A Crisis of Representation:Debating the PLO on al-Shabaka and Jadaliyya

A Crisis of Representation:Debating the PLO on al-Shabaka and Jadaliyya

As in 1993, the 'crisis of representation' continues to draw urgency and attention from the Palestinian public.[1] In the post-Oslo era, the refrain refers to the Fatah-Hamas rift, general elections and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Over the past year leading English-language** websites such as Jadaliyya magazine and al-Shabaka: the Palestinian Policy Network have hosted discussions around the basic value of the PLO and its legislative body, the Palestinian National Council (PNC).This article will survey some of the most recent contributions to this debate aiming to highlight the main ideas wielded for and against elections to the PNC by contemporary Palestinian thinkers. I will review positions put forward in the 1 May 2013 al-Shabaka roundtable: “An Open Debate on Palestinian Representation”[2] and, to a lesser extent, the Jadaliyya “Roundtable on Palestinian Diaspora and Representation” published on 11 September 2012.[3] Additionally, I will reference individual articles addressing this theme published over the past year on the two platforms.[4] In order to leave the ‘crisis’ behind, deciding on and building a political strategy is the main task before Palestinians.

The first PNC, the 'parliament in exile', convened in Jerusalem in 1964. The meeting established the National Charter creating the Basic Law of the PLO, thus forming the basis for the Palestinian people’s political structure. Reconstitution of the PLO in 1968 earned popular legitimacy by housing the Palestinian factions, unions and guerilla forces within it. While the PLO retains the title of "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people", internationally recognized in 1974 along with unofficial observer status at the United Nations,[5] the PLO is increasingly supplanted by the Palestinian Authority in most practical and meaningful ways.[6] However, even the PLO’s stunted form retains legitimacy: "the credibility of the PLO continues even at its weakest point to far outweigh that of the PA."[7] In spite of its heritage, the sole representative body of the Palestinian people is in a state of disrepair.[8] Criticisms of the PLO orbit around its non-representation in the current political reality.

In the two decades since the erosion of the PLO’s primacy (the beginning of the ‘Oslo Peace Process’), it has become apparent that the Palestinian Authority has an unclear vision for a liberation strategy (see Navigating the Void, page 15).[9] Furthermore, the Palestinian Authority only administratively ‘represents’ a fraction of the Palestinian population further reduced to the West Bank since the 2006 fallout with Hamas. The UN status upgrade filed on behalf of the Palestinian Authority (under the guise of the PLO) in late 2012 marks an additional step blurring the representative scope between the Palestinian Authority and the PLO, both in terms of population and primacy.[10] The outcome of this is dramatic – leaving the vast majority of Palestinians worldwide unrepresented.[11] As a political non-strategy persists, Palestinian sub-citizens of Israel continue to be marginalized, Palestinians in Jordan risk having their citizenship revoked, Palestinians in Lebanon are refused basic rights in perpetuity, and Palestinians in Syria face the violent threat of secondary displacement.[12]

In light of this and aimed at reclaiming representation, responding to the national call for a registration drive of Palestinians in the shatat (exile) is seen as the first step to holding direct elections of the PNC.[13] The campaign to register Palestinians is a well-known civil society initiative seeking to lay the groundwork for accurate representation of the Palestinian body politic. Proponents of the initiative argue that direct elections to the PNC and the called-for reform is a common enterprise and  inspired by the self-organization of Palestinians during the 1970s and 1980s.

Critics of the registration for PNC elections fear that a flaw within the initiative’s vision will replicate current undemocratic structures, affirm the status quo (a backfire) and fail to achieve true reform of the PLO. In defense, Karma Nabulsi, former PLO representative and director of the Civitas Project volume entitled “Palestinians Register: Laying Foundations and Setting Directions”, wrote in Jadaliyya’s roundtable:

The aim [of organizing democratically and reclaiming our national liberation institutions] is simpler and more profound [than creating either a government or a state]: to determine for ourselves together, collectively, our strategy for liberation and return. And since it is the only principle that puts popular sovereignty at its core, it is therefore the only truly revolutionary one.[14]

Within a crisis of representation, the Palestinian people’s longstanding demand for unity is increasingly relevant and receiving greater attention from the political class. While the PLO is currently non-representative and dysfunctional, there is also an underlying consensus among commentators on al-Shabaka and Jadaliyya that the PLO can be reconstituted. However, the question that commentators dwell on is if Palestinians should be reconstituting the PLO?

Al-Shabaka’s roundtable includes eight Palestinian authors, academics and activists who comment further on this question. The impetus for the 1 May 2013 roundtable arose in response to a paper by Osama Khalil, an academic at Syracuse University, in New York, in which he challenges the call for direct elections to the PNC. For Khalil, “[t]he limited effectiveness of the PNC before and after Oslo raises questions about the potential for reform of such a body”.[15] Issues relating to the authority of the PNC Executive Committee over the budget, as well as domestic and foreign policies, he says, constitute incurable institutional limitations. While the PLO and PNC have been criticized throughout their history for not being representative or representative enough, Khalil’s argument frames the institution as a tool of the self-serving political cliques rather than the ‘sole representative of the Palestinian people’. In his words, “[t]he state of Palestinian politics remains bleak and none of the existing political factions offers a compelling vision for the future. In large part it is because they do not represent the future of the Palestinians but their past.” Khalil argues that Palestinians should abandon the PLO along with its illegitimate leadership and an alternative body should be built to achieve truer representation.

