The Changing Meaning of Statehood in PLO Ideology and Practice
Since the early days of the Palestine conflict, the Palestinian national movement has been mainly the product of Palestinian Arab challenges to British colonialism and Zionism. In 1948, the conflict over Palestine entered a new and complex phase as Palestinian politics became part of Arab politics on the official level, leading to almost-total dependence of the Palestinian community on the Arab states. In fact, for the two decades that followed the 1948 war, the task of liberating Palestine became virtually the responsibility of the Arab regimes and not that of the Palestinians themselves. Indeed, the Palestinians waited for the new and progressive Arab leadership of the 1950s and 1960s to help them translate into reality their longing for return to the homeland, becoming, in the process, pawns in inter-Arab conflicts and rivalries.1 Given this background, this paper focuses on the ideological and structural developments in PLO political thinking that eventually transformed its conception of its future state from one of total liberation to a more territorially defined one.

Dependency and Traditionalism of the Old PLO

Regardless of the claim that the creation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964 was necessary to fill a gap in the political life of the Palestinians, the new organization was the stepchild of inter-Arab rivalries and power politics. In fact, it was President Nasser of Egypt who, during the 1964 Arab Summit Conference, recommended the creation of the PLO, and nominated Shuqairy to be its first chairman. A few months later, in May of that year, the PLO was recognized by the Arab League, thus achieving an official status. The structure and goals of the new Palestinian organization were simple: traditionalist members were expected to make it an elitist organization whose responsibility was to cater more to the interests of certain Arab states than to those of the Palestinian people. No doubt, as part of the lip-service it paid to the Arab countries, the PLO stressed the "Arab" rather than local character of the Palestine question and, in line with other Arab countries, the PLO Covenant emphasized the goals of regaining the whole of Palestine, the return of all refugees to their homes and the unequivocal rejection of Israel's legitimacy.2
Opposition to the PLO came particularly from the fedayeen (guerrilla) organizations that doubted Nasser's sincerity. The fedayeen believed they could offer a wider representation of the Palestinians, young and old, and that they were more closely in touch with the feelings of the Palestinian street than the PLO. They also argued that, by being more militant than the PLO, they could respond more effectively to the need for armed struggle against Israel.

Militancy and Radicalism of the New PLO

The lack of popularity of traditional PLO leaders and the failure of the Arab regimes to liberate Palestine and to ensure the return of the refugees to their land contributed to the growth, in the late 1950s and mid-1960s, of an independent and militant elite in the Diaspora that identified, directly or indirectly, with the increasingly popular fedayeen groups and with the Fatah movement. The takeover of the PLO in 1969 by Fatah under the chairmanship of Yasser Arafat was a watershed in the history of the Palestinian movement, raising the hopes of Palestinians everywhere. What the new organization did was to emphasize Palestinian independence in decision-making. Also, in past decades, the Palestine problem was seen mostly as a problem of homeless refugees. After the takeover, the world community became increasingly aware of the complex political factors involved in the Palestine issue.3 No doubt, the fedayeen's success had largely resulted from becoming known as the only organization in the Arab world that was not discredited as a result of the 1967 Arab defeat. In this context, the new PLO emerged as the new leader of the Palestinians in the Diaspora, which soon emphasized the need for Palestinian independence of action.
The institutional restructuring of the old PLO was accompanied by fresh and more radical plans that largely revolved around the principle of establishing an independent state in the whole of Palestine through armed struggle. In its search for statehood, the PLO pursued two main concepts: the first was liberation, rooted in the necessity of armed struggle as the only means for liberating the whole of Palestine. The second became gradually more connected with a territorially focused Palestinian statehood.

