Arafat and his PLO cohorts try to regain influence in Mideast

These are lean days for Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian guerrilla army. The Palestine Liberation Organization chief and his advisers have, in recent weeks, quietly been seeking a strategy to recoup their waning influence.

Men without a nation, Arafat and his cohorts risk becoming a force without political, much less military, relevance to the outcome of the decades-old conflict between Arab and Jew for control of the Holy Land.

People used to listen when the stubble-bearded chieftain talked politics. Mr. Arafat painstakingly won that influence during his rise from the leadership of a few hundred fighters in the late 1960s to command of a well-armed legion of thousands in Lebanon by the dawn of the 1980s.

But at the start of this month, Arafat was reminded of how utterly his audience had dwindled. He purposefully let slip to a French magazine his hope for ''direct negotiations'' with an Israeli state he has for years termed illegal. Yet there was barely a ripple of official response either in Israel or the United States.

Militarily, Arafat nominally heads a guerrilla force now either scattered among Arab states far from Israel's borders or quartered as powerless guests of front-line Israeli foes like Syria and Jordan. In 1982, the Israelis drove Arafat and his fighters from Beirut. In the final days of last year, Syrian-supported PLO rebels expelled his men from the rest of the country.

Nowhere is the whittled influence of Arafat's corps more starkly apparent than here in Jordan. In the late 1960s, the well-armed Palestinians came close to taking over Jordan. In 1970-71, most were driven out in a civil war with King Hussein, and they transferred operations to Beirut. Since Israel's push into Lebanon, some Arafat fighters have been permitted to return here.

The 13th of the month is payday, in a ground-floor office in a wealthy commercial quarter of the Jordanian capital, for Arafat's guerrillas.

But gone are their AK-47 automatic rifles, the well-worn if often mismatched combat uniforms, the checkered Arab headdresses popularized by their commander. The only guns visible at Amman PLO headquarters these days belong to Jordanian policemen posted at the street outside. Pistols suffice.

In Arabic, Arafat's men are called fedayeen - pledged to ''sacrifice all'' in the crusade to regain Palestine, to supplant or at least rival the Jewish state of Israel with an Arab state of their own. But now, the unsuspecting outsider could be forgiven for mistaking the payday crowd for unemployed bank clerks awaiting a welfare check. Dressed in casual civvies, the fedayeen are hard pressed these days to figure how and where to sacrifice all, and to what immediate military end.

''It is hard for the men to adjust, of course,'' says a Palestinian official here. He says there are moves afoot to deploy some of the fighters in special military camps. But he adds, ''The camps will be in the eastern part of Jordan, out near the desert . . . not close to the enemy'' opposite the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan River.

''The Jordanians are preoccupied with their security. We fully understand this, and we appreciate Jordan's help. . . . But it is becoming a problem'' in charting the fighters' future role.

Most Palestinians are even further from the front lines. Some, it is true, are next door in Syria. But these are under close and careful Syrian control. To the extent that Syria's shrewd President Hafez Assad has made use of the force, it has been as an implicit tool of pressure in his rivalry with Jordan, not to invite an untimely confrontation with Israel.

Most of the more than 10,000 PLO fighters - also closely controlled by host Arab governments - are literally thousands of miles farther distant. They are in places like Tunisia or Algeria in North Africa, or in Yemen on the Gulf.

Arafat, says a senior Jordanian official, ''has no serious military option at present.'' Mostly, he and his aides have been racing rival groups and figures within the PLO in claiming responsibility for attacks on civilian targets inside Israel. Politically, the Jordanian official and other Arab and Western analysts in the Mideast argue, Arafat appears increasingly ''helpless.''

He is conducting high-profile strategy talks with Jordan's King Hussein. He is seeking a renewed entente with at least some of his PLO rivals, notably in talks this week in Algiers between his top lieutenant and other guerrilla factions. He has resumed pre-Lebanon efforts to raise his own political stock by playing key Arab states against one another. He has hinted, for instance, at possible rapprochement with Syria, while saying he might like to set up shop in the Egyptian capital, Cairo.

But so far, progress has been halting on all fronts. Syria's President Assad seems in no hurry for reconciliation with Arafat. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak seems distinctly unexcited by the prospect of planting PLO headquarters in his capital. Indeed, a top Mubarak aide Sunday dismissed as premature even a report that the PLO's research archives would be moved to Egypt.

Worse, progress on one front - like the Syrian one, for example - in a divided Arab world would complicate things on others, like the Jordanian or Egyptian.

Above all, a combination of factors - the US and Israeli electoral campaigns and widened Israeli settlement of the West Bank - has left most Arab officials convinced that, in the months ahead, there is no serious prospect of Arab-Israeli diplomatic movement anyway.

Faced with this batch of givens, Arafat aides are reliably reported to have intensified efforts to map out a workable counterstrategy.

Its outlines remain unclear. But at least some Arafat colleagues are said to favor his following up the French magazine interview in the days ahead with similar comments to a major US publication. They are hoping for a greatly widened response, especially inside Israel in the run-up to its national elections in July.

Militarily, Arafat's options remain far more stringently limited by the dictates of various Arab governments. Only discombobulated Lebanon would seem to offer much early prospect of a replanted independent guerrilla presence close to Israel's frontiers.

Indeed, Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said in an interview published Sunday that ''a lot of arms are coming into (Muslim) west Beirut, a lot of groups are appearing, a lot of money is being spent by some of our old allies, namely the Palestinians. . . . They are back, indirectly. We have to admit this.''

But the ''Palestinians'' cited are most likely Arafat's own Syrian-allied rivals, Mideast analysts assume. The revived Palestinian influence is presumed to be part of overall Syrian strategy in Lebanon. That strategy implies a carefully calibrated balance of forces in hopes of facilitating an eventual ''Pax Syriana'' where similar US or Israeli efforts have failed.

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