Who Should Be the Interlocutor: the PLO or the Palestinian Authority?

This paper examines the structure of the political process and suggests that Israel try to switch the identity of the Palestinian interlocutor.

Executive Summary

In this document, the Re’ut Institute contends that within the framework of the 2nd phase of the Roadmap, toward and following the establishment of a Palestinian State in Provisional Borders (PSPB), future agreements should be signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) and not with the PLO.

In theory, two options exist:

  1. Proceed with the structure of the Oslo Process i.e. (1) agreements are signed with the PLO on behalf of the PA; and (2) the PA doesn't possess formal powers of representation in the international community or vis-à-vis Israel;
  2. The PA will become the Palestinian interlocutor for future agreements within the 2nd Phase of the Roadmap instead of the PLO. This is with the understanding that, presently, there is no “stomach” for a comprehensive Permanent Status Agreement.

The identity of the Palestinian interlocutor will impact negotiations as follows:

  • The PLO, as the representative of the entire Palestinian People, will likely demand the expansion of the agenda to include issues pertaining to the entire Palestinian people such as the issue of Refugees or Jerusalem; whereas
  • The PA is likely to limit the agenda to issues affecting its residents.

The Roadmap, providing for the establishment of a PSPB before a comprehensive agreement, frontloads issues relating to the West Bank and Gaza while postponing issues relating to the Palestinian Diaspora.

Hence, there is a structural mismatch between the status of the PLO as the Palestinian formal interlocutor, on the one hand, and the Roadmap and/or the Disengagement Plan if coordinated, on the other.

Therefore, it may be impossible to reach an agreement with the PLO on a PSPB. Hence, the objective of an agreement leading to a PSPB necessitates and justifies switching the Palestinian interlocutor.

Consolidating the PA as the Palestinian interlocutor may allow for the shaping of Permanent Status before the 3rd phase of the Roadmap.

The Palestinian constitutional structure provides for the representation of the PA by the PLO.

Hence, switching the Palestinian interlocutor will upset the Palestinian constitutional and political system. In 11/04 the Fatah Central Committee decided that it is in Palestinian interests for one person to serve as Chairman of the PLO and Chairman of the PA.

Nevertheless, the PA might be interested in becoming the Palestinian interlocutor to negotiations in order to better represent its residents.

Israel can impact the capacity and willingness of Palestinians to switch the PLO with the PA as the representative of the West Bank and Gaza. Policies directed at strengthening the PA and distinguishing it from the PLO may prepare the ground for switching the Palestinian interlocutor.

The Issue of Identity of Palestinian Interlocutor - Background

The issue of the identity of the Palestinian interlocutor grapples with the question: who should be the formal Palestinian interlocutor for future agreements within the 2nd phase of the Roadmap toward and following the establishment of a Palestinian State with Provisional Borders (PSPB)?

Following the elections for Chairman of the PA (1/05) and toward a possible resumption of the political process, there are two options:

  1. Sustaining the structure of the Oslo Process whereas (1) agreements are signed with the PLO on behalf of the Palestinian Authority (PA); while (2) the PA is not recognized as a formal party to agreements with Israel; or
  2. Switching the PLO with the PA, and ultimately with the PSPB, as the Palestinian interlocutor regarding issues pertaining to the West Bank and Gaza Strip (hereinafter “switching the interlocutor”).

The status of the PLO as Israel’s Palestinian interlocutor is anchored in the Oslo Process as follows:

  • The PLO was recognized as the Sole Legitimate Representative of the Palestinian People by the Arab League (10/74), the United Nations (11/74), and by Israel and the United States (9/93);1
  • Israel and the PLO agreed that the PA wouldn't have powers of representation in international affairs and that all foreign affairs, including vis-à-vis Israel, would be conducted by the PLO on its behalf;2
  • Therefore, all agreements signed during the Oslo Process were signed between Israel and the PLO, who acted, inter alia, on behalf of the PA.

