The Fatal Mistake of Granting Legitimacy to the PLO

April 24, 2018 | Seth Mandel
About the author: Seth Mandel is the executive editor of the Washington Examiner magazine.

During the first intifada, which lasted from 1987 to 1991, Israel and the U.S. had a chance to sideline the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Having missed this chance, as Seth Mandel describes, they have effectively given the terrorist group legitimacy until this day, with dire consequences:

Israel’s then-foreign minister, Moshe Arens, proposed allowing the major Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza to hold mayoral elections, after which Israel would recognize the winners as official Palestinian interlocutors. Rabin, then the defense minister, opposed the Arens plan, fearing it would undermine the Israel Defense Forces’ control of the West Bank. A compromise plan was for the Palestinians in the territories to hold elections for negotiators, not officeholders. In his memoir, Arens explains that the idea “was meant to begin a process of negotiations with the Palestinians while bypassing the Palestine Liberation Organization.”

Before Arens or then-Prime Minister Yitzḥak Shamir could present the plan to the White House, then-President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker preempted the Israelis by leaking to reporters their preference for the PLO and their belief that talks with Yasir Arafat should broach the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state, . . . effectively legitimizing Arafat as the rightful representative of Palestinian nationalism. This put the PLO and Israel on the glide path to the September 1993 breakthrough known as the Oslo accords, and the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA). . . .

Why didn’t the creation of the Palestinian Authority result in Arafat’s transition from guerrilla leader to civilian state-builder? Three problems kept cropping up. The first was that his lack of accountability was enabled by both Israel and the United States, out of the naïve belief that it didn’t matter how Arafat built his state and abided by agreements just so long as he did so. Arafat exploited this—he never built his state, in part because nobody was willing to make him.

The second problem was that the PA only added a layer of opacity to Arafat’s power structure. . . . The third problem was more fundamental: Arafat had shaped the PLO, and thus the Palestinian national movement, for a quarter-century before the PA was established. . . . Arafat’s predilection for violence, secrecy, and authoritarianism would be deeply corrosive to the institutions of an existing state; to a nonstate tasked with creating those institutions, they were fatal.

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