By shaking hands on September 13, 1993, Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin jointly revised the parameters of political possibilities in the Middle East. Whether these possibilities include a just peace and comprehensive reconciliation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is, four months later, far from certain. In the first week of December, just as the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho was set to begin, 14,000 additional Israeli troops were deployed to the Occupied Territories; the only military withdrawal has been in the face of Israeli settler violence against Palestinians, a violence intensified by Palestinian attacks on settlers. On December 12, Rabin met again with Arafat, this time to tell him that any withdrawal would be postponed until Israeli security conditions are met.

To be sure, both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships have great incentive to implement some version of the agreement in principle: Their respective political survivals are now tied to it and to each other. At the PLO Central Council meeting in early October, though, Mahmoud ‘Abbas, the chief PLO negotiator in Oslo, warned that the agreement could lead “to a Palestinian state or to a catastrophic liquidation of the Palestinian cause.” [1] As the interviews which comprise much of this issue indicate, the agreement has compelled Palestinian activists and thinkers to confront the urgent question of what kind of political authority is created, and how. It has precipitated serious struggles within the PLO and broader Palestinian political circles.

The dynamics that produced the Declaration of Principles signed in Washington derive chiefly from the Palestinian uprising that began in December 1987 in the Jabalya and Balata refugee camps. But the unsettling force of the uprising was compromised by its own internal weaknesses and by two broader developments — the end of the Cold War and the outcome of the US-led war against Iraq. The intifada began as spontaneous, mass-based and public insurrections that took the leaders of both Israel and the PLO by surprise. The Oslo negotiations were a secret, top-down affair that took the peoples of the two nations by surprise. Both the promise and the danger of the present juncture lie in the tension between these intertwined but distinctly different components of the Palestinian drive for self-determination.

The Oslo deal appears to resolve certain long-standing contradictions, but at the price of creating new ones. The agreement abounds with ironies, intended and otherwise. The agreement ostensibly is about bringing an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whether or not this happens, Oslo almost certainly spells the end of the broader Arab-Israeli conflict. The rapid series of high-level meetings between Israelis and Arabs from Qatar to Morocco following the September signing is one manifestation of this. “Irrespective of whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is properly resolved,” says Rashid Khalidi, “the Arab-Israeli dispute as we have known it is over. The end of the Cold War removed one major structural component; Oslo dealt with the other. The Palestinians have done their historic duty of saying ‘yes,’ as far as the other Arab states are concerned.” [2]

Another central contradiction highlighted by the accord is the vulnerability of the PLO as the emblem of Palestinian legitimacy at this moment of Israeli and US recognition. “Now that the conflict is over,” Khalidi says, “the truth can be told. Yet another triumph for Arafat, the resuscitation of the PLO in circumstances where it is totally unreformed and unreconstructed, is in some ways an awful outcome. But it would have been catastrophic for the Palestinians had the PLO folded without setting terms for a resolution of the conflict, however good or bad those terms are.” A former delegate to the Washington negotiations put it most succinctly, speaking of Arafat and his apparatus: “He is both our blight and our salvation.”

This vulnerability of the PLO relates to a third major irony underlying the Declaration of Principles. At a declarative level, it asserts and recognizes the unity of the Palestinian people, but at a practical level the terms of the agreement have divided the Palestinians to an unprecedented degree. This division is chiefly but not exclusively between those on the “inside,” who stand to gain at least the end of Israeli military occupation, and those on the “outside,” especially the 1948 refugees, who stand to lose any prospect of return, recompense or even recognition.

To the extent that the divide can be characterized in factional terms, the split has placed Fatah, the People’s (formerly Communist) Party and the Palestine Democratic Union (FIDA, the party formation of the Abed Rabbo faction of the Democratic Front) against the Popular Front and the Democratic Front (based in Damascus with a host of much smaller opposition groups) and the Islamist opposition, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But it is a division that has also occurred within virtually all organizations, especially Fatah as the largest and most amorphous.


