The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is the political agency of the Palestinians’ national liberation movement; it represents Palestinians wherever they reside. The PLO last defined its goals as freedom and independence — freedom from Israeli military occupation and oppression and for the right of Palestinian refugees to return home, and independence in a free and sovereign state of Palestine. This sole, internationally recognized representative of the Palestinian people is currently under serious threat by none other than its own leadership.
PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, and his predecessor Yasser Arafat, both systematically led this once-vibrant organization toward a situation of total calcification, culminating in the complete paralysis of Palestinian political life. The climax of this process was the PLO’s signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords with Israel. It is as if the goal of the powers that be, including Arafat and Abbas, was to use the PLO to enter negotiations and then immediately bury the PLO in their desk drawer, removing it thereafter only insofar as required to retain hegemonic control of power while unilaterally eroding any collective Palestinian political capacity.
One such significant use of the PLO was when the Palestinian National Council hastily convened a meeting in Gaza on December 14, 1998, attended by U.S. President Bill Clinton, and approved cancellation of articles 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, and 30 of the 1968 Palestinian National Charter that stipulated the elimination of the State of Israel and amended articles 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 11, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 25, 26, 27, and 29 to comply with the Wye River Memorandum. No better example than this exists to reflect the loss of independent Palestinian decision-making.
Today, any Palestinian political grouping desiring to formally join the PLO has no user’s manual and no path forward. The criteria and process to become a member of the PLO’s legislative body are unknown, and the criteria and process to assemble a new PLO political party, one that enjoys full benefits, are unknown. The existing leadership body of the PLO is the Executive Council; many of its members, representing what political analyst Hani Masri calls “microscopic factions,” meet and take decisions that are then totally ignored by Chairman Abbas. On paper (Arabic) the organization appears to be alive and well; in reality, it is missing in action. An entire generation, or two, of Palestinians knows the PLO by name only and consequently have little understanding of its past, present, or future value.
The Oslo Accords produced a Palestinian administrative bureaucracy called the Palestinian Authority (PA) supposedly to oversee the day-to-day affairs of Palestinians living under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The PA answers to the PLO. Over time, the Palestinian leadership attempted to broaden the role of the PA and renamed it the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), which morphed still later into the Government of the State of Palestine (GOP). Naming aside, the essence of this entity was and remains little more than a single point of contact between the occupied people and their occupier, Israel, which is the ultimate decision-maker on anything that matters in the occupied territory. The PA/PNA/GOP is not the Palestinian political agency and Palestinians should not acquiesce in its usurpation of the role of the PLO, to which it is subordinate.
This internal Palestinian political fiasco continues to unfold against the backdrop of an ongoing Israeli/U.S. military occupation and with the explicit or implicit support of third-party states. The most recent national Palestinian election under occupation took place in 2006. It produced an outcome that the international community refused to accept, culminating in an internal political division between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, between Fatah and Hamas, respectively. This division disfigured the Palestinian polity.
Here and now
For years, I and many others have been publicly calling for Palestinians, everywhere, to have a say in their political representation, through voting or otherwise. Political representation must start with the PLO and trickle down to all organs and units of the organization, including the PA/PNA/GOP. Likewise, all Palestinians must be engaged, regardless of which Israeli-fragmented geographic area they reside in. A Palestinian in Ain al-Hilweh Refugee Camp in South Lebanon, or in Nazareth, Israel, or Youngstown, Ohio, or Santiago, Chile has the same inalienable right to have their say as do those of us under military occupation in Ramallah, Jerusalem, or Gaza. Every Palestinian anywhere has the same right to representation in the PLO and to see that representation helping to shape the political direction the movement adopts. Additionally, each particular Palestinian grouping may have additional representative roles that they alone must address, such as Palestinians under occupation electing their administrative bureaucracy, or Palestinian citizens in Israel engaging with the Israeli political system.
In the spirit of upgrading Palestinian political representation and defining a strategy moving forward, I penned two open letters, one on July 6, 2019, titled, Open Letter to Chairman of the PLO and President of the State of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas (published in Medium and in Arabic in Al-Quds Newspaper and Al-Hadath and WATTAN), and a second on May 19, 2020, titled, Open Letter (my second) to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Leadership (published in Medium and in Arabic at Wattan News and Al-Hadath News). Both letters were left unanswered.