The issue of the identity of the Palestinian interlocutor is unique to the Palestinians because of a combination of factors:

  • The demographic and geographic dispersal of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as throughout the Palestinian Diaspora;
  • The fact that millions of Palestinians are recognized as Palestinian Refugees (See Map of the Palestinian People);
  • Parts of the agenda for negotiations with Israel, such as the issue of Palestinian refugees, regard the Palestinian people in the PA and in the Diaspora, while issues such as the Safe Passage between the West Bank and Gaza concern primarily the residents of the PA (See Typology of Issues for Negotiation);
  • The existence of two entities – the PLO and the PA – which are capable of entering into negotiations with Israel regarding the West Bank and Gaza. While the PLO has been formally recognized as the representative of the Palestinian people, it is the PA that has a democratically elected government.

In the context of the issue of the identity of the Palestinian interlocutor, the principle differences between the PLO and the PA are:

Representation – The PLO represents the Palestinian Diaspora, as well as the PA, refugees and non-refugees. Whereas, the PA is elected by and represents the residents of the West Bank, Gaza and, to a lesser extent, those in designated areas in East Jerusalem;3

The PA adheres to the PLO – The powers of the Palestinian Authority stem from agreements between the PLO and Israel, as well as from internal Palestinian legislation. Therefore, constitutionally, the PA is subordinate to and represented by the PLO.4

The issue of the identity of the Palestinian interlocutor has far-reaching implications on the agenda and the prospects of successful negotiations within the Roadmap, as well as on the makeup of the Palestinian negotiation team, in the following ways:

  • With the PLO, as the representative of the entire Palestinian people, one can expect the expansion of the agenda to include Permanent Status issues affecting the entire Palestinian people such as Palestinian Refugees, Jerusalem or the Palestinian right of self-determination5;
  • With the PA, who may only have the power of representation of residents of the West Bank and Gaza, one can expect a limitation of the agenda for negotiations to issues which directly and exclusively affect the its residents.6

For example, the PLO may not be a party to an agreement on the establishment of a PSPB, which does not address Palestinian Refugeeism. In contrast, the PA may be a party to a political process dealing with its residents in the West Bank and Gaza and leading to a PSPB but not to an agreement dealing with the issue of Palestinian refugees.

Transformation of Basic Assumptions from Oslo to the Roadmap

The Roadmap reflects tacit and explicit working assumptions that are different, and often opposite, to the working assumptions of the Oslo Process, as elaborated in the attached comparison between Oslo and Roadmap mindset.

Consequently, the basic assumptions of the Oslo Process were structurally aligned to the PLO as the Palestinian interlocutor.7

Second Phase of the Roadmap – A PSPB

In contrast, there is a structural mismatch between the status of the PLO as the Palestinian interlocutor, on the one hand, and the fundamental assumptions of the Roadmap (and/or the Disengagement Plan if coordinated), particularly regarding the objective of reaching an agreement on a PSPB, on the other.

The Roadmap is structured around frontloading issues that pertain to the PA and postponing issues relating to the entire Palestinian people (see Sequence of Israeli-Palestinian Political Process). The logic of the PLO is contrary hereto.

Hence, this mismatch renders the prospects of reaching an agreement on the establishment of a PSPB minimal. With the PLO as the Palestinian interlocutor, it may be impossible to establish a PSPB by means of negotiations before and during the Second Phase of the Roadmap.

Furthermore, to date, the PA can be considered a nascent state or a state in the making, already possessing many attributes of statehood (for elaboration, see Status of Palestinian Statehood).8 The coming into being of a PSPB will further erode the status of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people as a democratically elected PA leadership may be more legitimate to represent its residents.

In contrast, if the PA becomes Israel's interlocutor, it may limit the scope of negotiations to issues which pertain solely and exclusively to residents of the PA. This may increase the prospects of arriving at an agreement on the establishment of a PSPB within the framework of the Roadmap.

Therefore, the goal of arriving at an agreement on the establishment of a PSPB within the Roadmap justifies and necessitates switching the PLO with the PA as Israel's Palestinian interlocutor.

