For two consecutive days (30-31 May 2006), al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations held a roundtable discussion entitled: The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO): Evaluating the Experience and the Efforts of Reconstruction. The discussion was held at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Beirut, Lebanon. The opening speech, given by Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh, Director of al-Zaytouna Centre, laid the foundations for this roundtable discussion that comes at the forty second anniversary of the PLO. The PLO was established in 1964, and was aimed at representing the Palestinian national identity and Palestinians’ desire to freedom, liberation, return, and independence. Mohsen added that the reconstruction of the PLO is currently one of the most heated discussions within the Palestinian issue, as the Palestinians stand at a crossroads and they should decide. Either they proceed in the reformation of the internal Palestinian order, reach a common national Palestinian program, agree on principles of peaceful transfer of authority, on the sanctity of the Palestinian blood, and on achieving the highest standards of transparency, as well as employing all potentials in all fields toward a real national mobilization to face the Zionist project; or, their second option would be to continue with the current situation of deterioration and corruption, that is not only further deteriorating the Palestinian situation, but also being employed by the Israeli side to impose its conditions and set new facts on the ground.
The first session was moderated by Mohamed Suwaid, where two papers were presented. In the first paper, Shafiq Al-Hoot, former PLO representative in Lebanon, gave a general briefing of the PLO in the past and present, considering this a necessary step to draw lessons and direct the aspirations of the organization. He said that a common language must be found between all sides around the organizational terms as a starting point: which liberation organization are we to talk about? Which homeland? Which nation? He wondered about the aim of speaking about the right to return and ignoring the talk about the right to liberate. In Shafiq’s view, Palestinians need a new reorganization that acknowledges plurality and transfer of authority, and that would be the sole united national authority as a decision maker. He insisted on the necessity of reclaiming the PLO organization as such, especially given its strong Arab and international credit, and the fact that all rebellion factions – except Hamas and Jihad – have worked within its frame for decades and so it must have the experience required to make the necessary transformation process. His emphasis was that any solution that comes near changing Palestinian fixed principles is unanimously rejected. He also called on a mobilization of the Palestinian people for persistence and resistance facing the worst likely scenarios, warning about scenarios of dividing the Palestinian nation into “nations”, and called the Palestinians to refrain from all the attempts of pressuring the Diaspora to stray from the national values. His final call was for all Palestinian factions and powers to form a preliminary committee to formulate a common conception of a method for reviving the PLO.
The second paper was entitled “The Development of the Palestinian Awareness Concerning the PLO” by Nafed Abu Hasana. Abu Hasna discussed the construction of the organization and accompanying streams and stances. He then went through the PLO situation between the stages of formulation and the second Nakba, discussing the changes that came over its structure and programs, the effect of the intifada and the accompanying rise of Islamic movements on the PLO. He didn’t fail to mention the deadlock inflicting the organization after Oslo Accords and stressed the need to launch its reconstruction on the basis of a clear national program, that it (i.e. the PLO) would also be the tool for achieving this program. Abu Hasna then stressed that this is what the Palestinian people want from the organization, especially at this time when all powers have gathered around the PLO, and so it is the only haven to resort to for a reconstruction of the Palestinian political system. This step would be aimed at avoiding the intensification of a decisive conflict between the organization – an aged and corrupted institution- and the people who are still banished or under occupation.
The second session was moderated by Dr. Nuwayhid Al-Hoot, and included three papers.
Dr. Tayseer al-Khattab presented his paper entitled “A Critical Reading of the National Charter – Toward a Common National Charter”. In the paper, Tayseer said that the current incidents affirm the importance of reconstructing the PLO on a new basis, and reformulating a national Palestinian charter, or agreeing on verifying the national Palestinian charter before nullifying some of its items in response to U.S pressures. The only means to achieve this is clear specific mechanisms and accurate measures, that avoid severing the Palestinian issue into a certain group or faction, and avoid differentiations between Palestinians striving in Palestine and refugees outside. A genuine role in formulating this project should be given to intellectuals, educated elites, and Palestinian civil organizations inside and outside Palestine.
