In the spring of 1964, while the Vietnam War was underway, the space program had brought close up photos of the moon, and the Beatles were topping the charts; the Arab League convened to try and find a way to complete the ethnic cleansing of Jews from Israel. They had tried it once before in 1948, with incomplete results. Back then, the Arab forces had managed to capture and ethnically cleanse the eastern half of Jerusalem, as well as seizing and annexing the West Bank and Gaza. But for 16 years, Israel had managed to frustrate their designs by stubbornly continuing to exist.
What the Arab governments wanted was a terrorist organization that could cross the border and carry out attacks inside Israel. And they wanted plausible deniability so that Israel and the UN couldn't hold them responsible for those attacks. And so cloaked in a lot of smoke and mirrors about "Palestinian Arab nationhood", the Palestine Liberation Organization was born. The PLO had three tasks, to harass Israel through terror, to cultivate a fifth column inside the country that would come into play in an invasion, and to make it seem as if the Arab world wasn't a bunch of genocidal maniacs, but wanted to destroy Israel in the name of "Palestinian rights".
The Arab League had never believed in an independent Palestinian state. Even while they were creating the PLO, Jordan had already annexed the West Bank. And Gaza was in Egyptian hands. The PLO's purpose was not to liberate these areas, or even to govern them. Its own charter made that abundantly clear.
Article 24. This Organization does not exercise any regional sovereignty over the West Bank in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, in the Gaza Strip or the Himmah area. Its activities will be on the national popular level in the liberational, organizational, political and financial fields.
The PLO's own founding charter had already conceded that the West Bank was not part of Palestine, and instead recognized Jordan's annexation of the area. When the PLO talked about "liberating" Palestine, it only meant the parts of Israel that the Arab League members had not succeeded in seizing in 1948. When the PLO talked about liberating Palestine, up until 1967, it had nothing to do with the West Bank or Gaza, it simply meant destroying Israel.
It was not until 1967, when the latest Arab League attempt to "drive the Jews into the sea" failed, that the PLO began talking about their rights to Gaza and the West Bank. Previously they had staged terrorist attacks on Israel from bases in Gaza and the West Bank, under the sponsorship of Egypt and Jordan. After Israel reclaimed Gaza and the West Bank, and reversed the ethnic cleansing of Jews carried out in 1948, the PLO began focusing on the territories that their sponsors had lost in 1967, rather than just those they had lost in 1948.
From its founding, the PLO had always been a tool of larger movements in the Arab Muslim world. It began as a tool of Arab Socialism, and Pan-Arabism, the dream of a single Arab state encompassing the entire Arab world. An Arab socialist Caliphate. Even while agitating for the Palestinian cause, Shukairy went on promoting Pan-Arabism, in which there would be no independent Palestine. But then again an independent Palestine had never been the point.
By the 70's and 80's, the PLO had become a poisoned knife that cut the hands of its wielders. This is the common enough fate of those who create terrorist groups and imagine that they can control them. The PLO had managed to commit a number of terrorist atrocities in Israel, and Arafat, the 3rd successor to Shukairy, had become a household name. But it had achieved nothing except headlines.
In the seventies, the PLO attempted to seize control of part of Jordan, which after all had comprised the majority of the Palestine Mandate. But the PLO was brutally suppressed by the Jordanian regime of King Hussein, and was expelled from the country. It tried the same thing again in Beirut a few years later, trying to carve a "Second Palestine" out of Lebanon. It failed again, with horrifying results for the entire country.
By the late eighties, the PLO was done. Egypt had made a peace deal with Israel. Jordan had a tacit understanding with Israel under the table. Syria was the only Arab country bordering Israel that was still somewhat supportive of the PLO, but it had little use for the PLO as a terrorist organization inside Israel, because the PLO was Arab, and the Golan Heights which Syria hoped to conquer was Druze. Instead Syria was far more interested in using the PLO to spread chaos in Lebanon for its own purposes.
Had Israeli and American leaders not chosen to engage in act of breathtaking stupidity bordering on treason, the PLO would have faded away by now, much the same way that Habash's PFLP has. Its Arab Socialism was already dated. It had been created to pave the way for another invasion of Israel by the Arab Powers that after 1973 seemed to be permanently on hold. After Jordan and Lebanon, no one in the Arab world trusted Arafat anymore. And with the Soviet Union in decline, the PLO was swiftly running out of backers. In a better world, by 2004, Arafat's death would been a historical footnote putting an end to what had once been a serious terrorist threat.
But instead the PLO was rescued, given its own state and army, along with billions of dollars from the United States and Europe. A terrorist organization created in order to destroy Israel, that had been brutally expelled from two Arab countries, was given its own autonomous territory inside Israel. Words like madness and treason are almost too good and rational a description for this course of action. But corruption is the only one that properly suits.
In the late eighties, the PLO had become a weapon without a wielder. The PLO had gained its influence from its ability to cause chaos, but Israel's intervention in Lebanon had robbed it of even that. While the foreign press couldn't get enough photos of masked stone throwers onto their front pages, the reality is that the PLO's influence existed mainly in the media. The PLO had come full circle, to become just as irrelevant as it had been in 1964. But then the United States decided that it could become the PLO's wielder.