Third Phase of the Roadmap – Shaping Permanent Status before an Agreement

The Roadmap defers the settlement of historical issues such as Palestinian Refugeeism, Palestinian representation and the Palestinian right to self-determination until after the establishment of a PSPB.9

Constitutionally, as well as according to the signed agreements with Israel, only the PLO has the powers to discuss these issues.

However, there are more effective military, economic and civilian leverages on the PA compared to the PLO.

Therefore, in certain issues, switching the PLO with the PA before the 3rd phase of the Roadmap, i.e. before a Permanent Status Agreement, may allow for the shaping of Permanent Status by using these leverages on the PA and subsequently on the PSPB.

Such a process will necessitate a robust understanding regarding Permanent Status:

  • Permanent Status of Palestinian Representation10 – One may act to ensure that the PA and subsequently the PSPB will function as the sole representative of all their residents – both citizens and non-citizens, refugees and non-refugees;
  • Permanent Status of Palestinian right to self-determination – The international community should ensure that the PSPB realizes the right to self-determination of the entire Palestinian people;
  • Permanent Status of Palestinian Refugees – One may act to dilute the issue of Palestinian refugees by allowing Palestinian refugees to return to a PSPB from the Host Countries;
  • Security issues, economic relations and daily arrangements – Once a PSPB has come into being, the two states may proceed with signing bilateral agreements which will eventually serve as chapters of a Permanent Status Agreement (see Fragmentation and Dilution Approach).

Switching the Palestinian interlocutor does not preclude negotiating with the PLO in the 3rd phase of the Roadmap. However, a PSPB will diminish the one-state threat, dilute the problem of Palestinian refugees and irreversibly transform the issue of Palestinian representation.

The Palestinian Side

According to Palestinian constitutional structure, the PA is subordinate to the PLO and represented by it. Switching the Palestinian interlocutor may cause a constitutional and political upheaval and is likely to be opposed.

The issue of the identity of the Palestinian interlocutor has not been ignored on the Palestinian side. In 11/04 the Central Committee of the Fatah concluded that Palestinian interests require that the same person should serve as Chairman of the PLO and Chairman of the PA an arrangement which originated with Yasser Arafat.

Against this background, one can understand the pressures on Marwan Barghouti to withdraw his candidacy for the position of Chairman of the PA. The concern was that a Barghouti victory would have resulted in a distinction between the identities of the Chairman of the PA (Barghouti) and Chairman of the PLO (Abu Mazen).11

At the same time, it is easy to see the direct interest that the leadership of the PA has in switching the interlocutor granting it greater power and influence on the destiny of its primary constituency.

In the future, the PA might desire to become the interlocutor to a political process comprising of issues:

  1. Pertaining directly and exclusively to its residents such as economic and civilian affairs, personal security or water;
  2. Pertaining directly to its residents while indirectly affecting the entire Palestinian people, such as borders and territorial arrangements, Jerusalem or the holy sites;

This may take place before or following the establishment of the PSPB.

A PSPB would further erode the status of the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, fundamentally and irreversibly altering the issue of Palestinian representation.

The Israeli Side

The capacity and willingness of the Palestinian side to switch the formal interlocutor regarding the West Bank and Gaza from PLO to the PA can be significantly enhanced by policies that strengthen the PA at the expense of the PLO.

For details see The Re’ut Institute publication Policy Options for Switching the PLO with the PA as the Palestinian Interlocutor.

Summary and Conclusions

Maintaining the option of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian agreement on the establishment of a PSPB within the Roadmap and / or toward the implementation of the Disengagement Plan justifies and even necessitates switching the Palestinian interlocutor. Switching the Palestinian interlocutor will cause constitutional and political upheaval on the Palestinian side and may be met with opposition. Nonetheless, the PA may be interested in and served by this switch so that it becomes the formal representative of its residents.

Policies designed to strengthen the PA at the expense of the PLO can significantly impact the capacity and willingness of the Palestinian side to switch the PLO with the PA as the interlocutor for agreements within the 2nd phase of the Roadmap.



