Palestinians are proclaiming their readiness to establish a state of their own in the near future, and are asking the international community, including Israel, to assist in making their national aspirations a reality. No matter what develops over the next few months, it may be instructive to ask who will lead such a state, especially since the current president of the Palestine National Authority, Mr. Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has publicly stated his intention not to seek the presidency of a future Palestinian state.

Yasser Arafat

Yasser Arafat (in sunglasses) at a press conference in Amman, Jordan in June 1970 (Al-Ahram).

One of the many tragedies that are endemic to Palestinian history is the failure of Palestinians to produce leaders who could help them meet the difficult challenges that Palestinians have faced throughout the last eighty years. They have failed to produce leaders to challenge foreign (British) occupation, Jewish separatism and establishment of a new state (Israel), and Israeli occupation and economic domination. They have been unable thus far to put forward a group of leaders who could chart a path toward a new Palestinian state.  Are they now likely to have a group of leaders upon whom future generations can look back as the “founding fathers” of the Palestinian state, even if one assumes that such a state is possible? If the Palestinians are not likely to have leaders who are of the caliber of those that saw the birth of the United States (since there are not many nations lucky enough to have the likes of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison and Franklin) are they likely to have leaders who can be compared to Mandela, Garibaldi, or Ben Gurion?

In their long struggle, they have basically had four leaders, which in itself is a telling statement. Until recently, they followed the practice of other countries in the Middle East, that of one-man rule for a long period or for life, whether that man was effective or not.

Their four leaders have been Amin Al-Husayni, Ahmad Shukairy, Yasser Arafat, and Mahmoud Abbas. A brief review of the tenure of these four leaders may be instructive.

Amin Al-Husayni

Amin Al-Husayni “led” the Palestinians from 1921 to 1948. Amin Al-Husayni came from a prominent Palestine family, but that alone did not give him the leadership position he later acquired. It was the British High Commissioner, representing the Mandatory Power that controlled Palestine since 1917, who appointed him in 1921 as the Grand Mufti (highest religious authority in Palestine), and also as the president of the Supreme Muslim Council. He was accepted as such by most Palestinians, except for another prominent Jerusalem family and their supporters, the Nashashibi (opposition) family, which was thought by some Palestinians to be more pro-British than the Al-Husayni family. In 1936, the two families joined forces to establish the Arab Higher Committee, which began to coordinate anti-British and anti-Zionist activities. Al-Husayni became the chairman of the Arab Higher Committee. He led the Palestinians in a general strike that lasted for months, and a rebellion that took thousands of lives against overwhelming British power resulting in over three thousand deaths, over one hundred hanged by the British, six thousand imprisoned, and a devastated economy.

In 1937, the British Government proposed a plan to partition Palestine, giving the Jewish population a small area of about 5,000 square kilometers; the Mufti rejected this most favorable plan for his people without much consideration of the consequences of his decision. The British in 1939 reversed themselves and removed Al-Husayni from the presidency of the Supreme Muslim Council and the chairmanship of the Arab Higher Committee, which they declared to be an illegal entity. Al-Husayni then escaped to Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Italy, ending up in Nazi Germany, where he broadcast unsuccessful appeals for Arabs to support Germany. Obviously, his actions helped brand him as anti-Semitic and did not help the Palestinian cause. After the war, he went to Egypt. The United Nations General Assembly voted in 1947 for partition of Palestine into two states; the Grand Mufti rejected this plan as well, again without a clear understanding of the world or regional balance of forces. In 1948, he declared an All-Palestine Government in exile. It was totally dependent on Egyptian support and was soon abandoned. Egyptian authorities escorted him back from Gaza to Egypt. He died in Beirut in 1974.

Amin Al-Husayni failed to stem the flow of illegal Jewish immigrants into Palestine, squandered years in inter-family feuds, failed to negotiate a workable solution with the British, aligned himself with a Nazi regime, and failed to take an active role in the seminal events of 1947-1948 that saw the partition resolution, Israeli independence, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of his people. He was basically rendered ineffective through his alliance with Nazi Germany. The British made him and then unmade him. He relied later in life on Egypt, a country that itself was in need of help and soon was to experience a major revolution and a second war with the new state of Israel. From 1948 until his death in 1974, the Palestinians themselves gave him the worst vote a political leader can anticipate; they ignored him.

Ahmad Shukairy

The second leader did not come from a prominent Palestinian family. Ahmad Shukairy (1908-1980) was born in Lebanon into a family that immigrated to Egypt from Hijaz (now in Saudi Arabia). His mother was Turkish. He received early education in Palestine, then enrolled at the American University of Beirut, from which he was dismissed by French authorities for participation in the liberation movement. Ahmad Shukairy participated in the Palestinian struggle during the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s, mostly as a lawyer and media spokesman, until he became a refugee in 1948. Then he began an interesting career as a diplomat, first for Syria at the UN (1949-1950), then for the League of Arab States (1950-1957), and also for Saudi Arabia (1957-1964). He is best remembered for his lengthy and often amusing speeches at the UN, frequently critical of Israeli policies. His diplomatic contacts with other Arabs served him well still one more time. The heads of Arab states, meeting in their first summit meeting in 1964, appointed him representative of the Palestinian people. He utilized this position to get support for plans for a Palestinian state.

Shukairy successfully arranged for an all-Palestine conference to be held in Jerusalem (then under Jordanian control) in May-June 1964, which was officially called The First Palestinian National Council (PNC) for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). He was elected its president, chairing an executive committee of 15. The PLO was thus officially formed. The conference approved the Palestine National Charter. It decided to prepare Palestinians for a militant struggle against Israel. And it established the Palestine National Fund. Upon approval by the League’s Second Summit conference the following September, Shukairy proceeded to form the PLO’s basic structures, and to build the military arm under the name of the Palestinian Liberation Army (Jaish al-Tahreer).

The First Palestinian Conference was attended primarily by representatives of prominent families in the West Bank. It created three main organs for the PLO. In addition to the Executive Committee, it established the Central Committee (an advisory group) and the Palestine National Council (PNC), the future all-Palestinian parliament. There was almost immediate disagreement, primarily over who should be included in the ranks of the Executive Committee. Shukairy submitted his resignation in 1965, which was accepted, but then was re-elected on the condition that he has more leeway in appointing members of the Executive Committee.

Events beyond his control or that of his colleagues intervened. The 1967 war between Israel and its neighbors put an end to his leadership. He moved to Beirut and Cairo, then in 1979, after the Camp David Agreement, to Tunisia. He died in Amman in 1980.

What was Shukairy’s legacy? He is best remembered for establishing the PLO, which is a significant event in itself, and for being instrumental in forming other Palestinian institutions such as the Palestine Liberation Army, the Palestine National Fund, and the Palestine Research Center. Beyond that, he is remembered for many books and articles that kept the Palestinian issue before Arab and international audiences.