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Lack of options pushes Arafat closer to talks with Israel. But do his moves denote change in PLO goals or are they buying time?

By Mary CurtiusSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 24, 1985

Amman, Jordan

Yasser Arafat, grizzled leader of an aging and battered guerrilla organization, is closer than he ever has been to negotiating a peaceful settlement for the Palestinians with Israel. But the man edging toward negotiations and dragging a reluctant and suspicious leadership along behind him is regarded by most analysts as more of a survivor than a decisive leader.

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The question being asked by the Americans, Israelis, and some Palestinians is: Are Arafat's latest diplomatic moves evidence of a fundamental shift in the Palestine Liberation Organization's goals or are they a delaying tactic to buy time, while he rebuilds his organization and consolidates power?

``He's decided on this course because it is in the interest of himself and his faction in the PLO,'' says a veteran Western diplomat here. ``I don't think it's done through any sort of humanitarian motives. He may still pull out at the last moment. He's done it once, and he could do it again.''

But in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, two prominent West Bank Palestinians last week said they believed the PLO and Arafat personally were committed to achieving a peaceful settlement to a conflict that has lasted more than 35 years.

Observers who say Arafat wants a negotiated settlement point to the chairman's lack of options as the strongest force compelling him forward.

Founder of the PLO's central Al-Fatah faction, Arafat has spent two decades waging an unsuccessful guerrilla war against Israel. He has failed to deliver on his promise to the Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes in 1948 and 1967 that they could return. His military organization was shattered by Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, battered by the Syrians in 1983, and again earlier this year in Beirut's refugee camps. His fighters are scattered and demoralized.

Arafat and his close aides insist that he now is determined to seek a negotiated settlement with Israel. In his latest diplomatic move, Arafat delivered a list of potential Palestinian members of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian peace team to the Jordanians, who in turn presented the list to the US and are awaiting word that State Department envoy Richard Murphy will visit the region.

The list, according to diplomatic sources in Amman, represents both Arafat's desire to talk to the Americans and his determination to have them recognize the PLO as the only potential negotiators for the Palestinians.

``It is up to the United States to decide from the point that they know that what Jordan and the PLO have achieved very recently is an achievement that should not be missed and should not be made to fail,'' says PLO executive committee member Mohammed Milhem.

The framework Arafat is working in is the Feb. 11 agreement he signed with Jordan's King Hussein in which he made two concessions: By agreeing to a confederation with Jordan, the PLO relinquished the notion of an independent Palestinian state, and by agreeing to jointly negotiate a settlement with Jordan, Arafat limited his hard-earned role as the ``sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.''