Yasser Arafat, the Chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), declared Palestine’s independence as a sovereign state on November 15, 1988. More than three decades later, Palestinians, especially those continuing to live in the Occupied Territories, have grown increasingly disenchanted with the declaration because most of its provisions have never been implemented.  Meanwhile, the history and content of the declaration document is relatively unknown internationally.

In his latest book, Jerome M. Segal, a retired research scholar at the University of Maryland’s Department of Philosophy and founder of the Jewish Peace Lobby, a progressive Jewish American group, seeks to rescue the Palestinian Declaration of Independence from its relative oblivion. “The Olive Branch from Palestine: The Palestinian Declaration of Independence and the Path Out of the Current Impasse” explores how the declaration came into being as well as the reasons that prevented the PLO’s move from having a galvanizing effect on Palestinians and the international community. Moreover, Segal argues in favor of the contemporary relevance of a document that was written by none other than the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Few people are as qualified as Mr. Segal to write about the Palestinian Declaration of Independence. In 1987, he travelled to Tunis as the representative of the first American Jewish delegation that established a dialogue with Arafat and other leaders of the PLO. Already in 1988, during the months prior to the declaration, and in the broader context of the First Intifada, Segal personally lobbied for the PLO to adopt a unilateral path to statehood through the declaration of Palestinian independence. With this objective, he published numerous op-eds in major Arab and Western newspapers and undertook consultations with key stakeholders. In a 1988 visit to Arafat in Tunis, he provided the Palestinian leader with the manuscript of his book “Creating the Palestinian state: A Strategy for Peace” (published in 1989), in which Segal further developed his initial ideas. Segal’s plan advocated for the declaration of a Palestinian state that would officially renounce terrorism and commit to demilitarization. The proposal, certainly the result of innovative and visionary thinking, warned about the risks of placing excessive trust in the power of international conferences and the United States to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It stipulated that, just as Israel had unilaterally declared independence in 1948, a Palestinian state did not need Israel’s prior acceptance to come into being. In Segal’s own words, the application of his proposal would result in the Palestinians no longer being the inhabitants of an occupied territory but “a people with a country, simply struggling to force Israeli withdrawal.” [1] Organizationally speaking, the plan envisaged the PLO dissolving itself and becoming the Provisional Government of the State of Palestine.

Although Palestinians had maintained that the creation of an independent state was a key political objective, the urgency accelerated when King Hussein of Jordan announced in July 1988 that his country was renouncing its claim to sovereignty over the West Bank. Segal sheds lights on the hectic months that followed the Jordanian king’s announcement. He does so with the help of interviews he recently conducted with some of the key members at that time of the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the body ultimately responsible for the decision to declare independence. The author explains that the PNC viewed with great concern the sovereignty gap created by King Hussein’s decision, and feared that Israel would try to take advantage of the new situation. The State of Palestine was finally declared on November 15, 1988. For the first time, the PLO based “the international legitimacy of Palestinian independence partly on the 1947 partition resolution.” [2]

The PLO’s course of action after the declaration of independence was significantly less bold than Segal’s blueprint for establishing a Palestinian state. The American philosopher had called for “deepening the process of state creation” with the provisional government emerging “as a ruling authority in the lives of Palestinians.” [3] This was not to be, however.

In fact, the basic mission of state creation was “ignored by the PLO Executive Committee that had been empowered to act as the Provisional Government.” [4] Effectuating a comprehensive government structure in the Occupied Territories was not a realistic prospect, but, as Segal points out, “some (the author’s italics) functioning government of the state was essential to the strategy of unilaterally bringing Palestine into being.” [5] In fact, the PLO did not fail to create a state. It actually never tried to do so in the first place, according to Segal.

Instead of being a springboard for state-making, the declaration turned out to be a symbolic trap of the PLO’s own making. The PLO saw in the declaration the path to better position themselves for international conferences and negotiations that would decide the future of Palestine. In short, the Palestinian leadership had declared independence but eschewed unilateralism in favor of a multilateral option in which the United States was assumed to play a decisive role. By the end of 1988, the PLO had been recognized as a valid interlocutor by Washington. With the benefit of hindsight, however, it appears obvious that this development paved the way for the Oslo Accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in the Occupied Territories, but not to full sovereignty. In fact, there are powerful reasons to argue that the Oslo peace process actually undermined “the possibility of a viable Palestinian state.” [6]

The last chapter of “The Olive Branch from Palestine” puts forward proposals for current Palestinian leaders to reach a compromise with Israel that fulfills most of Palestine’s needs. Segal’s strategy, laid out in several recent op-eds, once again revolves around the benefits of unilateralism. It proposes that Palestinian leaders approach the UN General Assembly and ask that a Special Session on the Palestinian question be convened. This would provide an opportunity to advocate for the creation of a UN Special Commission on Palestine (not unlike the one which decided on Partition in 1947), which would report back to the UN General Assembly and present a UN peace plan that would theoretically be voted on in a referendum in Israel and Palestine.

Segal recognizes that Israel likely would not recognize the legitimacy of the process, would decide not to hold a vote on the plan, and would perhaps even boycott the referendum in the Occupied Territories. Despite these caveats, Segal appears to be optimistic about the prospects of his plan. For instance, the author writes that if Israel were to deny its citizens the chance to vote on an eventual UN Peace Plan, this “would open a major struggle inside Israel.” [7] However, in view of the electoral strength of right-wing parties within Israel, this result appears unlikely.

Notwithstanding the complexities ably identified in the book, Segal succeeds in convincing the reader of his central thesis: that “the embrace of a full unilateral strategy, one that deemphasized negotiations, was the road-not-taken. Looking back at all that has happened since the heady days of November 1988, this choice was unfortunate.” [8]

Segal is an articulate writer and “The Olive Branch from Palestine” sits comfortably at the intersection of history, political science, and memoirs. The reader need not necessarily agree with Segal’s analysis or proposals to find the book a valuable and original contribution to the literature on the Palestinian question. This American philosopher’s latest work certainly deserves to be read and discussed widely as it provides fertile ground for new approaches to the question.



[1] Jerome M. Segal, The Olive Branch from Palestine: The Palestinian Declaration of Independence and the Path Out of the Current Impasse (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2022), p. 50.

[2] Rashid Khalidi, “The Resolutions of the 19th Palestine National Council,” Journal of Palestine Studies 19, no. 2 (1990): 35.

[3] Segal, The Olive Branch from Palestine, p. 52.

[4] Ibid., p. 177.

[5] Ibid., p. 188

[6] Leila Farsakh, “Introduction: The Struggle for Self-Determination and the Palestinian Quest for Statehood,” in Rethinking Statehood in Palestine: Self-Determination and Decolonization Beyond Partition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2021), p. 1.

[7] Segal, The Olive Branch from Palestine, p. 236.

[8] Ibid., p. 247.