Helena Cobban, The PLO: People, Power and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1984).
This political history of the PLO is one of the better books on the Palestinian national movement to appear in the wake of the 1982 exit of the Palestinian military forces and PLO political cadres from Beirut. Cobban’s focus is Fatah (“the PLO mainstream”), its “bosses,” its goals and ideology, its relationship to the PLO and to the other Palestinian guerrilla groups, to Arab states and to non-Arab powers. The author leads the reader through a detailed chronological account of the emergence, organization, growth and challenges that have faced the PLO qua Fatah. Her history correctly places Fatah in the context of the regional Arab-Israeli conflict, inter-Arab politics and their international linkages. She never loses sight of the complex and interlocking local, regional and international factors impinging on the Fatah leadership, and the context these provide for PLO initiatives directed towards the goal of restoring Palestinian political rights. In this fast-moving, eventful and dramatic context, Cobban weaves a well-informed account of Fatah and its leadership.
What distinguishes this book is its vantage point. Cobban succeeds in detailing this history from the inside, from a Palestinian point of view looking out on a rapidly changing political environment. This gives her work a richness and authenticity rarely matched by others. Part I details Fatah’s underground origins before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and its competition with the PLO created by the Arab rulers in a 1964 summit. After 1967, Fatah gained control of the PLO structure, organized its relationships with the other guerrilla groups in the context of the PLO, and through the PLO established its relations with the Arab states. Quickly, problems with the Lebanese and Jordanian regimes emerged. The 1973 October war began a new era for Fatah. They opted for a political settlement and legitimated these decisions through Palestine National Council (PNC) resolutions. But they were elbowed and isolated by Kissinger’s diplomacy, and then caught in the trap of Lebanon’s 1975-76 civil war. The 1977- 80 period, after Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, represented a political setback, despite the Fatah/PLO push for a political settlement. After 1980, the overall regional balance continued to turn against the PLO. Despite all the PLO maneuverings, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon devastated the movement.
In Part II, Cobban’s account of the PFLP, DFLP, Saiqa and others is cursory and underplays their role. The reader gets the impression that the PFLP and DFLP are at best idealistic, at worst obstacles to the more pragmatic concerns of the Fatah leadership. Missing here is the internal Palestinian debate on the nature of the movement: whether it is a sociopolitical revolutionary movement or an independence movement. This debate existed within Fatah itself, as well as between it and the other organizations. Cobban’s consideration of this ideological issue would have enriched her account and shed more light on the decisions the movement adopted at the different turning points. The chapter on the movement inside historic Palestine is also short, yet Cobban does include a section on the Palestinians of Israel, the character of the Palestinian movement there and its relationship to the PLO. Her discussion of the PLO’s regional and international relations adds little to the earlier history of the PLO mainstream, although it does round out the dynamics analyzed in the earlier chapters.
In her concluding chapter, Cobban evaluates the movement, and especially the Fatah leadership, the issues facing it internally, and its military and political effectiveness. What she misses is an evaluation of the relationship between the Fatah leaders and the rest of the cadres. This would have pointed to the longstanding fissures within Fatah which led to the rebellion in the wake of the Lebanon disaster. Indeed, by focusing on the four or five principal historic Fatah leaders, Cobban tends to overlook the nuances and complexities of the relationships within Fatah (especially with regard to the second-line leadership); between Fatah and other guerrilla groups; and between the PLO and the parties and militias of the Lebanese National Movement during the PLO’s Lebanon era. Debates and decisions during the Lebanese civil war helped crystallize opposing factions within Fatah. It was this latent split, with almost the same personalities involved, which surfaced in the wake of the 1982 Lebanon invasion. The Fatah rebels, who now call themselves al-intifadah (the “upheaval” within Fatah) first emerged in 1976 and subsequently consolidated their position among the fighting units. Cobban’s focus on the Fatah leadership neglects other critical dynamics within the organization at large, and fosters a somewhat distorted image of a PLO that is chiefly reactive. Despite this, though, her book is a very good political history of the PLO mainstream.