The fourth paper was presented by Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh under the title of “The National Palestinian Council: Reformulation and Just Representation”. In the paper, Saleh called the Palestinians from different factions and sectors to attempt reaching a joint national program that enables them to work within a unified institutional establishment. He also called for them to agree on a charter that emphasizes the sanctity of Palestinian blood and the peaceful transfer of authority; and to activate the PLO and its institutions, and emphasize the principle of accountability and transparency; A specific time frame must be set, that leads – as soon as possible – to the rearrangement of the Palestinian internal order. Saleh added that an efficient superior committee must be established with real executive practical authorities to make the necessary arrangements for establishing a new Palestinian National Council (PNC). Local regional committees must also be established in different countries to prepare for an election of their representatives in the National Council. The superior committee would also encourage all civil society organizations at home and abroad to play their part in raising awareness, and forming pressure groups toward the formulation of a national council that truly represents the Palestinian people. Saleh also called for coordination with governments, official regimes, and academic research institutes concerned with the Palestinian issue to provide statistics of the numbers of Palestinians, register them and arrange for their participation in national council elections.
The third and final paper in this session was presented by Dr. Ahmed Said Nofal, professor of political science at al-Yarmouk University in Jordan. Nofal’s paper was entitled “Towards a Proper Relation between the PLO and the Palestinian Authority (PA),” where he emphasized the necessity of holding to the national Palestinian values regarding all aspects of the Palestinian issue, and called for the rearrangement of the national roles that would be the responsibility of the PLO. This should take into consideration the new realities within the current Palestinian political system. In addition, a consensus should be reached on a national program on common grounds for all active Palestinian factions, in proportion to its relative activity and presence in the Palestinian sphere. Saleh also suggested distributing the national council seats among the Palestinians in the West Bank (WB), Gaza Strip (GS) and the Diaspora; and formulating a new convention for the PLO to be decided by the elected majority inside the national council and the executive committee following the formulation of the new national council and the integration of both Hamas and Jihad movements into the organization. According to Saleh, it is indispensable that the organization should be empowered through its institutions, in order to decide policies, plan moves and mobilize and employ the Palestinian potentials effectively. Such empowerment would strengthen the PA at home and establish it as the main authority in the Palestinian issue as the case was before the Oslo Accords. It is also necessary to separate the presidency of the PA from the presidency of the executive PLO committee, and to define the authorities of each of the PA presidency and government; and also those of the national council of the PLO and the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC).
The last session for day one of the conference, was moderated by Dr. Azzam Al-Tamimi, and included also three papers. Mounir Shafiq first started with his paper entitled “The Palestine Liberation Organization and the Experience of the National Palestinian Unity: Managing the Internal Affairs”. Shafiq considered that the only solution possible away from any unethical bargaining by any side and away from the search for ambiguous phrasing or contradictory points, is the program that responds to the so-called “final status” or “unilateral disengagement”. In a nutshell, this program stands for bringing down the apartheid separation wall, dissolving the settlements, saving Jerusalem and the Islamic and Christian holy places, preventing the settlement in al-Aghwar, and forcing the occupation to drawback behind the 1949 Green Line – or what is referred to as lines before 5 June 1967 – with a stress on maintaining the right of return.
According to Shafiq, if this is achieved, a state can be declared on free, independent land. Only then can each side of the negotiations have their say concerning the later program in light of the end results of the program mentioned above. Following the setting of the goals of the program, there should be a definition of the strategic and tactical measures to be followed in order to achieve it. Here it is possible to agree on the appropriate resistance forms on the Palestinian, Arab, Islamic, third world, and international levels. This includes the agreement also on a unified leadership such as the supervising and follow-up committee at home and abroad. Shafiq saw that no one can claim to disagree on these points, or claim that this program is specific to a faction that seeks to impose itself on others. This program is truly the common factor, even the direct response, to the challenges facing the Palestinian people at this stage like “imposing the wall solution”. This program also preserves for every faction additional elements that form its identity and structural program. Every faction has more than this to say but they cannot impose it if they want national unity, agreement on the common, and response to outstanding challenges; and hence the need to reconstruct the PLO, activate it, and define its relation with the PA, or rather correcting the relation that was established between them after the Oslo Accords, when the government that was formed imposed its will on the PLO, rather than the opposite.
The following paper was presented by Saqr Abu Fakhr under the title “Institution Management in the PLO: Intellectual Freedom and Freedom of Academic Research – The PLO Research and Planning Centres as Two Examples”. Saqr firstly admitted the undeniable bright contributions of research done at the PLO Research Centre or at the Planning Centre. The founding period of the two centres was probably the most significant period of contribution, but that period lasted no more than ten years in both cases. Yet, the debility period was not brought about by the fragility of willpower or interventions from the political leadership, but primarily by the breaking out of the Lebanese civil war. Working in a civil war environment causes the research and planning to move down from a priority position, not to mention the many cadres who couldn’t continue in the unsettled situation and left the PLO institutions to go abroad. However, no wonder if the organization’s institutions weren’t able to set down deep-rooted traditions in academic research, and if they were not able to protect their existing institutions then such as the research centre, but it is legitimate to wonder why the other organizations that received millions of dollars from Iraq, Libya, and Algeria, were unable to establish even one reputable centre despite their repeated attempts.