Over a decade late, on January 15, 2021, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ordered as follows: Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections are to be held on May 22nd, comprising the first phase of elections of the PLO’s Palestinian National Council (PNC), and he reiterated that PLC members are automatically granted PNC membership; presidential elections are to be held on July 31st; and completion of the Palestinian National Council (PNC) elections is to occur on August 31st. What is meant by “presidential” and “completion of” were unclear and have created additional confusion in an already confusing process.
This call to elections apparently includes a long-overdue acceptance of full proportional representation, something demanded by the masses for decades. Full proportional representation ensures that elections do not result in a winner-take-all, but rather if competing slates cross a minimum threshold percentage of votes, the slate would gain a proportional percentage of legislative seats as were gained in the election. I remember back around 1982–83 calling for this in my role as president of the Youngstown State University chapter of the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS), a key organ of the PLO; subsequently, the Fatah-led PLO invoked the cancellation of the entire branch of the GUPS in the USA after realizing that they could not retain majority control of GUPS-USA if proportional representation were accepted. So why accept full proportional representation now? This is a shrewd political move by Abbas to stimulate formation of as many electoral slates as possible to disperse the vote and allow his agreement with Hamas a better chance of prevailing, all the while being able to claim that elections were held and his and Hamas’ joint legitimacy renewed.
On January 11, 2021, only four days before the decisions calling for elections, Presidential Decrees were issued to make material changes to the Palestinian judiciary as it relates to elections, in effect damaging the independence of the judiciary. This move can be best characterized as Abbas attempting to do a Trump on the Palestinian people.
Here is why the upcoming election for the PLC will deal a fatal blow to the PLO as it is currently constituted.
I have said repeatedly, when asked who I think will be the next Palestinian president, that the process is more important than the person. When queried endlessly by foreign media about who I thought would succeed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, I always answered the same way. I reject this unremitting fixation with the symbolism of a single individual — a dominant theme burdening the Palestinian political agency for decades, whether in the person of Abbas or of Arafat before him. Much more crucial is that we focus on the organizational integrity of the PLO, the process of representation (via elections and otherwise) and ensuring that our next election is not our last, nor that it last a decade or two.
That Palestinians are renewing their political representation should not be breaking news. It should be a routine pillar of our political culture. Sadly, it is not.
Regrettably, something more damaging than the process per se is at stake now. What remains today of the PLO’s integrity will crumble if these elections take place as currently planned.
Fatah, or at least the part of Fatah led by Abbas, has struck a deal with Hamas to break the stalemate that has held the Palestinian political system and people hostage for 14 years. And the outrageous result of this deal? Hamas members, or any other resident of the occupied territory, will be running in the PLC elections, which would grant them automatic PNC membership. How can an organization whose doors are closed to those of its people who desire to assemble in political parties and become full-fledged members of the PLO allow for a non-PLO member to assume a representative chair in the highest body of the organization, the PNC? This amounts to allowing PNC membership through a back window without any need for the entering members or party to accept the PLO Charter or represent its institutional bureaucracy, all the while ignoring those knocking at the PLO’s front door desiring to become members.
This is not about Hamas; it is about the PLO itself on the verge of destroying any remaining integrity it maintains amongst its own people. What if a Palestinian resident of the West Bank who is a collaborator with Israel, and there are many, runs for PLC elections and wins? Does that collaborator now have a say in the political direction of the PLO, in other words, the national liberation movement strategy, more than those Palestinians knocking at the door trying to attain PLO membership because they are aligned with the PLO charter and strategy?
To clarify, I will frame this another way, using an analogy from the business world. Let us assume that the PLO is a company about to convene its annual general assembly. At the front door is a registration table where the company controller will verify that those entering the hall are shareholders of the firm. In the meantime, a window is open in the back of the hall, and a competitor has sent people to enter the hall via the window to attend the meeting (and vote! and potentially run for office!). A ridiculous scene indeed, and exactly what is about to happen in Palestine if the planned elections proceed without correction.
As for Hamas, I am all for their entry into the PLO, although I adamantly oppose what they stand for. I also expect other mass movements — already aligned with the PLO, operating on the ground for decades, and with much more political mobilization capacity than the majority of the PLO’s traditional factions, to be offered full PLO membership benefits. As I wrote in my open letter to Abbas, more important than all the rest of this is that the PLO will allow for the freedom of assembly and transparent entry into the PLO of all who desire to get involved.
