Sole Legitimate Representative of the Palestinian People

The concept refers to the legal status of the organization representing the Palestinian people.


The concept “Sole Legitimate Representative of the Palestinian People” (hereinafter “sole legitimate representative”) refers to the legal status of an organization possessing the authority to represent the entire Palestinian people. This right relates to all Palestinians (refugees and non-refugees) in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Diaspora (See Map of the Palestinian People).


The Issue of Palestinian Representation is comprised of the following factors:

  • The Palestinian people are dispersed throughout the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Israel and in Host Countries consisting of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon;
  • Palestinian refugees comprise close to half of the Palestinian people and possess a unique status under international law1 (See Issue of Palestinian Refugeeism and Right of Return);
  • The PLO and the Palestinian Authority (PA) compete over the representation of the residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, who constitute roughly half of the total Palestinian population. The PLO is the formal representative while the PA holds governmental powers and authorities within its territory.

The status of the PLO as the organization leading the Palestinian national struggle is based on its legitimization among the Palestinian public, and on the official recognition it received from the Arab nations and the UN in 1974.2

In 1993 the US and Israel recognized the PLO as the “sole legitimate representative” (9/93). This turned the PLO into the official interlocutor of Israel and of the international community for the Oslo Process.3

However, the establishment of the PA and changes in the political arena have eroded the status of the PLO. This process was sped up by Arafat's death and the new leadership in the West Bank and Gaza established by the elections for the Chairman of the PA (1/05) and the Palestinian Legislative Council (1/06).

The victory of Hamas in the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and the establishment of a government under its leadership, further fragmentize Palestinian representation and obscure the identity of the Palestinian interlocutor.

Why is the Issue of Palestinian Representation Important to Israel?

  • Framework of the political process and the identity of the representative – The identity of the Palestinian representative is determined by the political agenda, the relevant population and the Delivery Capability of the organization(see the concept Partner). In light of this definition, Israel faces two alternatives:
  1. PLO is the representative – According to existing agreements, the PLO is the sole legitimate representative and is therefore the sole interlocutor for negotiations with Israel. Recognizing the PLO as the interlocutor implies that the agenda for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will revolve around issues relating to the entire Palestinian people, not just those living in the West Bank and Gaza.
  2. PA is the representative –Abu Mazen and the PLC are the elected leadership of the PA, and may be considered a legitimate representative regarding the welfare and security of the residents of Gaza and the West Bank. However, dealing with the PA as the Palestinian interlocutor may be considered a breach of existing agreements.
  • Israeli-Arabs – The issue of Palestinian representation affects the relations between Israel, its Arab citizens and the Palestinian state once established. Israel considers itself the sole legal representative of all its residents, including its Arab citizens. However, the Palestinian Constitution (Third Draft) implies that Israeli-Arabs will have legal status in the future state of Palestine (see Palestinian Constitutional Parameters).
  • Jordan – The stability of the Jordanian regime greatly affects Israel's national security. The relations between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian entity will also be influenced by the issue of Palestinian representation. Similar to the Arab residents of Israel, the Palestinian residents of Jordan may also have legal status in the Palestinian state.

Triangular Relations: PLO – PA – Hamas

Israel's recognition of the PLO as the sole legitimate representative was the basis for the Oslo Accords, which created the PA. Both the Gaza-Jericho Agreement (5/94) and the Interim Agreement (9/95) stipulate that the PLO will represent the PA in negotiations with Israel. The agreements determined that:

  • The PA will have no powers in the sphere of foreign relations, including the establishment of Palestinian representations abroad, and the establishment of diplomatic representations to the PA.
  • The PLO will conduct negotiations and sign agreements on behalf of the PA, including agreements on economic aid, regional development plans, and cultural, scientific and educational matters.6

The Palestinian Basic Law reinforces the special status of the PLO.[7]

Prior to the PLC elections (1/06) Fatah controlled the PA as well as the PLO. Since the establishment of the PA, the differences between the two entities have become obscure. Moreover, throughout the Oslo Process, and especially after the death of Arafat, the PA and the PLO have openly struggled over diplomatic representation.

Throughout the years, Hamas has contested Fatah leadership of the PLO and attempted to take control over the PLO in order to lead the Palestinian national movement based on Islamic-nationalist ideology. Hamas refused to recognize the PA, as it was created in an agreement with Israel.

Following the death of Arafat, Hamas decided to join the PA and participate in elections for the legislative council (1/06). Following its electoral victory, Hamas has formed the PA government under its own leadership.