The last paper in this session was presented by Dr. Salman Abu Sitta under the title “The Palestinian Liberation Organization and Managing the Issue of the Refugees”. Abu Sitta mentioned four pillars on which to base the activation of demanding the refugees’ rights. The first basis is the election of a PNC on democratic and honourable basis, and from that an executive committee for the PLO, that gives the issue of the refugees a top priority in efforts. The second basis is reviving national culture in upbringing generations, along with emphasizing the culture of return. The third basis is to further activate the role of the civil society among refugees at home and abroad as well as arranging it into effective popular institutions. The fourth basis is to consolidate relations with international circles; both popular and official ones.
On the next day, Wednesday the 31st of May, the roundtable discussions were resumed.
The fourth session was moderated by Dr. Adnan al-Sayyed Hussein, and started with the contribution of Helmy Moussa, analyst of Israeli affairs. Moussa’s paper was entitled “The Palestinian Liberation Organization and Managing Negotiations with Israel”. In this paper, Moussa observed that the organization’s tendency toward settlement was in fact an admission of failure, not only of resistance as means, but of the whole idea of a common Arab fate. Talking about negotiations between the PA and Israel, Moussa said that we can’t ignore the fact that the Palestinian political system as a whole was under a solitary individualistic leadership that reflected on all its professional aspects. Many times the decisions of councils and official agencies were in one direction and the negotiation acts were a in a completely different direction. Worse still, the organization was forced – for the sake of being internationally recognized – to give prior agreement and commitment to live “with Israel, having safe and recognized borders”, and to dismiss “individual and collective violence” and never resort to that. Then Moussa pointed out that the rise of Hamas, to head the Palestinian government, and enjoy the majority of parliament seats, created a new situation that is hard to disclose within the context of Palestinian negotiations. Although it is true that the latter remained under the authority of the PLO, the presence of a Palestinian government headed by Hamas undoubtedly raised questions around the extent of this authority.
Following this, Jawad al-Hamad presented the paper entitled “The Palestinian Liberation Organization and Managing the Palestinian-Arab Relations” on behalf of Dr. Mohamed al-Sayyed Sa’id, deputy director of al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. The paper suggested focusing the Palestinian efforts on the issue of Globalizing the Palestinian just cause and struggle, i.e., making it a common responsibility for all nations and cultural systems. Al-Hamad confirmed that this process requires major efforts, in formulating the proper strategies and solving the many complications that may be faced. He added that as soon as the national Palestinian movement and the PLO become more developed, and also as the above mentioned process of globalization advances, it will make possible the correction of the Palestinian relations with Arab regimes and Arab societies.
Under the title of “Towards a New International Diplomacy for the Palestinian Liberation Organization,” Dr. Abdullah Al-Ash`al presented his paper. The paper evaluated the development of the organization and its international relations, and analysed its legal nature within the context of managing the Palestinian international relations, as well as its relation to the Palestinian National Authority, including various bodies and institutions. The paper also proposed a projected view about the diplomacy that will enable the PLO to recover the Palestinian issue from all the deterioration it currently suffers because of the successful Israeli diplomacy. Abdullah said that the organization was considered internationally at a rank much higher than a national liberation movement; it represented the government of Palestinian exile, of a country in the stage of formation that had the cornerstones of a state: namely, a nation, which Israel targeted with homicide, and land, which Israel targeted with seizures. The organization was also the political authority, with nothing separating Palestine from becoming a state except occupation, just as nothing separated the organization from the people and land before Oslo except Israel’s refusal to recognize it. Al-Ash’al noted that the legal situation is important in this concern since it highlights the relation between the PLO and the Palestinian National Authority, and thus basically the fate of the organization. Hamas government, he added, is not the authority that decides whether to recognize Israel or no, and the PLO has already initially recognized Israel an preliminary recognition. Thus, insisting on Hamas to recognize Israel is merely an excuse to escape the demand of a genuine settlement. He finally pointed out that the dual performance of Hamas and the PLO, in the field of foreign policy and affairs, could cause confusion and consequently weaken the Palestinian representation abroad; a fact that makes complete coordination between these major Palestinian institutions a must.
The fifth session of the discussion was on the reconstruction of the PLO from the various Palestinian factions’ points of view. This session was moderated by Dr. Hasan Nafe`ah.
