Liberation Mythology

The historical roots of Fatah’s defeat.

BEIRUT, Lebanon—When Fatah and other secular nationalist groups lost last week’s Palestinian elections, the conventional wisdom was that they had paid the price for endemic corruption and mismanagement in the Palestinian Authority. This was true, but it wasn’t the whole story. The deterioration of the Palestinian national movement began more than 35 years ago.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization’s loss of direction, its obfuscation of objectives, and the transformation of its “revolution” into a self-indulgent fetish began after 1970, when its leadership spent more time hijacking airplanes and navigating the shark-infested waters of Arab politics than pursuing Palestinian liberation. How ironic that it was the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza—who last week punished the secular parties—that had earlier brought the PLO back to the righteous path by launching the first intifada in 1987.

The late PLO official Khalil al-Wazir (known as Abu Jihad) best expressed the PLO’s philosophy on what it expected from the Arab states when he said, “[E]very Arab regime around our occupied territories is responsible for our tragedy, and they have a duty to let us have our chance to liberate our country because they are responsible.” Such statements left unclear where an Arab state’s sovereignty ended and mandatory partnership with the Palestinians began. The PLO chose not to clarify this ambiguity and paid a heavy price in September 1970 when Jordan’s King Hussein, rightly fearing that the fedayeen threatened his regime, unleashed his army against them and expelled the PLO from the kingdom within a year.

Not long before, the Palestinian leadership had debated whether to accept a June 1970 plan sponsored by U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers. The Rogers Plan outlined a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict based on U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and Gaza. In doing so, it exchanged recognition of Israel within its 1948 borders for the establishment of territory where a Palestinian entity might be formed.

The PLO rejected the plan. It refused to recognize Israel, but also, more justifiably, could not easily embrace Resolution 242, as it made no mention of Palestinian national rights. This was an essential moment, because the failure of the Rogers Plan and the PLO’s relocation to Lebanon after the Jordanian debacle effectively meant that the armed struggle would remain paramount, at the expense of alternative strategies. But it also exposed a flaw: Rather than consider a process that might have returned to Arab control a portion of historical Palestine from which the organization could fight Israel, the PLO preferred to operate from Beirut. Making this attractive was the weakness of the Lebanese state, which gave the Palestinians ample room to dominate the political system, something they had attempted in Jordan. Israel was not far away, but it hardly seemed a priority when Fatah official Salah Khalaf (aka Abu Ayad) declared in May 1976, during the Lebanese civil war, that “the road to Palestine cannot but pass through Lebanon.”

The Lebanese civil war affected the Palestinian national movement in contradictory ways. Involvement in the conflict diverted attention from Palestine and led to an uneasy cohabitation with Syria, whose army entered Lebanon in 1976; but it also placed the PLO at the center of inter-Arab politics, particularly after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat visited Israel in November 1977. Both PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Syrian President Hafez Assad felt threatened by the Egyptian initiative. To protect themselves against possible new alignments in the region, they consolidated their hold over Lebanon. For the PLO in particular, this meant less Syrian pressure but also a continued flow of funds from Arab states keen to bolster the Palestinians amid the breakup of the united front against Israel. The organization became even wealthier as a result, but this did little to liberate Palestine.

In summer 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon to expel the PLO and installed a friendly government headed by its Christian allies. While one Palestinian leader declared that besieged Beirut would become a “new Stalingrad,” even the PLO’s Lebanese allies knew the time had come for the fedayeen to leave. Arafat withdrew his forces, but a year later was back in the north of the country, fearing he would be marginalized without a Lebanese foothold. This time it was Assad who pushed him out, after fomenting a split in Palestinian ranks. Arafat departed for distant Tunis.

With his organization in the doldrums, Arafat was saved only by the first intifada. Palestinians under occupation, having watched their leaders lose themselves in far-flung battles, began an uprising against Israel that took the PLO by surprise, but which it later co-opted and led. Thus would begin the distinction, but also the underlying tension, between the “Tunis Palestinians,” who enjoyed an often gilded exile, and a West Bank and Gaza leadership (including that of Hamas) more attuned to daily Palestinian suffering. This continued after Arafat entered the Palestinian territories in 1994, following the signing of the Oslo Accords.

Arafat’s return was triumphant, but it was also a reminder that “resistance” waged from Middle Eastern capitals had only alienated Arab regimes, helped to destroy Lebanon, and banished Arafat to the outer fringes of the region. Too often, it seemed, the PLO allowed the pleasures of power to supersede the liberation of Palestinian land, a weakness even Arafat’s setting up of the Palestinian Authority failed to overcome. By voting for Hamas, Palestinians once more reminded the secular parties that there was a price to pay for taking their eyes off the prize.