The Palestine Liberation Organisation was set up in 1964. It was then a cover for Syrian intelligence, which gave it credit for Syria's own covert fedayeen attacks on Israel. The object of the exercise, accompanied by a lavish propaganda war, was to shame Nasser's Egypt into conflict with Israel. The outcome was the Six Day War, in 1967.
In the aftermath of that war, the PLO was reformed on a broader basis, and to meet a shared need of the defeated Arab states. It became a loose association of the Palestinian clients of the different Arab states. The need it met was an urgent one: to provide an answer to the awkward question, put by ordinary Arabs: 'What are you going to do about Israel, now?'
The answer was: 'We are giving unflinching support to the PLO, in its continuing struggle.'
As the Arab states continued to have to rely on that answer, over the decades, the PLO became exalted to great heights, in terms of propaganda, and richly subsidised. Every Arab summit re-dedicated itself to the support of 'the PLO, sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people'. The PLO remained what it had been since 1974, a loose association of factions competing with one another in sporadic acts of terrorism against Israel. The most important faction is - or rather has been - Yasser Arafat's Fatah, and media references to 'the PLO' have almost always meant Fatah.
The main trouble with the present fumblings over Gaza and Jericho is that Fatah itself has now been reduced to the same nebulous condition as that in which the PLO has subsisted for 20 years. Mr Arafat's daft gamble in embracing Saddam Hussein at the time of Desert Storm cost Fatah its rich sponsors in the Gulf. Once Mr Arafat no longer had the money to pay his troops, many defected. Further defections, of more committed followers, followed on Mr Arafat's second gamble: the self- government interim agreement with Israel.
Leaflets are now being distributed in the territories, in Fatah's name, pledging continuance of the armed struggle. Even those who still nominally support Mr Arafat are locked in inter-factional struggles. He has found it extremely difficult to nominate the 24-member Palestinian authority that is supposed to rule Gaza and Jericho until the elections that are supposed to be held four months from now. At the time of writing, only 15 members have been nominated, and the best known are reported as having accepted with reluctance.
Leaving aside the conditional promises of billions of dollars from the international community, Yasser Arafat has just one thing going for him in the here and now: the desire of the people in Gaza and Jericho to see the last of the Israeli occupying troops. But once the troops are gone - to the extent to which they are committed to going - Mr Arafat will be left with nothing, except the odium attached, in the eyes of Palestinians, to the terms under which the Israelis have executed this limited withdrawal.
Under Article XVIII of the agreement signed on 4 May, 'the PLO' is committed to various forms of military co-operation with the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) - including joint patrols - as well as 'to take all necessary measures to prevent . . . hostile acts directed against the (Jewish) settlements, the infrastructure serving them and the (Israeli) military installations in the area'.
Such a policy runs counter to the feelings of the population in the territories concerned - especially the young - and Mr Arafat cannot even attempt to deliver on what he has promised to the Israelis without alientating the population he and his dwindling band of friends are about to attempt to govern. Last September, when the Declaration of Principles was signed in Washington, I thought the test would be a matter of whether Mr Arafat's followers would be able to face down Hamas and other organisations bent on continuing hostilities against Israel. At the time, I assumed that Mr Arafat still had a substantial following, which he might just be able to equip for such a struggle. But he has had difficulty even in mustering the token force of policemen required for the initial takeover of installations abandoned by the Israelis. 'The PLO' is in manifest disarray.
For most of last week the telephone at the PLO office in Jericho went unanswered, while reports from PLO headquarters in Tunis tell of 'a group of people inhabiting a complex of offices who report to no one and have no idea what is to become of them. . . . People who have worked for the PLO for 20 or 30 years are just milling about, stunned.'
If Mr Arafat tries to deliver on Article XVIII, he will be overwhelmed by the forces arrayed against him in a renewed intifada. If he does not try to deliver, the IDF will - probably informally - resume responsibility for security in any areas from which attacks on Israeli targets are resumed. Either way, Mr Arafat is the loser. His first gamble, over Desert Storm, crippled the only organisaion he had: Fatah. His second gamble, over 'peace with Israel', seems certain to finish Fatah, and Yasser Arafat along with it.
About the only people who have cause for any degree of satisfaction in the immediate wake of the impending fiasco are Israeli diplomats in Western countries, who can now say: 'You were always pressing us to give 'territory for peace'. All right, we gave some territory - Gaza, Jericho - and just look what we got] No peace, only anarchy in the ceded territories and continued hatred and terrorism, coming out of them, against us.'
In the longer term, some good may follow from the puncturing of the great illusion, of peace through the PLO and Palestinian self-government. Once all that nonsense is dissipated - as it must be, even within the present year - both Israeli and Western minds will have to concentrate on the only solid option that is actually attainable: peace between Syria and Israel.
In a move that escaped general attention last month amid the orgy of hype surrounding the PLO's peace process, Yitzhak Rabin made the first great breakthrough towards peace with Syria. Showing courage and vision, Mr Rabin indicated conditional willingness to withdraw Jewish settlers from the Golan Heights. It was through a similar willingness, in the case of the settlers in Sinai, that Menachem Begin made peace with Egypt possible in 1979.
In both cases, the question is one of ceding territory for peace - but ceding it to a former adversary who can deliver peace, in exchange for unencumbered territory. Anwar Sadat was able to do that. Yasser Arafat cannot. But Hafez al-Assad can. Mr Rabin knows that and is moving that way, with the deliberate caution that the politics of Israel require from him.
There is hope there. But first, the remains of the PLO's peace process will have to be carted away, and that is likely to be an ugly business enough.Reuse content