In this frame, Fat’hi Abu al-`Ardat started with presenting the view of Fatah. He called to the speedy implementation of the points agreed upon in March 2005 in Cairo, on the issue of developing and reactivating the PLO; integrating Hamas and Jihad movement under the organization’s umbrella, since it is the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and in accordance with the changes on the Palestinian scene, on democratic basis; and emphasizing the organization’s status and role, as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians everywhere. Al-‘Ardat said that the Palestinian National interest demands the formation of a new PNC by the end of 2006, that is representative, on a proportional basis, of the various Palestinian powers, factions, national and Islamic parties, as well as Palestinian communities in all places, and various sectors, unions, popular organizations, institutions, and associations.
Then Usama Hamdan presented the view of Hamas on the issue of reconstructing the PLO. He stressed the importance of putting together the national Palestinian charter on the basis of emphasizing the national Palestinian values (the land, national identity, the establishment of a full sovereign Palestinian state, the right of return, the right of self-determination, Jerusalem, and the right of resistance); and also emphasizing the Arab and Islamic dimension of the Palestinian issue; taking into account the changes that have occurred since 1968 when the current charter was written; and reconsidering the compromises that have damaged the national cause and cancelling them. Hamdan called for adopting the concept of free and direct elections in selecting the members and leaders of the PLO; cancelling the quota system; and complete separation between the PLO and PA, thus separating the institutions and the positions of responsibility, and defining the responsibilities and authorities of each side. The core distinction, according to Hamdan, is that the PLO is the highest authority for the Palestinian people that manages the conflict with the Zionist enemy, while the PA manages the affairs and conditions of the West Bank and Gaza Strip citizens only. Hamdan also called for reconsidering the basic law and subsidiary regulations, and for cancelling intermediary mechanisms and especially the central council. He pointed out to the necessity of activating the embassies and representatives abroad to protect the interests of the Palestinian Diaspora, take care of its affairs and defend its national rights.
In the last discussion session moderated by Waleed Mohamed Ali, Marwan Abdel-`Al presented the vision of the Popular Front on reconstructing the organization. He anticipated that the issue would be resolved through a comprehensive national dialogue, that builds up on the established national values, and is regulated in specific rules and regulations. The participants in this dialogue should have the desire to make the dialogue successful rather then the mere desire to dialogue or manage the dialogue. Such conditions are necessary to face upcoming threats and challenges, internal and external ones. Concluding, Abdel-‘Al called for the reconstruction of the PLO on plural, democratic, and solid unified basis, with real collective political partnership and active indicative representation of the various Palestinian forces, communities and potentials.
The vision of the Jihad movement was presented by Dr. Anwar Abu Taha, who expressed the need for a new National Palestinian Charter that takes into consideration the Islamic dimension of the Palestinian issue and reflects a more contemporary view of the Palestinian issue. According to Abu Taha, the decisions of the previous national councils were the result of the political will that was prevalent then, and no logic would justify their application till now on the Palestinians; thus, the implied relapse in these decisions is also a part of the past, a political instance that ended. They are not a sacred inescapable or unchangeable heritage. He added that the reconstruction of the PLO means that the organization’s political program must reflect the visions of the constituent parties; thus, the inclusion of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the organization implies changing the current political program of the PLO, for it to become representative of the willpower of the Palestinian people. Abu Taha considered that the reconstruction requires involving a complete disengagement and separation between the PLO and PA, not only in the positions but by eliminating all forms of interventions, because the PA has specific roles, although not agreed on, but by all means the PA should be under the supervision of the PLO, and not the opposite. The PA don’t have the right or authority to impose its program on the PLO, nor should it abuse the PLO and its institutions.
The last paper in the discussion presented the vision of the Democratic Front on the PLO reconstruction issue and was presented by Suhail An-Natoor. He mention the following as the requirements: activation and development of the PLO institutions; implementation of the Cairo Declaration in this regard, and within a binding time frame that includes an immediate meeting of the supreme committee formed by the chairman and members of the executive committee, the president of the parliament and the secretary generals of Palestinian factions; then find a temporary phrasing that guarantees participation of all Palestinian political powers including Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the organization; form the new PNC through democratic elections with proportional representation; achieving national consensus on the representation form that will take place for the areas of refuge and Diaspora where elections are hard to occur; developing the performance and achievement of the refugee affairs department in the PLO, whereby all factions would participate in its management and decision-making/ planning; forming a unified national authority for the city of Jerusalem; activating the various departments of the PLO; reviving the Palestinian National Fund and separating it from the PA treasury; and working on unifying the various syndicates and popular unions, while also reconstructing them on democratic basis with elections that also credit the proportional representation principle.