The Oslo Accords saved the PLO from extinction—both in the context of the 1990s and in the context of today. The PLO would have not have survived the Arab Storm, and if it were not for the Oslo Accords, which gave it a safe haven under Israeli protection, it would no longer exist.
I was in Tunis just before the accords were signed. It was after Arafat’s failed gamble of siding with Saddam Hussein against the world, led by the United States and including its Arab allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which until then had been the terror organization’s main financial backers but now turned against it. The resulting financial crisis was well evident: PLO offices had been closed and the various departments were now squeezed into small venues in which the organization’s activists sat crowded, one upon the other. When I went to meet Mamdouh Nofal of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, one of the PLO’s components, we went out to talk in the courtyard because there was no room for me to sit. Incidentally, the Communist Party was an exception. When I went to visit its leader Suleiman a-Najaf, he sat in his spacious office; apparently his funding sources in Moscow had not been affected by the Kuwait crisis and he was not financially dependent on Arafat.
In other words, the need to come to terms with the Oslo Accords also stemmed from the closing of the financial spigots; without money there can be no organization. A short time later, when we received word of the accords, I realized that the economic aspect had played a key role in Arafat’s decision. The renewal of the organization’s budgeting was a main focus of the behind-the-scenes contacts.
However, it then became clear, or should have become clear, that Arafat’s war to secure a budget did not bode well for his future intentions.
In Israel, two kinds of hopes were pinned on the Oslo Accords. According to one kind, Arafat would fight Hamas “without the Supreme Court and without B’Tselem”; according to the other, the PLO would cease to be a terror organization and would become a political party making its way toward statehood, working for the establishment of a civic state that would be an ally of Israel.
The restoration of the PLO’s budget was supposed to promote both of those objectives. Thus Israel allowed brigades of the Palestinian Liberation Army to move into the West Bank and Gaza from their bases in the Arab world, and consented to their armament so that they could fight Hamas. Nabil Shaath, one of the top PLO officials, said to me at that time, “You could have let a thousand businessmen and wealthy people enter, and instead you preferred 10,000 gunmen. From our standpoint you chose a military agreement, not a civic agreement. That, however, was also Arafat’s choice, and he may have influenced the decisions made in Israel, because Arafat fought very hard against the establishment of a Palestinian middle class and preferred a military entity.”
That emerged clearly in his war on the World Bank, which was supposed to spearhead the building of the infrastructure for Palestinian self-government and the anticipated civic state.
Immediately after a conference of the contributing countries was held in Washington, a World Bank delegation came to Tunis and was hosted in the posh Ibn Khaldun Hotel where it awaited a meeting with Arafat. Yet the invitation to the meeting did not materialize. When Arafat was asked by the Fatah leaders why he was not inviting the delegation “that came to help us,” he replied, “They didn’t come to help us, but themselves. Our rule in Palestine will be based on three factors: control of money, control of weapons, and control of media.”1
After the World Bank opened a branch at the Continental Hotel in East Jerusalem, a struggle was waged over the name of the entity that the World Bank was supposed to set up to manage the financial aid. Whereas the name that the World Bank chose was PEDRA—Palestinian Economic Development and Reconstruction Authority, Arafat insisted on the name PECDAR—Palestine Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction.2
What was the difference between the two names? Whereas PECDAR spoke of a “Council,” PEDRA spoke of an “Authority.” While “Council” was supposed to connote the economists’ independence of the political echelon, “Authority” was supposed to connote subordination to it. And whereas the World Bank used the term “Palestinian,” Arafat opted for “Palestine”; in other words, the World Bank was in no hurry to recognize Palestine as an existing entity, but Arafat wanted recognition of it here and now.
Why did the World Bank insist on an economic body that would not be subordinate to the Palestinian Authority? Because it had already realized from the abortive meeting in Tunis that Arafat was not aiming to lead the Palestinians to a true economic rehabilitation, which would entail creating a middle class on which the Palestinian economy would be based, but, instead, to mobilize funds for the PLO coffers only if he could also maintain an option to renew the terror.
