PLO Cairo Declaration, 1985

What was the PLO Cairo Declaration of 1985?

Although the PLO’s diplomatic contacts with West European and Third World countries were steadily increasing in the mid-1970s, the PLO’s terrorism and ideology prevented it from making headway with the US government whose policy, first formulated by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1975, was to refuse to deal with the PLO until it accepted UN Resolution 242, abandoned terrorism, and recognized Israel’s right to exist. These conditions were designed to show that the PLO had genuinely changed its position so as to make possible successful talks and a stable settlement. There were some secret contacts between US embassy officials and the PLO in Lebanon for security purposes and indirect exchanges in which Washington tried to persuade the PLO to meet the conditions, but formal talks and recognition were delayed.


When the PLO and its leadership decided to change tactics, their strategic goal remained unchanged. The goal was still to see, as soon as possible, a Palestinian state with its own government in all the land west of the Jordan River. In their thinking there was no room for Israel or its Jewish inhabitants. For example, on December 20, 2001 Arafat said in a speech:

  • We shall fight on this blessed land, on this blessed land, this is our message and it is not by accident that one-hundred and four years after [the First Zionist Congress] and despite all the conspiracies and all the blood that was spilled, [Palestine] continues to raise its head and its flag, Allah willing, Allah willing. One of our flowers and one of our cubs will wave the flag over the walls of Jerusalem, over its mosques and over its churches...

Still, it was necessary to give up the PLO image as a terrorist gang and change perceptions, at least in the West, so the PLO would be seen as a peace-seeking organization. At the same time, there was an internal constituancey in the PLO and among Islamic extremists who would not be satisfied by diplomatic initiatives alone. Therefore, armed force and violence had to continue in parallel with diplomatic approaches. To reconcile these conflicting aims, the PLO began to develop the distinction between "terrorism", which is forbidden by world opinion, in contrast to the continuation of "the armed struggle" in the territories against the Israeli occupation, which could be sold to the world as "justified".

On November 7, 1985, Yasser Arafat formulated these distinctions into a far-ranging declaration, now known as "the Cairo Declaration", which was approved by the Palestinian National Council on November 19, 1988 in Algeria. In this declaration, Arafat says:

  • PLO approves its 1974 decision on the condemnation of all forms of foreign operations and all forms of terror... From today, the Organization will take all deterrent steps against those who violate this decision.

However, in the same declaration, Arafat further says, "the opposition to the Israeli occupation," will continue by, "all possible means," in the territories [in order to], "achieve the withdrawal from the territories."

Because of American pressure on the PLO, which continued behind the scenes, in an attempt to also blur the term "armed struggle" the PLO did not mention the term in its Declaration of Independence in 1988 or in other documents since then.

Arafat claimed that he had renounced terrorism in his 1985 Cairo Declaration, but State Department officials and other agencies say the record shows otherwise. Terrorist actions traced back to the PLO itself or one of its allied organizations continued through the 1980s, 1990s, and into the new century.

The PLO maintains that the intifada in the territories is not terrorism, and not an armed struggle, but a form of un-armed civilian struggle. Therefore, the PLO can make the statements required of it, to renounce terrorism, and stay in the diplomatic game while the struggle goes on. Israelis and others continue to die from suicide bombers and other attacks but Yasser Arafat can still say that he has given up terrorism.

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