Who is driving?
Crucial aspects of this moment are staring everyone in the face yet go unnoticed by many. Those in the know, know better. Why do they choose to turn a blind eye?
Timing is telling. The leadership vacuum under former U.S. President Trump provided a four-year opportunity of a lifetime for Palestinians to mend their internal divisions and restructure their institutional political apparatus, including renewing their popular legitimacy by way of elections and otherwise. No real institutional renewal took place, however. As the U.S. blundered under Trump, all that happened on the domestic front was a never-ending series of stale, repetitive, and failed attempts to reconcile Fatah and Hamas, the two main Palestinian parties that an entire generation of Palestinians have come to despise. To give credit where credit is due, the PLO did stand up to Trump’s frontal attack on the Palestinian struggle and for that they should be congratulated.
Once Biden was elected in November 2020, the Palestinian president wasted no time in trying to mend the U.S.-Palestine relationship. Even before Biden took his oath of office, Abbas returned the two Palestinian ambassadors who were called back from the UAE and Bahrain after those countries normalized with Israel. Abbas reinstated Palestinian security cooperation with Israel after terminating it six months prior and restructured the compensation for Palestinian prisoners and families of martyrs after U.S. officials complained. To top it off, he issued the judicial decrees and then the election decrees, all hastily done with apparently no consultation with the Palestinian institutional apparatus, in an attempt to send a clear message to Biden that he wants to be accepted as a partner, at any cost.
As I wrote back in January in response to a query from an Australian Jewish news site, Plus61J Media: “Rumour has it that representatives of then-President-elect Biden visited the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah and gave an ultimatum to Abbas that if his electoral legitimacy was not renewed, it would be impossible to advance the Palestinian issue — on any front.” Furthermore: “A day after the [elections’] decree, Abbas and his intelligence chief met top Egyptian and Jordanian security officials in Ramallah. So much for maintaining the independence of our domestic politics.”
Then there was the PR about the letter to the White House: After Palestinian factions met in Cairo, it was reported — seemingly as an update for those driving these Palestinian elections — that the PLO had sent an official letter (Arabic) to the White House. It was reportedly delivered by Hussein Al-Sheikh, the PA’s Head of the General Authority of Civil Affairs, and it was said to have claimed that all factions, including Hamas, were committed to the establishment of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. This letter was sent to U.S. President Joe Biden’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr, a respected interlocutor but someone several levels down in the bureaucracy. Why on earth would the political agency feel the need to dissect the internal stances of its members to external parties? Does the Palestinian leadership expect the U.S. to reply by confirming that all congressional caucuses are also aligned with international law and “committed to the establishment of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital”? I think not!
Anyone even slightly familiar with the history of Palestine’s struggle for freedom and independence knows very well that if we cannot maintain our political independence, we have little chance of advancing our struggle. This bow to additional foreign interference only days after the decree on elections was very disturbing.
Onward to elections
Notwithstanding this very complicated backdrop to the present political moment, elections seem to be moving forward. On the other hand, every politician who has spoken publicly hints that there is a substantial chance that elections could be canceled or postponed, yet again. So much for the quest for confidence in a rigged process.
The first media outlet to ask me to comment on the elections decree was Plus61J Media, the Jewish news site in Australia. There, I wrote from the outset that, “A fair and free election in the occupied territory would produce a leadership unrecognizable to any we have seen to date — young, bold and unwilling to blindly compromise or blindly pick an open-ended fight with a regional military nuclear powerhouse. Rather, it would be keen on holding Israel and the U.S. accountable at every opportunity, and not necessarily non-violently.” For this key reason and many more, I do not believe this election will be free and fair, and in any case the risk of causing irreparable damage remains.
The day after the elections decree, Fatah’s Deputy Chairman floated the possibility of running in a joint electoral slate with Hamas, and possibly other factions. This was the initial public indication of the deal between Fatah and Hamas to reclaim their legitimacy — Abbas, in Biden’s eyes; Hamas, despite not being PLO members, for its political survival. On the face of it, the option now facing Palestinians is to move from monopoly control of their lives to duopoly control. What is being lost amid the frenzy about elections is the PLO’s hard-won integrity. In any case, the Palestinian citizen loses.
