On the face of it, it appears absurd that tiny, disarmed and occupied Palestine would threaten to derecognize Israel, the Middle East’s dominant military power and the United States closest ally in the region. However, this is exactly what happened last Monday when the PLO’s Central Council recommended to its executive committee that the PLO suspend recognition of Israel until the latter reciprocates by recognizing the state of Palestine. Although this recommendation was in part a response to President Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, its roots go back to deep Palestinian frustration with the Israeli policies since the Oslo Accords of 1993, which have thwarted the emergence of a viable, independent Palestinian state next to Israel.
As stated above, President Trump’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem acted as a catalyst leading to this recommendation. It did so by finally removing the veneer of relative impartiality that the United States had donned toward the Israel-Palestine conflict. This was clear to most close observers of the conflict, but the fiction had been maintained in order to justify America’s role as “honest” mediator in the conflict. This narrative was convenient for both parties: the Israelis benefited directly from U.S. mediation as the mediator made every effort to protect Israel’s interests in the negotiations, sometimes even acting more Popish than the Pope to secure these interests.
The Palestinians stuck with this myth because as the much weaker party they had no other option, especially after the demise of the Soviet Union, except to collect the crumbs that fell from the U.S. table. This also suited the PLO/Fatah admirably since they could call on American, and therefore Israeli, support in intra-Palestinian disputes, especially in their rivalry with Hamas. However, with the Jerusalem decision the PLO/Fatah have finally recognized that their association with Washington has come at a very high cost both for the Palestinian cause and for their own credibility among the Palestinian people.
The more important fallout of President Trump’s decision is that it has forced the Palestinian leadership, especially the aging PLO bureaucrats, to revisit the fundamental error that they had committed by recognizing Israel without a reciprocal recognition by Israel of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. The PLO did so twice: first implicitly at a meeting of the Palestine National Council in Algiers in 1988 and then formally at the time of the Oslo Accord in 1993. All it got in return at Oslo was Israel’s recognition of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people.
Such recognition had become redundant by 1993 because King Hussein of Jordan had withdrawn his claim to represent the Palestinians several years ago and the PLO had been recognized by most of the international community as the representative of the Palestinian people. Other than buttressing Yasser Arafat’s ego, Israel’s recognition of the PLO did not do much more than temporarily enhancing its stature vis-à-vis competing Palestinian organizations. It did nothing as far as the recognition of a putative Palestinian state was concerned.
Arafat accepted this bargain despite advice to the contrary offered by many of his senior advisers. The late Edward Said, a foremost Palestinian intellectual termed the Oslo Accord “an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles.” Leading Middle East historian Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian himself, declared that the Oslo Accord and the resulting “ peace process ” was “not a structure that was designed to lead to a resolution of the conflict. This is actually conflict maintenance, at best, that the United States is engaged in.”
The essential logic behind such criticisms was that Arafat squandered his most important card—the Palestine National Movement’s recognition of Israel—without receiving anything substantial in return. He naively trusted his Israeli and American interlocutors to deliver the Palestinian state to him without getting them committed to the boundaries of such a state or indeed to the concept of a Palestinian state itself.
The Israelis having received the PLO’s recognition and secure in the power superiority they enjoyed over the PLO in the occupied territories were post-Oslo under no compulsion to stop Jewish settlements or genuinely work with the PLO to create a viable Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. The pace of Jewish settlements and of the erosion of the Palestinians’ residual autonomy accelerated with Benjamin Netanyahu’s accession to power first in the 1990s and again since 2009. As Israeli-British scholar Avi Shlaim declaimed in 2010, behind the charade of a peace process, “Netanyahu is like a man who, while negotiating the division of a pizza, continues to eat it.”
This week’s discussions at the PLO Central Council demonstrate that Arafat’s critics have been proven right even by the PLO’s own assessment. However, this admission still does not answer the question: What does the PLO intend to achieve by threatening to derecognize Israel? It is true that mere derecognition of Israel by the PLO is not going to substantively improve the Palestinian situation or immediately level the playing field. The PLO is too weak and Israel too strong for that to happen. However, this strategy, if implemented wisely and courageously, could be turned into a formidable political tool to advance Palestinian interests.