The Liberationist Conception of Statehood

The shift in PLO ideology and techniques in the aftermath of the 1967 war can best be seen in a comparison between the PLO's 1964 Covenant and the revisions introduced to it in 1968.
The 29 articles that constitute the 1964 Palestine National Covenant generally tried to define Palestinian relations with their homeland, as well as the conception of their future state in Palestine. It states that the "Palestinian personality is a permanent and a genuine characteristic that does not disappear. It is transferred from fathers to sons."4 This personality is connected with a defined territory that is part of the Arab nation.5 Palestine is, in principle, supposed to be "an Arab homeland," part of a larger "Arab homeland." The PLO then saw no contradiction between the two: the two identities complement each other since they are necessary for the liberation of both Palestine and the Arab world. Article 12 declares that "Arab unity leads to the liberation of Palestine and the liberation of Palestine leads to Arab unity."
A peculiar provision of the Covenant is Article 24, which states that "this organization [PLO] does not exercise any regional sovereignty over the West Bank of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, or the Gaza Strip...." More peculiar yet is Article 26, which promises that the PLO "does not interfere in the internal affairs of the Arab states." However, the oddity of these provisions can easily be explained by the prevailing circumstances: in 1964, Nasser was the most influential Arab leader who, in effect, was instrumental in the creation of the PLO. On the other hand, King Hussein of Jordan was opposed to any drastic developments in the area. He perceived any Palestinian political independence or military formation a threat to Hashemite interests in the region, particularly to its control of the West Bank. The PLO provisions were thus designed to be conciliatory to King Hussein to assure his support or at least his approval.
One significant element of the Covenant is its definition of who is a Palestinian. Article 6 stipulates that "the Palestinians are those Arab citizens who were living normally in Palestine up to 1947, whether they remained or were expelled. Every child who was born to a Palestinian parent after this date, whether in Palestine or outside, is a Palestinian."
However, Jews who are of "Palestinian origin" are also Palestinians. This means Jews who came to Palestine after the establishment of Israel were not Palestinians and therefore presumably not legitimate.6 The Covenant was careful to distinguish between Judaism and Zionism. The former is acceptable "because it is a divine religion" and not a "nationality with independent existence." Jews belong to the countries of which they are citizens. Zionism is a "colonialist movement in its inception, aggressive and expansionist in its goals, racist and segregationist in its configurations and fascist in its means and aims."7 Finally, Article 16 of the Covenant declares that the liberation of Palestine is an act of self-defense "necessitated" by the U.N. Charter. The liberation of Palestine must also be total, and must include every inch of historic Palestine.
In July 1968, the Covenant was revised to become the Palestinian National Charter. The revision was made by the PLO National Congress, which was considered to be the official parliament of the Palestinian people.
While the 1964 Covenant emphasizes the Arab character of the Palestinian struggle, the 1968 document refocuses the struggle on the basis of a distinct local Palestinian identity. Apparently, due to the 1967 war, the Palestinian identity underwent a political transformation that gradually became in PLO ideology and practices more focused on localism rather than Arabism. Thus, the 1968 Charter stresses the need for Palestinians to "safeguard their Palestinian identity and develop their consciousness of that identity."8 In general terms, at the time, the PLO's ideology and practices suggested the following major principles: (a) no compromise whatsoever on the issue of central and basic goals and insistence that these goals be achieved all at one time; (b) an excessive emphasis on armed struggle as the only method for the complete liberation of Palestine; (c) a dogmatic view of the conflict by insisting on total victory and thus adopting an all-or-nothing position and denying itself the possibility of a compromise or partial victory.9
Against this maximalist background, the PLO subsequently changed much of its strategies and policies. For example, by 1969, the PLO envisioned the possibility of a new solution to the problem of Palestine, one that satisfies the Palestinian need for self-determination and, at the same time, recognizes the reality of Jewish presence on Arab land. By then, the objective of the PLO became focused on establishing what became known as a democratic, progressive, secular state in Palestine, in which Arabs and Jews would live together in one state.

