The Palestine Liberation Organization is a perplexing movement. It has stumbled from one apparent setback to another; it is riven by factionalism; it has tried to pursue revolution and diplomacy as if there were no contradiction; and then, at the moment of winning recognition from Israel, it seems poised to lose its most precious asset, the support of the Palestinian people.
Barry Rubin captures some, but not all, of the nuances of this tangled tale. He misses few of the main events in his straightforward narrative of the political scene from 1964, when the PLO was founded, up to the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993. He dwells at length on the PLO's involvement with terrorism and Israel's response. And he seems to share the view that the PLO under Yasir Arafat missed many opportunities in the 1970s and 1980s to achieve the limited goal of rule over the West Bank and Gaza. This failure he attributes to Arafat's unwillingness to face up to the political reality that he had a weak hand and could never hope to achieve his dream of recovering all of Palestine. Once he concluded that he would have to settle for less, he was slow to prepare his own people for the need to compromise.
Missing are several important parts of the story. First is the issue of why the PLO succeeded, until quite recently, in winning the loyalty of the vast majority of Palestinians. We learn little about the PLO as an organization providing services to ordinary Palestinians or articulating their sense of dignity and aspirations for nationhood. How else could Arafat have survived so many setbacks? The author also seems to have little feel for the debates over strategy that began in the 1970s within the PLO. Instead, he sees a rather sudden move toward making peace with Israel only after the defeat of Iraq in the Gulf War and the weakening of the PLO's fortunes. But in the mid-1970s there were already many prominent Palestinians who were coming to terms with the idea of a two-state solution, much along the lines of current thinking.
Rubin seems to discount the importance of the Likud's advent to power in 1977. Just before that unexpected event, the Israeli Foreign Minister, Yigal Allon, had said that Israel might be prepared to deal with a PLO that accepted U.N. Resolution 242. When Menachem Begin became prime minister, that position was rejected, as was the idea of giving up any of the West Bank and Gaza to Jordan or the Palestinians. Unless Rubin can show that Begin and later Shamir were not serious when they said no withdrawal, it is hard to see how he can conclude that the PLO, with Jordan, might have achieved its goal of ruling the West Bank and Gaza in the mid-1980s. Later, he correctly notes that Labors return to power in 1992 was an important turning point in the peace process.
Even when Rubin is on target, his text is marred by many errors of fact, erroneous quotations, and other evidence of a rush to publish. For example, Arafat's famous statement in Geneva on December 14, 1988, which led to the opening of the U.S.-PLO dialogue, is misquoted. Until then, Arafat had said only that he rejected terrorism, which was not enough for Secretary of State George Shultz. Finally, on December 14, Arafat said he renounced it, which was the magic word the Americans were waiting for. But on page 110, Rubin misses all this and incorrectly quotes Arafat as using the word reject.
Finally, the book has the feel of having been written with a different conclusion in mind. The analysis prepares the reader for the eventual demise of the PLO, too burdened by its own contradictions, its habits of violence, its lack of realism. But then Oslo happened, and another conclusion seemed necessary. So Arafat emerges as uniquely qualified to deliver the concessions necessary for peace with Israel, possibly the savior of the Palestinian nation. If the earlier analysis often seems too dismissive of the PLO, the conclusions seem too hopeful. Perhaps we all need a bit more perspective before the real meaning of Oslo and the complex evolution of relations between Israel and the Palestinians can be put into perspective.