Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian scholar and close observer of PLO affairs, is presently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC. He recently completed a book on the PLO experience in Lebanon. Nubar Hovsepian and Joe Stork spoke with him in late January 1985.

How would you describe the balance of forces within the Palestinian movement today?

I don’t think that much has changed. The groups that support Arafat are not just individuals or a political faction, but geographical and even social strata. Something that was obscured when the PLO was in Beirut was the extent to which the fighting organizations were representative mainly of camp Palestinians and of highly politicized Palestinians. However, Arafat in Beirut also had invisible constituencie — the Palestinian bourgeoisie, the Palestinian middle classes, the Gulf Palestinians, the Jordanian Palestinians, the West Bank Palestinians. Not that he had all of those, but these people were under-represented in the PLO structure that emerged after the commando groups took over in 1968-69.

What has become clear after Amman is that he has layers of support. He has the support of the Fatah leadership, of the bulk of the Fatah cadre — many of whom disagreed with him from ’82 right through a few months before the PNC on the issue of Egypt, over whether to hold the PNC or whether it was more important to try to reconcile with the other groups, things like that. He overcame those differences; there was a measure of unity which made it possible to hold the PNC. But these people still hold slightly different views on these questions. These nuances are as important as the ones within the camp of people who are perceived as aligned with Syria.

Then you come to the people who nobody really knows so much about but who are important: the middle and lower middle class, the technocrats, the professionals, the white collar workers, the intellectuals, the businessmen. They are not all one group, they are not very visible, but they represent different interests. They have different attitudes. They tend to be lumped together by opponents of Arafat as “the Palestinian right, the Palestinian bourgeoisie.” But you’re talking about a large number of Palestinians. The Palestinians have developed a lot in the last 15 years — perhaps the people who have benefited the most from the oil boom after the upper classes of the oil producing countries themselves. Anybody who has visited the camps knows this. Remittances have raised the standard of living and of education. Today the Palestinian middle and lower middle class is huge. However you describe it, clearly you are not talking about the wretched of the earth.

Amman marks the beginning of a move away from the old scheme of things. Originally the PLO was an organization of notables, of politicians, of individuals who represented really nobody, appointed by the Arab regimes, appointed by themselves. It was taken over by the commando organizations. They said armed struggle is the path; since the people agree with us, we represent the people. They alloted themselves seats in the PNC, and for more than 15 years, with the full support of the great majority of Palestinians, this was the structure.

With the closure of the last Arab frontier, Lebanon, the whole position of the commando groups changes. Fahd al-Qawasmeh said at one point of one of the smaller groups, I don’t know which one, “Who are these people? Who do they represent? There are a few hundred or a couple of thousand. I was elected by 70,000 people. If they’re tanzim so-and-so, I can call my supporters tanzim Fahd al-Qawasmeh and I have a bigger organization than they do.” For him to be able to say this implies that the supremacy of the commando organizations is no longer unquestioned.

The crisis within Fatah was largely a rejection by the military, but also by a lot of cadres, of the idea that Lebanon marked the end of an era. Amman is not a particularly auspicious beginning perhaps for the new era. But like it or not, we are now in a different situation. The Palestinians have changed socially and their position vis-a-vis the Arab countries and vis-à-vis what they can do to Israel has changed.

Did the 16th PNC [in Algiers in 1983] absorb any of this?

The 16th PNC was marching in place. It was a classic compromise between the factions. And that is what Aden-Algiers ultimately is: each interest group with its given position coming with its known weight within that closed equation. The bargaining between them, when they finally reach a compromise, will be a totally unreal reflection of a totally unreal equilibrium.

Isn’t there the same type of bargaining among factions within the existing Fatah leadership?


Where would you place Arafat? Has he taken a definitive shift towards one direction or another?

I think that you have to say he has shifted.

What are the elements of the shift?

I think he has made two judgements. One about the possibility of working with the Syrians and one about the relative weight and importance of the other Palestinian groups, especially the National Alliance. There was always a feeling in Fatah that they were carrying these groups, that they were giving them more power and influence than they deserved. I think that Arafat has come over to this view. If they want to come along on terms fairly close to his, well and good. If not, then he can do very well without them. The nine or ten month delay in holding the PNC was not a function of Arafat’s hesitation, nor his really believing that these groups would come to him. He was waiting until his colleagues on the Central Committee were convinced that they would not come on terms acceptable to a Fatah consensus.

Was the Aden-Algiers accord very important in this process?

The important thing is that it would have, if implemented, led to a PNC which would have reinstated Arafat with pan-Palestinian legitimacy. And that is really all that Arafat wanted out of it. The agreement bound him only to this extent: when he was sitting at a PNC with all the groups, with his automatic majority, he would have decided out of political horse sense to give them all or some of this or that. For him, the key thing was to have a PNC. It was important for him to have as many of the groups as possible. It would have been a victory for him to hold a PNC with the Democratic Alliance and without the National Alliance, so he was willing to give a great deal.