Khalil represents a strand in Palestinian political thought that disputes the premise that the PLO can represent Palestinians at all. Instead, proponents of this approach argue that the pseudo-state reality of the Palestinian Authority is an outcome of the PLO’s irredeemable brokenness. One of the arguments against using the PLO holds that since 1968 the PLO has justified Fatah’s at-times illegitimate dominance while marginalizing other ideologies and thereby “enfolded the seeds of failure from the beginning,” as wrote Seif Da’na.[16] Following the argument leads to a scenario where habitual misuse over the course of the PLO’s history disqualifies it as a potential tool for reformation and representation.

Alternatively, others warn that complete dismissal of the PLO without presenting viable alternatives contributes to maintaining the Palestinian Authority and quasi-statehood. Hani Al-Masri, director of the Ramallah think tank Masarat, advocates that, “[w]e must follow through on [the potential of the PLO] and exhaust all possible means to bring it to life, while at the same time promoting new movements and forces.” By comparing the current moment to 1968 when political parties gained control of the institution from the traditional Palestinian elite, Al-Masri speculates whether current leaders will be a part of or an impediment to rebuilding the PLO: “In that year, the factions of the Palestinian revolution rebuilt the PLO, which had originally emerged to respond to the needs of the official Arab regimes rather than the needs and priorities of the Palestinian people.”[17]

One vision of a democratically reformed PLO[18]

One vision of a democratically reformed PLO18 From Dag Tuastad in “Democratizing the PLO: Prospects and Obstacles,” Peace Research Institute Oslo, March 2012, Figure 3.

Fajr Harb, a political activist, takes a clear stand for pursuing the PLO when writing: “[R]eform can come by revolutionizing the PLO itself and not by creating yet another body.”[19] Harb describes the Palestinian Authority as technically separate from the PLO, but leeching roles and effectively splitting representation. Moreover he argues that a new body, an alternative to the PLO, would add to the divisiveness of Palestinian representation. Expanding on the background for his position, and in response to Osama Khalil, he writes:

One of Khalil's main arguments in favor of abandoning the PLO is that PNC members are chosen by quota, and that the political parties making up the PLO are themselves undemocratic and unaccountable. However, the author tends to overlook the huge number of Palestinians belonging to political parties. How does he envision the members bound within their parties' framework defying their leaders' authority in such a critical matter? Would changing the face and name of the representative organization render individuals more democratic? The problem is not merely the structure and vehicle of representation, but also the peoples' understanding of authority. We need to work on reforming ourselves as individuals that belong to a society based on resistance along with reforming the body that unites us all.

It is hard to imagine achieving the blank slate that Khalil advocates for; Khalil writes that, “[Palestinians] will need to build that movement themselves from scratch.” Rather than rejecting options based on their weaknesses it is responsible (and admirable) to draw from the Palestinian community’s strengths. In Harb’s vision, altering the PLO structure before holding new PNC elections is a constructive approach. He references reform to the PLO Charter as an ideal next step.

The result of this debate is a thorough exploration of arguments detracting from using the PLO. Underlying authors’ participation is a common goal of furthering the Palestinian cause and a basic framework that the conflict with Israel is a liberation struggle, not a border conflict. From the spectrum of opinions, it is possible to identify certain patterns of thought. For example, three of the eight participants in the al-Shabaka discussion are explicitly for PNC elections, while one is explicitly against it. Not a single voice within the retinue of opinions on the viability of elections to the PLO presented a view where Palestinians were not in a crisis of representation. Additionally, no commentator challenged the registering of Palestinians in the shatat for elections.

As a whole, the roundtable fills in the analysis of PLO and PNC elections providing a firm footing for moving forward. Hopefully, such discussion will enable Palestinians concerned with policy to advance their thinking on the topic of electoral representation and avoid rehashing the debate in the future. Reflecting on the PLO’s utility is necessary, but should not undermine progress particularly in the context of a frozen national liberation movement while Palestinians undergo daily disenfranchisements. Without building towards an exit from this period of limited representation, dismissals of the PLO risk propping up an undemocratic Palestinian Authority.

Furthermore, academic-based debate on the topic is purposed with following in the footsteps of the community, particularly its most marginalized, which has affirmed the need for direct elections of the PNC.[20] Otherwise, the independent intellectual class risks becoming exclusivist and irrelevant, a position easily manipulated by the powerful elite, who debates on representation aim to hold accountable. Rather, the role of academics, intellectuals and authors is to serve the Palestinian body-politic through commitment to navigating the theoretical pitfalls in this moment of continued colonization, deteriorating conditions in host states like Syria and institutionalization of a neo-liberal and non-representative Palestinian Authority. A Palestinian political strategy requires constructive criticism, creative problem solving and a pooling of human resources to overcome pressing conditions of the ongoing Nakba. Future endeavors have the opportunity to orient their debates with relevancy to the majority of Palestinians – imbedding high-level policy with inclusion. The principle of inclusion is fundamental for leaving the clichéd ‘crisis of representation’ behind.