The most far-reaching and significant struggle, however, may well be that which has emerged within the broad camp of those who welcome the Oslo accord, or at least accept it as an irreversible factor which compels a constructive Palestinian response. For this large group, the discourse of “for” or “against” is no longer tenable; the Declaration can be neither abrogated nor ignored. The agenda of struggle against Israeli occupation has been subsumed within an agenda of struggle over the political character of the leadership of today’s Palestinian movement and tomorrow’s “national authority.”

The question of the political character of the emerging authority stands at the heart of the interviews presented here. They are businesspeople, professionals and intellectuals, not affiliated with or speaking for political organizations. They articulate a pressing concern for issues of accountability, quality of governance, democracy, meritocracy, social equity, economic viability and human rights.

One can meet Palestinians who speak much more harshly (as well as others who speak more kindly) of what their leadership has wrought, but there appear to be few who feel that the Damascus-based factions have a credible alternative strategy at this juncture. In Gaza especially, according to independent sources, leading Popular Front cadres are pressing for an oppositional stance that accepts the new circumstances of struggle dictated by the Declaration rather than one that works to overturn the agreement and restore the status quo ante. The leadership of Hamas, the more mass-based of the Palestinian Islamist groups, has astutely recognized that their “street” is a fluid one, and nearly identical with Fatah’s mass base. Much of the popular support that Hamas could claim before Oslo has reverted to Fatah, and will stay there as long as Arafat can plausibly hold out the prospect of an end to the Israeli occupation.

Besides representatives of the factions opposed to the agreement, there are other relevant voices who are not featured here. There are no Israelis, and consequently little attention to the new situation created by the accord in Israeli society, although the most optimistic Palestinian readings of the situation hinge on “the Israelis facing up to the delusion of Greater Israel,” as one Palestinian put it. Nor do we provide here any extended discussion of the consequences of the accord for the different Palestinian diaspora communities, beyond a short report on Lebanon.

Most Palestinians in the Occupied Territories interpret the inter-Palestinian struggle not as one of “inside” versus “outside” but as one of accountability versus authoritarianism. Many Palestinians do count on the institutional history of the territories, and the mass politicization that has fostered an adversarial relationship to political authority, to compel a measure of democratic and participatory behavior on the part of the PLO. But they also caution against exaggerating the extent of a political culture in the territories as one significantly distinct from, or more inherently democratic than, that of the PLO in Tunis.

The December-April transfer of “Gaza-Jericho first” now seems certain to be delayed, but neither Palestinian nor Israeli opponents have yet demonstrated the numbers or capacity to do more than disrupt the process temporarily. There is, though, a disturbing disjuncture between an Israeli strategy that, on the one hand, recognizes the PLO as the only Palestinian institution with the legitimacy to make the concessions embodied in the Declaration and to set up a security apparatus able to control Gaza — something the powerful Israeli army has been unable to do — and, on the other hand, orders aggressive search-and-destroy tactics against leading militants in Hamas and Fatah. This violates the spirit of Oslo but, more importantly, it vitiates the logic of that strategy by harassing the PLO and undermining its legitimacy.

The more serious impediment to PLO legitimacy is the Arafat leadership itself. In the preparatory negotiations in Tunis leading up to the PLO Central Council’s approval of the Declaration of Principles in early October, Arafat promised reformist voices in Fatah, FIDA and the People’s Party that appointments to the negotiating teams, for instance, would be made on a consultative basis. Once the Declaration was approved, though, Arafat unilaterally appointed the negotiating team members. There were no joint discussions to develop a negotiating strategy. By such tactics, Arafat managed to maintain full control of the negotiations but at the cost of preventing the Palestinian side from building constructively on the ambiguities in the Oslo text.

Reform Demands

In any case, it is clear that the sense of crisis over the issue of governance and accountability is not restricted to Palestinians of the Occupied Territories. Shortly before the Oslo accord was announced, Jamil Hilal, formerly director of the PLO information office in Tunis, wrote a forceful critique of what he termed a crisis of political representation in the organization, and posed the need to move from a system that represents factions almost exclusively to one that represents communities and constituencies. [3] This factional character of Palestinian politics has been a prominent feature on the “inside” as well.

