The most striking impression to a casual observer at the Club des Pins Conference Center in Algiers where the Palestine National Council met over April 20-25 was the emotional intensity of the greetings and reunions between long-lost friends among the 2,000 or more Palestinians in the corridors outside the main meeting hall. As in Amman in 1984 and Algiers in 1983, the PNC now clearly plays a vital role in bringing together Palestinians in the post-Beirut situation, where there is no longer any center for diaspora politics.
This PNC session was numbered the 18th. This apparently innocuous fact signified the reunification of the historic factions and leaderships of the modern Palestinian national movement, after a bitter split which lasted four years. It meant that all factions in attendance accepted the legitimacy of the 17th session in Amman, which many — notably the PFLP, the DFLP and the Palestine Communist Party — had boycotted. Besides Fatah, these are the only independent mass-based Palestinian organizations with a developed political infrastructure in both the occupied territories and the diaspora.
This PNC also signified the failure of the post-1982 strategy of both Syria and Jordan for dealing with the PLO. Ironically, Syria’s assault on the camps in Lebanon via their Amal proxies and Jordan’s anti-PLO West Bank strategy in cooperation with Israel provided the occasion by unifying Palestinians at the base in these two key areas.
This was symbolized by the name given to the 18th session: “The Session of the Steadfastness of the Camps and the Occupied Territories.” The issues of Lebanon and the occupied territories were uppermost in the minds of the Palestinians who met at Algiers, both as such and in terms of the problems with Syria, Jordan and Israel which they signified. Important sections of the political resolutions adopted by the PNC were devoted to both issues, and to dealing with these three key actors. It seems unlikely that the unity achieved at Algiers will be sundered in the near future, particularly since the key issue which divided the PLO — whether to follow a “Jordanian” or a “Syrian” option — has been resolved by events.
The resolutions adopted at Algiers reflect closely the Fatah agenda: the approach to a Middle East peace settlement; relations with Jordan, Syria and Egypt; relations with potential allies inside Israel; and relations with the superpowers.
A Middle East Settlement
The PNC came out strongly for an international conference on the basis of General Assembly resolutions 38/58 and 41/48, which include 242 but also recognize the PLO and the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. This reflects a PLO position which has remained unchanged since before 1982: the PLO will only agree to 242 and the recognition of Israel it implies if the Palestinian right of self-determination is also recognized. At Algiers all major Palestinian factions have once again endorsed this approach.
The conference envisioned by the PLO would include all parties and would have full plenary power. It could be preceded by some sort of preparatory meeting at which PLO representation is not specifically called for. Clearly excluded was the idea of the PLO attending such a conference as a silent junior partner in a Jordanian delegation. This in fact is one of the main differences between the PLO position now and the PLO-Jordan accord from 1983 until February 1986. The text of the Algiers resolution is clear: the PLO should participate in the conference “on a basis of equality with other parties.”
Abrogation of the PLO-Jordan accord was a major PFLP demand for its participation in the PNC. It was the only concession they received, and it was easy to grant in view of King Hussein’s offensive against the PLO over the past 16 months. Although the PNC rejected the idea of close collaboration with Jordan in the context of a peace conference, it stressed the special and distinct links between the Palestinian and Jordanian peoples, and supported Jordan’s independence against Israeli ambitions. It specified that “any future relation with Jordan should be on a confederal basis between two independent states.” It also reaffirmed support for the PLO-Jordanian joint committee to support the occupied territories.
The PNC put great stress on avoiding further conflict with Syria. The PNC resolutions included a strong affirmation of “the independence of the PLO and rejection of protectorate, absorption, annexation and interference in its affairs” — terms with a specific political resonance of 11 years standing and clearly directed at Syria. Otherwise, there was no implicit or explicit mention of the conflict of the past five years. The PLO leadership could afford to be magnanimous: they had won back all the important Palestinian factions, they had successfully defended the camps in Lebanon, and Syria had failed utterly in its efforts to split the PLO and thereby dominate the Palestinian arena. There was a clear attempt following the PNC session to work toward a reconciliation: George Habash went to Damascus with PLO proposals, and Asad met him immediately. Other PLO-Syrian channels are also in use, including Soviet and Algerian ones, but no results are yet apparent.
Mubarak’s harsh reaction to the PNC may have led inattentive observers to assume that the proceedings had a strong anti-Egyptian tone. In fact, huge Egyptian official, party and press delegations were present; there was little critical discussion of Egypt during the proceedings; and Egypt’s past efforts were praised in the resolutions. The future of relations with Egypt was left to the Executive Committee, on which Arafat has a 10-5 majority. At its first post-Algiers meeting, the Executive Committee tamely followed Arafat’s lead, sending an envoy to Cairo to explain the PLO position. Whence the anger displayed by Egypt? Cancellation of the PLO-Jordan accord creates difficulties for Egyptian advocacy of a conference at which the PLO would be an adjunct to Jordan. It may also have to do with relations with the US on the eve of critical International Monetary Fund and debt negotiations.
Notwithstanding media hype about the growth of religious fervor among Palestinians, there was not much of it in evidence at Algiers: a dozen people at most performed their prayers, and most documents and speeches omitted the standard opening phrase “Bismillah al-rahman al-rahim” (In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful). Either the media is wrong, or the Palestinian political class differs from other Palestinians.
Relations with Allies in Israel
A PNC resolution called for “developing relations with democratic Israeli forces which support the struggle of the Palestinian people against occupation and Israeli expansionism, and support their inalienable rights, including the rights of return and self-determination and to establish a Palestinian state, and which recognize the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” This may not include most Israelis today, but should be compared with earlier PLO positions restricting dialogue to anti-Zionist Israelis.
Relations with the Superpowers
The PNC resolutions aimed the usual invective at the US and the usual compliments at the USSR. But this standard phraseology masked an unusual bitterness on the part of the Fatah leadership, whose “Jordanian option” of 1983-86 was aborted by the Reagan administration’s stonewalling of any deal which would have recognized the PLO and accepted Palestinian self-determination as a quid pro quo for PLO acceptance of 242 and recognition of Israel. Such a deal remains the PLO’s preferred approach, but will most likely now be offered in an international forum.
The USSR scored a success by helping to bring about this PNC. The Soviets got something for their efforts: a Palestine Communist Party leader, Sulaiman al-Najjib, is on the Executive Committee. This PNC advanced the the prospect of an Arab summit and of a unified Arab position if there is an international conference. And the image of Soviet support for the PLO contrasts vividly in Arab perceptions with the hostility of the US. The PLO will benefit as well: it received Soviet backing in its relations with Syria, and for its attendance at an international conference. Both benefits were evident during Asad’s trip to Moscow, and will probably be consecrated during a PLO visit to Moscow.
Syria is now probably more likely to come to terms with the PLO after this PNC than it was before; Jordan is now less likely to succeed in bypassing the PLO in the occupied territories and in planning for an international conference. The PLO emerges from this PNC reinforced and stronger, and with a clear position on several key issues, but with little fresh thinking and few new faces in evidence. If the leaders who dominated this PNC have not brought the Palestinians measurably closer to their goals of self-determination and return, they have consecrated the revival of the Palestinian nationalism they presided over for the past two decades.