Although the status of the PLO has been eroded in internal Palestinian politics, it still retains its official status as the sole legitimate representative. The PLO has thus become a political “shell company” – an organization lacking operational capabilities, powers and authorities, yet retaining the title of “sole legitimate representative” and the authority to sign agreements pertaining to Palestinian national interests. Hence, Hamas still aspires to take over the PLO and lead the entire Palestinian people.10

Status of Sole Legitimate Representative and the Future Palestinian State

During negotiations for a Permanent Status Agreement (1999-2001), Israel demanded that the Palestinian state, once established, would be the sole legitimate representative of all its citizens and residents, both refugees and non-refugees. The Palestinian state would thus:

  1. Signify the realization of the right of self-determination for the entire Palestinian people.11 (see Permanent Status of the Palestinian Right to Self-Determination);
  2. Constitute the sole legitimate representative of all its citizens and residents, both refugees and non-refugees. Accordingly, the PLO would have no right of representation vis-à-vis the population within the Palestinian state;12 the Palestinian state would have no rights of representation outside of its territories, and in particular the right to represent Israeli-Arabs.13 In other words, the state of Israel demanded that there be a complete overlap between the population to be represented and the territory of the Palestinian state;

Therefore, the establishment of the Palestinian state was intended to force the PLO to change its name, founding documents and stated goals.

The Geneva Initiative reflects a different approach to the issue of Palestinian representation. According to the initiative, “the state of Palestine shall be the successor to the PLO with all its rights and obligations.”15 This implies that once established, the Palestinian State will inherit the PLO’s status as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, within and outside of Palestine (i.e. in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and maybe within Israel).

1978-2001 – Israel, Palestinian Representation and the Status of the PLO

Prior to 1993 Israel refused to recognize the PLO and considered it a terror organization.16 In its refusal to implicitly or explicitly deal with the PLO, Israel tried to create other frameworks for solving the Palestinian problem:

  • In A Framework Agreement on Future Negotiations with the Palestinians that was part of the Camp David Accords 1978 (9/78), Israel and the Egyptians agreed on the first formula for the Sequence of the Israeli-Palestinian Political Process, which did not include direct negotiations with Palestinian representatives or the PLO in particular.
  • During 1981-84, the Israeli civil administration attempted to undermine the PLO's influence by establishing Village Associations, as an alternative to its leadership.17 In addition, Israel examined the Jordanian Option as a solution to the problem posed by the West Bank.18
  • 10/91 – The Madrid Conference – Not Talking to the “Tunisian” PLOIsrael refused to negotiate with the PLO or with any representative directly or indirectly involved in the organization. Israel agreed to meet only with representatives chosen from and by residents of the territories.19
  • Though the Palestinian representatives to the Madrid Conference, headed by West Bank residents Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi, were not officially members of the PLO, in actuality they operated under direct instructions from the PLO.20
  • 9/93 – Israeli recognition of the PLO as the sole legitimate representative – The collapse of the Jordanian option and the lack of local Palestinian leadership led Israel to recognize the PLO as the sole legitimate representative. Part of the process of recognition included the US acknowledgement of the PLO as the sole legitimate representative (See “Exchange of Letters between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman of the PLO Yasir Arafat" (8/93) and the “Declaration of Principles” (9/93)). Hence, all subsequent agreements between Israel and the Palestinians throughout the “Oslo Process” were signed by the PLO.21
  • The change in the Israeli mindset was caused by the failure to create an autonomous Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as the understanding that only the PLO, which represents all Palestinians within the territories and in the diaspora, can sign a Permanent Status Agreement, which would bring about Finality of Claims and End of Conflict.