Behind the scenes of the struggle over the name, a battle was fought over the PLO’s agreement to adopt the World Bank’s rules concerning “transparency and accountability.” Those requirements exacerbated the fears Arafat had voiced in the discussion in Tunis in which he had declined to meet with the World Bank officials. In the end, Arafat won. The World Bank’s requirements were rejected, and the council it had wanted to set up was not set up. Arafat’s Economic Authority was established in northern Jerusalem, and when I visited it right after it came into being, I saw pictures everywhere of Arafat, Abu Jihad, and the refugee camps. The message to all the contributing countries was that the old PLO was still alive and well, and it was not Palestinian statehood that Arafat sought but to implement the PLO’s Charter notwithstanding the promise to annul it. To underline that message Arafat pointed Farouk Kaddoumi, the radical opponent of the Oslo Accords, as president of PECDAR.
Arafat was able to force the World Bank’s hand because Israel sided with him, also rejecting the World Bank’s approach. When I asked a senior Israeli official who was involved in advancing the Oslo Accords to explain what all this meant, he replied, “It is impossible to fight terror with transparency and accountability.”
With the World Bank out of the picture, Israel opened a secret, special account for Arafat in Tel Aviv, and it put the PLO on its feet again—to the World Bank’s chagrin.3
Israel, in its naiveté, thought that with the money it had put in Arafat’s pocket, he would truly fight terror. But Arafat had other plans, which he disclosed to the radical journalist Abdel Bari Atwan. Although Atwan bitterly opposed the Oslo Accords, he was a supporter of Arafat. He revealed that, immediately after the accords were signed, Arafat told him that while he had had no choice, he did not intend to make peace but, instead, to build the terror apparatus that would ultimately drive the Jews from Palestine.4
But one did not have to know what Arafat had whispered into the ear of the radical journalist. Right after the accords were signed, Arafat himself spoke of “jihad” and the “continuing intifada.” Especially famous are his words in South Africa about the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, in which the Prophet Muhammad came to terms with his enemies in Mecca while aiming to accumulate power until he could conquer the infidel city.
In other words, the Oslo Accords not only saved the PLO as an organization; they also made it possible to renew the terror within Palestine.
From today’s standpoint, we can conclude that the PLO would not have survived the Arab Storm. Among the symbols of the past that the great storm washed away were the likes of President Mubarak of Egypt, President Ben Ali of Tunisia, and President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen. Until the advent of the Oslo Accords, the PLO’s approach was to control the territories at a safe distance so as not to get burned, while wielding its influence over the Palestinians living in them through financial incentives and terror.
In the early stage of the Arab Storm, the Muslim Brotherhood got an impressive boost and took control of traditional PLO strongholds such as Egypt and Tunisia. The PLO was the main movement that opposed the Muslim Brotherhood, and it seemed clear that, just as a group like Hamas had thrown Fatah operatives from the rooftops in Gaza, a similar fate would await PLO leaders in an Arab world conquered by their Islamist enemies.
In Syria that was indeed what happened in the Yarmouk camp. First the Al-Nusra Front, which incorporated the Hamas contingent in Syria,5 drove out Fatah;6 later, when the camp fell into the hands of the Islamic State, its operatives destroyed the graves of the PLO’s legendary founding generation, including that of Abu Jihad.7
The safe haven that the PLO maintained in the days of the Arab Storm was Ramallah, under Israel’s protection. Otherwise there is good reason to assume that the PLO would no longer exist.
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- From a conversation I had at that time with Mamdouh Nofal, who was present at the meeting. That conversation is also cited in Aviv Tomer-Inbari and Pinhas Inbari, The Borrowed Guardsman (Sifrei Tzameret, 2017) 27ff. (Hebrew).
- https://youtu.be/jEjpndkCfFE; https://youtu.be/2jC4TNmQ6ro.
- See, for example, the Yarmouk representative on the Fatah Central Committee, Samir Rifai, on the camp’s Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/fateh65zahera.