Though founded in 1965 by the militant Muslim Brotherhood activist and Egyptian national Yasser Arafat, Israel is still unable to determine whether the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is primarily a religious or a nationalistic movement.
This despite the fact that how one views the aspirations of such groups is a game changer.
If the PLO, the largest and ruling faction in the Palestinian Authority, is primarily nationalistic, then, at least theoretically, peace is a real possibility. If, however, the PLO is religiously motivated, genuine peace is nothing more than a fool's hope.
In her book Yasser Arafat (2016), Ronit Marzan writes that even after Arafat's meeting with terror groups in 1997, after the signing of the Oslo Accords when he supposedly turned his back on terrorism, Israel's intelligence community couldn't agree on the meaning of Arafat's rhetoric. Despite recording him quoting repeatedly from the Koran, Israel top security minds couldn't agree on whether or not Arafat's was a religious discourse.
Marzan was among those who chose to believe Arafat's peace rhetoric. So much so that even when Arafat used the thoroughly religious term "jihad," these people insisted that the Palestinians had moved from "military struggle" (lesser jihad) to building a state through diplomatic efforts (greater jihad). Accordingly, they believe that the Palestinians have given up on the violent religious struggle to "free" Palestine for a more realistic diplomatic effort to gain independence in the West Bank and Gaza.
According to this view, from 1993 onwards, the PLO became primarily nationalistic in nature. The continued use of religious motifs in Palestinian discourse was merely meant to pacify the masses and slowly encourage them to accept Israel. It is this view that transformed Arafat's understudy, Mahmoud Abbas, into a genuine partner for peace. Not surprisingly, most of those advocating this view are left-wingers.
On the other side of the debate stand those who say that the Palestinian rhetoric of peace is in fact Taqiyya – a religious duty to conceal Islam's true goals. Among other things, Taqiyya shows itself in the attempts to convince the West that Islam is a religion of peace. Disassociating Islam from terror, for one, falls under the category of Taqiyya.
Itamar Marcus belongs to this school that says Palestinians are engaged in an elaborate campaign of deception to persuade Israelis that Palestinian violence is not jihad, but a legitimate struggle for freedom, justice and peace. Marcus, who in 1996 founded Palestinian Media Watch (PMW), said in an interview with Mida (November 2012) that religion is at the very core of the Palestinian Authority's worldview. Mahmoud Abbas, he noted, attends Friday prayers during which Palestinian clerics remind the faithful that war against Israel is religious, not nationalistic.
Marcus explained that these clerics, who are paid by the Palestinian Authority, define the struggle against Israel as Ribat, the noblest expression of jihad, because it is defensive rather offensive jihad. Defining the struggle against Israel as Ribat means that the Holy Land is a Muslim land. It is Arafat, Marcus continued, who turned the fight for a Palestinian state into a war against infidels who had conquered sacred Muslim territory. One might add that the recent UNESCO decision that Hebron is a Palestinian world heritage site is testimony to the effectiveness of this campaign of deception.
Both schools back their conclusions with documented Palestinian discourse, which leaves Israelis divided. The left chooses to believe the Palestinian a struggle is one of freedom and peace. The right chooses to believe that a peaceful Palestinian state is a means to achieve Islam's ultimate goal of dismantling the Jewish state. To date, most Israelis refuse to believe the Palestinian rhetoric of peace, and who can blame them?