The More Territorially Limited Conception of Statehood

At the 1971 Palestinian National Council (PNC), the idea of a democratic state became the official policy of the PLO.10 The proposal called for the creation of a non-sectarian state in which all Jewish residents who came to Palestine before 1947 would become citizens. However, the new proposal of the democratic Palestinian state did not openly negate the earlier PLO strategy of liberating the whole of Palestine through armed struggle.11 Despite the lack of clear changes in policies, the proposal was historically important specifically because it amended Article 6 of the National Charter, which had excluded Jews who came to Palestine after the 1917 Balfour Declaration. The new proposal entitled Jews not only to Palestinian citizenship, but also to the same rights as Muslim and Christian Arabs living in the country.
Following the Jordanian civil war in September 1970 - known as Black September - when the PLO was kicked out of Jordan, and after its 1971 PNC proposal of a democratic state, it wanted to project a revolutionary, but less radical, image of itself in the Arab world and elsewhere. Its new emphasis on a democratic state aimed particularly at generating international support for itself and the Palestinian cause. As time went by, it eventually became more apparent for the PLO that it needed to introduce more changes before it could become accepted, regionally and internationally, as a representative of the Palestinian people.
The 1973 war induced the PLO to follow a new path that culminated in its acceptance of a compromise. After the war, the PLO became gradually more receptive to the idea of a comprehensive settlement to the conflict. At the time, the PLO leadership also realized the need to formulate policies responding to Henry Kissinger's diplomatic activities in the area, as well as the anticipated Geneva Convention of December 1973. These pressures placed the PLO leadership in the difficult position of having to choose between maintaining its commitment to its traditional revolutionary policy and working together with the Arab states and the world at large for a settlement that would not ignore Palestinian claims.
At this point, the PLO shifted towards the concept of the establishment of a mini-state idea on any part of liberated Palestine, as the organization's ultimate objective. Accordingly, the PLO sent out many signals expressing readiness to compromise as a means of achieving a resolution to the conflict. This helped to enhance the PLO's regional and international prestige and influence by the mid-1970s.12 From then on, the PLO's moderates were able to continue the transition from its early all-or-nothing approach to a new era in which the organization would seek to strengthen its diplomatic connections with the Arab states and the world at large.
Despite these moderate changes, over the years, the PLO lacked a clear and practical perception of its future Palestinian state. To a large extent, it failed to present a detailed picture of the kind of society it wanted to establish in a liberated Palestine. Instead, from 1964 until 1974, its goals were very simple, and largely focused on the "de-Zionization" of Israel. Another weakness is that the PLO had for a long time viewed armed struggle as strategy and not as tactics. The lack of clear changes in PLO strategy and tactics at the early phases of its development were, no doubt, often attributed to the uneasy alliance that existed within the ranks of the PLO. For example, in 1974, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) decided to form a "Rejectionist Front" to express its dissatisfaction with, and opposition to, the resolutions of the 11th session of the PNC meeting in Cairo on June 9, 1974, calling for the establishment of a Palestinian authority on any "liberated" part of Palestine.13 In fact, in 1974, the PLO adopted the concept of a "phased strategy" or the "policy of stages." This new program accepted the idea of creating a Palestinian national authority in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a first step toward solving the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Through its new direction, the PLO was transforming itself into a new political force in the Middle East that could not be ignored. It is generally believed that the roots of every major departure from radical PLO policies, or the moving away from the uncompromising line of the National Charter, can be found in the resolutions adopted at the 12th PNC in 1974.14 The direction of policy changes introduced by the PLO after that session was continued and accelerated in subsequent PNC meetings.
After 1977, the PLO's focus became more centered on securing the creation of an independent Palestinian national state in any part of Palestine, which was understood to mean the West Bank and Gaza. The 13th PNC of 1977 more clearly and explicitly called for the creation of a national state on the soil of the Palestinian homeland. At this point, it became clear that the PLO would accept the two-state solution. From then onward, the PLO was interested in finding a diplomatic solution to the conflict that would lead to such a goal. However, certain events in the region blocked this positive development in PLO policy. The Iraq-Iran war and the 1982 Lebanon war were to diminish the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the international arena. More importantly, the victory of Menachem Begin and his right-wing Likud coalition in the Israeli elections of 1977 turned PLO attention in other directions. As the new Likud government intensified its crackdown on PLO supporters in the occupied territories, the PLO was forced, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, to shift its strategy from aiming at the creation of a Palestinian state into adopting new defensive policies. It was primarily concerned with finding ways to secure and safeguard its military bases in Lebanon, and preserve its political status as representative of the Palestinian people. The idea of creating a Palestinian state was thus put on hold for many years to come.15
The PLO's expulsion from Beirut in the wake of the 1982 Lebanese war drove home the realization that the occupied territories were the last option from which it could operate. The new reality convinced the PLO leadership that their old liberationist-radical strategy had entered the realm of the impossible. As a consequence, they determined to shift PLO strategy toward diplomacy and to refocus attention on the occupied territories in order to achieve a political settlement to the conflict. In the 1980s, the PLO began pursuing an even more flexible policy regarding what had formerly been considered as the absolute right of Palestinians. The goals and means adopted aimed at formulating a moderate political approach focused on the creation of a Palestinian mini-state on parts of Palestinian territory, to wit, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Relegating the Palestinian Diaspora to the background by the mainstream leadership of the PLO was in itself a radical shift in the organization's political orientation.16 Ironically, the PLO, which historically was considered an organization of the Diaspora, became in the 1980s and 1990s exclusively connected with the West Bank and Gaza. Moderates from the occupied territories welcomed the PLO's political moderation and encouraged its leadership to accept a peaceful settlement to the conflict, if it ensured the creation of a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel. The PLO leadership decided, in the 1990s, to adopt numerous changes in the organization's general strategy and orientations, that eventually changed the PLO's entire attitude towards both Israel and the United States. In 1991 the PLO went to the Madrid peace conference to negotiate with Israel a peaceful settlement to the almost century-old conflict. The conference culminated in the signing in September 1993 of the Declaration of Principles between the PLO and Israel on mutual recognition and interim Palestinian self-government.
The staggering during the Netanyahu period of the peace process, coupled with a lack of economic prosperity in the Palestinian territories, has exacerbated a legitimacy crisis in Palestinian politics. The main source for PLO political legitimacy was previously derived from its radical ideologies and practices. The main issue that continues to challenge the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the territories nowadays has largely to do with the unfinished business of creating an independent Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel.


