The GDR and the PLO: East Germany's Palestine Policy

For years, East Germany's Communist party, the SED, promoted the impression that it was cultivating a close and special relationship with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) under the leadership of Yasser Arafat on the basis of common values and shared political goals. This implied that East Berlin was a sought-after and influential partner for the PLO that championed the rights of Palestinians, their self-determination and a Palestinian state alongside Israel at an early time.      

In his dissertation, Lutz Maeke reaches a different conclusion: Conflict and confrontation, and not friendship and trust, marked the relationship between the GDR and the PLO under Arafat's chairmanship from the beginning, largely because the SED strongly rejected the leadership role among Palestinians claimed by Arafat's Fatah party.  East German policy sought to deny power within the PLO to Fatah, which it regarded as anti-socialist and pro-Western, favoring instead more progressive and pro-socialist parts of the Palestinian resistance. To attain this goal, Erich Honecker was willing to support Syria's anti-Fatah policy nearly unconditionally. East Germany therefore became a key actor in Hafiz al-Assad's struggle against Yasser Arafat and Fatah in the 1970s and 80s.  

For Fatah, in turn, which pursued a twofold Germany policy, political support from the Federal Republic since the end of the 1960s was far more important than that from the GDR. Bonn was by far the more reliable political partner for Fatah.     

Because the SED regime worked to substantially restrict the options of Arafat and Fatah by supporting his radical rivals, East Germany boosted the most strident opponents of Israel while weakening more moderate Palestinians willing to compromise.   

Dr. des. Lutz Maeke, historian, is a research fellow at the Institut für Zeitgeschichte München – Berlin, Berlin branch. He presented his dissertation for discussion at the Berlin Center's 2nd Brown Bag Breakfast on December 8, 2015. It will appear in print in 2017.


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