The month of December provides early signs of the consequences of this internal Palestinian crisis. The December 13 deadline for beginning the process of Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho, and PLO assumption of administrative and security arrangements in those places, has been missed. Just afterward are economic meetings in Paris at which the PLO is to appoint the governing members of a Palestinian Economic Development and Reconstruction Agency to negotiate with the World Bank and administer billions of dollars in promised international aid. More than a few Palestinian economists in the territories told us of the irony in their situation: After years of criticizing the interventionist policies of institutions like the World Bank, they now see the Bank and other international lenders as tactical allies in the campaign to compel Arafat to adopt a more collegial and rational approach to appointments and decisions. Three members of the PLO Executive Committee — ‘Abbas, Yasser Abed Rabbo and Sulayman Najjab of the People’s Party — have publicly dissented from Yasser Arafat’s efforts to monopolize political and economic decision-making. A declaration critical of Arafat’s modus operandi and calling for democratic reforms was circulating in Tunis and elsewhere in mid-December.

Many of Arafat’s Palestinian critics assume that he maintains the resources and the political savvy to withstand these demands, at least at this time. As of this writing, he has refused to back off, and has rejected even the demand that positions be announced and applications invited. He has recruited back to his fold initial critics of the accord, such as Farouq Qaddoumi and Hani al-Hasan, to offset the reformist current. Jamil Hilal described what he called “the loyalist opposition” — Fatah dissenters, Abed Rabbo’s Democratic Front, and the People’s Party — as lacking the operational unity, coherent strategy and detailed programs that could pose a successful challenge to the present situation. [4]

Inside the Occupied Territories, a potential nucleus of this kind of reformist opposition has emerged in the plethora of Palestinian NGOs in sectors such as health, agriculture and education. One question they face, particularly the most independent of them, is how they will continue to function in an era in which the Palestinian political authority will attract most outside funding as well as many of the most competent professional cadres. “Ignoring the NGOs would be a big mistake,” one West Bank professional told us, “but that’s what I think Fatah is trying to do.” She feels that the ability of the local NGOs to function in the face of the new authority will be an important indicator of the character of Palestinian politics in the coming period. [5]

Another key will be the elections presently scheduled for July 1994. Assuming these are conducted fairly, will the elected council, like the delegation to the Washington talks, be subordinated to “oversight” committees appointed by Arafat, or to joint PLO-Israeli committees? One thing is clear: The PLO cannot operate effectively in the Occupied Territories except with the cooperation of individuals and organizations inside. The to-be-elected Palestinian representatives will likely take advantage of their mediating position to reinterpret key aspects of the agreement.

Until the final status talks, at least, Palestinian politics will take the form of a government without a state. What exactly will be the hierarchy of Palestinian political structures, and how can ordinary Palestinians participate in them? Both supporters and detractors of the agreement are worried about two major issues: democracy and economic development. Who will set priorities in terms of economic sectors, geographic regions and institutional channels? How will the tax system and the labor market be organized? Will genuine political debate be tolerated?

Efforts are underway to formulate answers to these and other questions now breaking to the surface after years of subordination to the priorities of national struggle. The Palestinian leadership faces an enormous task: to define quickly the basic operating principles of Palestinian society and, by extension, to reinvent its own identity, while under the microscopic supervision of committed adversaries. Over the next few years, the politics of class, state and society will compete with the politics of nationalism and colonialism. Neither the PLO nor Israel, as the intifada clearly demonstrated, can effectively command and manipulate the larger social forces on the ground. For the Palestinians, the question is how to become collectively and constructively engaged in the unglamorous pursuit of small but concrete changes at a time when the unifying factor of foreign military occupation is receding and the lid on a Pandora’s box of internal contradictions is opening wider.


[1] Middle East International, October 22, 1993.
[2] Interview, November 13, 1993.
[3] Journal of Palestine Studies 23/1 (Autumn 1993).
[4] Interview, December 10, 1993
[5] The November/December 1993 newsletter of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees makes an articulate case for the continuing importance of NGOs such as itself.

How to cite this article:

Beshara Doumani, Joe Stork "After Oslo," Middle East Report 186 (January/February 1994).

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