How we speak about the failure of the PLO

Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton, and Yasser Arafat at the White House, signing the Oslo Accords. I(photo: Wikimedia)
A recent Foreign Affairs article gets history wrong and obscures a robust Palestinian discourse.

By Helena Cobban | Boston Review | Mar 31, 2021

One strong concern about the Oslo Accords was that they said nothing about what would happen if, after the five-year interim period prescribed therein, the two sides failed to arrive at a final peace agreement.

It is hard to believe that it has been fifty years since I used to sit on the floor of drafty college residences in Oxford with Hussein Agha, Ahmad Samih Khalidi, Ahmad’s cousin Rashid Khalidi, and other luminaries of the Oxford University Arab Society, listening to their discussions of the then-parlous state of the Palestinian freedom movement (and voicing an occasional interjection). During the previous year, Palestinian guerrillas earlier chased out of the West Bank by Israel had proceeded to challenge King Hussein’s rule in Jordan; and during “Black” September 1970, Hussein hit back at them hard. In Spring 1971 the guerrillas were still reeling from Black September and were struggling to regroup in the extensive Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. In Oxford we eagerly read any scrap of news we could get about their achievements there.

In 1974, one year after I graduated, I took out a loan to travel to Beirut to build a career as a foreign correspondent. During the next seven years one of the biggest constants in my news budget was the Palestinian story. In 1981, after the demands of motherhood made it clear I could not continue buckling the swashes as recklessly as other gringo reporters in the region, I fled with my children to Harvard. I wrote my first book, The Palestinian Liberation Organisation: People, Power, and Politics, as a senior fellow there. I then carved out a slightly less stressful career as an author and a Christian Science Monitor columnist. Meanwhile, Rashid Khalidi started his distinguished teaching and publishing career. And Ahmad and Hussein? It’s too simple to note that they are still at Oxford, both of them now Senior Associates at St. Antony’s College (founded, by the way, from the ill-gotten gains made by eccentric arms dealer Antonin Besse, though that is another story). The significant fact here is that both Ahmad and Hussein played senior—though sometimes informal—roles as political and diplomatic advisors to the leaders of the PLO.

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