1 For further elaboration regarding the status of the PLO and the process that led to this standing read PLO as the Sole Legitimate Representative of the Palestinian People.
2 During the Oslo Process Israel was against the establishment of a Palestinian state and prevented the acquisition of symbols of statehood by the PA:According to the Declaration of Principles (9/93) (Article V, Paragraph 3), relations between Palestinians and 3rd parties was considered one of the Outstanding Issues, to be resolved in the Permanent Status Agreement;According to the Gaza-Jericho Agreement (5/94) (Article VI – Powers and Responsibilities, Paragraph 2) and the Interim Agreement (9/95) (Chapter 1 – the Council, Article IX – Powers and Responsibilities of the Council, Paragraph 5; Chapter 3 – Legal Affairs, Article XVII – Jurisdiction, Paragraph 1, Section a):The PA will not have responsibility or power to conduct foreign affairs, including placing representation abroad such as embassies, consulates, summon or receive diplomatic teams and consulates or perform any diplomatic functions;The PLO will manage all negotiations and sign all agreements with other countries and with international organizations on behalf of the PA.For a further explanation between the connection between the West Bank and Gaza Strip see West Bank and Gaza Strip as a single territorial unit.
4 The status of the PLO vis-à-vis the PA is expressed in the following ways:The PLO has been the official Palestinian interlocutor to negotiations with Israel regarding the PA (see above), as established by the Interim Agreement (see Article V).The Palestinian Basic Law, designed to function as the temporary constitution of the PA, defined the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian People and confirmed that a future Palestinian state would remain under its leadership. For further details see the concept Palestinian Constitutional Structure, which examines and compares the institutions, legislative branches and constitutional powers and constraints of the PLO, the PA and the future Palestinian state.
5 The issue of Palestinian Right of Self-Determination relates to whether the Right to Self-Determination of the Palestinian people will be fully realized with the establishment of a Palestinian State, i.e. does the coming into being of a Palestinian State constitute the realization of the Right to Self-Determination of the entire Palestinian people? Or whether, following the establishment of a Palestinian State, there will still be Palestinians who claim that their Right to Self-Determination has not been fulfilled? (see Map of the Palestinian People and Finality of Claims)
6 These issues include Movement and Personal Security Issues, Conventional Issues and Intrusive Issues i.e. subjects that require Israeli and Palestinian infringement on their respective territorial sovereignty such as Safe Passage for Palestinians between the West Bank and Gaza or the Israeli use of Palestinian air and maritime space.
7 In the Declaration of Principles (9/93) Israel recognized the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian People and affirmed its status as the only Palestinian interlocutor to future political processes.The objective of the Oslo Process was to resolve all outstanding issues including, inter alia, the issue of Palestinian Refugees. Therefore, dealing with the PLO, which represents all Palestinians, refugees and non-refugees, was consistent herewith. At the beginning of the Oslo Process, Israel perceived postponing the discussion of outstanding issues to the end of the Interim Period (i.e. to 5/99) as being in its interest.In the context of the identity of the Palestinian interlocutor, Israel's interests, on the one hand, and the PLO being the Palestinian interlocutor, on the other hand, shaped the Oslo Process as follows: (1) A Permanent Status Agreement will be concluded before and lead to the creation of a Palestinian state; (2) The PLO will continue to serve as the Palestinian interlocutor until the creation of a Palestinian state (Moment of Inversion); (3) The issue of the Palestinian right to Self-Determination will be postponed until the establishment of the Palestinian state.
8 According to International Law, to be recognized as politically sovereign, a country must meet the following criteria: (a) ownership of territory or right to specific territory; (b) a territorially confined population; (c) effective government; (d) management of Foreign Relations (Montevideo Convention 26/12/33).
9 The Palestinian right of Self-Determination is related to the issue of Political-Legal Status of Israeli-Arabs, and can be expected to influence relations between Israel and a Palestinian state in Permanent Status. For details, see The Re'ut Institute publication: Israeli-Palestinian State-to-State Relations in Permanent Status, Articles 10-14.
10 In other words: Who represents the Palestinians? Who is represented by the PLO, the PA, the PSPB or a Palestinian State with permanent borders?
11 See ICG, Middle East Briefing, After Arafat? Challenges and Prospects, 23 December, 2004, p. 7.