In 1991, the US pressured a conservative Israeli government into participating in the Madrid Conference. The negotiations failed to achieve anything, but for the first time Israel was forced to negotiate with terrorists. Israel's conservative government collapsed, and was replaced with a left wing coalition that conducted further illegal negotiations with the PLO. Those negotiations ratified under Clinton's benevolent smirk in the Rose Garden, brought the PLO back with a vengeance.
Given territory and troops, Arafat reverted back to his old formula. He would cause chaos through terrorism in order to gain more power. The plan worked like a charm. Arafat recognized that Arab Socialism was done, and he Islamized the Palestinian Authority. The educational system under the authority of the PA taught a primal Islamic hatred for Jews and other infidels. The cult of the suicide bomber provided religious authority to support PLO terrorism. And what had been a mild terrorist problem before Arafat was given a state inside Israel, became a horrifying nightmare afterward.
Via Fatah, the PLO was treated as a political party. Through Fatah's control over the Palestinian Authority, it was treated as a government. Terrorist attacks were attributed to various "extremist" or "militant" subgroups, whom naturally Arafat couldn't control. Even though Arafat's own militias were engaging in terrorism, the US pretended that it had nothing to do with Arafat or the PA or Fatah. Just more "extremists" and "militants" trying to disrupt the peace process. A process which involved Israel making concessions while under fire.
Clinton had taken ownership of the accords, and predictably refused to admit that anything was wrong, until the very end, when Arafat laughed at his dreams of a final status agreement. Only then did Clinton belatedly realize that Arafat was not interested in peace. But then why would Arafat have ever been interested in peace? The PLO was a terrorist organization. Its ideology called for the destruction of Israel. It gained nothing from peace, except the end of its legitimacy.
The new Bush Administration initially got it. It treated Arafat as a pariah, and avoided the constant drumbeat of criticism and demands for concessions from Israel that had been common under Clinton. Colin Powell as Secretary of State had little power and influence over Bush, and was in any case busy with the War on Terror. Once again the PLO seemed to have reached a dead end. Without American political influence protecting Arafat, Israel was able to respond to PLO terrorism by smashing into Arafat's compound and seizing important documents that showed Arafat's involvement in terrorism.
But in 2004 Arafat died. Colin Powell announced his resignation that same year. The old Bush Dream Team of people like Rumsfeld and Cheney lost their influence. And the new single most influential figure was the new Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. Rice had been heavily influenced by James Baker, the architect of the Madrid disaster. She had been a board member of Chevron, a company that had been formerly known as the Arabian American Oil Company or ARAMCO. Like Baker, Rice was an eager tool of the Saudis, and the old foreign policy came back with a vengeance.
The PLO's prospects were revived again under Rice. The death of Arafat had brought forward a seemingly more suitable replacement. Mahmoud Abbas, a KGB trained operative, had become a useful compromise candidate. Abbas wore a suit, spoke softly and was generally considered ineffectual and useless by potential rivals who allowed him to hold the top spot as a figurehead. Bush Jr liked Abbas a good deal more than he had liked Arafat. Once again weapons and money began flowing to the PLO. And once again Israel was pressured to make more concessions to the terrorists.
There was one problem. The PLO had become a hollow shell. The Palestinian Authority government that the US and the EU had spent billions on, was nothing more than a facade. The real money was going into the bank accounts of top officials and used to buy the loyalty of street militias. But money wasn't enough anymore. And the tide was coming in.
Arafat had accurately foreseen that Islamic terrorism was the future, but he hadn't hopped far enough or fast enough on the bandwagon. Hamas had gotten there before him. And Hamas had its own sources of financing and weapons, primarily from Iran. Like the PLO, Hamas was a weapon, but not of Pan-Arabism, but of Pan-Islamism. Hamas had been carved out of the Muslim Brotherhood, its ideal was that of the Caliphate, its mission was Jihad or religious war. Like the PLO, Hamas did not take the idea of Palestinian independence seriously. But unlike the PLO, its allegiance to a Global Caliphate was part of a rising tide of Islamic terrorism.
Hamas was a weapon with a purpose. The PLO no longer had a purpose anymore. As Fatah, it bought loyalty with American dollars and European euros. As the PA, it denounced Israel and demanded negotiations which it had no interest in participating in. Its only real backers anymore were in Washington D.C. and in Brussels, which meant that it had become the foreign element in the region. When Rice pushed for open elections, Hamas won, and Fatah lost. When Rice pushed Abbas to suppress Hamas, the militias that had been happy to take American dollars, ran as fast as they could. Hamas took Gaza. And Abbas has been left sitting in Ramallah, while pretending to run a state.
And so now we come to the latest turn of the wheel. The PLO is reaching the very end of its relevance. There is no chance whatsoever of Fatah retaking Gaza. The only reason Hamas hasn't taken the West Bank, is because Israeli soldiers are in the way. But Israel's blockade of Gaza, has allowed Hamas to build ties with Western anti-war groups. Regionally, Egypt is still backing Fatah, but Erdogan's Turkey has thrown its weight behind Hamas. Syria and Iran are heavy Hamas supporters.