The Democratic Alliance maintains that the Aden-Algiers agreement insisted on restructuring, on collegial leadership. Was he ready to go along with that?

Well, he signed it. He probably gambled that when the PNC was held, the less palatable parts of Aden-Algiers could have been diluted by his great majority. But I think he would have gone through with those organizational things. You could argue that some of his statements vis-à-vis Egypt and Jordan indicated he did not intend to be fully faithful in letter and spirit to every political point.

Some would describe them as a rather blatant effort to make clear that he was going to continue the same old show.

I think they were much more equivocal than that. The objections to implementing the Aden-Algiers call for a PNC meeting in Algeria were raised by people who, it has to be admitted, were under a lot of Syrian pressure. Assad perceived that if Arafat held a meeting together with the Democratic Alliance in Algiers, Syria’s Palestinian surrogates would be stripped of any pretense of legitimacy. Assad went to Libya and Algeria to make sure that this would not take place. Finally, the Algerians conditioned their approval to an agreement of all the signatories to Aden-Algiers. Then all Syria had to do was persuade one signatory to stay away, and they found their one in the PFLP.

The Democratic Front always said that it wanted to go. Look at the PFLP. In al- Hadaf for September and into early”October, you see none of the objections to Arafat’s actions and statements which you later heard cited as excuses for not going. It is my guess that there is a shifting majority within the leadership of the PFLP. At some stage, sentiment shifted away from whatever it was that had brought them to accept the Aden-Algiers accord — whether they became more suspicious of Arafat, I don’t know, but it was not simply a matter of Syrian pressure.

Then the DPF proposed a meeting of the Executive Committee and the Central Council in Tunis rather than going to Amman. Fatah accepted this and the PFLP refused.

The PFLP asserts that only the dialog committee set up in the Aden-Algiers agreement, and not the Executive Committee, can call for convening the PNC. They saw Arafat’s readiness for an Executive Committee meeting as the abrogation of at least one part of the Aden-Algiers agreement.

I think that was an expression of greater and greater worry about losing their Syrian base, about a possible split developing within the PFLP. Of the independent, mass-based Palestinian organizations, the only one that I think is really deeply internally divided over this whole issue of whether or not to go with Arafat, whether or not to align with the Syrians, is the PFLP. There are more serious, committed opponents of Arafat within the PFLP, people who on principle disagree with what he is doing. The Democratic Front might object to the terms, the conditions, the tactical circumstances surrounding an agreement with Arafat; within the PFLP there are people who are really fundamentally and in principle opposed.

What besides Syrian pressure would have changed the balance in the PFLP in October?

I think they realized that Arafat had come off the best in the bargain, that what the National Alliance was saying was to some extent true — that all you are going to do is go to Algiers and give the man a seal of legitimacy for what he wants to do, and you’ll get some small concessions.

How would you describe Arafat’s line at this point?

There is much less clarity, much less purpose than is ascribed to him by his opponents. I perceive a much more ad hoc, pragmatic and, frankly, confused train of thought at work. Arafat’s perception grows out of what some people call defeatism, but I would not call it that. It grows out of a perception that by themselves the Palestinians cannot do a great deal. It is not possible to have any kind of Palestinian strategy in alliance with the Syrians. The Syrians will only allow you to insert yourself into their strategy at a moment and place of their choosing. For him, that is unsatisfactory.

But he is not left with very many alternatives. There is no other Arab power beside Syria, and in any case the other Arab powers harbor similar ambitions vis-a-vis the Palestinians. The Jordani?#? ans are much weaker than the Syrians, but the Jordanians have aspirations which are incompatible with basic Palestinian national aspirations. The same is true of the Egyptians. The Egyptian alliance with the United States is, to my way of thinking, an even bigger problem than the Egyptian relationship with Israel. All Arab countries do deals with Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. The problem with Egypt is that they are immobilized by their relationship with the United States and are in this relationship with Israel. It is this combination of factors.

This also exists in the Jordanian case. But the Egyptians are slightly more valued allies. One often feels that there are many American policy makers who would be willing to sacrifice Jordan. So there is a certain community of interests between Jordan and other Arab countries or Jordan and the Palestinians in particular circumstances.

What are the indicators of PLO policy in the program of this PNC, in the composition of the Executive Committee? We see one thing: the armed organizations’ presence is less than it was before.

I think that is a recognition of reality. Remember, of course, there are several seats empty, all of which could be taken by armed organizations.

The program is not as different from the Algiers program as the policy is different from the policy then. There is a much greater effort to try to put together some kind of negotiating position with the Jordanians. In principle they would like to go ahead with the Jordanians, but in practice there are enormous obstacles.

