September and Beyond: Who Speaks in My Name?

Al-Shabaka Commentary

‎How is it that by virtue of being Palestinian I am told that my ‘sole legitimate representative’ is an organization I have never subscribed to, am not a member of, and have never voted for?

Much has been said about the Palestinian Authority's (PA) plan to seek recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN this September. There seems to be a growing chorus of voices from within Palestinian civil society groups and the pro-Palestinian solidarity camp warning that such a move may weaken the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the Palestinians’ ‘sole, legitimate representative’, enforce the Bantustan state, and further jeopardize the rights of Palestinian refugees.

While these are all legitimate concerns, they do not get to the crux of the issue, which is much bigger than September and goes far beyond the statehood bid. Rather than focus on the ills and ramifications of the latest PA/PLO strategy we must address the following urgent questions: What legitimacy do the PA and the PLO have? Where did they derive this legitimacy from? How and with whom do we advance our collective political aspirations?

Asking the Right Questions

The need to answer these questions has been obscured by the heated discussion around the issue of PLO representation at the United Nations (UN). Guy Goodwin-Gill, a reputable legal expert at the University of Oxford, argues that the PLO would lose its seat at the UN to a ‘State of Palestine’ represented by the PA. With that, he warns that Palestinian refugees and those in the Diaspora would lose their voice since the PLO is the ’sole legitimate representative’ of the Palestinian people.

In contrast, University of Illinois Law Professor and former PLO advisor Francis Boyle debunks Guy Goodwin-Gill’s analysis. He insists that as a result of the 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence, the Executive Committee of the PLO was set up as the Provisional Government for the State of Palestine and that all Palestinians living around the world would automatically become citizens of the State of Palestine. Therefore, he argues, the PLO in its capacity as the Provisional Government for the State of Palestine will continue to represent the interests of all Palestinians around the world when Palestine becomes a UN Member State.

The arguments put forward by Goodwin-Gill and Boyle became central to the discourse about the September declaration of statehood. Both take for granted the premise that the PLO is the ‘sole representative’ of the Palestinian people and that the PA is the legitimate representative of the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. This premise is open to debate. Representation of a people’s will and aspirations are not blank timeless checks that can be handed over to self-appointed leaders.

Goodwin-Gill sought to address this point in a recent article in the Guardian, expressing the view that Palestinian statehood must come about by the democratic will of the people and that now is the time for the PLO to open its door for reforms and to allow Palestinians -– all Palestinians -- to participate in an electoral democratic process. But calls for the PLO to embrace democratic reform have fallen on deaf ears for years.

How Democratic Was the PLO?

But how democratic was the PLO? It was indeed structured as a democratic organization when it was created in Jerusalem in 1964 as a representative body for the Palestinians under the auspices of the League of Arab States. Its Fundamental Law stipulated that all Palestinians -- in refugee camps, under occupation and in the Diaspora -- were entitled to elect representatives to the PLO’s parliament, the Palestine National Council (PNC). The PNC in turn elects from amongst its members 18 representatives to serve on the PLO’s Executive Committee, its highest executive body.

However, direct open elections for the PNC were never organized. The PLO blamed this on logistical difficulties because Palestinians are dispersed all over the world. Instead, it opted for a quota system, where each faction appointed members to the PNC in proportion to its grassroots power, opening the door to trade and student unions, as well as women and youth groups to appoint their own representatives. The Fatah faction was by far the most dominant within the PNC and within the PLO's Executive Committee.

The PLO’s adoption of armed struggle for resistance and liberation combined with a strong presence on the ground and in the Palestinian refugee camps, won it widespread support and popular legitimacy among Palestinians. In 1974, the UN General Assembly recognized the PLO as the ‘sole, legitimate representative’ of the Palestinian people and invited it to participate in UN activities as a permanent observer.