There are only so many ways this can play out. The likeliest of them is that some key Fatah leaders will broker a compromise with Hamas, and change sides. Iranian money will be used to buy the loyalty of key militias. There will be a few days of light fighting, followed by a few hundred executions. Maybe more. And then Hamas will rule in both Gaza and the West Bank. No amount of effort by American generals to train Palestinian Authority "police" will change that. And extracting concessions from Israel will only put more territory in the hands of Hamas.
But US foreign policy on Palestine has never been based on any kind of reality. In Washington D.C., they're certain that Salam Fayyad's reforms will fix everything. That all Abbas needs is a "modern" police force and the situation will reverse itself. Of course it will not. And any attempt at another election will quickly show why. Meanwhile the refusal to hold elections, exposes Abbas and Fayyad as a sham, a puppet regime without any legal authority.
So naturally in the face of all this, Abbas is declaring statehood. It's an insane last gamble by a leader with a vanishing base of authority and no real future. Instead of stepping back though, Abbas and Fayyad are playing out their final gamble at the UN.
Abbas doesn't represent anyone, except the militias and bureaucracy that he pays with US and EU money. His term has expired. He has no legal status for conducting any negotiations. But you won't read that in the press, which takes great care to blame Netanyahu for delaying negotiations, when in fact it was Abbas who repeatedly rejected direct talks, primarily because they may well end up being his death warrant.
The media and the Obama Administration remain wired into a purely "Blame Israel" mode. One story after another insists that the main obstacle to peace is a few private Israeli homes going up in Jerusalem or Judea and Samaria. It is as if Hamas' control of Gaza doesn't exist for them. The elephant in the room armed with rockets and suicide bombers, controlling all of Gaza, might as well be a non-issue, as far as they're concerned. No one in the media asks when was the last time Abbas won an election. A minor issue that goes to the minor question of whether Abbas is even actually empowered to reach any binding agreements.
It might be 2011, but it might as well be 1996 or 2003 or any year in between. Except that the PLO's power is about done. The negotiations don't matter. Abbas will do his best to see that they fail, because it's the only way he can survive his own people. And he needs to have the blame for the failure fall on Israel, because it's the only way he can hang on to US and European support. As usual, nothing Israel can do will work, and whatever it does, it will get the blame. The media will go on chattering about settlements, as if that were the endgame here.
Statehood is a fiction that will move more money into the pockets of the Fatah elite, but it's also a double-edged sword. Fatah's only defense against a Hamas takeover is that it can extract territory through negotiations-- something Hamas cannot do because it refuses to negotiate for anything but temporary truces. A unilateral statehood declaration, if taken seriously, would also mean the end of negotiations. That's something Abbas can't afford because then his usefulness to Hamas is at an end.
Abbas needs Israel to keep from being overrun by Hamas, but he needs Hamas to keep his image as the moderate alternative to those crazy guys in Gaza. The balancing act has drawn billions in foreign aid, but infuriated everyone. Now Abbas is playing an even more dangerous game, going for broke to shake down Israel and the world into giving him some breathing room. It's a desperate move, but it may also work in the short term. In the long term though, the whole shebang is still doomed.
The Palestinian Authority is not a government, it's a terrorist organization in suits and ties. It has shown that it is not self-supporting and not capable of running anything besides a rocket launcher. It existed only as long as it was useful to someone.
The PLO began life because it was useful to the Syrians and Egyptians. When they no longer wanted it, it was still useful to the USSR. When the USSR no longer wanted it, it became useful to America. But now it's running out of sponsors.
The United States has been funding the Palestinian Authority since 1992 and it has gotten nothing for it, and while the foreign policy establishment insists on blaming Israel for that, there's only so long that game can go as well. The Bush Administration dumped Arafat and Abbas knows that sooner or later his turn will come. With no more options, no ability to reach a final status agreement and Western patrons whose foreign aid budgets will start tightening in the face of the bankruptcy, he is playing his only remaining card.
Either way the Palestinian myth is on the verge of flickering out. Hamas may talk about Palestinian rights, but it has even less interest in them than the PLO did. Hamas was spawned by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Its goal is an Islamic state in Egypt and Gaza, and then all of Israel. It has replaced the Pan-Arabism of a Shukairy with a Pan-Islamism, that it meant to lead to a Global Caliphate. The leaders of Hamas are no less corrupt than Arafat's cronies were, but it will take longer for the average Israeli Arab to figure that out.
The Arab and Muslim world has made very effective use of Israeli Arabs as terrorists and bullies. From the Lebanese Civil War, to the streets of Iran, where Palestinian Arab terrorists are being used as snipers and gunmen to suppress protests against Ahmadinejad, they have always been weapons. Ideology has served to frame a mythical Palestinian identity for them in terms that make them all into mercenaries, terrorists and martyrs. Where Israel took in Jewish refugees, the Arab world deliberately perpetuated an Arab refugee problem in order to turn them into weapons. Once they were the weapons of Arab Socialism. Now they are the weapons of Islam.