*Thayer Hastings is a legal researcher at BADIL.

**Both Jadaliyya and al-Shabaka also produce their content in Arabic.

[1]Jamil Hilal, “PLO Institutions: The Challenge Ahead,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Autumn, 1993), p.54 at http://www.palestine-studies.org/files/pdf/jq/11408.pdf.

[2] The proceedings of the roundtable were published by al-Shabaka on 1 May 2013 at http://al-shabaka.org/roundtable/politics/open-debate-palestinian-representation. The participants were Rana BarakatMouin Rabbani, Dina Omar, Fajr HarbHani al-MasriAs'ad GhanemYassmine Hamayel and Aziza Khalidi.

[3] The proceedings of the roundtable were published by Jadaliyya on 11 September 2012 at http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/6082/roundtable-on-palestinian-diaspora-and-representat. The participants were Naseer Aruri, Seif Da’na, Karma Nabulsi and Sherene Seikaly.

[4]The articles I refer to are: al-Shabaka’s “Debating Palestine: Representation, Resistance and Liberation”, Jadaliyya’s “Beyond Sterile Negotiations: Looking for a Leadership with a Strategy” and al-Shabaka’s “‘Who are You?’: The PLO and the Limits of Representation”.

[5] The PLO was recognized as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” by the Arab League and the United Nations in 1974, and by Israel and the USA in 1993.

[6] Noura Erekat, “Beyond Sterile Negotiations: Looking for a Leadership with a Strategy”, al-Shabaka, 2 February 2012 at http://al-shabaka.org/policy-brief/beyond-sterile-negotiations-looking-leadership-strategy?page=show.

[7] Rabab Abulhadi, “Debating Palestine: Representation, Resistance and Liberation,” al-Shabaka, 5 April 2012 at http://al-shabaka.org/node/387.

[8] “Editorial”, Jadal Issue 15, September 2012 at http://mada-research.org/en/files/2012/10/editorial-final-jadal-15.pdf.

[9]The International Court of Justice’s 2004 advisory opinion stated that the “construction of the wall…and its associated regime, are contrary to international law”, providing Palestinians with a strong and morally clear decision from the most respected legal body in the world. In one of the most egregious examples, the Palestinian Authority failed to pursue the decision legally or politically and, some say, intentionally thwarted utilizing it.

[10] Noura Erekat, “Beyond Sterile Negotiations: Looking for a Leadership with a Strategy”, al-Shabaka, 2 February 2012 at http://al-shabaka.org/policy-brief/beyond-sterile-negotiations-looking-leadership-strategy?page=show.

[11] The Palestinian Authority’s mandate is limited to the West Bank; more than  8 million Palestinians (70%) reside outside the PA’s mandate. For a review of statistics see BADIL’s Survey of Palestinian Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons 2010-2012 at http://www.badil.org/en/press-releases/142-2012/3638-press-eng-53.

[12] For details on secondary displacement of Palestinians from Syria see BADIL’s Nakba Day statement: “65th Commemoration: Ongoing Nakba and Secondary Forcible Displacement,” 15 May 2013 at http://badil.org/en/badil-news/829-story-1.

[13]Calls for unity and the democratic renewal of the PLO were adopted in various national Palestinian agreements such as the 2006 Prisoners' Document (drafted by Palestinian leaders from all factions in Israeli prisons) and in reconciliation declarations by the PLO leadership in 2011, 2012 and 2013. See Tayseer Nasrallah, “Reclaiming the PLO: an urgent call to unite all Palestinians,” Electronic Intifada, 14 July 2012 athttp://electronicintifada.net/content/reclaiming-plo-urgent-call-unite-all-palestinians/11488.

[14]Jadaliyya, “Roundtable on Palestinian Diaspora and Representation,” 11 September 2012 at http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/6082/roundtable-on-palestinian-diaspora-and-representat.

[15] Osama Khalil, “Who are You?”: The PLO and the Limits of Representation, 18 March 2013 at www.al-shabaka.org/policy-brief/politics/who-are-you-plo-and-limits-representation.

[16] Jadaliyya, “Roundtable on Palestinian Diaspora and Representation,” 11 September 2012 at http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/6082/roundtable-on-palestinian-diaspora-and-representat.

[17] Al-Shabaka, “An Open Debate on Palestinian Representation,” 1 May 2013 at http://al-shabaka.org/roundtable/politics/open-debate-palestinian-representation.

[18]Population numbers within the diagram are one estimate. For alternative statistics, see BADIL’s Survey of Palestinian Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons 2010-2012.From Dag Tuastad in “Democratizing the PLO: Prospects and Obstacles,” Peace Research Institute Oslo, March 2012, Figure 3.

[19] Al-Shabaka, “An Open Debate on Palestinian Representation,” 1 May 2013 at http://al-shabaka.org/roundtable/politics/open-debate-palestinian-representation.

[20] Ma’an News Agency, “Palestinians in Syria register to vote for PNC,” 24 March 2013 at http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=578423