It’s in the wake of 1967 that Arafat and his contemporaries searched for legitimacy. They went to the Arab League in 1974 and had the PLO declared the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” a description they continue to tout today. This constant reassertion of their primacy in Palestinian nationalism was not only directed at any local leadership sprouting up in the West Bank or Gaza that might try to challenge the exiled leadership, but also at their Arab neighbors. The PLO in exile, first in Jordan but then in Lebanon and Tunisia, was an organization constantly subjected to external meddling. Not until Jordan renounced its claim to the West Bank in 1988 did the PLO issue a declaration of independence and initiate the process that would lead them to sign the Oslo Accords with Israel in the early 1990s.
It is in this post-Six Day War history that the PLO’s troubled relationship with its regional neighbors was born, and it’s this history that the U.S. and Israel must account for today. In recent months, talks of an “outside-in” approach to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process have resurfaced. The formula, in essence, seeks to bypass the local Palestinian leadership in favor of outside actors (notably Jordan and Egypt) pressuring the Palestinians to make peace. Israel’s budding relations with its Arab neighbors have made this proposition all the sweeter, but it is a non-starter for Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, and the modern day PLO. The story of the Palestinian national project in the fifty years since 1967 has been, in part, one based on rebuffing external meddling in order to re-assert the titles of “sole” and “legitimate” representatives of their people.
When Egypt initiated the creation of the Palestine Liberation Organization at the Arab League in 1964, most in Yasser Arafat’s camp viewed it with suspicion. “We considered the PLO to be an Arab instrument and [its military wing] a part of the Arab armies,” one of Arafat’s associates recalled. “In view of our experiences with the Arabs…we feared that the PLO would kill or diver the awakening of our people.” Yet with Egypt’s humiliating defeat in the Six Day War came opportunity for Arafat and his Fatah party. His movement had emerged from the war not only unscathed, but emboldened. After repelling an Israeli attack a year later at the Battle of Karameh in Jordan, one historian wrote Fatah’s image “as the organization responsible for redeeming Arab honor was revitalized.” Arafat and his Fatah party used this momentum to take control of the PLO the following year, and they haven’t relinquished their grip on the body since. The Six Day War, in some ways, initiated the marriage of Arafat, Fatah, and the PLO.
Grant Rumley is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he focuses on Palestinian politics. He is the co-author of The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas (Prometheus, 2017).