Palestinian Representation and the Arab World

  • 1921-48 – British Mandate – During this period the Palestinians were unable to form a unified political leadership, except in 1936, when the different Palestinian factions converged under the leadership of the Arab Higher Committee.22 Throughout the Mandate there existed a number of different bodies that claimed to represent the Palestinian population;23 The Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini is considered the most dominant figure.24
  • Following the establishment of the Arab League (1945), neighboring Arab states claimed to represent the Palestinians.25
  • 1948-64 – The struggle between the PLO, Jordan and Arab states over Palestinian representation – The war in 1948 led to the dispersal of the Palestinian people to the Jordanian West Bank, the Egyptian Gaza Strip, other Arab states (primarily Jordan, Lebanon and Syria) and Israel. Following the cessation of hostilities, the issue of Palestinian representation turned into a subject of contention between the Arab states.26 At the Lausanne Conference (5/49), the Arab states refused to recognize the Palestinian delegation from the West Bank, and instead professed to represent the Palestinian refugees themselves.27
  • Jordan was the most strident in its ambition to represent the Palestinians and officially annexed the West Bank in 1952.28 In its aspiration to instill the Jordanian identity in residents of the West Bank, it gave them full Jordanian citizenship.29
  • 1964-74 – Establishment of the PLO and the continuation of the struggle over Palestinian representation – The PLO was founded in 1964 under Egyptian auspices. It was initially meant to be an umbrella organization for the Palestinian refugee organizations throughout the diaspora. During the first decade of its existence, the PLO strived to be recognized as the sole legitimate representative by Arab states, especially Egypt and Jordan.30
  • Following the Arab defeat in 1967, the PLO leadership realized that pinning their aspirations onto Arab states had only led to failure, and that it would be better to act independently to build up Palestinian nationalism. During this period the PLO was taken over by Fatah, which concentrated on establishing the PLO's status as the sole legitimate representative.
  • 1974 – Arab and UN recognition of the PLO as the sole legitimate representative; Jordan withholds recognition – The PLO was recognized by the Arab states as the sole legitimate representative at the Rabat Summit (10/74)31 and by the UN General Assembly (11/74). The PLO was thus granted the status of an observer in the General Assembly.32 Although the Rabat resolutions invalidated Jordan's claim to sovereignty over the West Bank, Jordan did not abide by this decision.33
  • 1988 – Jordan concedes its claims to the West Bank – The first Intifada (12/87) gradually drove Jordan away from the West Bank. This process reached its peak with King Hussein’s declaration (7/31/88) officially conceding any claims to representation of the Palestinian issue and severing the administrative and political ties with the West Bank.
  • 11/88 – Algiers Declaration – Following the outbreak of the first Intifada (12/87), which strengthened internal Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and the removal of all Jordanian claims over the West Bank, the PLO decided to declare an independent state (See Algiers Declaration). This declaration was recognized by nearly 100 states and further anchored the PLO’s position as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