The first is that they have a mandate which does not allow the PLO to give up its representation of the Palestinians. Second, they can not, under any circumstances, allow the PLO to give up the goal of a sovereign Palestinian state. In some relationship to Jordan, yes, but a sovereign, independent Palestinian state. The US and Israel reject these two bottom-line conditions. That’s why you have had hardly any progress. However far they went, they will not have gone far enough to square the circle.

In the current situation, all of this energy being devoted to settlement is completely misplaced, because absolutely nothing can come of it. The reason is the refusal of the US and Israel to contemplate serious negotiations with the representatives of Palestinian nationalism. The only way in which energy can be exerted fruitfully is in terms of internal structure: reorganization, rebuilding, rethinking.

Is there any sense in which these maneuvers are a cover for something more significant?

I see no signs of this. The involvement of one group of Palestinians in blowing up everything that was created over 20 years, and the involvement of another group in chasing after a mirage, has meant that the leadership of the whole national movement is completely preoccupied with the wrong things. To some extent they realize this, because they know what their mandate in Amman was: you represent the Palestinians. The only reason you have any standing is because you are the lead?#? ers of the Palestinians chosen by us. The moment you give up the mandate to rep?#? resent us, you don’t represent us! The other clear message — and that’s not just the base, but the people at the top — was: we want sovereignty. We’ve gone through 20 years of this so that the king can take over and be the sovereign in Palestine?!

One slogan plastered on the walls at the last PNC heralded the independent decision-making of the Palestinians. At any point in the history of the Palestinian movement was such a thing possible?

Only when the Palestinians had an independent base in Lebanon. That was the only time the Israelis ever perceived the PLO to be a threat. I think it was the political, diplomatic and propaganda efforts, which were based on that military presence, which really scared the Israelis. There’s a very clear tone in the Israeli media that we are now finished with this Arafat who runs around, wins international concessions, and threatens us politically with his so-called moderation. They are extremely happy with an Abu Nidal, an Abu Musa, an Ahmad Jibril.

So the independent base made possible the only period in which the Palestinians credibly challenged the Israelis, on any level. I don’t know whether it is possible now, because of the division of Lebanon between Israel and Syria into spheres of influence, one shrinking and one having grown over the past two years. I doubt whether that space can be recreated at a point suspended in mid-air between Tunis, Amman and Kuwait. You’ve got to have a balance between the different Arab regimes, plus the Lebanese space, to have what you had in the past. That’s why something entirely new will probably have to be developed. You have to figure out a way to pole vault over the situation, achieve some kind of economy of action and secure some kind of influence on the Israelis.

How can the Palestinians act in terms of these new realities without alienating the Arab support needed to change the balance of forces? What they want is a decision which is not dictated by the Baath Party, or by the king, or by Mubarak.

Now one side is going after Jordan, the other is staying with Syria. What is the difference between the two on the essence of the Arab-Israeli conflict?

The question is: to what extent do they each want to incorporate the Palestinian card into their hand? To what extent do these regimes perceive absolute control of the Palestinians as vital to regime stability, irrespective of the Arab-Israeli dispute? Regime stability, plus the relationship with the US, plus a healthy fear of Israel all combine to prevent Palestinian commando activity. But to what extent are they able to make concessions at Palestinian expense? Jordan may be interested in making sweeping concessions, but can it? Syria may or may not be intending to make vast, sweeping concessions, but any concessions it may want to make are realizable and serious, because in Syria and Lebanon it has got the Palestinians, or at least some of them. It’s not so much their position towards the settlement, or their attitude towards the US. It’s specific: what concessions are they going to make at your expense?

This doesn’t make them worse than the Jordanians. The people who are anti- Syrian really exaggerate this. They’re doing what the Egyptians and Jordanians did long ago, and yet we talk to the Egyptians and the Jordanians.

You’re saying that no matter which Arab country you’re dealing with, they want control of the Palestinian cause?

I would put it differently: independence is only possible in circumstances where you have an independent base area and/or an equilibrium of Arab states. Today you have neither.

Is Arafat essentially trying to recreate that equilibrium?

That’s what the Syrians are accusing him of. The Israelis seem worried about it. There’s a convergence of interests between the Rabin line in Israel and that of Syria. It’s much easier for both of them if there’s no independent factor — Lebanese or Palestinian. Rabin much prefers to deal with the Syrians. If the Syrians were strong enough, they could eliminate the Palestinians; he wouldn’t have to deal on the West Bank. The Syrian position is this: until the strategic balance changes, we can’t talk about the West Bank because it means concessions. As far as Rabin — the center-right of the Labor Party — is concerned, fine. It means that the whole problem is postponed indefinitely. Over Lebanon, the same is true. They prefer to deal with the Syrians. The trouble is, the Syrians can’t deliver west of the Barouk line, because the Israelis pushed their power back east of it and are still there. So what happens west of the Mount Lebanon-Jabal al-Barouk line is going to be very interesting. The independent factor will not necessarily be Palestinian; it may be Lebanese.