The Central Elections Commission (CEC) announced a total of 2.6 million registered voters as of the end of the registration process, including 421,000 new registrants, now able to participate in the upcoming 2021 Palestinian Elections. These new registrants are a clear indication that the younger generation thirsts for participation in political life, although the specifics of the Presidential Decree still exclude or hinder the electoral involvement of hundreds of thousands of additional voters, in particular younger voters. The stated number of registered voters constitutes 93.3% of the 2.8 million eligible voters in the Palestinian territories, according to estimates by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS).
All the fanfare about the unusually high number of registered voters misses the point that, like me, the vast majority of these voters were already registered from previous elections, whether in 2005, 2006, or local elections that have taken place in the interim. Thus, the claim that this high level of voter registration constitutes a vote of confidence in the electoral process is a stretch of the imagination, at best. At worst, it rests on consciously turning a blind eye to the details of the Presidential Decree.
The first round of elections is for seats in the PLC. Only national electoral slates will be qualified to run. Individual voters like me who may consider running in a direct vote, but do not fancy aligning with any grouping, are out of luck, although we can vote for the slate that most closely represents us.
Several slates are in the process of being assembled. Several of these now in the making are breakaways from Fatah, hinting at an outcome that could reprise that of 2006 when Hamas won because Fatah was divided and ran multiple lists against a unified Hamas. This time around another Islamic-oriented party, Islamic Jihad, announced they will not run for elections, as usual, but may put their support behind others. This would be a boon for Hamas. Recall that Abbas injected the principle of full proportional representation into the electoral equation this time around, so if a slate meets the threshold percentage, they are guaranteed some degree of representation in the legislative council, and as such in the PNC. This should be the final wake-up call for those claiming to align with the PLO, be they PLO factions or individuals.
The operatives of these slates who spoke to me were in agreement in this respect: They claim that they fully understand the flaws in this electoral process but are convinced that their attempt to provide voters with an alternative to Fatah and Hamas — especially if Fatah and Hamas are working together toward a pre-determined outcome to the elections — is more important than dwelling on the imperfections in the process. I highly respect their opinions, but I think they underestimate the power of the people to chart a different way forward: one that maintains the integrity of the PLO while rejuvenating it as well, without acquiescing to blatant violations of the independence of the judiciary and potential jeopardy to the PLO itself.
Adding insult to injury, Abbas did not stop at the decrees on the judiciary and the decision on elections. On February 28, 2021, he issued a surprise Law by Decree to amend the NGO Law to force NGOs to implement ministerial agendas and limit their staff expenses and operational costs to a maximum of 25% of their annual budgets, among other new restrictions, in order to remain licensed. Many of these NGOs are the same ones tasked with overseeing the elections. This Law by Decree blindsided the vibrant NGO community given that there was no prior consultation made; they have responded publicly by refusing to address this decree and collectively demanding that it be revoked.
As I write this piece, moreover, I learned of a new Law by Decree signed March 5, 2021 ordering that all Palestinian unions, associations, and popular organizations, like sports clubs, postpone their elections for six months, thereby extending their current board terms during the postponement. No explanation was offered as to why this was considered necessary. I expect a response from this community similar to that announced by the NGO community.
We are entering a new phase in which two monopoly leaderships, one in the West Bank and one in Gaza, have ganged up on the Palestinian people and continue to view them as mere pawns in their new game of duopoly control.
Awakening the Sleeping Lion
As noted, the PLO’s political parties and various political community movements have kicked into gear to prepare for elections. Remember, many of the PLO’s factions exist only on paper, so when their names are floated as joining in a coalition with the official Fatah slate, this can only be understood as Fatah looking for window dressing to buttress their desire to have a national list and not have to face a real election. Some of these parties claim to be part of the “Left” and while publicly flirting with the Fatah-run list they still publicly call for a unified “Left and Progressive” list to be formed. The jokers in this equation are the several possible breakaway slates by senior Fatah operatives and the non-aligned lists that are forming. Every new slate that runs increases the chances for the Fatah-Hamas slate to win, or Hamas itself if Fatah runs multiple slates as happened in 2006. Competing slates aside, no one is seriously addressing the real risk to the PLO’s integrity if these elections happen.