1. Brad E. O'Neill, "Toward a Typology of Political Terrorism: The Palestinian Resistance Movement," Journal of International Affairs (Spring/Summer 1978), p. 20.
2. "The Draft Constitution of the Palestine Liberation Organization," in Laqueur and Rubin (eds.), The Israeli-Arab Reader (N.Y.: Penguin, 1984), p. 131.
3. Arnold Toynbee, The Palestine Question: A Brief History (N.Y.: The Arab Information Center, 1980), p. 22.
4. The Palestine National Covenant, Article 5.
5. Ibid., Article 2.
6. Ibid., Article 7.
7. Ibid., Article 19.
8. The Palestine National Charter, Article 12.
9. Y. Harkabi, The Palestinian Covenant and Its Meaning (London: Valentine, Mitchell, 1981), pp. 9-28.
10. Al-Wathaiq al-Filastiniyeh (Beirut: PLO Research Center, 1971), pp. 8-12.
11. Mohammad Rashid, Toward a Democratic State in Palestine (Beirut: PLO Research Center, November 1970), summary.
12. Moshe Ma'oz, "New Attitudes of the PLO Regarding Palestine and Israel," Ben-Dor (ed.), The Palestinians and the Middle East Conflict (Haifa: Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, 1976), p. 549.
13. The 12th Palestine National Council Resolutions, Al-Kitab al-Sanawee, 1974 (Beirut: PLO Research Center).
14. Rashid Khalidi, "The Resolutions of the 19th Palestine National Council," Journal of Palestine Studies, 74 (Winter 1990), p. 39.
15. Hussam Mohamad, "Palestinian Politics on the Defensive," Scandinavian Journal of Development Alternatives (Vol. 16, No. 3 & 4, 1997), pp. 185-214.
16. Samih Farsoun and C. Zachary, Palestine and the Palestinians (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997).