What are the chances of it being Palestinian?

In the short run, fairly slim. The Syrians have mechanisms for indirect control of the situation. But in Beirut, they’ve already started huffing and puffing. You see lieutenant colonel so-and-so visiting west Beirut and warning that Syria will act if clashes continue. There is talk of Syrian troops returning to Beirut. We’ve already begun to see the situation get out of their control.

Clearly there are people within the PLO who are pushing this Jordanian line because they think it has a chance, right? Not because they think it’s necessary to create the illusion of movement.

Yes, there are.

Can you put Arafat in this group or with the group that is willing to let this be played out? Did the PNC elect him and a policy?

No, I would argue they just elected him.

What was it that they denied him?

If they were denying him anything, it was less restrictions on power. That’s what he wanted to avoid.

Can he move without the consensus of the people to his right and to his left in Fatah?

No. If he could, he wouldn’t be meeting with them in Tunis. He’d just do it. I don’t think now he’s just looking for a mandate. He’s looking for somebody to come up with a policy, too. Does he have a clear idea of who his allies and adversaries are? He would probably like to have the PFLP, but I think he’s decided he can’t have them. However uncomfortable it is to be flitting between Amman, Tunis and Kuwait, he knows it’s probably more uncomfortable to be in Damascus or Ba’lbeck. In terms of a mass base, Syria and Lebanon are not where the bulk of the population is. As long as those camps were the base for recruitment for military forces which were the only forces fighting Israel, then 15 percent of the Palestinians could be the vanguard. But the Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria are losing out in importance in PLO calculations to those elsewhere.

You mentioned Amman, Tunis and Kuwait. What is represented by each of those places?

In Kuwait there are as many as 200,000 Palestinians all in one small place — the original breeding ground for the Fatah leadership (with Gaza and Cairo). It is a very important incubator for that part of the Palestinian movement which is Fatah; it still provides an important segment of the Fatah cadres. There are also some opposition people from there. There are almost as many Palestinians in Kuwait as in Syria.

Tunis is far away from anything. It’s important in terms of diplomacy because of the Arab League, the Libyans, the Algerians. You’ve got to spend a certain amount of time there. You can put things there that you can’t put in Kuwait or Amman, but it doesn’t represent anything in terms of a mass base.

Amman represents where Palestinians are. It’s the easiest place from which to get in and out of the West Bank. You can meet people coming from the West Bank in Amman. The Israelis will find out, but you can still do it.

Is the movement’s primary location now in Amman?

More in Tunis. They’re not allowed to open offices in Amman. People are working out of their homes. There are some offices: the Occupied Territories Homeland Affairs, because the Jordanians have accepted Palestinian participation in the joint committees set up as a result of the Baghdad summit.

We haven’t talked about differences among the Jordanians.

There are many Jordanians who do not want the King to enter into either negotiations with or on behalf of the Palestinians. If Hussein goes in, and makes major concessions, and gets a little bit, he will be blamed for having made the concessions, even if he does it with some kind of PLO sanction. Secondly, he will have a kingdom which is overwhelmingly Palestinian, again. That’s not to say they don’t want to have any role — it’s a vital interest of theirs what kind of regime exists west of the river, and these people would probably be unhappy to see an independent Palestinian state there, because it doesn’t protect them from these problems. But no more noxious than having the king make major concessions over Jerusalem, and be seen to be the man who did this, and then be saddled with a restive, angry Palestinian population.

The other argument is that the king has learned something, and his speech is a token of this. He has learned that he can do nothing without the PLO, that only if the PLO, as a representative of the Palestinians, takes the responsibility, will the thing stick. The problem is that this realization clashes with reality, which recognizes that the two powers involved — Israel and the US — won’t deal.

Does the February agreement between Arafat and Hussein represent a new development?

I think it is important that subsequently the usually fractious PLO and Fatah leaderships were able to resolve their differences, and to come up with a relatively unified stance. True, this was only after the usual outburst of contradictory public statements. But it ended with Abu ly ad and Abu Lutf, two of the public critics, going to Amman and apparently coming to an agreement with the Jordanians on the disputed points. I still doubt any of this has a chance of success, because neither the US nor Israel will change its position on PLO representation of the Palestinians or Palestinian sovereignty. But the Palestinians have at least managed to avoid a rupture with one another, or with the king, or the Egyptians, without giving in to the latter two on key points. And they seem to have retained popular support, skeptical though everyone is.

How to cite this article:

Joe Stork, Nubar Hovsepian "Squaring the Palestinian Circle," Middle East Report 131 (March/ April 1985).

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