Even parties that do have a community standing, however weak, like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) — which until now has refused to participate in any Oslo-designed processes such as elections for a Palestinian Authority — have now jumped on the election bandwagon. This is newsworthy and some key PFLP supporters have gone public to decry the acceptance of this round of U.S.-dictated elections under Biden.
The PFLP has decided to participate in the upcoming elections even as their representative, Omar Shehadeh, has publicly acknowledged in an interview with Reem Omari on Wattan TV that there is no agreed-to PLO political strategy and that they refuse to rally around the current strategy until it is changed. Shehadeh made clear that the PFLP views the struggle, in which these elections are one step, as a quest to liberate Palestine from the river to the sea, with the need for armed struggle (Arabic), and without accepting any negotiations with Israel.
With such divergent overall goals on the political strategy and the means to achieve them, no rational and effective political program can be crafted outside of operating institutions, institutions that Abbas embalmed long ago. In the first meeting of the various political stakeholders in Cairo on February 7th to prepare for elections, there was a commitment by those attending to hold a second meeting in March to agree on a joint political program. The media is reporting that this meeting may not happen or may be postponed. If it does happen and a political program is agreed to by a group of unrepresentative stakeholders, it may offer the beginning of corrective action but in a form that disrespects the PLO itself. I am not optimistic that a unified political program can even be agreed to in such haste and with non-PLO factions around the table.
For those looking on, the situation is totally incomprehensible. My conversations with several European representatives in Palestine suggest that they are already analyzing what a Hamas win would mean to their political and financial relationship with the PLO and the PA. These dilemmas are one consequence of their mistakes in 2006 when many of them refused to accept the outcome of a fair election. Perhaps they are regretting all the funds they have since dumped into the Palestinian community to promote democracy training, election workshops, and the like, if this mess is the result.
One friendly European country representative called and asked my indulgence to hear his reading of the state of affairs. He spoke for nearly 15 minutes non-stop, rattling off excerpts from all the documents and reports he analyzed, the PLO and Hamas Charters, the Prisoner’s Document, the Cairo, Beirut, and Qatar reconciliation meeting communiques, the Laws by Decree and Presidential Decrees, and most recently the results of the February Cairo meeting to launch the elections implementation process. In the end, he plainly stated, “It all does not add up and smells of purposeful vagueness”. I could only shake my head and repeat what I have said many times before: These foreign country representatives on the ground “get it”.
Many credible contenders are taking these elections seriously, pretending that the distorted ecosystem in which they are happening does not matter. I highly respect all those who are trying to make the best of a disastrous situation, but it is equally important that they recognize and respect that we are not all programmed to pretend that everything that has happened to bring us to this point does not exist. Likewise, many are uninterested in having a hand in the dismantling of the PLO, despite serious criticism of where it now finds itself.
Thus, I cannot see the planned election as being about a choice of who will represent me. It offers only a choice between remaining unrepresented under a brutal military occupation or participating in a false pretense of democratic process and representation. In reality, this election will merely provide a fig leaf enabling our military occupier to cover up its war crimes. And it puts our political agency at risk.
Abbas is blindly rolling the dice. If elections proceed as planned, the integrity of the PLO will be forever damaged. If he reverses the decision to hold any of the elections, he will find himself unable to stop the momentum created in the grassroots for genuine organizational and political reform — which will seek his own removal from office along with his cohort of leaders.
A course correction remains theoretically possible. Concrete proposals have been floated for over a decade that address how to get the Palestinian political agency back on track, but this would require leadership — and even before leadership, an acknowledgement that the current path toward elections is a dangerous one for the entire Palestinian struggle.
A 1976 report on Palestine noted, “The Palestinian people today face problems of formidable proportions.”[i] In 1976! Given what has ensued since, and where we are now, the authors no longer alive must be turning in their graves and those still living must be tossing and turning in their sleep.
The bottom line is that the Palestinian people — the ostensible pawns in this appalling story — will be the only ones still standing when all is said and done. It is in them, all of them, that I place my faith.
Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American business consultant from Ramallah/Al-Bireh in Occupied Palestine. He is a frequent independent political commentator and is co-editor of “Homeland: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians” (1994). He blogs at ePalestine.ps. @SamBahour
[i] Pre-Feasibility Study on the Establishment of a Palestinian Open University (August-September 1976, p. 7, UNESCO/PLO/AFESC ad hoc Working Group)