching concessions in Oslo. The Oslo Accords did not provide mutual recognition between two states, nor did they identify Palestinian statehood as the long-term outcome of the talks.

The path out of the current impasse is the last chapter subject. Segal suggests involving Hamas and strengthening its commitment to abide by a Palestinian referendum. In addition, he recommends linking Israeli-Palestinian peace to a reset in Israel-Iran relations and to introduce “a different peace process” (p. 233) centred on the UN General Assembly. As in 1947, the UNGA will “develop the end of the conflict plan that the two peoples would agree to” (p. 233).

Segal’s suggestion is debatable, though not his criticism of the PLO’s dysfunctionality. Former PLO officials and analysts criticized Arafat and his aides for favouring tactics over strategic planning and personal status concerns over power-sharing and functioning institutions. Segal’s book, beyond being a good primary source for historians, exposes more of those PLO leaders’ disadvantages and miscalculations, which did not disappear when Mahmoud Abbas succeeded Arafat. Abbas failed to achieve liberation through negotiating with Israel, or bring world-leading countries to put pressure on Israel to stop abusing the Palestinians. Domestically, public opinion polls show that the majority of the Palestinian Authority’s subjects see their administration as corrupted and dysfunctional. The Palestinian Authority needs a more comprehensive restart than Segal suggests.     

Prof. Menachem Klein is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. He studied Middle East and Islamic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was a fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, MIT, the European University Institute, Florence, Leiden University and Kings College, London. In 2000 -2001, Prof. Klein was an adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prof. S. Ben-Ami. 

His book Lives in Common – Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron, Oxford University Press NY and C. Hurst London 2014,was acclaimed by the New Republic as one of best 2014 non-fiction books. Lives in Common is published also ins German and Hebrew editions. In 2019 he published Arafat and Abbas Portraits of Leadership in a State Postponed, Hurst, London and Oxford, New York.

Other book reviews by Menachem Klein

Book Review: Nine Quarters of Jerusalem, a New Biography of the Old City by Matthew Teller

Book Review: A City in Fragments, Urban Text in Modern Jerusalem, by Yair Wallach

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