Last weekend the Supreme Steering Committee of the National and Islamic Forces met in Gaza and decided to establish an executive committee and a unified command, on the basis of a common national plan for all the organizations. Yasser Arafat sent his blessings and asked them to speed up the pace of their work.
What makes the group particularly special is that it includes representatives of all the Palestinian factions, including the Islamic factions Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the leftist groups. No other Palestinian body is so representative.
The PLO, which is the official Palestinian national organization, does not include the Islamic groups, which are now as powerful in Palestinian public opinion as the Fatah, which is the ruling party - the polls show both win about 22 percent support in the public. The PLO's institutions are essentially paralyzed. The Palestine National Council, the PLO's parliament, last met in Gaza five years ago, to hear a speech by then-president Bill Clinton and to annul the anti-Israel clauses in the Palestinian covenant.
Other PLO institutions, including its executive committee, meet regularly in Arafat's office, but there has been a steep decline in the stature of those bodies. The executive council members from the left have been boycotting it since the Madrid Conference; the independents have resigned.
But even if all the committee members were to attend, it wouldn't mean very much because all the PLO institutions are based on a very outdated key, appropriate for the 1960s and '70s. For example, the communists have a 30-percent representation in PLO institutions, when polls show they garner the support of only a tiny percent of the public.
Arafat has tried to bring the Hamas and Islamic Jihad into the PLO, but they demanded at least 40 percent of the seats in PLO institutions, which was rejected. In other words, the PLO and its institutions does not represent the Palestinian public.
The institutions of the Palestinian Authority, established in 1994, also have a problem with just how representative they are. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and some of the leftist groups boycotted the Oslo Accords, so they boycotted the general elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 1996, though a few candidates, affiliated with the Islamic bloc or the leftists, ran independently.
The failure of the Oslo process and the intifada have undermined the existential base of the PLO and the PA. When the peace process went bankrupt, the institutions that managed it on the Palestinian side also lost most of their prestige as popular support grew for the groups that opposed Oslo, the PLO, and the PA.
The need for a new body, with a genuine representative character, resulted in the establishment of the Supreme Steering Committee of the National and Islamic Forces last summer. Since then it has rarely met, but things look different now. There's more pressure from the grassroots activists in the various movements for "unity of the rifles and unity in the trenches," as the slogans on the leaflets say.
An expression of that effort could be seen in some joint operations involving several organizations, like the attack on the IDF outpost at Erez Junction three weeks ago, which was done by the Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade.
The Fatah, Hamas and leftist groups send senior representatives to the meetings of the steering committee and at last weekend's meeting, the body decided to add members from the PLO executive committee. That's a clear sign that in the current emergency the politicians are responding to the mood in the street, trying to bypass the PLO and the PA's institutions, which are rapidly becoming outdated.
In some places, new representative bodies are being formed, more relevant to the current reality, and of course with far more extreme positions that their predecessors.