1 The status of Palestinian refugees is an exception to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) which defines the term "refugee" according to international law. In contrast to the covenant, UNRWA's definition for the term Palestinian refugee includes also the descendents of refugees and does not exclude persons who have acquired a new citizenship.
2 At the Rabat Summit (10/74) the leaders of Arab nations acknowledged the PLO as the Sole Legitimate Representative of the Palestinian People. UN General Assembly Resolution 3210 (10/74) recognized this status and UN General Assembly Resolution 3237 (11/74) gave the PLO observer status.
3 In the Exchange of Letters between PM Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman of the PLO Yasir Arafat (8/93) the Palestinians recognized the right of the state of Israel to exist and Israel recognized the PLO as the sole legitimate representative. This exchange was the basis for the Declaration of Independence (9/93). The PLO has subsequently been the official party to all agreements with Israel.
4 While the PA is controlled by Hamas in the legislative council and in the cabinet and by Abu Mazen as President, the PLO is controlled by Fatah, as Abu Mazen functions as both Chairman of the PA and Chairman of the PLO.
5 The Palestinian representative could either be a Partner or an Address
6 Interim Agreement, Chapter 3 – Legal Affairs, Article XVII – Jurisdiction, Section 1, sub-paragraph A’.
7 Click here for the Palestinian Basic Law. See the forward to the Palestinian Basic Law.
8 In contradiction to the Interim Agreement (9/95) that determined the PLO would handle all PA foreign affairs, the PA did conduct independent foreign relations and established its own Foreign Ministry. (Click here for the Palestinian Foreign Ministry.Even the authority to sign agreements on behalf of the Palestinian people has de facto passed to the hands of the PA. See “Israeli Reservations to the Roadmap” (5/03), paragraph 5: “The character of the provisional Palestinian state will be determined through negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel…” See also the forward to the “Rafah Agreement” (11/05): “…the following agreement has been reached. It represents the commitments of the Government of Israel (GoI) and the Palestinian authority (PA)…”
9 See for example the struggle between Arafat and Hamas throughout the Oslo Process (Barry Rubin, The Transformation of Palestinian Politics, Cambridge: Harvard Press, 1999, p. 13).See also the response by Arafat to the suggestion to include Hamas in the PLO in 1996, according to Mahmoud Zahar: “Accepting the idea of the Palestine Liberation Organization and joining it is not a new development. It is the same position we held in the past. Negotiations we held with Yasser Arafat – in Sudan and Algiers – failed since he refused to allow us representation in proportion to our power." (Regular, Ha’aretz, 10/26/05).
10 Ismail Haniyeh, senior Hamas member in the Gaza Strip, declared Hamas’ intention to enter the PA and create a “new PLO” (See Regular, Ha’aretz, 6/15/05). Mahmoud Zahar stated that Hamas “want[s] to join the PLO - but on the basis of a new program, not of the Oslo program and the agreements....right now the PLO is a dead body....we will revive this organization by means of new programs and methods." (See MEMRI, 11/14/05).
11 See Sher, Gilead, Just Beyond Reach: The Israeli – Palestinian Peace Negotiations 1999 – 2001, Tel Aviv: Mishkal, 2001 p. 421 section 2.9 (in Hebrew).
12 Ibid. p. 422, section 2.10.
13 Ibid, section 2.18.
14 Ibid. p. 423, section 2.20.
15 See the "Geneva Initiative", section 2.2, Click here for “Relations between the Parties”.
16 In 1986 Israel declared the PLO and all organizations under its command terror organizations according to the Terror Prevention Ordinance. The ordinance forbade Israeli citizens to meet with any of the aforementioned organizations.
17 Israel tried to use these associations to expand the rift between the refugees, city residents and villagers. The associations worked in the West Bank and received preferential treatment from Israel. They ceased to exist in March 1984 after Jordan declared that their members were traitors that would be sentenced to death. (Kimmerling and Migdal, Palestinians: The Making of a People, Jerusalem: Keter, 1999, p. 243) (in Hebrew)
18 For example, Israel considered a proposal by King Hussein (3/72) to join the West Bank with Jordan as a federation under Jordanian leadership. In the “London Agreement” (4/87) Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and King Hussein unofficially agreed on Jordanian involvement in any resolution for the West Bank.
19 See Eytan Bentsor, The Road to Peace Crosses Madrid, Tel Aviv: Yediot Ahronot, 1997, p. 37. (in Hebrew)
20 Husseini and Ashrawi, considered “internal PLO”, were frequent visitors to Tunis in the build-up to and during the Madrid Conference in order to receive instructions from the PLO leadership. In addition, senior PLO officials such as Nabil Sha’ath visited the Palestinian delegation numerous times in Madrid itself. (See Yair Hirschfeld, Oslo: A Formula for Peace, Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1999, pp. 76-77 (in Hebrew); and Charles D. Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 5th Edition, NY, 2004, p. 418).
21 See the official parties to the Oslo Agreements (9/93-9/95), Protocol Concerning the Redeployment in Hebron (15/1/97), Wye River Memorandum (23/10/98), Sharm el Sheikh Memorandum (4/9/99). Click here for the documents of the political process.
22 For further details see Yehoshua Porat, The Growth of the Palestinian-Nationalist Movement 1918-1936, Tel Aviv, Am Avad, 1976, and William L. Cleveland, History of the Modern Middle East, Westview, 2006, pp. 248-250.
23 These bodies consisted of the Supreme Muslim Council, the Arab League, other Arab states, the Palestinian Arab Congress and other parties (National Defense Party, Arab Reform Movement, the Arab National Block and others).
24 In 1922, Husseini was recognized by the British authorities as the head of the Higher Arab Committee. In this role Husseini was allotted funds, control over education and religious appointments. This status afforded him enormous control over Palestinian affairs and he utilized this to represent Palestinians vis-à-vis the British authorities.
25 Click here for Section 5 (“Special Resolution Concerning Palestine”) in the Alexandria Protocol (10/44) which formed the Arab League.
26 Throughout the 50's and 60's, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq fought to represent the Palestinians as part of the effort to lead the pan-Arab system. For example, Egypt established the All-Palestine Government in Gaza (10/1/1948) under the leadership of the Mufti Hajj-Amin al-Husseini. Claiming to represent all Palestinians, the government fell apart soon thereafter. Afterwards the Egyptians encouraged Fedayeen attacks emanating from within its territory.
27 The Lausanne Conference established that future discussions would be held between Israel and Arab states (Lausanne Protocol 5/49). The Israeli delegation was the only party willing to meet directly with the Palestinians.
28 See Eliazar Bari, Palestinians Under Jordanian Rule, (Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 1978).
29 Palestinians comprise more than 50% of the Jordanian population, the majority of them classified as refugees who are Jordanian residents and citizens. The issue of Jordanian national identity is complicated; on the one hand Jordan views itself as the sole legitimate representative of all its residents and citizens, including the aforementioned Palestinians. On the other hand, Jordan discriminates in favor of its Hashemite citizens, and strictly maintains that the refugee issue should be resolved outside of Jordan.
30 The Black September (9/70) conflict between the PLO and Jordan and the idea of a Jordanian-West Bank federation proposed by King Hussein can be seen in this context.
31 In a summit conference held in Morocco's capital, Rabat, (26-29/10/74) the Arab States bestowed the status of sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people on the PLO. This decision compromised Jordan's claim to the West Bank, though King Hussein did not relinquish the Jordanian claim to this territory until July 1988. Click here for a full text of the declaration from the Rabat Conference.
32 Click here for UN Resolution 3237.
33 See "Fulfilling the Rabat Resolutions", Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol.5, No.3 (1976) pp. 215-219.
More Sources

Barry Rubin, The Transformation of Palestinian Politics, Cambridge: Harvard Press, 1999

Charles D. Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 5th Edition, NY, 2004