PLO Loses Support in Diaspora
Some Palestinians, disenchanted with negotiations, see need for a new movement
THE deployment of a Palestinian police force in the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho has signaled the beginning of the implementation of limited Palestinian self-rule.
But for many Palestinians, particularly in the diaspora (Palestinians dispersed after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948), it signals the end of the Palestine Liberation Organization as the national liberation movement and underscores the need for a new movement.
Many in the diaspora think that the current deal will not lead to Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza and that the leadership has abandoned the diaspora by not addressing their right to return. A new movement would be aimed at getting these issues back on the Palestinian agenda.
``Once [PLO] leader Yasser Arafat gets to Jericho, he is going to depend on a new setup ... the PLO will be forgotten,'' says Edward Said, professor of comparative literature at Columbia University.
Arafat critics who charge that the Israeli-Palestinian accord signed Sept. 13 was a sellout feel their views have been confirmed by the PLO's failure to secure effective international measures to protect Palestinians following the Feb. 25 massacre of Palestinian worshipers in Hebron.
Critics say the deployment of the police force - depicted by the PLO as ``an achievement, albeit insufficient'' - is more evidence that future Palestinian authority will be subordinate to Israeli control.
``When you are talking police, you are really talking intelligence-sharing .... This is a real delegitimizer,'' says Ghada Talhami, professor of political science at Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, Ill.
The agreement confines the Palestinian police force to keeping ``order,'' without, in the view of many, giving it the power to protect Palestinians. Policing responsibility without jurisdiction cannot work, they say. Israel's Army maintains control of major roads and of security for Jewish settlers.
Many Palestinians inside and outside the PLO do not think the PLO can improve this situation in negotiations, and that PLO leaders' standing with the West hinges on their implementing the accord - even if means sacrificing their constituency.
``The PLO fate depends on the implementation of the accord,'' concedes Faisal Hourani, a Vienna-based writer long affiliated with the PLO. ``But regardless of the PLO ability or failure to implement the accord, the organization will remain a necessity to the Palestinians in the diaspora,'' he says.
Mr. Hourani assumes that while the accord might address the miminal aspirations of Palestinians in the occupied lands, there will be a need for the PLO to seek rights for the diaspora Palestinians.
Since the signing of the agreement, an increasing number of disillusioned Palestinian intellectuals have been in touch with each other to consider next steps.
These Palestinians have proposed establishing a popular congress to meet in Europe or in an Arab capital, to either launch Palestinian reforms within the PLO or to start a new movement. In recently published articles, Professor Said urges Palestinians to resist the PLO leadership and advocates the removal of Arafat.
There has been no agreement so far on a strategy, partly because many are still affiliated with PLO structures, but also because they fear that the destruction of the PLO may not be followed by the building of a new movement. Yet even those directly active in the PLO are now reconsidering their role.
Leading Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish resigned from the PLO executive committee following the September accord and published a scathing poem condemning it for failure to remain true to Palestinian aspirations.
As many see it, Arafat has switched his constituency from that of the Palestinian people as a whole to those in the West Bank and Gaza. ``Arafat has divided the Palestinian people,'' he charges. ``He has shifted his constituency at the expense of the Palestinian people's unity.''
Recent opinion polls and interviews with leaders in the occupied territories indicate that Arafat still has to prove that he can deliver an end to Israeli occupation in order to maintain his already dwindling constituency.
Although the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have always been viewed as the core of the PLO constituency, mobilization among Palestinians in the diaspora who now live in the Arab World, Europe, the Americas, and elsewhere, have been a crucial source of support.
Throughout the 1970s and `80s, the PLO concentrated its efforts on building a network of grass-roots organizations as part of a collective identity among scattered Palestinians. In recent years, it has been neglecting this population, partly due to dwindling funds, as it shifted focus on the occupied territories.
In Dr. Talhami's view, one possible scenario to save the national Palestinian movement would depend on the ability of Palestinian leaders in the occupied territories to revive broader grass-roots activism and elect committees and councils to prevent Palestinian subordination to continuing Israeli control.
Some Palestinian activists believe that once the PLO moves to the occupied territories, a new, more ``progressive structure'' allowing for broader participation will emerge, giving a new life to the Palestinian movement and ensuring future sovereignty.
But many, including Said, feel that Arafat will try to keep his loyalists at the top of the new autonomy authority. Said believes that it is time for Palestinians in the diaspora to take the initiative.
``The diaspora Palestinians can play a major role; they have the demographic edge, they have the resources,'' he argues. ``They will have to reorganize and become a pressure group to ensure the restoration of Palestinians' rights, including the right to return, compensation, and reparation.''
Talhami believes that the Palestinian diaspora role has always been one of support rather than initiation, but agrees that their role has been influential in articulating political vision, ``away from coercion of the Israeli occupation and the PLO leadership in Tunis.''
``The Palestinians in the diaspora will have to move, because waiting for the PLO is like waiting for Godot,'' Said says.