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"The PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people." For decades, this familiar slogan was the symbol of the struggle by Yasser Arafat and his colleagues in Fatah, the organization that gained control of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the period following the Six-Day War. They needed it, because there were many individuals, organizations and countries that did not want to recognize the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinians.

The PLO's crowning achievement took place at the October 1974 Arab summit conference in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, where it was decided that all of the Arab states recognized the PLO. The resolution enhanced its status as a diplomatic organization representing the Palestinian national movement, and approximately 20 years later, in the Oslo Accords, the State of Israel itself recognized the PLO's diplomatic status as the representative of the Palestinian people.

A decade or so after the signing of the Oslo Accords, the status of the PLO has now hit its nadir. The undermining of its exclusive role as the representative of the Palestinian people has never been as strong as it is now. In past years, parties that plotted against the PLO generally came from outside of the Palestinian people. But the rival that has now risen up to eliminate the organization is an internal rival, drawn from within the ranks of the Palestinian people.

Perhaps the toughest adversary of the PLO was once the Hashemite regime in Jordan. Over half the residents of Jordan are of Palestinian descent, meaning that it represents a majority of Jordanian citizens. Needless to say, it presents a blatant challenge to the legitimacy of the Jordanian kingdom. There was even a war in 1970-71 between Jordan and the PLO (known as Black September) and King Hussein waged a prolonged campaign to prevent recognition of the organization.

For years, the Baath regime in Syria was also a serious rival of the PLO. The late president Hafez Assad used to say that there was no need at all for an independent Palestinian entity, and he considered himself a true spokesman and defender of Palestinian rights, more so than Arafat and the PLO.

Obviously, Israel was a serious military and diplomatic foe of the PLO. The State of Israel not only fought the PLO, it also tried in 1980-1981 to set up a political body in the territories, called the Village League (which included many supporters of the Jordanian monarchy in the territories), in an attempt to undermine the growing support for the PLO in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

One could cite the names of other adversaries of the PLO among the Arab states and other countries of the world. All of them failed. The current, internal, rival seems to be succeeding in doing what all the external rivals had not. Hamas represents a political and ideological opponent of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority it established: political, because Hamas does not accept the PLO's political doctrine; and ideological, because it seeks to establish a regime rooted in the spirit of Islam.

Leaders of the relatively young Hamas movement (formed in 1988, in contrast with the PLO, which was established in 1964), were invited on many occasions to join the PLO, and even the ruling bodies of the Palestinian Authority, but Hamas set conditions for joining that Arafat and his people could not have accepted, since they meant Hamas' domination of the PLO.

In the three-and-a-half years of the intifada, the PLO has been weakened, and the Palestinian Authority even more so. During these years, Israel has waged a military and diplomatic war against the Palestinian Authority, and its control mechanisms in the territories have disintegrated. Similarly, the siege and boycott of Arafat largely paralyzed its diplomatic activity.

The upshot is that internal opposition to the PLO gained strength within the Palestinian public. Undeniably, based on what is now going on in Gaza, it would seem that the PLO is no longer the sole exclusive representative of the Palestinian people. For all intents and purposes, there is an additional representative now - Hamas.